The Exhibit that Made Me Cry (and I tried to hide it)
I was reminded today by Susie Wilkening’s article on long-term memories of exhibits (in ASTC Dimensions) of an exhibit that made me cry. I tried to hide it, but there I was, huge lump in the throat, eyes saturated, ready to spill it. It was in the Center for Civil Rights and Human Rights in Atlanta (and I’m hearing a lot of other museum people describe the same thing). If you’ve been there, you know the exhibit I’m talking about.
It’s called “How Long Can you Last?” It’s an audio program with headphones, recorded binaurally, so it sounds like you are right there, in the environment. You are sitting at a lunch counter participating in a nonviolent protest. Close your eyes and there you are, along with an onslaught of terrible threatening comments from behind you. I don’t remember exactly — something like “Get off that chair, boy, now!” in an angry voice with a stomp of a foot. And as the foot stomps, your chair jolts.
To add to the drama, there are some metallic handprints on the counter in front of you to place your hands — they count how long you can last. I made it the length of the program — about 2.5 minutes I think, but was struck speechless and teary eyed. How can people be so mean and cruel? I took the headphones off and sat there to compose myself, on the edge of losing it.
Given the sensitive and potentially disturbing nature of the exhibit, there is a staff person stationed there. I felt I needed a minute just to pull myself together, internalize before I might burst out. At that moment, the staff member, a young man, asked me something like “Imagine how that must have felt. To have been there…” I could hardly stand it. I was as vulnerable as I’ve ever been in an exhibit, unable to respond, a message/memory burned into me.
And so begins my experience at the Center. The experience is emotionally compelling throughout, in ways that feel more “theatrical” and compelling to me than most exhibits. Contrasting lighting between exhibits, a choreographed physical experience for the visitor moving up stairs from a dark environment to a light one, emotionally compelling multiscreen videos set to a driving drumbeat. Dan Spock happened to visit around the same time, and we talked about how this is one museum that clearly designed with an emotional impact in mind. And did it well.
Exhibit design take-aways:
- You can design for emotional impact, and visitors will appreciate it when it’s well done
- Techniques used in theater — lighting, choreography, sound, and awareness of dramatic impact — play an important role in exhibit design
- Dedicate a staff person to areas that may be especially upsetting
- Keep a box of tissues handy (which they did)