How do you describe an exhibit — the thought process behind it as well as a sense of the finished product — with people across the country? One way is to participate in professional conferences in order to share the conceptual process with other historians. The Center for Women’s History team traveled from the New-York Historical Society to sunny Sacramento, California, in April 2018 to partake in the Organization of American Historians (OAH) annual meeting. The OAH draws historians from universities, museums, national parks, high school faculty, publishers, and other historical organizations. This makes it an ideal venue for networking and promoting the Center for Women’s History.
Our panel explained the process of creating our permanent digital interactive known as Women’s Voices, installed on the fourth floor of the New-York Historical Society. The speakers were Valerie Paley, the director of the Center for Women’s History, former Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow Joanna Scutts, former Mellon Predoctoral Fellow Sarah Litvin, and yours truly, Sarah Gordon, Curatorial Scholar in Women’s History. Valerie Matsumoto, George and Sakaye Aratani Endowed Chair on the Japanese American Incarceration, Redress, and Community at UCLA, provided thoughtful commentary and welcome suggestions for new material.
Sarah Gordon of the Center for Women’s History guides viewers through Women’s Voices.
Unlike the formal approach so typical of professional conferences, our presentation was intended to be more of a conversation about the design and research process. We began with a description of the conceptual beginnings of the exhibit: how do you introduce museum visitors to women’s history without falling back on a “hall of fame” of individuals that essentially replicates old-school history? Instead, how could we integrate big themes, groups, and moments with biographies? From that theoretical base, we discussed content, navigation, and design: who and what goes into the exhibit? How do users interact with the content, and how do they move from topic to topic? What is a user-friendly interface that conveys just the right amount of material? How do you create an exhibit that is not just diverse in its content but which is structured to encourage inclusive thinking?
We used slides to show different components of the exhibit and its development. For example, early in the process we had made an enormous cardboard chart to track our research across time and connection. This helped us understand how we wanted to have numerous pathways for visitors to explore the content, and is a perfect example of how technology can be harnessed to do things in a museum that objects and images just can’t handle!
We also demonstrated how the design uses color to make older images, such as this early 19th century engraving of Elizabeth Hamilton, carry as much visual weight as modern colored photos. We call this the “rock star treatment.”
An important focus of the conversation concerned how the interactive uses “tags” to travel between different individuals, groups and events. The tags are a way to connect people and moments with historical themes, experiences, and ideas. For example, a user can read about 18th-century Seneca leader Molly Brant, who believed that the interests of the Seneca were best served by siding with the British during the Revolution, and then, by choosing the “war” tag, travel to “WWII Workers. Brant and the women who built ships in the Brooklyn Navy yard are therefore connected by their shared experience in a war.
Part of our discussion concerned how we avoided using “identity tags” — meaning that the women we feature are not identified by race, religion, class, or other categories. While their stories inform their lives and are in the biographical text, we chose to connect them by their work and efforts. The overall idea is to emphasize the role of networks and connections throughout women’s experiences.
Conference panels frequently have a “commentator” from outside the group who can provide perspective on the ideas being presented. We were thrilled that Dr. Matsumoto “got us” right away, and we will add the artist Miné Okubo and entrepreneur Misa Chang to the exhibit’s network as she recommended.
We also participated in a videotaped interview to be made available to high school teachers through the National Council for History Education. While the exhibit itself can’t travel, the ideas behind it can translate to a classroom. For example, a teacher could assign students to research individuals, and then have students associate their biographies with others in different combinations — science, politics, art, scandal, leadership, children, and so on — to see what kinds of connections and intersections they might find. Once this interview becomes available we will post it on this blog.
It was a pleasure to share the experience of creating Women’s Voices with colleagues while learning about their work. For example we attended a panel on the development of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, talked about a journal article on Women’s Voices, and discussed podcast ideas with an expert. The more connections we build, the more interesting our own exhibits and programs can be. Meanwhile, we invite you to come to the fourth floor and make your own connections with Women’s Voices!
– Sarah Gordon, Center for Women’s History
Top image credits: Detail of an original Women’s Voices planning chart. Center for Women’s History, New-York Historical Society.