Telling Stories and Written in Bone: Exhibit Review from Three Angles

What do an art exhibition, a viewing of bones, and a link between Rome and America have in common? All are representations of three different types of exhibition methodology—one that is traditional, another interdisciplinary, and the third disappointing in scope and intention. A longer review on the National Constitution Center’s exhibition on Rome will follow in a week, but today here are some of my thoughts on Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg (through January 2, 2011) and Written in Bone:Forensic Files of the 17th Century Chesapeake (through January 6, 2013).

When I go to an exhibition I look at it from three different ways. The first is the “narrative” what is the story that is being told, why are we here, why should we care? The second is the artifacts themselves. How well do these objects illustrate/emphasize the overarching narrative? The third angle is a little bit more emotional. It’s the gut check. How did I feel as a visitor walking away from the exhibition—did I learn something? Was I confused?

In the Norman Rockwell exhibit, the ‘story’ is easy to identify in that his paintings of ordinary life  reflect some simple storytelling techniques–evoking emotion and nostalgia through vivid colors and simple structure. The canvases from Lucas and Spielberg’s collection also have a distinct connection to an idea of Hollywood glamor: classic, constructed, simple; or as the exhibits website states “Rockwell’s paintings and the films of Lucas and Spielberg evoke love of country, small town values, children growing up, unlikely heroes, acts of imagination and life’s ironies.”

I was drawn to a series of four paintings, all of which told a story within a story, a complex idea to do in a single snapshot or frame. In And Daniel Boone Comes to Life on the Underwood Portable, Boy Reading Adventure Story, Shadow Artist, The Toy Maker (see them here) I found myself identifying with the second level of the image, into the writer’s imagination, the boy’s book, the life of the shadow bunny, and the world of toys. All are pictures within pictures, visions within visions. Since each of these paintings belonged to George Lucas or Stephen Spielberg they are uniquely representative of how Rockwell influenced their films. At one point in an interview (link below) Lucas states that “When we were in film school, we would say, “We’re not making movies about the way things are, we’re making movies about the way things should be.” And that’s the power you have as an artist, to be able to put your spin on reality and make it the way you think it should be. Rockwell created his art to relate to people, but at the same time he showed generations to come what it was like in those year”, so in effect these paintings tell more than just the story that Rockwell wanted to tell, they also tell the story of George Lucas the filmmaker and Stephen Spielberg the filmmaker. They emphasize that what we see on the silver and small screens are often invoking/influenced by images and windows into times past present and future.

Gut Check? I wish there had been more textual narration besides the live film and the introductory panels/quotations, but otherwise loved it.

Written in Bone is a different type of exhibition. First of all its in the Smithsonian Institutions Natural History Museum, which already indicates that it will be of scientific or natural in nature, but the second title of the exhibition Forensic Files of 17th Century Chesapeake made me walk through the doors. I spent a lot of time in college learning about 17th, 18th, and 19th century Virginia through coursework at William and Mary. So I wanted to see how they put together an exhibition that told the story of that period through the human remains.

The exhibition began with a lesson in basic forensic pathology. How can you tell the age of remains from the size of the skull, the length of a leg bone etc. Once you left the first room you were introduced to the idea of making connections between the forensic evidence and the documentary materials that historians generally use. This led to a third section where the remains of a man from Jamestown and a couple from St. Mary’s County were displayed. Step by step, piece by piece they walked us through identification and context.

This was an excellent exhibition. Not only because it emphasized the importance of using interdisciplinary evidence to put the puzzle together, but also because it was structured in a clear and organized fashion—leading the audience to the historical and forensic conclusions. In prepping this post I also took the time to look at the online portion of the website, and stumbled across “Secrets in the Cellar” a web comic that virtually relays all of this information to those who are unable to visit the exhibition personally. It maybe a slight oversimplification of the work that actually goes into identifying old human remains, but it gets the job done.

Gut Check? Highly recommended. Engaging, mysterious, and a great example of how history can be told through many different lenses for a fuller story.

Norman Rockwell Exhibition Links:

Official Site for Telling Stories
George Lucas on Norman Rockwell and the Movies
Steven Spielberg on Norman Rockwell and the Movies
CBS Review of Exhibition

Written in Bone Exhibition Links:
Written in Bone Official Site
The Secret in the Cellar (webcomic)

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