Critiquing “A More Perfect Union”

I’m not new to Smithsonian’s online exhibit and I did a brief review of their exhibit Cover Art a few weeks ago. This week I checked out a older online exhibit from Smithsonian Institute titled A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans & U.S. Constitution.

I chose this exhibit because since the beginning of my college career I have been interested in immigration to the United States. I’ve typically been interested in Latino immigration to the US in the 20th century (particularly Mexican) and Chinese immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries. I was interested in how A More Perfect Union to see how it dealt with the less than positive or comfortable experiences of Japanese immigrants. The exhibit originally toured from 1995 – 1998 but made a return because the institute felt that after the September 11th attacks that the story still had resonance, and that is absolutely true.

A More Perfect Union

The online exhibit roughly covers the period from 1900 to 1980 and covers the experiences farming, forming communities, businesses, racism/xenophobia, removal to internment camps, and the aftermath. The exhibit is focused on how informal prejudice became institutionalized racism. It is a touchy subject that hasn’t always been something that Japanese Americans themselves have wanted to discuss. The overall exhibit provides a well rounded breadth of featured artifacts which users can click on and see larger with description. The overall exhibit has a soundtrack that I eventually turned off because I found it a little irritating but I can understand how it could be used to create atmosphere (important considering this is an online exhibit). I enjoyed the audio clips that you could listen to for introductory text and the oral history accounts which literally allow for people to speak for themselves.

There is a need for a few adjustments and a more updated appearance. My first issue was the visual size of the exhibit, the presentation does into take up the whole web page space which makes the images and text a bit small. I do enjoy the ability for the user to decide on their own pace and could choose what subject to explore. Otherwise, A More Perfect Union has a predetermined path for visitors. I enjoyed enlarging photos of artifacts but I would suggest that the accompanying text provide more context on how some artifacts are connected to the subject. For instance, there are advertisements from fruit companies and a person would have to assume these were companies that many Japanese immigrants worked for. A bit more context and visual updating could help with this exhibit that I think discusses a facet of immigration to the US that doesn’t get as much coverage some other immigration experiences (for example: Italian, Irish, etc.). I would love to see the exhibit refashioned while still featuring many of the intriguing artifacts and stories. It would also be nice to be able to hear more oral testimonies. My final praise for the exhibit is the provided space for visitors to provide reflections and personal stories; this is one of the most valuable contributions of the site.

This site is most appropriate for any visitor age 12+ and it would also be great for use in educational settings.

Restoring Earth: Exhibit Review

Before I started my internship I had the opportunity to see the Restoring Earth exhibit in the Abbott Hall of Conservation at the Field Museum. The exhibit is directly connected to the department known as The Action Center (formerly Environment, Culture, and Conservation [ECCo]) which I am an intern for. Although I am an intern at the museum now I can safely say that my review is not influenced by this.That’s my little disclaimer.

 I do not own photgraph.

Visitors explore exhibit.

Restoring Earth is now a permanent exhibit at the Field which opened in November 2011.  Restoring Earth exhibit is situated on the upper level of the Field Museum in its Abbott Hall of Conservation.  The exhibit chronicles the museum’s staff efforts to conserve the environment abroad  and locally.  Immediately, upon entering the hall the exhibit takes a decidedly  more modern approach to its exhibit design (admittedly the Field Museum suffers from stagnation in its older permanent exhibits).  The design uses  bold color, artistic nature photography, sleek construction, and use of some natural sustainable materials.  Restoring Earth uses four main sections. Each section is clearly labeled with a straightforward and intriguing title with metal lettering on bright walls.  The exhibit thoroughly uses mixed media employing video, objects, photographs, text, and interactive content.

The first section serves as an introduction into the process and organization of involved in putting researchers into the field. Cases display biologists’ scribbled notebooks, hooks used to coral snakes, and other tools used by researchers. On the opposite side is a small theater area; a series of three clips are projected on to three walls. The length of each clip (4, 8, and 5 1/2 minutes) was conveniently listed in the seating area for guests.  Carved logs are the seating in the theater area. The videos, along with surrounding text, explain that three teams were used to research the Andes-Amazon region: “advance team” which prepared trails and camp sites, “biological team” went into the field for three weeks to take inventory of plant and animal life, and “social team” which worked with the surrounding community to access their use of the land.

Before the visitor reaches the second section they are invited to use a touch screen interactive installation that allows further explore the experiences of the three teams. I used this easy to use interactive and some high school students did as well but were quick to move on (students were prompted to move on by other students who were not engaged).  “Saving the Rainforest — by using it” is the title of the second section which highlights how two indigenous cultures use their natural resources in an environmentally responsible manner. The Maijuna are featured, in text and photos, for their changes in harvesting the Aguaje tree.  Another panel reads: “The Shipibo crafting a living from the rainforest” and corresponds with objects and photos demonstrating the various crafts and art produced from renewable forest resources, products that are sold for profit. The products are sold instead of lumber thus leading to better use of natural resources while helping the local ecosystem. The third section “Reefs and Islands — more to discover, more to protect” is located in a semi-enclosed area which focuses mostly on a vast collection of mollusks, traditionally displayed. An interactive part allows guests to explore a sediment sample from the Florida Keys with a microscope while looking for specified mollusks.

As the visitor proceeds through the open yet clearly defined area a bright green wall states: “Museum collections create a library of life”. The quote contributed to the attitude the exhibit was trying to create: museum collections are about more than just curiosities or objects. The last section, “Conservation is collaboration”, focused particularly on conservation, food production and climate change in Chicago. This section featured multiple interactive video displays that featured five short (less than three minutes) and entertaining videos each, a theme for each one. For example one video discussed urban gardening (including keeping chickens) or another discussed how eating meat effects the environment. Some videos were of real people and environments while others were animated. Guests could touch the screen and choose what they would like to learn more about.  A smaller subsection focused on fire as a part of conservation and replenishing natural environments. This section was prominently funded by Bank of America, but it was unclear if the whole exhibit was funded by them.

Overall, Restoring Earth is a fresh exhibit especially for the Field Museum. It takes on a different feel from the majority of the museum.  the content of the exhibit is accessible to visitors ranging from middle school students to adults and Restoring Earth allows for free movement and various opportunities to choose information. The information is particularly enlightening to people who are not particularly knowledgeable about environmentalism or conservation efforts abroad and in urban landscapes such as Chicago. Those who have more education in the field may find information too simple for them but nevertheless it could be useful to them to see the process the museum’s Action Center uses in conservation.

As a visitor I had a deep sense that this exhibit was about demonstrating the usefulness of teamwork on the part of researchers and community members. Much of the introductory part of the exhibit is about the what researchers actually do. Restoring Earth also is about results; research and fieldwork is directly connected to real world actions and conservation. For example, one panel about South America reads: “21.9 million acres protected in 11 years”. Restoring Earth is useful in educating the public about what conservation is and what it does while give its audience a message that is not heavy-handed but instead intriguing and maybe even inspiring.

Read what the Field Museum has to say about its own exhibit, Restoring Earth.