The First Person Museum’s exhibit, Objects Tell Stories displays objects as connections to personal experience. The force behind this exhibit, First Person Arts, endeavors to, “transform the drama of real life into memoir and documentary art to foster appreciation for our unique and shared experiences.” The specific goals of the museum, as identified by one of its historians, are that visitors will 1. recognize that we endow objects with value, 2. recognize that the person and his or her story is the focus; 3. be able to articulate an emotional response, 4. understand that the meaning of the object is influenced by time, place, etc., 5. will think of their own stuff differently. This unique exhibit accomplished its goal of invoking emotion and personally reflective thought in the visitor but lacked the focus necessary for a meaningful experience with regard to history and material culture.
Three distinct spaces created the exhibit. In the first floor of the Painted Bride Art Center, a bright, narrow room held most of the objects on display. The exhibit designer, Aaron Goldblatt, chose to surround the objects with familiar, comfortable home furnishings to simulate their natural environment. For example, “Carla’s Ring” was displayed on an end table, next to a small, black velvet jewelry box. Plexiglas cases encapsulated the objects, distinguishing them from the ordinary items in the room. Near the object, but not always directly next to it, plaques informed the visitor of the name of the object, its owner, quotes from the owner, and the general history of the type of object on display. Most objects also boasted headsets through which visitors could listen to the story behind the object in the owner’s own words. These audio recordings repeated from beginning to end without allowing the visitor control of the moment at which they entered the storytelling. In the back of this room, a small television broadcasted an interview with one of the owner of the fishing license along with images of him fishing.
This first space appeared to be the primary focus of the exhibit. The entrance to the museum opened up into this space. It possessed the most visually stimulating furniture and design and, on the exhibit’s opening night, unceasingly filled with visitors. However, the narrowness of the room led to difficulty in moving among the furniture and the objects. Also, while the objects and plaques were easily accessible, the multitude of headphones often fell by the wayside in the visitor’s efforts to continue to move through the exhibit. In this way, the goal of the First Person Museum to emphasize the importance of memoir and express the primacy of the storyteller failed to meet its full potential, as many of the fascinating individual stories were exclusively confined to the audio segments. This also affects the goal of understanding how people endow objects with value. Aside from the objects’ presence in a museum and the historical backgrounds (which are necessarily brief and generic), the object’s value derives mostly from its owner. For the visitor to fully make that connection, he or she would need easier and more appealing access to the stories.
The final feature of the first space served to encourage visitors to think about objects of value in their own lives and recall the stories behind them. Visitors were invited to sit at a desk and provided with pens and blank cards to record their own meaningful stories about objects and post them on a corkboard for others to read. The number of stories posted, even by the end of the exhibit opening, suggested that this invitation to reflect appealed to visitors and allowed for active engagement with the exhibit. In addition to the blank cards, the writing desk also served to hold pamphlets about the First Person Arts and small booklets that told detailed stories about some objects not featured in the exhibit. These stories provided visitors with more examples as to how to write their own personal story. Furthermore, they allowed for more extensive engagement with a person and his or her personal experience than the shorter anecdotes provided with the objects physically on display.
The second space consisted of a large, open room adjacent to the main room and connected by an open doorway. Unlike the main space, this area contained only a few items. Instead of a cozy, home-like combination of furniture and personal objects throughout the room, a few objects, seemingly of secondary importance, stood against the outer walls. In terms of presentation, they resembled the objects in the main room, with plaques, pictures, and Plexiglas. Yet, their separation from the majority of the collection indicated some kind of inexplicable difference in their purpose or meaning. This space, felt empty and less significant than the busier first space. This complicates how a visitor might question the value of these objects in relation to those displayed in the main room.
On the farthest wall from the entrance to the second room, a colorful collage presented pictures of dozens of people along with captions that briefly related objects of importance to each person. The collage included a wide diversity of people, incorporating Philadelphians of all ages and races. The short captions evoked emotional responses in readers as they related to one or more people and empathized with their stories. The emotional reaction of visitors to this display suggests the value of the written text in relating the personal stories. Unlike the audio, the collage was visible and accessible to many people at the same time and allowed visitors to work through the material at their own pace.
The third and final space existed in the upper level of the Painted Bride Art Center, directly above the main exhibit room. From this loft, visitors could observe people as they walked around the exhibit. Also on this landing, a large couch sat in front of a television that broadcast the same fishing story as the television in the first, exhibit space. This upper level served primarily as a social area for guests, not as a space for exhibiting objects. However, the addition of another writing desk or collage could have added to the décor and better tied the area to the rest of the exhibit.
Walking through the exhibit successfully evoked feelings of curiosity, nostalgia and sentimentality. The quotations and pictures best facilitated these emotions by connecting the visitor to the object’s owner and his or her personal story. However, the disconnect between the objects and the occasional difficulty in matching the story with the owner led to a disjointed feeling in the museum experience. The visitor leaves with a collection of anecdotes that fail to deliver a cohesive message regarding material culture. The histories behind the objects, while intriguing, are overshadowed by the personal stories.The true success of Objects tell Stories is its ability to encourage visitors to think critically about their own objects and what endows them with meaning. This artistic exhibit will certainly provide a model for other museums seeking to create an emotional connection between the objects and their viewers.