My students’ work on mass incarceration exhibit

My museum studies class this semester centered on creating a module for a national travelling exhibit on mass incarceration, and as we submit our final product to the organizers, I want summarize our work. The Humanities Action Lab (HAL) at The New School in New York City combines humanities scholarship with design to create public programming on a contemporary social issue. HAL’s current project is a travelling exhibit on mass incarceration called States of Incarceration, and planners intend for it to prompt public discussion and awareness at the locations it shows. UNC-Greensboro (at least our Museum Studies program) is a partner institution—one of twenty university classes around the country that are creating modules on different aspects of the criminal legal system.

Most participant schools are creating exhibit modules relating to contemporary issues—from immigrant detention, gender in prisons, privatization and the economy, to mental health and the drug war. We are one of three or four schools creating historical modules. (Modules, btw, are free-standing flat panels, about four feet wide and six feet tall.) Our topic contributes to a historical genealogy of incarceration that feeds the larger contemporary discussion. We cover a historical moment in North Carolina in the 1920s when prisoners on county chain gangs—in response to the inquiry of state agency reformers—wrote scores, if not hundreds, of letters chronicling the physical abuse and sheer human degradation they experienced. Our story is based almost entirely on the research that Susan W. Thomas did for her dissertation, “Chain Gangs, Roads, and Reform in North Carolina, 1900-1935.” (This subject, and how it fits in the rhetoric of modern prison reform/abolition advocates, will be discussed in a later post.)

My class is a graduate introduction to public history. Instead of a broad introduction to the field, I have used this project to introduce students to some fundamental elements of public history—the centrality of audience and the imperatives of institutional needs—in producing historical content. I believe these two items are necessary for any public history practitioner.

With Susan’s narrative in hand, and the only expectation from HAL being that we prioritize the voices of the incarcerated, we pitched in to John Falk, Beverly Serrell, Judy Diamond and a raft of other articles and essays about how exhibits are created, why audiences visit them, experiences within exhibits, what we can reasonably expect audiences to experience and take away from exhibits, and how elements like labels, graphics, and physical design convey information and emotion. We talked at length about the importance of venue, marketing messages, likely visitors, the limits and advantages of our host venue. In these discussions I believe that my public history students grasped the well-established literature on the tools we can use to reach public audiences. (Tools, btw, that separates us from academic history.) This part of the class wasn’t just a workshop on exhibit design, but a reflection about ways that producers and audience dialog through the media of exhibits and programs, and even through the development process itself.IMG_1925

One of those literature-based expectations, and supreme frustrations, is what we learned from Judy Diamond about the negative-attraction of flat panels. Visitor retention time before text and graphic panels tends to be under thirty seconds. (Actual objects and artifacts have greater retention power.) Now, our parents will probably read every word and look at every image, but we know that most visitors will simply pause—if that—for a brief moment before our module and we have to make our point before they move again. That’s a daunting task.

Early on, we read Richard Rabinowitz’s “Eavesdropping at the Well,” and perhaps impractically, we decided to create a “narrative” style module based on his description of the Slavery in New York exhibit. To us, that meant several things. Our historical story must follow a beginning-middle-end format. It must alter tempo and pace and use literary devices to invite the visitor into the story. From other readings, we learned that didactic text labels are generally ineffective, and that expecting visitors to take away factual data is not realistic. Our outcome goal, then, became, simply, “visitors will leave here discomforted”—a sense not easily measured.

(Should note that some, but not all, of the other classes working on this are public history classes. Some are law, sociology, or various studies classes and approach this by steeping themselves in the contemporary literature about American prisons. We could—and maybe should—have, but I wanted to focus us on good public history practice.)

Class struggled with space and content constraints, but did a fantastic job of jettisoning the impulse to do “historian things” by word vomiting on the panel, and by embracing tools of effective public history communication. And we did the thing that many folks fail to do—we kept the actual visitor at the center of our development process. We pulled in random people from the hallway to test titles. We created a mock up and used my undergraduate class as test groups. I showed everything we had to anyone who would listen. The undergraduate survey, in fact confirmed that one element we planned worked with remarkable success while another element (which had been my idea) was an utter flop. We adjusted accordingly. (We are struck by how different random audience feedback based on experience is from academic review based on reading the script. I believe we should favor the former.)IMG_1960

Of course, the historical story we have is huge and the space we have to work with is small. So the students had a good exercise in telling a narrative story that suggests completeness, but actually only utilizes a small part of the historical evidence. To this end, they learned how highly constructed these things are, and how small choices and changes can influence larger interpretive points. (And we mourned over how much of this story we can’t tell.) Interpretive direction changed mid-way through the semester. We began focusing on the connection between incarcerated labor and North Carolina’s reputation for “good roads,” but switched—for a variety of good reasons—to emphasizing the racialized nature of chain gangs, the unregulated physical abuse and prisoner resistance chronicled in letter-writing, and the value of listening to people on the inside. To these ends, we created an “infographic”IMG_2086 (1) on prisoner statistics, a “collage” of excerpts from prisoner letters and photographs, a final section that described how the system didn’t change as much as evolve into something else. We finished with a change in voice, to make an appeal for listening to prisoners today tell their own stories. This last thing is important to public history students these days—at least to me. I believe that public historians shouldn’t just leave their work done with the re-telling of the past, but should learn to advocate for why that history is important now. Not many history exhibits that I see are intentional in that way, but larger forces in the museum world compel us to make connections and establish rhetorical framing using provocative or opinionated voices. Granted, our voice at the end of the module is not all that provocative, but I wanted students to have some experience deliberating on the history, it’s genealogical and moral connections to concerns in our own time, and articulate a reasonable way for the exhibit say that. I am happy with what they accomplished.

Some items have been a bit disappointing. We haven’t taken advantage of the national discussion platform that HAL set up for us to collaborate and connect with other students’ projects. (My students were crushed by their 701 seminar and really had no time.) The lack of audience goals and outcome expectations by HAL might have proven useful guidance for decisions we had to make, but I was at an early planning meeting and saw how difficult nailing down those would have been. We were not able to develop connections with community collaborators to co-develop with us. (Many other classes are working with formerly incarcerated or effected people. Because of the historical nature of our topic, a good connection did not seem obvious.) But even those shortcomings helped us realize the importance of audience participation, setting outcome expectations, design, emotion, non-textual information, institutional constraints, all work together to create effective, if not perfect, public history products.

Next semester we are turning to develop programming surrounding the opening of States of Incarceration at the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in November 2016. That’ll give us the opportunity to learn about programming, museum administration, fundraising and finances, allied educational initiatives, and continued rehearsal in the vocabulary of a civically relevant and socially conscious public history.

Keep an eye out for that.


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