During the field trip, UTC Special Collections director Carolyn Runyon, UTC Studio director Emily Thompson, and I helped students identify, study, and unpack valuable exhibit components at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Following the field trip, I asked students to comment on the effectiveness of specific exhibit displays by detailing what made them historically significant and educational and how they intended to apply these insights to their exhibition project.
One student reflected upon the experiential learning experience: “This trip was crucial in the organization and production of our historical exhibit project. We took photos and notes on how their exhibits were laid out and the commentary that their exhibits provided and based our own commentary off of their examples. It gave us an idea of what would attract an audience’s eye, and allowed us to focus on that aspect, which we are not used to.”
Another student explained, “The experience of touring the institute served as a source of inspiration when creating the historical exhibit on Chattanooga’s civil rights movement. … I found the inclusion of overlooked moments to be particularly compelling as it brought back into awareness many events and individuals that might have otherwise been forgotten. In constructing an exhibit over youth activism in Chattanooga during the civil rights movement, our group hoped to do the same. We recognized that the museum made use of a variety of mediums, such as artifacts, newspapers, maps, images, film and audio, to recount historical events. Drawing on the inventiveness of the museum, we used a combination of newspaper articles and images provided by Special Collections alongside our written narrative to tell the important story of the young civil rights activists that helped shape Chattanooga’s local movement.”
Following the museum visit, students applied their insights during the research and design stage of their own historical exhibit displays on Chattanooga’s civil rights history when (1) identifying and engaging primary sources critically, (2) incorporating secondary literature, and (3) interpreting materials and drafting a complete exhibit narrative that targets a broader public audience. By presenting historical research and a critical understanding of Chattanooga's civil rights past in an exhibit display, students translated the experiential learning activity into public history practices. Students' blogposts highlighted their research experiences that led to the creation of the historical exhibit.
The reception of the exhibit that followed in the spring (after the semester and the class had ended) was a critical component of the assignment’s success and, ultimately, students’ fuller understanding of the assignment’s broader impact. Students saw their exhibits on display and in the Q&A with a public audience had to explain the significance of the public exhibit and experience as a whole. Student panelists pointed out that they found archival research and the process of developing the exhibit challenging. Hearing visitors engage with and appreciate their work illustrated to them the value of public history—a lesson outcome they did not anticipate when completing the actual research work and organization of the panels. For more on students’ reflections, read the UTC Blog about the exhibit reception.
While many students were open to this learning activity, some also expressed their struggle with the demands of archival research and management of project deadlines.