Musings--Conversations That Matter
Who defines the meanings of objects?
Every museum visitor is a storyteller with authority. Every evocative object on exhibit is a mnemonic device. Every visitor interaction is storymaking, as visitors fit portions of our collections into personal frames of reference, most often in ways we neither intended nor anticipated. Visitors rummage through our galleries searching for pertinent objects. The American craze in the 1950s and ’60s for pink or turquoise did not invade my parents’ house. My parents had white appliances in our kitchen: stove, refrigerator, dishwasher, and sink. They eschewed fads of all kinds, but the garish kitchens invaded plenty of other homes, testimony to postwar affluence, suburbanization, and marketing genius.
American fascination with automobile culture and the flight to new postwar suburbs remade America’s urban landscape. Houses popped up in staggering numbers in new suburbs beyond the city. We attempted to evoke this transformation in a gallery in the Missouri History Museum. One of the devices we used was a re-created “pink kitchen.” We thought that this would provide a venue for exploration of the consequences of the exodus to suburbia. One day I stood unobtrusively near the exhibit. Family members from several different generations arrived. I listened intently. There was no discussion of suburbia, no reading of labels, hardly a comment on the pinkness of the surroundings. The conversation was about recipes, family gatherings around the dinner table, grandmothers and mothers and the stories they told as they washed the dishes. And it was about family ties. The exhibit became a memory place that reinforced those ties because it stimulated personal remembrance and strengthened remembrance through repetition. Museums are not classrooms. Our experiences here are far less structured, much more visitor defined, with unpredictable outcomes. How can we structure exhibits to really enhance visitor experiences and to acknowledge that those of us who work in museums cannot dictate interpretation?
I know that because we are all different and distinct, we tell different stories and attach different meanings to a shared past. But people who live together must create narratives with common elements. My sister and I have very different understandings of our shared childhood, yet there are enough shared elements to enable us to discuss the past with common agreement on most big things. Communities with unshared or exclusive stories cannot agree on big things, even those things we absolutely must do together to create really good, healthy, sustainable places for ourselves and our children. But narratives cannot be imposed. They must be informally agreed upon through unstructured civic discourse. I believe that museums can become pre-eminent venues for these conversations that really matter. We can be safe places for people and for ideas. We can be the 21st-century town squares. —Robert R. Archibald, President, Missouri History Museum