Philadelphia: Atwater Kent Museum: The Real Thing and Why it Matters.

Philadelphia: Atwater Kent Museum: The Real Thing and Why it Matters.

If ever there was an exhibition by museum people for museum people, this is it. It’s an interesting question whether the reflexive turn in museums is a sign of strength or weakness. Are we doing exhibits that explain why we do exhibits because we think we know, or because we’re not sure. Are we telling visitors that museums are important because we are sure that they are, or because we are in a moment of uncertainty?

And do museums raise questions about voice and selection in this same moment because they are sure of the answers, or because we are not? It’s fashionable to say, “what do you think?” or “what would you have us collect?”. Are we doing this because we want our visitors’ opinions, or because we just want them to care about ours.

Are we at a moment where we’re secure enough to ask for help? Or are museums asking for input because we’re not sure of our standing to answer these questions?

The Atwater Kent Museum’s “Real Thing” is a beautifully-designed place to consider these issues. It redefines the “treasures” exhibition, displaying twenty-five interesting, important, provocative and challenging artifacts from Philadelphia’s history. Each of them is nicely displayed, flanked by a short label and some longer thoughts about the object from city notables, or from others with a point of view. The presentation is terrific: it’s clean, clear, some gorgeous colors, easily read.

And here’s what makes it a museum display for museum people, and especially for students of museums: behind many of the artifacts are quotations from a virtual syllabus of museum studies texts about why these artifacts are worth considering.

We’ve got David Lowenthal: “History in isolation is barren and lifeless; relics mean only what history and memory convey.” Page Putnam Miller: “Historic resources physically link us to our past, stimulating our imagination and assisting us in better understanding and appreciating the past.” James Traub: “It is, at bottom, a question of belief. Museums must start with the premise that visitors treasure the experience of seeing unique objects in a setting that deepens our understanding of them.” And a half-dozen more, all the good bits from the best museum-studies curriculum on the wall.

It worked for me, and I think museum students would get it. But I wonder if the juxtaposition of grand, often theoretical, words and sometimes unrelated objects makes the point to the general public. Gerda Lerner on selective memory (“Selective memory and the distorion of history have long been the powerful tool of oppressive regimes. It is worth noting that when subordinate groups have come to power they have tried to define and recover their history. This oft-repeated process testifies in its own way to the deeply felt need for a history of formerly oppressed peoples.”) makes sense next to objects relating to racial oppression, but some of the others seem less direct.

Still, the exhibit works. There are powerful objects next to thoughtful words. There’s space to move through the hall, to get some perspective. The design—and maybe it’s the large and elegantly-displayed text from those books—balances nicely the openness of the “let people other than curators talk” philosophy. The show doesn’t quite work as an introduction to Philadelphia history; it’s too episodic, with no narrative holding it together. That’s something that’s lost with the many-voices approach. But, for museum people, and for visitors who want to step back and consider what museums do, this show is a must-see.

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