Video: Virtual researchers at work at Huntington Library

This 1:30 video features a video projected on a table showing scholars at work behind-the-scenes as part of a small exhibition on research and conservation at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California. It was installed a few years ago in the former board room of the historic library building and is another example of the expanded ways that video is being used in exhibitions (it’s not just a tv monitor anymore).

You may notice that there’s no one in the exhibition. I do deliberately take photos of exhibitions without people so that the entire design can be seen, however, I also take them with people to show how they interact with the content. In this instance, it was a busy day but very few people wandered in and when they did, it was a quick glance and then back out–despite the cleverness of the video projection.  I can perhaps guess at the reasons—located off to the side, uninteresting topic, and passive experience—but it could also be a lost opportunity to do something more intriguing and distinctive.

Look again at the video. What’s distinctive about the exhibition? If I hadn’t mentioned the Huntington, it could have been easily been mistaken for another rare book library, such as the Folger, Avery, Clark, or Newberry.  The Huntington has an amazing collection that would interest nearly any visitor and yet, that’s not highlighted. What are those documents being handled at the table?

Secondly, the research process looks unbearably dull: opening folders, flipping through documents, stacking papers. Yes, that’s a part of research but there’s no awesome document, no joy of discovery, and no excitement in those hands. Wouldn’t it be better if they opened a folder of Civil War photos, George Washington’s letters, Henry David Thoreau’s manuscript, or Hilary Mantel’s research notes? Captions and call-outs could explain how a scholar might study them as well as reveal some cool stuff that isn’t on display in the adjacent gallery. I bet more visitors would find that engaging and call over their friends to take a look.