Tuesday, November 16, 2010

First Person Museum Exhibit Review

First Person Museum at the Painted Bride Art Center. Philadelphia, PA. Dana Dorman, Museum Coordinator. Sponsored through an Engage 2020 Innovation Grant and by the Pew Center through the Arts & Heritage via the Heritage Philadelphia Program. November 5 – December 18, 2010.

The museum world needs experimentation and innovation. Absent these, museums face obsolescence. A recent attempt at innovation right here in Philadelphia was First Person Arts’ First Person Museum. The museum’s objective was to demonstrate the ways that “ordinary” people can interact with and impact history. The way in which organizers attempted to demonstrate this concept was to collect the possessions of Philadelphians by means of inviting them to participate in story circles. Those in attendance at these events told the stories of the objects that meant the most to them. The staff of First Person Arts then chose the stories and items that would be included in the First Person Museum. According to the First Person Museum website, attendees to the gallery, housed at the Painted Bride Art Center, would not merely view these objects, they would "see the stories behind the objects. [They]’ll watch them captured on film and video by JJ Tiziou and David Kessler. [They]’ll hear them recorded by the producers of NPR’s Radio Diaries. [They]’ll read them when Philadelphia Inquirer journalist Dianna Marder puts them on the page. And [they]’ll learn the greater impact of these everyday things when graduate students from Temple University tell us about their historical significance"(Source).

Certainly, the First Person Museum utilized extensive multi-media platforms. Multi-media exhibits have become crucial to optimal interaction with modern-day museum-goers. Certain objects were accompanied by audio stories, which users can access via a pair of headphones placed near the item. A benefit of this feature was hearing the story of the object in the owner’s own words. However, there was no way to stop or pause the audio recordings, so visitors couldn’t be sure the story started at the beginning at the time of placing the headphones to their ears. If the story was in the middle, the user was forced to listen to the end and then begin again. Similarly, other objects were supplemented with televisions playing recordings of the object owners telling the stories of their things. The beauty of these recordings was being able to witness the emotion the objects in the museum evoked in their owners. However, again, there was no way for viewers to control the start of the taped interviews. Visitors must wait for the recordings to finish if they happened to find them at some point in the middle. As there were several audio and video pieces accompanying objects, this repeated experience could be frustrating.

The First Person Museum was reasonably light on text panels, presumably to circumvent museum fatigue and to engage visitors more fully through other means. Each object was accompanied by a small object history created by Temple University graduate students. Those objects unaccompanied by audio or video were complimented by an additional quote from the owner in text on a sign somewhere near the item on display. Mentioned previously, each and every object was supplemented by a text panel with an object history. As quoted earlier from the museum’s website, these panels were supposed to elucidate the object’s “historical significance.” However, many of the chosen object captions relate very directly to the objects whose historical significance they were meant to be illuminating. Some of the captions are very specific to their object, rather than placing them in a greater historical context. In other words, certain of the captions could only describe the objects they accompanied, rather than placing the objects within their greater historical importance, though the captions were intelligently and thoughtfully composed. These captions hovered around fifty words in length, which made history in the most literal sense only a small part of the First Person Museum exhibits.

The environment of the exhibit imitated a home setting. The objects were housed on end tables or nightstands, dining room tables or desks. There were comfortable chairs for attendees to sit in and take in the objects. However, the night the reviewer was in attendance, visitors were unsure what to make of the set-up. Were they allowed to sit in the chairs? Were the chairs on display as well? As the night wore on, increasing numbers of visitors seemed to catch on that the seating was there to accommodate their interaction with the objects.

The arrangement of the objects throughout the two rooms at the Painted Bride Art Center was a bit cumbersome. The room directly in front of visitors upon entry was crowded with objects, creating a somewhat cramped atmosphere, particularly with many visitors present. The room to attendees’ left was far sparser, leaving the exhibit feeling slightly imbalanced. An upstairs room contained only a television for viewing all of the interviews regarding the objects, a couch for viewing, and a station at which visitors could submit their own stories. A similar station was available downstairs. One assumed that the upstairs was underutilized out of safety concerns and lack of handicap accessibility.

Among the professed goals of the exhibit were that “visitors will recognize that they endow objects with value” and “visitors will think about their own stuff differently” (Source). The reviewer heard many attendees discussing that the objects on display evoked memories of their own life experiences and interactions with objects. One visitor proclaimed that each object brought to mind one of her own objects and made her think about the ways in which she affected history over the course of her life. Therefore, the exhibit clearly achieved a few of its intended goals. Nonetheless, one might wonder whether the First Person Museum was a history exhibit or an art show.

Maybe hybrid history exhibits and art galleries are the museums of the future. Maybe combining art and history will be one way in which museums can reach out and further engage visitors to keep them curious and coming back to museums. At the time of this writing, First Person Arts categorized the First Person Museum as a prototype. Clearly, there was some room for improvement should future incarnations be undertaken, but the exhibit was engaging and, according to several attendees, achieved what the organizers set out to do. Art, history, or both, the First Person Museum was fun, smart, and appealing.