Smithsonian museums continue to be closed to support the effort to contain the spread of COVID-19. Read a message from our director, and check our website and social media for updates.

Media in museums

Usually when I visit museums, I look at objects and read labels while skimming past interactives and video screens. This summer, however, as I did research for a film that will be a part of an upcoming exhibition, I began to pay more attention to museum media. I have since gone through each exhibition at the museum to watch videos of Julia Child cooking in her kitchen, use touch screens to run an agriculture business, and listen to audio recordings of the lived experiences of Americans.

The author, a young woman with red hair, stands behind a podium in front of footage from a presidential inauguration. She appears to be speaking midsentence.

I had never before appreciated how much I could learn about objects through media. Objects are more than their physical appearance—they are records of history and contain stories of human experiences. Media presentations bring sound and visuals to visitors to help them actively learn more about objects.

The film that I am working on is part of the exhibition Many Voices, One Nation, opening in the summer of 2017. The exhibition tells the story of how many distinct people and cultures met and interacted in the United States to create one nation. The film will be an animated map showing the movement of people into and through a changing United States from 1776 to 1900. The map will contextualize the stories of individuals who immigrated to the United States, migrated within the United States, were incorporated to become a part of the United States, or were forced to migrate to/within the United States.

The team working on this video researched population statistics, found graphics of historical events, and grappled with data visualization—how we would tell a story with animation but no spoken or written narrative. We thought about how long visitors might linger to watch. We looked to media presentations in the museum and beyond.

Step behind the scenes for a moment as I share three of our goals for the film as well as three media pieces in the museum that helped me think about how to accomplish our goals:

1. Present complicated ideas simply
The film will show the movement of millions of people as the borders of North American change—movement that no object or text could fully convey. We had many conversations about what information was crucial to sharing the story without overloading the presentation.

I looked to an animation in the American Enterprise exhibition that shows the global trade of several products. Without going into too much detail on the process of shipping or processing, gliding lines across the globe are able to clearly communicate the converging and diverging connections between countries in global trade as snippets of information and images appear to explain the processes.

A photograph of a circular interactive display showing the journey soybeans take around the world
 

2. Show the bigger picture 
We intend for the Many Voices, One Nation film to demonstrate that immigration and migration have happened contemporaneously in different parts of the United States. We hope that visitors might be interested to learn that many events were happening at the same time that we often think of as unrelated.

I looked to other media pieces that create context. Near Dorothy's red ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz is a touch screen on which visitors can scroll through a timeline of American history. The timeline contextualizes The Wizard of Oz, released in 1939, within the era of the Great Depression and World War II, rendering the movie's themes of escape from the present and hope for the future all the more significant.

A photograph or illustration of a Mission from California in the 1770s. There is a fenced-in yeard that is full of growing things. The Mission building is in the back with a long colonnade and arches.

3. Spark conversations between visitors
These stories of immigration and migration might represent or relate to the experience of a visitor's family member or friend. We hope that the film will be a starting point to begin sharing stories of how we came to be the United States.

Commercials and television shows are another form of media that sparks conversation between families. Coca-Cola's ad campaign "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing" plays in American Enterprise. When I watched the recording with my mother, she told me about her experiences watching the commercial growing up and it began a conversation about our different perspectives on the song.

I had fun this summer as I learned from media across the museum. More importantly, I have come to appreciate the power of media pieces to tell stories and their important role in exhibitions to bring objects to life.

Anna Meyer is a curatorial intern in the Division of Home and Community Life. Despite being from Massachusetts, she cannot imitate JFK's Boston accent.