Small museum exhibits are spaces focused on the everyday, lived experience. Spaces to connect, to reflect, to bring back memories, to tell stories.
They’re spaces for people who don’t think they’re old enough or important enough to have their names on public walls. They’re spaces for memorials, tributes to those who died in the line of duty, or places to remember those who passed long after their days of service.
They’re invitations to share photographs, ephemera, uniforms. To point out buddies, old friends, colleagues, or acquaintances. They’re spaces for individuals to see themselves as they once were, to reflect on who they’ve become, and the journey they’ve taken.
Museum exhibits can reinvigorate communities, build connections, and invite reflection. They mark only the beginning of the story.
Seeing oneself in a museum exhibit imparts a sense of power, of importance, a connection to the larger flow of history. This is the gift we give individuals and their families as exhibit designers. Watching visitors experience this gift for the first time is one of the true delights of life as a museum professional.
Most react with joy at the novelty of seeing themselves on the wall or as part of a bigger story. Others grumble about not being old enough to be in a museum exhibit – but behind the gruffness lies a sense of pride, at having done something worthy of display. A few think about how else they’d like to be represented, and which parts of their stories they can share. Others turn back towards the part of their life we discuss, reflecting on who they were, what they wanted, and who they connected with.
The power of these seemingly innocuous exhibits, to invite reflection, to incite joy or tears, to invoke memories, and most importantly, to promote community and connection, make the hours of tedious research and exhibit design worth it. Especially when these reactions go far beyond what we ever imagined. Museum exhibits can and do touch people’s lives. It’s one small part of what makes this job worth doing.