Modern museums are talking history—and not just the high points. The industry is moving in a direction of inclusivity, directing displays towards telling the whole story. These museums are places where visitors not only learn something new, but also can have reflective moments and connect with an exhibit on a deeper, more personal level. That’s the idea.
“We’re committed to sharing history in new and dynamic ways, and over the past several years, the museum industry as a whole has increased efforts to share history from a variety of diverse perspectives, including groups who may have been originally left out of the history books,” says Tami Goldman of the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis.
As museums move in this direction, visitors are immersed in exhibitions—from rotating displays highlighting recent events to long-established collections of fascinating relics. Their curators are putting together stories through many mediums: fiber arts, baseball cards, paintings, textiles and virtual-reality experiences. It’s quite a collection.
Here, we explore museum attractions whose teams are paying attention; they’re always changing and looking to resonate with all generations.
National Geographic Museum
It’s a full-circle kind of place. National Geographic, a household name, is a nonprofit institution, providing grants to scientists, explorers and educators. And in turn, the National Geographic Museum’s installations are always displaying the work of those people.
The team changes exhibits every five months or so, depending on where in the world that exhibition is traveling to next (much like the artists and storytellers).
“With our museum being located at National Geographic headquarters, we have the unique opportunity to showcase the work of our explorers and photographers,” says Group Sales Specialist Brianna DeOrsey. “Our exhibitions range from photography exhibitions and large artifact displays to multimedia immersive exhibitions like ‘Tomb of Christ,’ which uses virtual reality to tell the story behind the historical renovation of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Our explorers are using new technology in the field, such as augmented reality, and we get to integrate that technology into our exhibitions.”
One of these rotating exhibitions is “Queens of Egypt,” a collection from the Museo Egizio in Italy highlighting women’s role in Egyptian society. “Exploration Starts Here,” a permanent collection, is a celebration of National Geographic Society’s 131-year history.
And that varied history is one of the most special things about the museum’s exhibitions, DeOrsey says, which means they’re always putting together displays with different content and themes.
“When we develop exhibitions, we take a concept, build a narrative using the storytelling that National Geographic is known for, supplement with content from our history, and weave in elements that make exhibitions accessible to anyone who comes through the door,” she says.
The museum’s upcoming exhibit, “Becoming Jane,” will be dedicated to the life, work and legacy of primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall. The exhibition, to open in November, will feature personal artifacts, interactive installations and video testimonials.
Kentucky Derby Museum
With two floors of exhibitions, the Kentucky Derby Museum underwent an 11,000-square-foot renovation project last fall, the largest expansion since its 1985 opening. The attraction is designed to celebrate the history and tradition of the two most anticipated minutes in sports: the world-renowned Kentucky Derby.
The museum’s featured exhibit, “The Greatest Race,” is a 4K high-resolution experience capturing the unique sporting and cultural event of the Derby on a 360-degree screen in the Great Hall.
Permanent exhibits in the new wing focus on the personal collections of innovative Thoroughbred trainer D. Wayne Lukas and jockey Bill Shoemaker, who won the Derby four times over four decades.
Chris Goodlett, director of curatorial and educational affairs, says visitors experience exhibits in their own, unique way—whether it’s through permanent installations telling stories crucial to the understanding of the Derby or temporary exhibits often featuring something of immediate importance or artifacts on loan.
“Some people really want to see historic and unique objects, art or images, while others engage through interactives. For the curatorial team, a relevant and engaging story is one of the key elements in an exhibition. It provides the meaning for the artifacts and images,” he says.
And while there are many more interactive components in the museum’s exhibits now than there were several years ago, Goodlett says interactive doesn’t always mean technology.
“For example, we recently showcased a temporary exhibition on 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah that included a puzzle that guests could complete. The pieces together showed an x-ray of American Pharoah’s hoof,” he says. “A second, but possibly less obvious, change is the amount of text in an exhibit. We try to strike a balance between informing and potentially having too much text. Recently, the curatorial team removed some text from exhibit panels and elected to use it on social media and blog posts. That way, we not only cut back on the amount of copy, but there was additional information we could use for promoting the exhibit after the opening.”
Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum
As Texas’ largest history museum, the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum is a sprawling assemblage of artifacts and exhibits that explore the region’s exciting tales of weaponry, transportation and paleontology. Through permanent exhibits, visitors can learn about the petroleum industry in the Panhandle region, see an extensive Southwest art collection and check out the new, built-from-the-ground-up Pioneer Town, representing 1890 to 1910.
In October the museum’s “Undressing Suffrage” exhibit will launch in concurrence with the upcoming 19th amendment ratification anniversary. It will tell of the historical development of women’s rights in the U.S. through garments of the time period.
“I am really excited about our Women’s Suffrage exhibit in our textile gallery because it is so unique and a different take from your usual historical exhibition,” says Stephanie Price, the museum’s communications and marketing director. “In my opinion, and from almost seven years in the industry, the most appealing exhibits are those that form a connection with the audience and are timely to what is being discussed in our communities and cultures.”
One of the exhibit’s co-curators, Darby Reiners, says they work to recognize diversity in their communities and add those stories to their historical narratives to better connect and represent them.
“Our suffrage exhibit is intended to discuss ... the growth in diversity of the women’s rights movement as a whole over just these last few decades,” she says. “We currently have a museum app that provides additional information throughout our permanent exhibits, and we are evaluating digital interactives for the suffrage exhibit. We want our visitors to see themselves in the narrative.”
Price says the museum’s exhibits typically stay six months to a year after they’re curated in-house. They also must consider the artifacts on display.
“For instance, textiles, even in our permanent exhibitions, must be changed out every nine months to a year, as textiles are heavily affected by light,” Reiners says.
The team lays out the museum’s exhibit calendar at least two years in advance. With the 2018 Pop Culture exhibit, which focused on popular culture influences from the 1950s through the 2000s, curators began work in 2015 to develop content, interactives, loans from other museums and layouts.
“In some ways it is a daunting task to think about what will be exciting or interesting to visitors three years into the future, and I think that’s where the creativity in our exhibition team is really exciting,” Reiners says.
Missouri History Museum
St. Louis, Missouri
At the Missouri History Museum, display ideas can be found in unlikely places—and result in unlikely exhibits.
“It can be something as simple as a little black dress or the complex history of how one city’s sound helped create the soundtrack for a nation,” says Tourism and Group Sales Manager Tami Goldman. “The public is often surprised at how collaborative developing an exhibit is. It’s never one curator walking down rows of artifacts, cherry-picking things to be on display. It’s always a true team effort between curators and historians, librarians and archivists, graphic designers and local contractors.”
In 2014 the museum shifted its focus to local history rather than embracing large traveling shows to attract its visitors. This move has allowed the staff to tell the stories of St. Louis and highlight the city’s role in the larger narrative of the history of the region, state and country, Goldman says.
Its newest exhibit, “Mighty Mississippi,” allowed Goldman to collaborate with several CVBs along the Mississippi River, a process which she says has been fun and exciting. The 6,000-square-foot exhibit exploring the history of the largest waterway in North America, including its impact on commerce, culture, the environment and westward expansion, is set to open in November.
“Hundreds of artifacts spanning thousands of years will be on display, including the original pilothouse from the Golden Eagle steamboat,” Goldman says. “I’m excited to see the years of hard work and passion our team has put into this exhibit come to life for visitors.”
The museum is anchored by its permanent collections of 1904 World’s Fair artifacts and exhibits featuring Lewis and Clark. Goldman says temporary exhibits rotate based on things like the fragility of its artifacts as well as the level to which the museum’s visitors can personally connect to the content—which alludes to its recent rebranding.
“Our slogan is ‘Find Yourself Here.’ The Missouri History Museum strives to serve as the confluence of historical perspectives and contemporary issues. No matter where a visitor is from, we hope they can relate to the human experiences of the everyday people featured in our exhibits,” Goldman says.
Wisconsin Museum of Quilts & Fiber Arts
The team at the Wisconsin Museum of Quilts & Fiber Arts is always looking to educate the public about the history and cultural importance of quilts and fiber arts—from the unique exhibits down to quilt-patterned doors on the repurposed 1850s-era farmhouse.
