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All Aboard: Museum Objects in Transit

In his December 2017 letter, MSU Museum Director Mark Auslander reflects on the Museum’s evocation of a 1918 train station and a traveling train museum during World War One. How can museums put our objects “in transit” to new audiences, and recreate some of the exciting buzz of train stations themselves?

Image of the War and Speech exhibitOne of the most remarkable features of the Museum’s new exhibition, War and Speech: Propaganda, Patriotism, and Dissent in the Great War, is an evocation of the so-called War Relic trains that criss-crossed the nation, in support of Liberty Loan drives a century ago. These mobile museums were filled with military material brought back from the battle front in Europe; we see a captured German soldier’s helmet and a “potato-masher” hand grenade, along with the field kits of “Doughboys”, as American infantrymen were known. Our visitors can sit on an actual bench from the East Lansing train station; here, townspeople would have sat to hear patriotic speeches delivered from a War Relic train, urging them to buy Liberty Bonds and support the war effort. In the background plays moving footage of the casket of the first “unknown soldier”, carried in France from a train onto a warship that would bear these sacred remains back to the United States, for interment in Arlington National Cemetery. 

The Mobile Museum

Pondering our recreation of the War Relic train, I find myself thinking about how museums always need to reach out to our audiences in new and inventive ways, putting our carefully protected objects in motion. Sometimes, we need to take the museum “on the road’” (or “on the rail”), bringing our scientific and cultural materials out of the museum building to families who might not have the time or ability to visit the museum itself. (Indeed, Museum staff have recently been dreaming up a mobile museum bus that would carry touchable objects in our teaching collection to urban and rural communities all over the state, giving young people a chance to undertake hands-on discovery and do some imaginative digital story-telling about what they’ve learned.)

Sometimes, we need to let our museum objects “travel” in a different way. We’ve been increasingly aware that many of our blind or low-vision visitors, even if they take the time to come into the museum, are excluded from fully experiencing most of our natural science specimens or cultural artifacts, which are behind glass, nested inside dioramas, and often marked with “Please Do Not Touch” signs.

Making Hands-on Objects

Last week, we took a step towards fixing things. We’ve started a partnership with the wonderful local non-profit, 2020 Girls, dedicated to empowering young women in Image of Girls in the 2020 Girls Program at ITECthe 4th-8th grade, mainly from historically disinvested communities, through science and technology training. Michael Hudson, the Director of the University’s Resource Center for People with Disabilities, came over to talk to the young women in the Museum, about the many challenges the blind and others with disabilities experience every day inside museums. Michael, who is himself blind, spoke frankly about how disappointed he is each time he visits most museums, when he can’t fully experience the objects seen by his sighted friends.

The 2020 Girls spent last week working on a solution. They’ve been drawing natural history specimens displayed within the seven large dioramas in Habitat Hall, depicting the major biomes of North America. Through TinkerCad (a version of the AutoCad software used by professional architects and designers) they are turning their sketches into three dimensional digital images, which they plan to print out through 3-D printers. They will place these three-dimensional replicas inside special small boxes, with flexible cloth doors, so that visitors can reach inside to feel the objects and describe them in detail. In addition to deepening the experience of our blind visitors, we’re hoping these touch boxes will enhance the visits of our sighted visitors, encouraging them to learn through the sense of touch.  We’ve been realizing that many of our younger visitors on the autism spectrum learn best when there’s a tactile dimension to their encounters with scientific and cultural objects, and we’re hoping the 3D printing project is useful for them as well.

Learning from History: What Does Patriotism Mean Now?

We’ve also been thinking of other ways that some of our objects, normally housed in our collections, could “travel” within the museum to our visitors to deepen their encounters with history and science. The final wall of the War and Speech exhibition invites our visitors to reflect on where our nation stands on freedom of expression, a century after the passage of the controversial Sedition Act of 1918, which prohibited public criticism of the war effort.  (A recreated prison cell reminds everyone of the costs of dissent paid by many Americans during the war.)  On the wall, we see photographs that bring home our intense current debates over free speech: a scene from the Woman’s March, a Tea Party protest, a white supremacist rally, #BlackLivesMatter protesters, and NFL players taking a knee during the National Anthem.

In a democratic society, the job of a museum is never to tell our visitors what to think about the difficult issues of the day. Rather we give everyone tools to think carefully about tough issues, and create spaces that encourage civil and honest discussion, often among people who would never otherwise talk to one another (and who might never watch the same cable news channels). Our hope is that this Freedom of Speech wall will become a regular talking circle, where people of all ages and all walks of life will talk to another with honesty and mutual respect about these emotionally-powerful pictures. What are the limits of free expression and of dissent, if any? What does patriotism mean now? Whose stories aren’t being heard in the public square, and how can we change that?

Unexpected Conversations

Sometimes, objects help. We anticipate that for some of these “Difficult Dialogue” talking circles, staff and volunteers will bring out some of the remarkable protest materials the museum has been gathering for many years: we’ll look together at old signs from the women's suffrage movement’s struggle to secure the right to vote for women, and some of the modern “pussyhats” knitted for the Women’s March.  I can’t wait to hear how our visitors of different ages will respond to these evocative objects and how they’ll talk about the hard-hitting images on the wall.  The conversations won’t be easy, we realize, but at a time when our nation is so polarized over so many seemingly intractable issues, we need to learn, all over again, how to listen to one another.

I love the thought that these talking circles will be taking place in front of the venerable old bench from the East Lansing station. Train stations have always struck me as miraculous places. People of all sorts, coming and going, delayed or rushing, pulled, for a few moments, out of their ordinary routines and their conventional assumptions about the world.  As travelers, we exist briefly, in ‘in between" spaces and times.  Sometimes, we have the most meaningful conversations of our lives with complete strangers, in train stations, airport terminals, of other points of departure. The most important journeys, we know, don’t just take us across physical distance, but bridge the barriers and divisions of our everyday lives, exposing us to the personal stories of other people, whose viewpoints we’ve never quite imagined.

At its best, a Museum like ours is a lively train station, filled with the energy, dreams, and hopes of all sorts of people, meeting unexpectedly as we embark on journeys to explore the mysteries of the universe and our place within in.  In the months ahead, we’ll be gathering together to touch the 3D printed replicas made by the 2020 Girls, and sitting down to talk through just where our democracy is heading. We expect some bumps in the road, but look forward to the trip with all of you. Please join us. All Aboard!