So what happens when we peek under the word ‘content’ to see what lives there?
What does it mean for a course to ‘contain’ information?
What choices are being made… what power is being used?
Content is people. Discuss.
When I worked in museums, other organizations often wanted to partner with us because we had “content” by virtue of our collections. We might bring in “outside experts” to help develop or curate exhibitions, and we usually had curators, designers, a developer/writer, a project manager, an educator and an evaluator (me) on the planning teams. We would agree on a theme and several key “take home messages” to communicate to visitors, and these would shape the story line, text, media, and interactive elements. But the “stuff” of our exhibits were the real things, often unique, that were in our collections: art, artifacts, and specimens.
I’m struck by how the stories exhibits tell, or the questions they pose, can shape visitors’ encounter with the real things. (This fascination was what got me interested in studying museums in the first place, and motivated me to spend three years writing a thesis on exhibit labels.)
Michael Spock (son of Dr. Benjamin Spock) directed the Boston Children’s Museum, and then served as Director of Public Programs at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago from 1986-1994. At both institutions, he worked with teams to create exhibits that were “for somebody rather than about something”. Storylines built on what was familiar, so that a collection of skeletons was organized by the simple vernacular taxonomy of which were cats or dogs, and a hall full of dioramas at right angles was reinstalled as a nature walk, with meandering paths and bridges. One exhibit dared visitors to pull aside a curtain to see the most dangerous animal of all–which revealed a mirror.
For the 1992 exhibit Mining the Museum,the Maryland Historical Society gave artist Fred Wilson free rein to curate any objects he chose from their collections. He used juxtaposition to challenge assumptions. This included retitling paintings, and covering them with a layer that had cutouts to highlight only black people. The most thought-provoking case was labeled “Metalwork, 1793-1880” and contained an ornate silver tea set and a pair of slave shackles.
Our questions can invite people into a particular frame of reference. Of course, visitors and learners make their own meanings of what they see and experience.
In a keynote speech to the American Association of Museums, Sherman Alexie walked out on stage and said, “I’m scared. I’m an Indian, and you guys are museum people.” [Followed by silence, and then laughter.] I took that (pun intended) to mean that he didn’t want us to seize his body as an object for our collections.
Where people are presented as content, we are also challenged to look again at our/their place in the world.
Maybe I don’t have a conclusion here, as my ideas will keep changing over time, and through interaction with others. I think content is assembled and experienced in many different ways, under the influence of people, power, and perspectives.