This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka interns working on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series.
In her 2011 History News article, “Do Museums Still Need Objects?,” Rainey Tisdale argues that while modern museums definitely need to continue displaying artifacts, a reevaluation of the ways in which these objects are utilized, presented, and interpreted is likewise necessary. Though advances in technology and shifts in public views of history are changing the museum experience for many visitors, artifacts still play a central role. Tisdale, an independent curator and professor of Museum Studies at Tufts University, presents a seven-point outline of ways to make museums more effective. Specifically, she calls for the innovative presentation of objects, making them more interesting and relevant to visitors and thereby achieving a more personalized version of history.
Focusing on a few distinctive objects that make a museum’s collection unique may be a better way to educate visitors than the simple display of a greater amount of more commonplace objects. This may seem counterintuitive as some museums are very concerned with acquisitions, but the emphasis of quality over quantity can ultimately result in a more positive learning experience. Additionally, Tisdale advocates the personalization of history through allowing viewers to connect with the past through artifacts. This goal might be achieved by highlighting how, when, and by whom an object was used, or even giving the viewer the opportunity to interact with it in some way. The desire for interaction with historical artifacts does raise the question of a museum’s ability to strike a balance between preservation and education. In association with this challenge comes the need for curators to be more open to advice, requests, and opinions of the public. Tisdale believes that greater communication between museum officials and visitors is another way to modernize and improve the museum experience.
The Gettysburg Seminary Ridge Museum represents a twenty first-century museum institution. Opened in 2013 with the goal of educating visitors about the first day of the battle, care of the wounded at the Seminary, and moral debates of the Civil War era, the museum uses its artifacts as touchpoints for visitors to interact with and learn about the past. Concurrent with the principles laid out by Tisdale, artifacts on display are carefully chosen for their historical value and relevance to the themes of the museum. Many are directly connected to soldiers, Seminary students, or residents of Gettysburg, contributing to the personal experience Tisdale advocates. Touch screens, replica objects, and audio clips offer interactive opportunities to both children and adults.
The museum is housed in Schmucker Hall, the original building of the Seminary campus which served as a field hospital following the 1863 battle. Exhibits are located within spaces that served as classrooms and dormitories for students, as well as hospital rooms for injured and dying soldiers. This layout allows visitors the opportunity to learn about historical events while standing in the very places where they occurred, offering the type of personal experience described in Tisdale’s article. In its dual function as an artifact in its own right and a building housing the museum collection, Schmucker Hall presents its visitors a unique point of view on not only the Battle of Gettysburg, but also its lasting impacts on individuals. The innovative use of this artifact is an example of the attitude of the modern historical institution – that nontraditional presentation and interpretation of objects can be viewed as an opportunity, not a challenge.
Tisdale, Rainey. “Do Museums Still Need Objects?,” History News, Summer 2011: 19-24.