“Exploring the Early Americas” at the Library of Congress: Exhibitions as Advocates for Cultural Heritage Institutions

Written by Rebecca Hoffman Moore (a current student at the Department of Library and Information Science, CUA)

Exhibitions are a phenomenal tool that an archive and information center can use to introduce the public to its collection. Exhibitions are especially effective because they offer a point of visitor engagement with collections and convey the institution’s mission. (Gaub 2011, 127.) For my CUA LIS course on Public Programs, Outreach, and Digital Exhibitions, each student reviewed an exhibition at a local institution. Upon reviewing “Exploring the Early Americas,” at the Library of Congress, I understood how exhibitions can be an effective form of outreach when the relationship between visitor, collection, and institution is considered.

So what makes a good exhibition? Author Emma Howgill argues for several criteria in her article “New Methods of Analyzing Archival Exhibitions.” Comfort and physical accessibility, for instance, are basic measures that exhibitions can use to draw visitors in or shoo them away (Howgill 2015, 2, 8.) Organization is another critical component, ensuring that objects are presented in a coherent narrative for the visitor (Howgill 2015, 2-3.) Intellectual accessibility and interactive learning also enhance the visitor’s experience.

“Exploring the Early Americas,” the exhibition I chose to evaluate based on Howgill’s criteria, offers a glimpse into the Library’s collection of over 3,000 rare documents, maps, and objects relating to the early Americas and the Age of Discovery. As a library science student with an interest in rare collections, I learned that exhibitions can make rare materials and institutions that care for such collections more accessible to visitors.

Howgill’s first set of criteria encompasses comfort and physical accessibility, which this exhibition attempts to achieve. The Jefferson building, where the collection is exhibited, is an old building with little leeway for modification. The exhibition adapted to the space and even added some pre-Columbian flair, flanking the entrance with statues and an arch (Figure 1). While the exhibition was well-designed, there were some concerns that modifications could not address. For instance, the large windows had to be shuttered to ensure proper preservation standards, leaving case lights that were barely bright enough to read the object labels (Figure 2). Additionally, the room was set up so that visitors would enter and exit through the same corridor. Despite this, the exhibition negotiated its given space well and provided a lovely setting to amble through.

Figure 1 Entrance of exhibition with sculptures

Figure 1 Entrance of exhibition with sculptures

display

Figure 2 Low lights in exhibition display cases

Organization is perhaps the next level on a hierarchy of needs for exhibitions, as a poorly-designed and organized exhibition will fail to achieve the institution’s goal of advocating for itself and its collections. The Library of Congress did not disappoint, and instead organized “Exploring the Early Americas” with such a goal in mind. The themes discussed early in the exhibition, such as “Pre-Contact America” and “Explorations and Encounters,” crescendo to the final theme, “Aftermath of Explorations.” In this last room, visitors encounter the Waldseemüller maps, a recent high-profile acquisition for the Library of Congress, and the first instance of the name “America” appearing on a map.

kiosk

Figure 3 Education kiosk with Conquest of America painting series

In addition to structuring the exhibition around these archival gems, the Library of Congress exhibits many other pieces within its collection to show how they are being used by scholars. Intellectual accessibility, the third component of Howgill’s criteria, invites the visitor to engage with the objects and content in an appropriate manner. My fellow exhibition-goers were students and families who had just wrapped up their tour of the Library; certainly pre-Columbian history was not their specialty. However, wall texts and object labels ferried them through the content, and interactive components complemented them. Interactive kiosks lined the hall, some with brief videos about how scholars use the collections, others with digitized versions of objects that visitors could browse.

The two latter components, intellectual accessibility and organization, go hand in hand, allowing visitors both to learn about pre-Columbian history, but also to understand why the Library of Congress even has these materials in the first place. Through wall text, interactive kiosks, and exhibition organization, visitors appreciate the value of archives and libraries as scholarly support systems. “Exploring the Early Americas” goes above and beyond a basic exhibition, and I would encourage exhibition planners to use this exhibition as a model for exhibiting objects as an outreach tool.

References:

Gaub, S. (2011). “Visual materials.” In Russell D. James & Peter J. Wosh (Eds.), Public relations and marketing for archives (109-159), New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc.

Howgill, E. (2015). New methods of analyzing archival exhibitions. Archives and Records,  1-16 (June 2015).

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