The museum aims to produce four original exhibitions a year, and from August through November, “Water” will be a unified display of contemporary artists’ work inspired by the expressive possibilities of water—and a nod to the region’s plentiful freshwater.
“‘Water’ aims to draw attention to this valuable, yet vulnerable, resource through the lens of fiber and video works, sculptures and installations. The exhibition includes top nationally recognized fiber artists—three of whom have works in the Smithsonian’s collection—and many have made new works for the show,” says exhibit curator Emily Schlemowitz.
As the team curates exhibits, Schlemowitz says they’re always cognizant of design, how the viewer will experience the works and how the information is being communicated.
“We start from the place that exhibitions should spark curiosity and dialogue,” she says. “Sometimes we achieve that by curating a solo exhibition of a particularly phenomenal artist, as we will be doing with Doreen Speckmann, who has never had a retrospective despite being nationally recognized for her quilting innovations. Sometimes we achieve that by curating by theme, as we are doing for ‘Water.”’
The museum recently received a grant to renovate the atrium, and it will become part of the permanent exhibitions.
“During ‘Water,’ we will have several carp—made specifically for the exhibition by Akiko Ike, a fiber artist from Japan—hanging from the atrium’s ceiling. We will also be installing our first permanent outdoor sculpture by Susan Falkman, a sculptor who made a marble quilt inspired by the flow of water and the softness of fabric,” Schlemowitz says.
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Tell a story that speaks to the viewer. That’s one of the most important components of putting together an exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, according Shari Feldman, manager of group sales.
“It has to bring in a human element and make it relatable,” she says. “Encouraging interactions between our visitors and the pieces in the exhibition is much more prevalent than is has been in the last several years. In the past, exhibitions have relied heavily on wall text but now an exhibition might include a video that shows the process of how an artist creates the object, or it has an iPad that allows the guest to expand an image to see something very small. It (has) to be filled with fascinating facts about the subject and the time period, and a nice open floor plan and great lighting help, too.”
The exhibits, as ever-changing as the museum industry itself, remain on view for about three to six months. That’s what makes seeing these exhibits so important, whether the collections are on loan from other museums or private lenders.
In the fall, the museum will open “Designs for Different Futures.”
“We typically think about design with regards to clothing, buildings or furniture, but this exhibition explores how design is influential in the trajectory of our everyday life,” Feldman says. “It will explore visionary and sometimes controversial designs that promise to transform how we live, eat, heal, travel and even love.”
“Off the Wall: American Art to Wear,” also opening in the fall, will highlight the inventive work of mixed-media artists who use the body as a frame for one-of-a-kind art.
National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum
Cooperstown, New York
As museum-goers soak up wall-to-wall classic Americana, there’s a certain sentiment to be felt.
The National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum’s latest addition knocks hard on the door to the past, evoking nostalgia through the story of baseball cards.
The lead curator for “Shoebox Treasures,” John Odell, said they answered a calling for a sole exhibit on baseball cards. He said it couldn’t just be rows of cards in a case, but needs to be a full show—from 19th-century tobacco cards and gum company sets to today’s pricey keepsakes. The exhibit, housed across 700 square feet on the third floor, shines a light on the history, design and production of the cards. It explores the craze of the 1980s that transformed the hobby into a multi-million dollar industry—through the climbing value of old cards and the demand for new ones.
The museum’s total collection holds about 200,000 cards, and the immense support for the exhibit allows ongoing cataloging and conservation of the cards that are loved by people of all ages. “Shoebox Treasures” features about 2,000 of those on display in vertical drawers. The exhibit is divided into four primary themes: the history of baseball cards, the evolution of card design, how and why fans of all ages collect baseball cards, and cards considered “holy grails.”
For the ultra-sentimental experience, visitors can spin a bicycle wheel with a baseball card placed in the spokes and remember back to that click-clack of bike-riding on summer nights, the pavement lit only by street lamps.
Top photo by Missouri History Museum
Support for Courier articles provided by:
Cincinnati Museum Center
Friends of San Felipe de Austin
J. Paul Getty Museum
Milwaukee Public Museum
The Mob Museum
The National World War II Museum
Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum
U.S. Space & Rocket Center