The First Person Museum exhibit at the Painted Bride Art Center has on display the treasured “things” of everyday people who live in and around the Philadelphia area. The exhibit is set up so that each object, protected in a glass case, is displayed in a kind of natural setting. So, for instance, a woman’s cook-pot is displayed on a kitchen table, and a man’s t-shirt is displayed in an open dresser drawer. Each object is accompanied by a 50 word “object history” that gives the historical context for the object, and is either additionally accompanied by a similar length story from the object’s owner, or simply a short description of the object’s importance, supplemented by either video or audio media.The exhibit is housed in three separate spaces. The first two flow together, and are really just one large space divided into two levels. The first room is a long rectangular gallery space, and the second is the lofted area above it. The third space is a room off to the side of the entrance, that holds three of the objects from the exhibit, along with a wall of photos and one sentence captions from participants whose objects were not picked to be included in the exhibit. The theme that orients the display spaces of the museum is one of familiarity and home. The objects are placed as they might be found in one’s own home, and it resonates that the focus of this exhibit is on the individual and their one particular item.
While the intent of the design theme is no doubt to evoke feelings of familiarity to the viewer, “Oh, that looks like my favorite [insert important object here],” it somewhat misses the mark. The atmosphere of the display space is equally inviting and off-putting. While the objects are displayed in logical settings, affording the viewer a sense of familiarity and ease of navigation through the space, they are laid out in a way that is conscious that an audience is looking. The atmosphere of the exhibit is almost like a house that has been tidied up for company to come, and it has the effect of alienating sincere interaction from the viewer. The furniture and decorations are reminiscent of hotel room decor, something that reminds one of a home like space, but falls short with its aseptic design and sparseness. It is as if the viewer knows they are supposed to feel at home in the setting, but would never live in a house so devoid of color or personal attention.
Much of this problem of “atmosphere” most likely stemmed from the time constraint of putting together this exhibit, so that it could be opened in time to be included with the many other project that First Person Arts, the museum sponsor, was launching at the same time. Also, since this exhibit was merely a prototype for the concept of the First Person Museum, it can be assumed that a more permanent exhibit with the same theme might be less sparse, and appear more like a fully furnished setting. The funding for this exhibit came from grants from local community foundations, and so this too must have put a constraint on the budget available, especially just for a kind of “test-run” exhibit as this was.
Another detail that was neglected was the thoughtful and conscientious use of space. The fact that three objects had to be housed in a room that was physically removed from the other space greatly reduced the fluidity of the exhibit. What makes this so disappointing, is that the lofted area above the main gallery space was largely unused. It housed a sofa and a television (that streamed all of the videos, which were already playing at their respective object stations), and a small desk where visitors were invited to write their own stories about their important “stuff” and post them on a cork-board (an identical space was included at the entrance to the main gallery space). While the intention of the space was to provide a quiet place for visitors to re-watch the video media that was part of the display has merit, in light of the fact three of the objects had to be shunted off into a separate room, the exhibit would have greatly benefited from a repurposing of this space to house the other objects.
That being said, some things functioned really well in the display space. The captions for the objects were a really effective way to incorporate text into the display space. The bright colors, text layout, and placement of the object histories and stories all added to the viewing experience. The fact that the captions were often at eye level, and not necessarily tiny blurbs directly next to the object made them easier to read and think about than traditional exhibit labels. Also, the media, whether audio or visual, really helped to connect the person’s story with the object. It was refreshing and innovative to actually hear the person tell why their “thing” was so special. This exhibit really does convey it’s tagline “Objects Tell Stories.” In fact, the focus of the exhibit seems to be on the individual and the story, much less on the histories included for the objects. In this sense, the exhibit could be considered more of an art exhibit, that provides historical context for the pieces, rather than a history exhibit per se.
The concept for, and implementation of the First Person Museum is unique. It allows the audience an “inside look” at people’s things, and what makes them important. The interactive space, where people can sit down, listen to audio, share their own stories, is truly in keeping with the museum’s aim: to elevate the stories of everyday people. The idea that you can learn a lot about a person, and a culture through the things that people prize, is an important message, one that the museum does much to further in the public discourse. While the museum did create the sense that people’s objects and the stories they tell about them are important, certain facets of the exhibit could have been reworked to help achieve the goals of the museum better.