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The "Speaking Picture": Displaying Health at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition

Julie K. Brown

This project explores exhibitions as vehicles for communicating ideas and information to the public. It focuses on a specific historical moment to better understand how displays functioned in transmitting information on health issues to a general public and to grasp the ways in which individuals, institutions and agencies first recognized the value of displays for creating, what one contemporary called, the "speaking picture". Transforming ideas into visual form creates the essential dynamic of the display, a process involving the interaction between the artifacts, viewers, and exhibitors, as Michael Baxandall points out. 

In showing the complexities of how this process developed, progressed, and evolved during the important years of the early Progressive Era, this project will also demonstrate why an understanding of the cultural history of exhibitions is important not just to the museum professional but also to the general public today. There are three key issues on exhibitions that are the focus of this project: historical precedents, display strategies and evolving museum formats. First, the health displays at international expositions prior to 1904 reveal a dramatic shift that parallels the move from specialized medical to broader public health subjects, as well as attempts to evolve a new kind of health museum to serve a new public interest in health; second, the making of "speaking picture" displays on health issues for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition shows conscious efforts by some exhibitors to transpose popular cultural forms for use in their display strategies as well as some ingenious adaptations of traditional display formats; and finally, the formation of new hybrid museum and institutional sites for displays of industrial safety, municipal health, and social economics reveals the emergence of public consciousness on the social issues relating to health.

The historical scope and specialized nature of health displays discussed in this project offer an important opportunity to look closely at previous cultural experience and draw from it some perspectives for interpreting and fashioning contemporary practices by museums and cultural institutions. For example, given the various health issues, threats of epidemics, and crises that face our society today, the knowledge of how health displays were able to communicate effectively with the public in the past clearly provides a useful tool for setting important exhibition priorities by museums and institutions now. Similarly, the more that is known about the history of the technical mechanisms of display used to represent complex health issues, the better planning can be made by exhibition teams in designing the kinds of displays which are truly effective and innovative for communicating with the general public. Documentation of early efforts in the formation of new hybrid exhibition sites, such as industrial safety museums, municipal museums, and social museums here in the United States, can be of immense value to those that are active in the important planning work for the new generation of museums. International collaboration between Canada, USA and Pacific Islands that addresses the legacy of early collecting practices.

 

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