November 4th was the opening for the “First Person Museum” exhibit at the Painted Bride. The exhibit is a pilot for a larger “museum of the people” that the First Person Arts organization hopes to develop. The space, exhibition style and methodology in outreach are clearly being hashed out as the unique project has unfolded in the last few months. The mission of the exhibit is to take people’s personal objects and share them “along with the stories behind them, both online and at a live multi-media exhibition”. Objects and stories were collected through outreach to community organizations and First Person sponsored “StoryCircles”.
First Person Arts seemed to reach out to a broad audience through advertisements on SEPTA buses and trains, pieces in alternative weeklies and community outreach. Judging by the crowd during the opening night of the exhibit, First Person seemed to have been successful in promoting the event. The mixture of people from or associated with the project team, community partners, students or those who submitted objects created a diverse, lively opening night crowd. From what I could gather, there was a significant amount of walk-in traffic from the First Friday arts gallery crawl attending as well, a byproduct of .the reputation and location of the Painted Bride.
The physical exhibit is comprised of a total of sixteen objects spilt between two rooms on the ground floor, with a loft-like second floor serving as an extension of the exhibition space. Thirteen objects and their associated info are in the gallery space of the Painted Bride, with the other three located in a public gathering area that doubles as a gallery. Each object is presented with three or four elements that contextualize them to the “museum” visitor; a personal quote, audio-visual component, object history and photo of the person who contributed the object. Each headshot of the person who contributed the objects is mounted alongside a quote gleaned from stories developed during First Person StoryCircle workshops.
The personal stories, object histories and audio-visual components add up to create a denser and multifaceted experience of the object that none provide on their own. Each respective element is succinct and concise in the information provided. On their own, they don’t create a rich level of interpretation, but encourage the visitor to experience the various elements without overwhelming them. Visitors can commit to different levels of experiencing the object. The headshots that accompany the quotes are successful at visually profiling the racial and generational diversity of those who submitted objects an aim of the First Person organization.
Three documentary videos and five audio pieces accompany the objects integrating of the actual voices of the persons into the exhibit. Getting a “first person” account of the stories seemed the most engaging element of the four for many. In many off the cuff reviews offered by opening night attendees, they emphasized that they were touched by the stories they heard through the videos or audio vignettes.
The upstairs “Media Living Room” is comprised of a couch, desk and television rather than objects themselves. The living room presents another opportunity to experience the videos and audio tours with a desk and worksheets to submit your own story. The “media living room” works as a reflective space to experience the videos and audio pieces, but maybe doesn’t make the best use of the space. The three objects that are segregated off in the other room would maybe benefit from being in the living room space in closer proximity to the other objects. On a second visit to the space, an event was in the meeting area where the three objects are and they were completely inaccessible. The downstairs gallery entrance also has the interactive desk element which encourages visitors to think about their own objects and offer their own personal stories. A worksheet prompts the visitor for their object, story and “story theme”. They can post to a bulletin board in both the media living room and in the entrance to the space creating a fluctuating component in the exhibit.
Despite a large opening crowd that left the exhibit space cramped, visitors seemed invested in experiencing the full presentation of the object. On the later Saturday afternoon visit, some visitors spent time with the documentaries where some just breezed through the text or objects. Watching visitors on the return highlighted the fact that the multiple elements of objects allow the visitor to commit to different levels of experience. The space created is purposefully inviting, homey and domestic. The couches and chairs in the space, are simple, functional and accessible. The soft lighting provided by an assortment of Ikea lamps scattered about the space adds to the aforementioned effects. Visitors to the space on both days were using the space to take in the stories, the exhibit as a whole or simply relax as they wait for an event or person.
Objects are on or in dressers or tables with text beside them. Although each object differs slightly, there is generally formula to the presentation. A positive byproduct of the formula is that it gives the visitor a way to easily traverse the unconventional presentation. Although somewhat unconscious of the formula when first navigating the exhibit, I became aware of it when losing track of the different elements of Carla’s ring. The object and history are on an end table beside a chair, but the personal photos and quote are on the opposing wall. It was a source of confusion for myself and for other visitors I spoke with.
There is some pairing of the utilitarian use or traditional relationship between the object and furniture. Clothes like the boxers, shirt and infant clothes are placed in dresser drawers and the stuffed rhino is on a rocking chair. In initial discussions with Aaron Goldblatt, exhibit designer, it seemed as though there would often be more playful pairing of objects and furniture within a more cohesive house-like tableau. The overall space doesn’t feel as much like an actual living space or recreated home, but instead an assemblage of furniture that allude to that type of space. A successful aspect however is that many of the objects that create the tableau are clearly secondhand. The nicks and scratches on the exhibits give the sense that they are objects with their own histories behind them as well. It shows how much can be done with little financial resources and fits in well with the overall exhibit aim. Despite some of the drawbacks, it creates an overall feel consistent with the mission of the exhibit and organization.
The opening night was incredibly crowded pushing some of the flaws of the space and design to the fore. It was somewhat hard for people to circulate throughout the layout and furniture. The headphones weren’t very successful at canceling out the noise and the speakers on the televisions couldn’t compete with crowd conversation. That said, the opening night is not the norm and would expose weaknesses in the design of any exhibit. The return visit on a Saturday morning to a light crowd rendered all of that moot.
On my second visit I was able to sit with a laptop for an hour taking in the space, visitors and work. It is a comfortable place to experience the exhibit without the pressures and scrutiny one would encounter in most museums. The First Person Museum on a whole is successful in stating a clear mission and working within its means and a temporary arrangement to achieve it. It would be interesting to see how the idea is expanded based on the extensive input they seemed to gather from visitors.