Category : Blog
Interpretative exhibit design and lessons about American identity and family culture
Our understanding of history changes over time, and the Civil War is a topic that is as alive as ever at the Confederate Reunion Grounds State Historic Site in Mexia, Texas. Established in 1889 as the Joseph E. Johnston Camp of the United Confederate Veterans at a time when the many veterans and their families were alive and well, the grounds are preserved today as State Historic Site managed by the Texas Historical Commission (THC). After the June 2015 tragedy in Charleston at the famous Bethel AME church when nine parishioners were murdered by a man motivated by racial hatred, the Commission responded to the nationwide debate about the public display of the battle flag of the Confederate States of America by removing the Confederate Flags on display at the Reunion Grounds. What was a straightforward storytelling of local history became part of a national dialogue about a historic flag.
While “rebalancing” the interpretation of this historic landscape it was important to understand the role that it played in the community. Although the American Civil War ended in 1865, Confederate Army veterans were not permitted to gather in large numbers until seceding states re-established local rule in the 1870s. Afterward, hundreds of reunion organizations sprang up across the South to share memories of the war. In Limestone County thousands of people gathered at the Reunion Grounds for annual camp meetings. Over several days, they enjoyed speeches, concerts, and dances while raising funds for families of fallen comrades.
Mexia, Texas, July 1st, 1905 General Orders No. 22
All members of Joe Johnston Camp, No. 94, U. C. V. are hereby commanded to answer to roll call at the Reunion Grounds on Tuesday, July 18th, 1905, at 10 o’clock a.m. provided with four days rations, armed and equipped to have a good time. Leave all cares behind and “turn yourselves loose” for four days.
Excerpted from the Groesbeck Journal, July 6, 1905
The THC originally asked Content•Design Collaborative to develop an interpretative program that showcases the Reunion Grounds’ rich history, but in addition to implementing a program in which the battle flag of the Confederate States can be displayed in a way acceptable to all visitors. Here is how we brought the story to life for residents and tourists.
Unfold the narrative in pieces. Put historic photographs front and center.
We designed and wrote eight graphic panels that guide visitors through place and time along walking trails and picnic areas. We used captivating images, skillfully preserved by THC researchers and archivists, to give visitors a palpable sense of humanity from long ago. This panel explains the history of Old Val Verde, a Civil War-era cannon that Reunion Grounds campers fired to start and end each day. The weapon symbolized a national movement known as Lost Cause, which sought to strengthen camaraderie among Southern veterans and restore the honor of fallen Confederate soldiers. This image might make the 21st-century viewer think of his regional pride, the US military, or perhaps any political cause championed by parade marchers.
Mix and match other visual elements
Few trail walkers will pore over a panel offering dry renditions of facts. Instead, our compositions capture the eye through inset orientation maps, subheads, and photo captions. Here, we explain how the Reunion Grounds experienced a second wave of popularity during the 1920s Oil Boom in nearby Mexia [muh-hay-a]. When oil entrepreneur AJ Humphrey damned the Navasota River to harness water for his oil fields, he transformed the Grounds into a popular swimming area complete with bathhouse, water slide, and footbridge. The Reunion Grounds serves as a historically valuable site which provides visitors with the context in which to understand the very complex issues of the past and the present.
Give a controversial symbol context
Initially, the Reunion Grounds provided a lesson on all the flags flown during the 5-year life of the Confederacy. Few visitors understand that the familiar image of the battle flag was not the official flag of the Confederacy, but only one of many individual army units flags flown by soldiers on both sides of the conflict. The familiar stars and bars pennant was created by the military of northern Virginia but for various reasons became emblematic of the Confederate aspect of the Civil War. Together with the staff of the Commission, we created a graphic display that enabled the staff at the Reunion Grounds to show a total of 14 flags, both Union and Confederate. Visitors now learn about flags such as Hardee Pattern Battle Flag that was inspired by the Irish Full Moon Rebellion of 1778 or how the 1863 United States 34-star flag contained the stars of the Confederate States because they were still considered part of the Union.
Now visitors to the Reunion grounds will not only learn about the famous dance pavilion, a water park on the Navasota River, and the Mexia oil boom, they will get a short lesson in Vexillology, or the study of flags.
Hingham Historical Society’s bucket list – a visitor experience that combines hands-on interactives with visible storage and a new exhibit
The Hingham Historical Society’s new Heritage Museum exhibit tells the story of “Bucket Town” where energetic and innovative craftsmen created tens of thousands of wooden buckets along with firkins, piggins, pantry boxes, churns, and other essential containers during the 18th and 19th centuries. On the eve of the Revolutionary War, the Committee of Supplies ordered 15,000 canteens to be smuggled to safe areas before the conflict began in Lexington and Concord. When director Suzanne Buchanan took the helm of the Hingham Historical Society in 2007, she composed her own “Bucket list” to fulfill the vision of the Society as it entered its second century.
