Exhibition Aids

Although museum displays are often extremely accurate representations of previous life and culture, one of the most striking features of many exhibitions is that they rely on static, visual materials for their effect. No matter how imaginatively the artefacts and other objects are used, exhibitions can only be an approximation of history. It would be an overstatement to claim that oral history recordings bridge the gap between representation and reality, but they can bring museum displays one step closer to this end. They achieve this closer approximation to historical reality by the dramatic 'association of physical objects with people who made them meaningful. The recording can therefore provide a novel dimension and is an effective addition to the exhibition designer's range of tools. Display tapes, in common with teaching tapes, require precision and brevity of statement. They are used most effectively when they combine a variety of speakers and a range of subject content in short and pithy juxtaposition.

As an example of exhibition use, there was a section of the Imperial War Museum's galleries dealing with the outbreak of the First World War, in which a life size reproduction of an army recruiting office was erected. This contained authentic examples of military and civilian dress, details of enlistment procedures, and recruiting posters -including the very famous one of Lord Kitchener, whose face and finger so effectively summoned men to volunteer with the caption "Your Country Needs You". On its own, this group conveyed only a little of the contemporary patriotism and enthusiasm for the war; the ingenious lengths to which many civilians went in order to join the country's armed forces; and the hasty, ill-prepared and almost amateur endeavours by which the large British volunteer army was eventually put into the field. In association with this display the following tape was incorporated which does capture in some degree the mood of the period and gives background and depth to what is being displayed:

'These local service battalions were all Kitchener's Army men. And that poster - "Your King and Country Needs You" -whichever angle you looked at it from, it was pointing at you. When you approached it, when you got past it, if you turned around and looked at it, he was still pointing at you.1

‘I'd left the office which was in Southampton Row, went along to Armoury House, which was at City Road trying to enlist at the time. So I went right up to the front and into the gates where I was met by a Sergeant-Major at a desk. And the Sergeant said "Are you willing to join?" I said "Yes Sir". He said "How old are you?" I said "I'm eighteen and one month". He said "Do you mean nineteen and one month?" So I thought a moment. I said "Yes sir". He said "Righto, well sign here please.2

'I went to the recruiting office at Harlesden and when I confronted the recruiting officer he said that I was too young, although I'd said that I was eighteen years of age. He said "Well I think you're too young son". He said "You come back. Come back in another year or so". I returned home. I never said anything to my parents and I picked up my bowler hat -which my mother had bought me and which was only taken in to wear on Sundays - and I donned that thinking it would make me look older. And I presented myself to the recruiting office again. This times there was no queries and I was accepted.'3

'August the 17th 1914 was the day I joined up. I received the King's Shilling at Francis Street, Woolwich and from there I was given a railway warrant to go to Hounslow. I got out of the station and enquired the way to the Royal Fusiliers' Barracks and went there; walked through the gate; and for the first time in my life I found there was a guard room just inside the gate. And the Sergeant very quickly said "And where do you think you're going?" I said "I've come to join the Royal Fusiliers."4

'Really we did very little training because there were too many people there. I don't know how many there were but it must have run into thousands. They equipped us as far as clothing went -with much difficulty. Many of us had to sleep out in the grounds outside the barracks; the rest on the floor in the barrack rooms; no beds or anything like that. There was about one plate and one mug for probably twenty people -we had to buy our own if we could. There was absolutely no arrangement really made at all -typically English!5

Like several other applications which are mentioned in this section, lack of knowledge or professional prejudice can militate against the use of oral history material in displays. Exhibition designers are rather reluctant to rely on playback machines which are liable to break down and thereby, if only temporarily, leave a gap in their creations. There are some grounds for their reservations. Continuous playback, which is often required, puts a considerable workload on audio equipment which has usually been adapted for exhibition purposes rather than designed for it. Localising the sound reproduction also presents problems. If the exhibition needs a standard audio level throughout the display area, this may require careful positioning of many loudspeakers at different points and heights and a fairly elaborate arrangement of equipment and wiring that takes careful planning and craftsmanship to conceal. However, despite these practical problems there are many examples to be seen 6 (and heard) of exhibitions which are enhanced by the complementary use of recordings with other display materials.

  1. Smith, H.: oral history interview ; IWM Ref. 45/06/01; 1973.
  2. Haine, R. L.: oral history interview; IWM Ref. 33/03/01; 1973.
  3. McIndoe, T.W. : oral history interview IWM Ref. 568/08/01; 1975.
  4. Quinnell, C.R.: oral history interview; IWM Ref. 554/18/01; 1975.
  5. Honywood, W.W.: oral history interview; IWM Ref. 302/04/01; 1974.
  6. Madame Tussauds is a pioneer and leading exponent of using audio effects in exhibitions and displays in Britain.