Museums continually test new ways to produce exhibits that are accessible to people beyond the doors of the institution. Sometimes exhibitions are extended through websites or phone apps, but digital approaches have their limits as well. With this new exhibit, the New-York Historical Society goes a step further, by producing a panel exhibition that presenters with even the smallest venues can download and publish.
Touching on current events, the exhibition “Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow” explores the struggle for full citizenship and racial equality that unfolded in the 50 years after the Civil War. Humanities New York is excited to offer $500 Quick Grants to organizations wishing to print and exhibit the panel exhibition starting in December, 2018.
In October, 2018, Humanities New York spoke with Marci Reaven, Vice President of History Exhibitions at N-YHS, and Lily Wong, Assistant Curator, about the development, design, and impact of the exhibit.
Image: Winslow Homer, A Visit from the Old Mistress, 1876, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of William T. Evans, 1909.7.28
HNY: What led to the creation of the exhibit?
Marci: The 150th Anniversary of the 14th Amendment got us thinking about what we could do to celebrate it at the New-York Historical Society. There were other reasons–Professor Henry Louis Gates is a Trustee of N-YHS, and we knew he would be releasing a PBS series on Reconstruction in the Spring of 2019. We thought that we could build around the momentum of that series and the anniversary. In addition, we have traditionally engaged in exhibits related to race relations in the US, in the 2000’s we held two exhibits about slavery in the North, and there have been other exhibits at the Museum like “Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion” that have addressed important histories that still impact our lives today.
HNY: How did you plan the exhibition?
Marci: We learned from many different sources. We were fortunate to get an implementation grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to work with a group of eight advisors. In addition, we learned from people who ended up being participants in the story. We talked to people from St. Philip’s Church in Harlem and we went to visit the curators at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture because they have been doing such important collecting over the past years–so they were a great source of assistance and collaboration. We spoke with curators at the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site, and the Chicago History Museum. Some were curators, some were proprietors of historic sites, some were leaders of historic institutions that were involved in the stories and descendants of some of the historic actors featured in the exhibit. We also have a research team in-house, Dominique Jean-Louis [a former Public Humanities Fellow of HNY] and Amanda Bellows, who were instrumental in mining the literature.
HNY: With such a large amount of information to choose from, how did you select what would be in the exhibition?
Marci: The process of coming up with the final scenes and the final text is a really interesting and complicated one. It’s a matter of matching the story and what one decides are the key points to what the available objects are, and what display elements work with the available space. And we need to consider what visitors are likely to know. How much background do we need to give at any one point. One is always going back and forth between these points to make sure that we are addressing all those things. It’s a creative process which makes it really fun. We have an ongoing meeting between Curatorial and Design that includes other members of N-YHS who are responsible for programming involving the exhibition such as the Education department and staff from the Family Programs division. We’re always trying to keep in mind the space, the audience, the story, and the elements that we have to tell that story.
Lily: There’s a section that focuses on Reconstruction, the period after the Civil War, and we wanted to really center the African American experience: What did it mean to be free? What did it mean to be citizens? How are African Americans active participants during this era? There were so many wonderful stories that we couldn’t fit them all. We wanted to do as many as possible so we organized them under “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” and “Democracy and Equality” as the founding ideals of the country that were newly available to African Americans during this period, so things like “Life” included basic freedoms like reuniting with family or getting married legally. “Democracy” included the new right to vote and black office holders. The structure allowed us to tell a wide range of stories.
Marci: We worked those themes into the design and made them the central organizing feature of a large display. The structure provided a context that reinforced the importance of all the things that freedpeople were doing during Reconstruction. We used the same thematic framework later in the exhibit during the rise of Jim Crow, but there the design helped to communicate that these new rights were being denied and taken away.
HNY: Were there any challenges in the exhibition design?
Marci: We wanted to talk about African American Harlem, even before the Harlem Renaissance, but there was very little three-dimensional material available with which to tell the story in a museum setting. We worked with the designers to create actual models of some of the important institutions in Harlem in the 1910’s, like St. Philip’s Church or the White Rose Mission.