Director Suzanne Buchanan conferring with designer Ed Malouf on the plans for the Hingham Heritage Museum
First on the list, make the 198-year-old Old Derby Academy a modern museum facility. Currently the headquarters of the Hingham Historical Society, it is an 18th-century building minimal electricity and heating, and no air conditioning or the climate control required to protect a collection. Second, an exhibit gallery so the Society can exhibit this collection. Third, a visible storage gallery to make accessible as much of the balance of the collection that is not on display. Fourth, an inaugural installation in the new gallery featuring highlights from their bucket and toy collection. Fifth, create a new and enlarged archives room for the many researchers who return to Hingham to trace their roots and sixth, a new “Out of the Ordinary” gift shop for souvenirs unique to Hingham’s history.
The Old Derby Academy under construction
With the 2.9 million dollar renovation of Old Derby Academy halfway to completion, this bucket list will be “kicked” by December after years in the making. The Ballroom Gallery will feature the Boxes, Buckets, and Toys; The Craftsmen of Hingham exhibit with over 50 artifacts on display from their collection as well as interactive experiences on bucket taxonomy and the legacy of Hingham’s craftsmen on today’s landscape. The star of the new visible storage gallery will be the magnificent Gay Desk emerging from storage for the first time. It will be surrounded by a striking collection of objects currently located in the less accessible and unheated or air-conditioned Old Ordinary. The Gift Shop will be larger and will include a media corner, and the archives room will be so large returning researchers might get lost.
Left, typical Hingham bucket, right William Seawall Tower’s “Fancy Bucket”
Hingham buckets are not your ordinary buckets, a miniature Hingham Firkin signed by Caleb Hersey is valued between $ 2,000 and $ 4,000. The word “bucket” does not do justice to the remarkable craftsmanship that went into these utilitarian objects to hold flour, nails, feathers, beans, water or any other item a colonial skilled worker or cook might require. The elegant proportion and strapped banding technique evoke the classic swallowtail projections of the well-known Shaker box. When the market for boxes shifted away from the handcrafted product to mill manufacture, the Hingham craftsmen created a whole new industry— wooden toys, especially miniature furniture. They drew upon their expertise to create miniature versions of the buckets and pails they once made for the general trade. Dollhouse scaled chests of drawers, ladder-backed chairs and bedroom sets delighted young people all across the country. As part of this “Objects for Lesure” display, there is a “Fancy Bucket” made by William Tower built from 47,568 individual pieces of dark and light colored wood.
This exhibit will not only feature the breath of the collection but will demonstrate how the bucket functioned in the colonial and early industrial economy. How much did a firkin of butter weigh compared to a firkin of feathers? How many buckets would you order to transport 100 pounds of nails? What is your weight in buckets of water? These questions and others will facilitate visible math skill development for the Hingham 3rd and 5th-graders.
Design presentation for “Boxes, Buckets, and Toys”
Our contribution to checking off this “bucket of lists” is modest compared to the years advocacy by Ms. Buchanan and the Historical Society Board. But our planning, design, writing, research, and construction oversight makes for a small bucket of a list all on its own. Visit Bucket Town, a.k.a. Hingham Massachusetts, later this year to experience the lore of the bucket yourself.
The third space is central to community vitality
Silver Lake Nature Center unites community members in a positive, shared experience through purposeful exhibit content and design. Most of us are busy beavers when it comes to activities of daily living. We rise and shine at home, trudge off to work, shuttle back, and repeat the cycle.
When we do stop to take a breath, it’s often not at home or work but a public gathering place like a park, restaurant, hair salon, or library. The urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg studied these so-called third spaces (or third places), and, in his books The Great Good Place and Celebrating the Third Place, argued they are central to community vitality: “The character of a third place is determined most of all by its regular clientele and is marked by a playful mood, which contrasts with people’s more serious involvement in other spheres. …They are the heart of a community’s social vitality, the grassroots of democracy, but sadly, they constitute a diminishing aspect of the American social landscape.”
We think about Oldenburg’s work a lot at Content Design Collaborative. How can we design community-driven nature centers and museums that promote feelings of warmth, possession, and belonging? How do we ground visitors in a sense of place?
Silver Lake Nature Center
A useful case study is the Silver Lake Nature Center in Bristol, Pennsylvania. Local residents have treasured Silver Lake’s 235 acres and 4.5 miles of trails since the property was converted from a farm to a nature center in 1987. The County of Bucks Parks and Recreation Department asked us to design a new visitor center for Silver Lake that inspires connections with nature for people of all ages. Our collaborative process—including workshops with community members and back-and-forth with the County—allowed us to develop a beautiful, more vibrant third space. Here are three ways we did it.
