Effective Storytelling

Although this may be an unpopular opinion, I wasn’t quite blown away at the International Spy Museum. I thought that the museum prepared beautiful, colorful, and lively exhibitions but I couldn’t help but feel like I missed a certain depth in the information. The part where I felt like the museum did the best job with effective storytelling was the James Bond exhibit, “Exquisitely Evil: Fifty Years of James Bond Villains.”

The exhibition had quite a bit of depth: long videos to help introduce the cast of characters, some great text panels, and tons of objects that were used in the actual films. I particularly enjoyed seeing the teeth that Jaws wore in several of the Bond films.

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Villain Jaws’ teeth from the Bond movies

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Dress worn by female villain, Elektra King

It was very disappointing to hear that this exhibit would not return to the new building. I understood, of course, since the museum actually didn’t own any of these objects. Perhaps that is where some of the issues lie for the Spy Museum. The museum was littered with great, short and interesting stories. However, as a visitor, I felt I missed out on the context and often yearned for collection objects to correspond to such stories.

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Story of Garbo at the Spy Museum

One such example was the story featured above in the photograph. I had never heard of a man that fabricated an entire spy network to fool the Germans. I thought that this was such an interesting and unique story, but beyond the photograph on the panel, the museum didn’t provide much else. The museum set up the scene for great stories, but didn’t actually follow through with them. It was also overwhelming to jump from story to story within the same gallery.

It was refreshing to hear from the staff that they are aware of this problem and are intending to deepen the visitor experience in the new museum building.

Interpretation of Slavery at Mt. Vernon

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“Lives Bound Together” exhibition at Mt. Vernon

I was really impressed today regarding Mt. Vernon’s interpretation of slavery. I have never been to this museum, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Some historic sites, especially those that glorify Founding Fathers, often shy away from difficult topics like slavery. I was pleasantly surprised to see the “Lives Bound Together” exhibition. Slavery wasn’t just delegated to a small area in an exhibition, but was the main focus of the entire (large) exhibition.

I enjoyed listening to the Curator as she described the thought process behind the exhibition and how certain objects were selected. I particularly felt it was interesting that many of the same objects in the room with the Washington’s dining table were re-purposed from previous permanent exhibitions, but were interpreted differently under the framework of slavery. I also appreciated the choice to┬áhumanize the enslaved people that lived at Mt. Vernon. The choice to display their names on the front door, on a banner throughout the exhibit, and with several silhouettes brought slavery out of an abstract concept.

But beyond Mt. Vernon’s interpretation of slavery in the form of exhibitions, I thought they were particularly successful in utilizing character interpreters. The man who represented Christopher Sheels seemed to have such an eloquent way of describing how he interacts with kids and adults to help them better understand how enslaved people lived on the estate. He said that in order to get his message across he needed to tell the truth, with humility, and with grace. It seemed like a great strategy to utilize, even with tough visitors that could be emotional or downright combative.

Overall, I was not expecting Mt. Vernon to have such a handle on the interpretation of slavery. I was pleased to hear that the narrative of slavery was woven into every tour, even those that didn’t specifically focus on the activities of enslaved people. Staff said that they have come a long way in terms of how they discuss slavery and still have room for improvement. From what I can see, Mt. Vernon seems to be on the right track.