HNY: What’s been the most exciting part of the exhibition for guests?
Marci: The “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” display has been the part of the exhibit that gets the most attention. People really appreciate the range of ways that African Americans breathed real meaning into their new-found freedom. I think what’s appealing is that it’s a combination of detailed human interest stories combined with surprise that so much was being accomplished so quickly, at such risk and with such resourcefulness.
Lily: We try to put in a range of types of objects, types of stories, and types of displays so that everyone who walks through will come out having had a meaningful interaction with some piece of the history.
HNY: How do you evaluate engagement with the exhibits?
Marci: We treat each exhibit differently. For some exhibits we observe visitors, for others we do robust feedback with visitors. For the Vietnam War exhibit we created a sizable space for visitors to sit down and enter their thoughts into visitor comment books and then we suggested five questions that people might address in their comments. The number of responses we got was truly remarkable! Not just in quantity, but in quality. What people shared with us about their own personal and family experiences or about their political beliefs or their concerns for the future or for their children who are serving overseas right now. It was so special that we had twelve large journals transcribed that are all available for researchers to use in our library and we put a large number of them online.
HNY: We’re excited to partner with N-YHS on the panel exhibition that will be available soon! How did you decide what would be included from the larger exhibition?
Lily: We had to really think about our key points—what were the most important things for people to understand while also keeping in the stories that make the exhibit engaging. It’s always a bit of a balancing act, and it’s different in a panel show. The objects aren’t there, so the 2-d visual elements have to tell the story. You really have to think about the visuals in a different way. We rely on documents, paintings, and photographs to bring people through the larger story we are trying to tell.
Marci: Writing for exhibits is never an easy process. A lot of thought has to be put into making complicated stories about the past very succinct and clear for people who don’t have the luxury of sitting down and looking at each exhibit panel. So we go through many many drafts and get as many eyes on it as possible to make it as clear and succinct as possible.
Lily: We wanted to preserve the centering of the African American experience, even in such a condensed form as panels, in order to still give voice to that experience.
HNY: Where will the panels go?
Marci: Because we’ll be able to distribute the panels in digital format at no charge, they will be available to anyone with the ability to print, mount, and display a thirty-by-forty-inch panel. We’d like to see the panel exhibition spurring conversations across the country. We also plan on travelling the full exhibition. One of the things I was struck by was how excited museums and historical sites were to learn about this show. There’s always good collaboration between museums, but this time there was an extra spark of excitement that we felt when we called other institutions. As we are arranging a travel itinerary for the full exhibition, we’re finding almost all of our lenders are willing to extend their loans so the object we borrowed can continue to travel with the exhibit. The period of Reconstruction and Jim Crow are undertold parts of U.S. history and it was time to tell them, and it was time to tell them now.
HNY: Do you think this will inform future exhibitions at N-YHS?
Marci: I think what this means for future steps remains to be seen. What I enjoy about the N-YHS approach is the interest in working creatively to expand the reach of important historical stories. We’ve done other panel shows, and we’ve done other travelling shows, but this would be the first time that we are creating one that is being distributed digitally and free of charge, so this is an experiment for us. The idea for distributing a digital exhibition at no charge came in good part due to the panel exhibition New York State Museum and Humanities New York did together for the NYS Women’s Suffrage Commemoration in 2017. We think it will be very successful, and likely to inform future activities.
HNY: Fantastic, Marci and Lily! Thanks for speaking with us today.
Interview by Nicholas MacDonald, Communications Manager
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Marci Reaven is Vice President of History Exhibitions at New-York Historical Society. Her exhibits include “Nueva York” (2010), “WWII & NYC” (2012), “Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion” (2014), “The Vietnam War” (2017), and “Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow” (2018). “Hudson Rising,” on the environmental history of the Hudson River, will open in March 2019. Previously, she served as Managing Director of City Lore, and as Senior Associate at American History Workshop. She holds a Ph.D. in US history from NYU.
Lily Wong is an assistant curator at the New-York Historical Society. She has worked on several history exhibitions including “The Vietnam War: 1945-1975” and “Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion.” She holds a B.A. in History & Asian Studies from Williams College.