1. Bring the outdoors inside.
The original visitor center (seen in this walkthrough) was a dark, confined space with tired exhibits and unwelcoming partitions. Without expanding the footprint, we designed an open floor plan with walls of glass, clear sightlines, and free-flowing, accessible pathways through the exhibit areas. This “room with a view” now serves as a bright, beautiful reception area that encourages visitors to interact with staff and get ready to go outside. Visitors gather at a 12’x8’ site map to plan their hikes. This area serves as an attractive new meeting room that motivates residents to preserve the living treasure of Silver Lake for generations to come.
2. Appeal to all ages.
A welcoming third space is family-friendly and offers something for all generations. Silver Lake’s original visitor center featured a replica tree that young people could sit inside. The exhibit was popular but well past its shelf life. When brainstorming replacement ideas, we got down on the floor to see the world through the eyes of preschoolers. Our answer was nifty with bubble-shaped terrariums housing indigenous turtles. Small children can safely observe the animals up close and delight in the “just-for-me” scale. This exhibit shows respects for Silver Lake’s youngest learners and inspires their appreciation for nature.
3. Tap the brainpower of local residents.
One secret to developing unique content is to collaborate with the community who have a personal interest in the project’s success. They often can help us unearth photographs and stories you can’t find anywhere else. For this project, we turned to professional photographer and historian Clarence King, whose family once owned the Silver Lake farm. Only someone with a firsthand knowledge of the land and history could capture a gorgeous shot like the one above!
Today, visitors to Silver Lake Nature Center kick off their outdoor adventure with a positive, informative experience that bolsters community pride and togetherness. We hope they will want to come again and again. Contact us about your next project. We have lots of good ideas.
Exhibit photographs by Justin DeRosa
Design for the most important factor—access
The Florida Department of Parks and Recreation needed to transform their crown jewel visitor center, Paynes Prairie Preserve; we zeroed in on the most important factor in our design brief—visitor accessibility.
While could not change the incredible landscape with a 500-foot long winding path through the hammock that connects the parking lot to the visitor center. Design decisions can remedy the slanted theater floor and the four-foot high reception counter that receives visitors. Before immersive theater concepts or ecosystem dioramas, the building had to make welcoming and accessible to all!
Our program reduces the institutional wall between the staff and visitors and makes it easier for the enthusiastic staff to do their job preparing visitors to experience the hundreds of miles of trails available to hike. Instead of a front desk counter we designed a reception island. A ranger can easily step from behind the island to point out destinations on a visitors map. An under-utilized doorway area we turned into a retail area that did not exist.
The lecture-style auditorium with its tapered floor and single access are now a walk-through theater that shares the same floor level as everywhere else. These important changes, along with the proposed expansion, affected more than half the area of the visitor center.
Interpreting root causes for significant historical events
During the Plymouth 400 forum last month Michaël Roumen, director of Cultuurfonds Leiden, gave a sweeping overview of the places where the emigrants lived, worked and prayed. The streets, garden, and estate they lived in, and most importantly, Pieterskerk, remain unchanged since 1620 when the voyage took place. While here in Plymouth we can point to Leyden Street as being the location of the first “main street” in continuous use in the original 13 colonies, it does not in any way resemble the fabled street trod upon by the settlers in 1621.
In our exhibit Plymouth 1620-2020 visitors will see how the Leiden experience informed the Pilgrim’s decision to establish a new colony where all the inhabitants shared a zealousness for their faith. Their decision took place in Leiden, which allowed open discussion of religious debates, such as the one their pastor Robinson participated in around 1616.
A flythrough animation of this exhibit presented at the forum by Edward Malouf of Content•Design demonstrated the variety of experiences that keep the visitor engaged, beginning with the Wampanoag and ending with Plymouth the 21st-century city. The Leiden experience is yet another layer in the incredible saga that makes the story of Plymouth Colony one for all ages.
The English separatists left the peace and relative security of one of Europe’s most enlightened cities, Leiden, to forge a new settlement of their making in a foreign land inhabited by people very different from themselves. While life in Holland hardly resembled what they left behind in Scrooby in the East Midlands of England, the congregation of John Robinson was free of persecution. Several members had positions of distinction, William Brewster taught English at Leiden University while John Robinson enrolled there to pursue his doctorate. However, most of the emigrants toiled in the handicrafts. They lived together a small estate near the famous Pieterskerk, a cathedral built in the 15th century.
In his great history “Of Plymouth Plantation” William Bradford describes in detail their reasons for departing; the hard work required to maintain their standard of living (as modest it was); loss of the younger generation to becoming soldiers or seafarers in the Dutch service; or worse—
“…tending to dissoluteness and the danger of their souls, to the great grief of their parents and dishonor of God.”
He ends with a grand vision of setting up elsewhere
“…advancing the gospel of the kingdom of Christ in those remote parts of the world; yea, though they should be stepping-stones unto others for the performing of so great a work.”