The Audience and the Exhibition

For those in the field of designing exhibitions within the human rights memorial museums, it never is an easy job.  Presenting violence does not prevent violence after all.  When creating new alternative exhibitions that address such violations, it is important to become multi-disciplined in the process.  Using common themes by drawing on academic literature and public discussion of critical museology, heritage management, collective memory, public scholarship, and transitional justice can help structure the exhibition, including when attempting to explain the reason the conflict occurred in the first place.

The word “curate” in its root meaning of “caring for” allowing us to expand the discussion outward from museums and exhibitions to encompass heritage sties, memorials, and other alternative art exhibitions.  When looking at human rights violation exhibitions, “to ‘care for’ the past is to make something of it, to place and order it in a meaningful way in the present rather than to abandon it” (Lehrer, p.4).  But when creating a new exhibition, no longer does it represent the violation but now the exhibition’s goal is to make things happen.  Audiences must be transformed into participants.  Comment books no longer exist but instead, become part of the exhibition as objects.  Every experience that is brought in with the visitor becomes a part of the exhibition and the way the story is told.

How the story is told is something that the curatorial staff needs to address from the very beginning.  They must ask themselves whether the exhibit is intended to make the victims/veterans feel better about the surviving or to make the visitor understand the consequences of the violation.  After one of the paths is decided, then the curator can determine how to make the information available to that intended audience without visitor isolation occurring.  While an exhibition with the intent on celebrating the survivors can easily tell the story without bringing into the difficult aspects of the violation that had occurred, an exhibition based off of understanding consequences makes such an exhibition more difficult.  Explaining the dark side of humans and attempting to explain how someone/a group of people could destroy others lives is something most individuals do not want to hear.  Visitors regress, isolate themselves or could even punish themselves when informed of the horrific events of today’s world.

When installing such an exhibition, Bridget Conley-Zilkic and Nancy Gillette of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum state their three “inherent tensions in the task of exhibiting content about genocide: between presenting a didactic lesson about the concept of genocide and telling the stories of what happened in specific places; between the presentation of the history of any single case of genocide and the unique experiences of individuals; and between the reality of extreme violence against people in distant places and the attempt to inspire response to an often overwhelming problem from afar” (Conley-Zilkic, p.36).  In order to create an exhibition in which the audience does not have such negative effects, Conley-Zilkic and Gillette state that there is the intense need to confirm exactly how everything is to be addressed within the exhibition and to continue throughout the exhibit with that same tactic.  If the curator wants to the visitor to feel like the violation is close to them, in their backyard for example, then that feeling needs to remain throughout the exhibition, not just in one part.

In addition to overcoming the obstacle of the audience/participant becoming isolated within their own thoughts and choices of pain, is trying to figure out where lies the middle ground.  When does an experience become too violent for the audience?  Like the path that the exhibition is headed down, the curatorial staff must decide if they should ease on the horrific information or expect the audience to toughen up.  If the answer is the former, how can the curatorial staff keep the audience even more isolated from the sensations that they are trying to convey?  How do you confront without provoking, to invite and listen while also educating and enlightening? How d you illuminate horrors experienced by everyday people in real life?

One of the ways is by creating a dialogue with the visitor about their own experience through the use of material culture.  Exhibition designers must provide a safe environment in which the visitors have control over how and when they respond to the information in addition to how they relate their own experiences to the provided information.  Depending on who the visitor is depends on how they relate to the information provided.  Like stated before, is the visitor a survivor?  A friend or family of a survivor?  Or is the visitor someone else completely?  The decision on how the information is provided can not only alter the state in which the visitor acknowledges the information but also, how they bring the knowledge outside the institution.


Conley-Zilkic, Bridget and Nancy Gillette.  “Challenging Visitors to Move from Memory to Action

at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum”.  Museums, Memorials, and Sites of Conscience.  Exhibitionist. 2011.

Patterson, Monica Eileen .“Teaching Tolerance through Objects of Hatred: The Jim Crow

Museum of Racist Memorabilia as “Counter-Museum””.  Curating Difficult Knowledge:Violent Pasts in Public Places.  St Martin’s Press LLC. 2011.

Lehrer, Erica and Cynthia E. Milton.  “Introduction”.  Curating Difficult Knowledge: Violent Pasts in Public Places.  St Martin’s Press LLC. 2011.

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