Posted on January 20th, 2016 by Rachel
For many museum professionals, the exhibit comment book is a mixed blessing. We set them out optimistically, hoping for substantive, reflective remarks from our visitors … but all too often, those remarks are voiced or thought, but not written down. In the case of a particularly empty book we’ll welcome “nice exhibit”, “I liked it”, or even a disheartening “your layout was terrible” (well, at least they were paying attention!), but that’s hardly what we’re looking for.
Sometimes we get lucky. The “Voices of Lombard Street” book often receives written responses, and the movie posters in last summer’s “Cinema Judaica” prompted some great comments from kids and adults. But that success pales in comparison to my new favorite thing, the comment wall from our just-closed “Paul Simon: Words and Music” exhibit.
Top: the comment wall in late October, 2015. Bottom: the same wall on January 15th, 2016. So many comments!
I can claim a little credit – since some of the albums used to construct the ‘wall’ belong to my parents [read more on that here] – but I have to give props to Rachel, who suggested the idea of letting visitors put their notes right onto framed albums. A genius plan: easy to install, and sticky-note comment walls or boards are a little more interactive and entertaining than the traditional book. I had moderate hopes, expecting a moderate number of comments.
Happily, through some magical combination of factors, the wall o’ albums was a roaring success. Over the course of three months, we had over 300 sticky notes left for us; far from having an empty wall, we had to periodically remove comments just to make room. (One visitor even complained that they couldn’t see the album covers anymore.) And these weren’t just “great exhibit!” comments, though of course those are gratifying to receive. These were deeply personal reactions to the exhibit experience – so personal that many of them were addressed directly to Paul Simon himself. Here are a few:
“You explain your creative process very well – most artists can’t. That makes you even greater. Thanks!”
“I like the song ‘Mrs. Robinson’ you are amazingly good at writing songs.” (from a 13 year old visitor)
“Sometimes you were the key to my soul’s survival”
“Okay Paul – why say you were from Kew Gardens when you grew up in Kew Gardens Hills??”
“This exhibition makes me miss all those that I used to enjoy the music with. Thanks for the beautiful sounds Paul”
Favorite songs and albums were called out, along with the memories they evoke of important times, places and people in our visitors’ lives. Some comments were humorous; others were poignant. One required multiple pieces of paper, and another started a debate with later commenters drawing arrows to indicate their responses. Based on the evidence, I must conclude that the “Graceland” tour did in fact offer the Best Concert Ever, and that Simon’s music (and this exhibit) are an excellent way to bond with one’s parents… while the parents are busy remembering their own youth. Some examples:
“My first album [was ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’], along with ‘Free to Be You and Me.’ Thanks, Mom and Dad!”
“I sang songs from this album [‘Parsley Sage Rosemary and Thyme’] in my junior high variety show”
“I close my eyes (because that’s the way I always listened to Paul or Paul & Art) and I’m still in my twenties. Sigh…”
“I walked through snowstorm to get 45 [of ‘Sounds of Silence’]”
“I’m 23 – not alive in the 60s/70s. But S&G were one of the first musicians I listened to. So glad I could see this! and with my dad, who played this music when I was a child.”
“This song [‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’] got me through lots of tough times as a teenager. It was like a life line to me!”
“Paul Simon – major reason I wanted to learn acoustic guitar. (Why did I think ‘Bookends’ wouldn’t be hard?)”
“Ok – greatest concert – Graceland @ Merriweather Post – dancing in the aisles”
I had a lot of favorite notes, but this one left on the last day spoke to me in particular, since it mentions the artifacts. Perhaps the writer is a new recruit to the museum field?
“This was really interesting…in a good way! I liked learning about Paul Simon and seeing his keepsakes was great!”
Altogether, the stories and notes left by the stream of visitors proved to be a vital and engaging part of the exhibition. I often went into the gallery to find people studying the comment wall as thoroughly as they did any other text or artifact.
Visitors in action!
I’ll try to keep my expectations realistic for our next exhibits, but we’re a little bit spoiled now thanks to these great insights into our audience’s experience. Help us out by making sure (whatever museum you’re in) to leave a response. After all, you might not appreciate it if museum staff resort to creeping up behind you with pencils poised, ready to jot down overheard thoughts and questions. So keep on writing those comments!
Sometimes simple says it best.
A blog post by Collections Manager Joanna Church. To read more posts by Joanna click HERE.
Posted on January 10th, 2011 by Rachel
“Wonderful, wonderful. Everyone in Baltimore should see this exhibit.”
—Voices of Lombard Street visitor, 2010
Our exhibition Voices of Lombard Street had its third anniversary this past fall, though we didn’t do anything to celebrate it. We tend to take it for granted: it seems to be holding up well, it provides a good “core experience” for our visitors (museum-speak for… actually I’m not sure what that term is supposed to mean), and it enables us to focus our funds and our energies on other projects while keeping one gallery occupied.
