The Civil War
Research → Synthesize and Identify a Theme → Write and Produce the Exhibit
Synthesize and Identify a Theme
Consider the following exhibits at the National Museum of American History:
Righting a Wrong: Japanese Americans and World War II
The American Revolution: A World War
Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation, 1863 and the March on Washington, 1963
Each has a topic . . .
Japanese Americans during World War II
The American Revolution
The Emancipation Proclamation and the March on Washington
. . . and a theme:
Righting the wrong of Japanese Internment
The global impact of the American Revolution
How these two events are “linked together in a larger story of liberty and the American experience.”
Good researchers combine ideas from different sources to identify new themes or new ways of looking at historical events. Themes for the Civil War could include things like:
The experience of enslaved people, free African Americans, soldiers, women, or children
Views on race during the war
The role of technology and/or new technologies developed during the war
Art, photography, or music
What the Civil War says about America, or how it continues to impact us today
These are just ideas - as you research, look for themes that you might integrate into your exhibit. As you create your exhibit, you should be able to explain the big idea of the exhibit in a sentence or two.
Write and Produce the Exhibit
Think about sequencing and display
How can you put exhibit items in order to tell a story? Sketch out the plan of what viewers will see and read and in what order. Most exhibits have a large panel that introduces the theme and previews the main ideas of the exhibit, as well as small labels for each artifact/item. Many exhibits also include panels that introduce each part of the exhibit.
Tips for writing effective museum text:
Keep it interesting. Readers need to know the when/where/who/what of a story, but they also need the interesting details and connections that make the story meaningful.
Tell a story. That doesn’t mean make details up, but looking for the historical elements that go into a good story: interesting characters, compelling details, and a clear beginning, middle, and end.
Help the reader understand the object and its meaning.
Imagine your audience. Write for a curious reader with a little background knowledge - not an expert. Your goal is to educate the public and to keep their attention. You want to sound like a warm, knowledgable friend.
One effective way of organizing text for museums is:
Identify a time and place; identify the topic of this panel or object. Describe the object(s) and their use or purpose. Explain anything the viewer might find confusing. Use descriptive language to help the viewer imagine the time and place you are writing about.
Connect this to the larger theme of the exhibit. Help the viewer understand why this item matters in the larger story you are telling.
What is the main takeaway that viewers should get from this part of the exhibit? What will set them up to understand the next part of the exhibit?
At the right is an example of this strategy in action from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (click on the image see a larger view).
Sample Exhibit Language
Below are some samples of award-winning exhibit writing. Notice the variety of approaches.
Minnesota Discovery Center: Blue-Collar Battleground: The Iron Range Labor Story
Down in the Mine
You’re underground. It’s pitch black. You travel in the dark along cavernous tunnels. The smell of dynamite and mule manure lingers in the air. Dust makes it hard to breathe. Shouts in dozens of languages echo off rock walls.
You light a single candle.
You and two partners get to work down here for the next ten to twelve hours. You might not speak the same language, but your lives are in each other’s hands. The bosses don’t care how much danger you face--they keep pushing you. Your pay depends on how much ore you can dig.
For underground miners on the Iron Range, this was daily life in the early 20th century.
“...the worst thing of all was
the sound of the timbers.
They creaked and groaned all the time. I would
say to myself, will I get out of
here alive today?”
– Matti Hillila Pelto, underground miner.
Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave: Heroes and Villains of the Old West
Sitting Bull was a true patriot. Son of a Hunkpapa chief, he became one of the Sioux Nation’s greatest leaders. His life as a warrior began at age fourteen and by age twenty-two he was leader of a Sioux warrior society. He first fought white expansion into Sioux lands during the 1860s. By the mid-1870s Sitting Bull was recognized as both a spiritual and political leader of all the different Sioux groups. He became a pivotal figure in the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. Even though they won that battle, the Sioux lost the war. The U.S. Army redoubled its efforts to subdue the Sioux and in five years most of the Sioux had been moved to reservations. At age 47 Sitting Bull no longer led his people in battle, although he continued to speak out on their behalf.
Sitting Bull’s leadership during the Indian Wars gained the attention of the American people. He was also eager to learn more about the white civilization. In 1885 he joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West as a featured guest. He was treated by Cody with respect, though often booed by audiences. During this time Sitting Bull and Annie Oakley became good friends. Following four months of touring Sitting Bull returned to the prairie. When he left he was presented with gifts by Buffalo Bill. Five years later Sitting Bull was killed in his reservation cabin during a skirmish with tribal police.
Detroit Institute of Arts: Stillness and Movement: Art from Japan
Tea Scoop, 1600s–1700s
Small and unassuming, tea scoops are considered the most valuable of all tea utensils because they connect us directly with the masters who carved them by hand from bamboo.
Sugiki Fusai, the famous tea master who made this scoop, painted a poem on the container to commemorate a memorable tea gathering. It expresses how enjoyable it was to drink tea by candlelight after an unexpectedly warm winter day.
National Center for Interactive Learning at the Space Science Institute: Discover Tech
Have you ever ridden a roller coaster? Known someone who had an artificial leg? Gazed up at a skyscraper? These are all examples of engineering.
Engineers invent technology to solve problems. They ask questions, tinker, and create something new. Engineers solve problems that improve lives, like how to get clean water to rural communities. And they solve problems that make life more fun, like how to make snowboarding boots comfortable and warm. Engineers also help scientists explore our Universe.
You could be an engineer, too. What problem would you like to solve?
Denver Art Museum: El Greco to Picasso from the Phillips Collection
The contents of a stranger’s shopping cart, the books in an acquaintance’s living room—every collection of objects says something about its owner. This one is no exception.
Duncan Phillips put together his art collection like a host making a guest list—always searching for the right mixture, harmonious yet diverse. Looking through these rooms, you may notice his preferences. He had a weakness for color. He avoided art that he considered overly intellectual. He was drawn to emotion, wherever he found it: human gestures, haunting color, expressive brushstrokes.
What is it that makes you like the art you like? How much do your tastes match those of Duncan Phillips?
For more inspiration, look at the past winners of the Excellence in Exhibition Label Writing Competition