In an oftentimes heady profession such as exhibition design, it’s easy to over-think the idea of the coveted “take-home message.” We interpretive developers identify, write, and hone big idea statements, core themes and primary messages all the time, and hope that visitors will stop and read the graphic panels upon which these messages often blatantly reside. And we hope they will take these messages home as insight and education.
The Arabia Steamboat Museum is home to a true time capsule of frontier life in America in the 1800s. The Arabia was headed up the Missouri River in the fall of 1856 when she struck a tree snag and sank just north of Kansas City. Her cargo hold was full of 200 tons of supplies bound for general stores and pioneer settlements. As the years passed, the river changed course and left the Arabia buried beneath the mud of a Kansas cornfield. Finally, in 1988 a group of modern-day adventurers uncovered the lost Arabia and her magnificent cargo.
The presentation of Arabia's artifacts is, for the most part, not noteworthy. Simple, “storefront” displays of dishes, tools, bottled foodstuffs, clothing and personal items recall the familiar experience of window-shopping at a Crate and Barrel or an Old Navy (or, in this case: Really Old Brown).
What IS extraordinary and memorable, is the omnipresent take-home message that was best articulated by my tour guide. She said, “We wanted to show visitors how much stuff a 170-foot steamboat could carry. It’s that simple.” I immediately thought “...of course!,” for they nailed it in the design of the experience.
I also thought how tempted many designers would be to bring context murals, layered story panels, and object interrogation technologies to the interpretive palette. But here, less was truly more. With its one-of-a-kind story, close encounters with authentic evidence of history, and a mix of emotional, historic and technical interpretation (mostly delivered live), the Arabia Steamboat Museum offered everything I seek in a museum.
And its felt message shined though a lack of mud.