Last week we replaced the exhibition’s filled-up visitor comment book with a new one, and I took the old one back to my office and looked through it. Reading the comments of visitors who, three years out, are confronting Voices for the first time, I was happy to see that people still are finding it a valuable—and even powerful and moving—experience.
Voices explores a century of life in the East Baltimore neighborhood surrounding the museum. It evokes immigrant Jewish life in the early to mid 20th century, then moves on to describe the process of urban change that occurred later in the century, and ends with a discussion of the neighborhood today. We wanted it to be thought-provoking as well as nostalgic—entertaining as well as substantive. And relevant to a wide variety of audiences. The comments suggest that we hit the mark—so I thought I’d take this opportunity to share them.
We wanted Voices to be relevant to people of different generations, cultures, and places of origin:
“This was the world of my grandparents and great grandparents—and was totally unknown to me until today. Thanks for keeping history alive for my generation.”—from Boise, Idaho
“I loved every picture, every minute. Maybe because I remember so much.”
“I attended the museum for credit for my Socl 141 class. Midway through, tears began to well in my eyes as I read the stories of immigrant Jews and the stories of other ethnic [groups]. I was not aware of the rich history of the Jewish, Italian, Irish, and African American community in Baltimore city.”— a non-Jewish Catonsville resident
“Brought tears to my eyes as this was the generation of my grandparents.”
“I have come here from Israel for this and it is worth it!”
“My son, age 4, was thoroughly engaged and asked me to read him many placards. Thanks for the kitchen utensils, sewing machine, etc. Beautifully done.”
“Oh do I remember. This brings back memories of my childhood coming to Lombard Street with my mother to get fresh chickens for the holiday.”
“I’ve lived here 80 years and learned new things today.”
“Excellent introduction for visitors to Baltimore.”—from a Knoxville, Tennessee resident
The original entrance to Weiss delicatessen, 1127 E. Lombard Street, prior to the fire that gutted it in 1985. Photograph by Elinor B. Cahn. 1985.031.005
We wanted to tell a compelling story that engages people intellectually and emotionally—that they can feel, hear, and sense:
“This exhibit comes to life as you stroll through. I felt as though I met the residents on Lombard Street. Great job!”
“The sounds were the best—really made the pictures come alive.”
“It captured wonderfully the atmosphere of a bye-gone age.”—from Lancashire, UK
“Many things you can relate to and identify with through personal experience, e.g. sugar sack night gowns.”
“We loved being able to interact with the exhibit.”
“Grabs your attention. A great experience.”
“Outstanding—nostalgia overwhelms me and I am left with a fuzzy warm heart.”
“Wonderful. For a moment I was again with my father.”
“I am amazed by the way you told such a compelling and relevant story almost entirely through the reminiscences of neighborhood residents. I loved it.”
Hand-tinted lantern slide of a man reading the paper in front of a store on East Lombard Street. Courtesy of the Ross J. Kelbaugh Collection. 1988.226.004a
We wanted to place the Jewish experience within the complex history of Baltimore as an ever-changing American city:
“It was really eye opening and put a real history to this district.”
“Wonderful! I never knew so much about Baltimore and I’ve lived here all my life.”
“A fabulous job telling the complex historical tale from all perspectives. We loved it!”
“I think you told it like it was…”
“So much to learn—wow! The parts about Martin Luther King were especially interesting.”
“I was particularly interested by the sections dealing with other communities in Lombard Street . . . a really well-rounded portrait of an area.”
“I’m surprised that the details of working class life were NOT suppressed. Good job.”
“The exhibit had wonderful 21st century insights.”
Two boys looking in the window of a butcher shop on East Lombard Street, 1963. Photograph by John McGrain.1995.187.016
We wanted kids to enjoy Voices. Here’s what some of them had to say:
“I especially liked the outhouse and bowl of chicken soup.”
“Scary and interesting.”
“Chickens were awesome! But I wanted to see fish!”
“The noises rocked. Loved the signs and quotes.”
“Very interesting… but the soup needs salt.”
“I thought it was amazing to see what we’ve actually been learning about in school.”
A girls ballet class, 1937. 1992.231.079
“This is the best museum I have been to in Baltimore! I thought the exhibition was excellent, mixing factual panels with quotes from local people and handling objects and activities for children—what a museum should be. . . . Thank you for putting together such a well-conceived and engaging exhibition!”—from a resident of Vienna
“Another hidden treasure of Baltimore.”
“This is an American Jewish treasure!”—from a resident of Los Angeles
“Fantastic exhibit. Even as a New York Jew I identified and could picture my ancestors going through similar trials, tribulations, and joys.”
“Wondrous! So much more than we expected.”
OK, you get the picture. The upshot is, if you haven’t seen Voices of Lombard Street, please come! I think you’ll like it.