The Legacy Museum: an Exploration of Typography and Exhibition Design
Last winter I had the opportunity to visit the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial For Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. For those who don't know, the Legacy Museum covers the history of Black people in America from enslavement to mass incarceration, and is located in what used to be a building for warehousing enslaved people. Aside from the building's history, the area it's located in is also something to note:
"A block from one of the most prominent slave auction spaces in America, the Legacy Museum is steps away from an Alabama dock and rail station where tens of thousands of black people were trafficked during the 19th century."
When I initially walked into the exhibition space in the Legacy Museum, it felt like I had walked into a book. Not necessarily because of the theatrics of the ghostly projections of actors portraying enslaved people chained up in cell blocks as you walk down the hallway leading to the main exhibition area, but because of the sheer amount of information being portrayed in a (relatively) small warehouse space.
The bulk of the exhibits exist within one room, with clear divisions of space where films are being shown and where each section starts and ends. Spanning an entire wall is a timeline that goes through hundreds of years of black history in America.
The entire exhibition berates you with blocks of text and various forms of typography. What isn't relayed in print is instead delivered through interactive touchscreens. I immediately got a sense of the design challenges that the curators faced. How do you fit hundreds of years of history into one room?
It took us two hours to move through the space, and read as much as we could, but reading it all in one sitting was a lot to take in, and I would estimate that I only saw about 70% of all the information presented in that one room. By the end of it, my eyes and my soul were fatigued (which I suppose is the intention, considering the content).
While the publication designer in me kind of loved the design choices using type and typography in interesting, creative ways within an exhibition space, I can't help but wonder if there were possibly more accessible and engaging methods to communicate the histories presented in the museum, without relying so heavily on the printed word.
The last thing that irked me with the whole experience, was the photo booth set up at the end of the exhibition as you're leaving. It seemed to be in poor taste to pose for souvenir pictures in front of a backdrop of jars containing the soil collected from the locations of lynchings across America. Luckily I didn't see anyone using it while I was there, but I couldn't help but feel as though the existence of such a photo opportunity trivialized the intentions of the whole museum for me.