In December I flew across the Atlantic to enjoy Christmas in the unseasonably warm St Louis, Memphis and Nashville, USA. As well as spending time with my family, this trip was a great opportunity to explore the Midwest and the South’s brilliant and varied museums.
We experienced everything from the National Civil Rights Museum, the home of Elvis, and the “birthplace of Rock and Roll”, to a more traditional local heritage museum in Missouri. These institutions may be different in many ways to where we work. Yet they have interesting stories to tell, with insightful approaches to interpretation, exhibitions or display.
Here are a couple of quick highlights from my trip!
January 8th was the birthday of Elvis Presley, “the King of Rock and Roll”, so now is as good a time as any to talk about his family home, Graceland!
A wonderful and at times, wacky mansion in Memphis, Tennesee, Elvis bought this home for his family in 1957 when he was just 22 years old. After Elvis’ death, it was turned into a museum and shrine to Elvis’ life and legacy. Everything in the house is kept exactly as it would have looked during Elvis’ lifetime with its opulent décor, furniture and personal items preserved for future generations.
Shrine is definitely the right word – Elvis fans all over the world go on a cultural pilgrimage just to visit the home of the King!
What’s interesting about celebrity museums is how they take a single person, usually representative of a cultural or political “watershed” moment, and use them as a starting point to discuss much broader cultural and historical issues. In the case of Elvis, the evolution of music, teenage culture and consumerism played a very prominent role in the narrative told by Graceland.
I was particularly impressed by its use of digital interpretation. Graceland offers an interactive iPad tour which lets all visitors click on objects, rooms and areas on the screens to learn more. It also has videos, sound-clips, and a narrative commentary!
As the British Museum has been redeveloping its own digital interpretation, it was really great to see these new technologies in practice, through the eyes of a visitor. You can take a look at the iPad tour here. Let me know what you think!
This local museum focuses on the history of Missouri, USA, and has its own unique challenges. Visited mainly by local families, it is always looking for ways to make its displays appealing and fun for children.
While the main exhibits are divided into colourful and visually attractive sections – with displays made to look like houses, forests and city streets, it can be confusing! With lots of objects on display and labels of different sizes, shapes and locations, it was often difficult to know exactly what you were looking at.
However their temporary exhibition about St Louis in 1875 was great fun for adults and children alike. A giant, blown-up 19th Century illustrated map of St Louis was the focus of an exhibition combining fun interactive panels, brightly painted walls with quotes, questions for visitors and fun facts. Children could engage in a very direct, hands-on way with what could be seen as a very “boring” object, with adults being able to “zoom in” on various map sections and learn in depth information about their own history and neighbourhood.
I even found where my brother lives!
During ITP 2015, we discussed how to make exhibitions welcoming and fun for children without having a “separate” children’s exhibition or space. This was a great example of how to integrate the needs and expectations of whole families.
These were just a couple of the varied and fascinating museums I was lucky enough to see over Christmas. There are a couple more places I’d love to share with you some time, including the moving and powerful National Civil Rights Museum. But that’s for another blog!
Happy New Year,