Creating Participatory Exhibitions; Our Try It! Gallery

Try It GalleryWith all of the warranted hoopla surrounding our blockbuster exhibition, Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen, it’s easy to overlook other exhibitions at the Connecticut Historical Society. One exhibition that’s interactive and fun for all ages is Try It! Connecticut Places, People, Collections, & Me.

The gallery space is located on our first floor and was installed about a year ago. The exhibits team decided that we’d use the space for experimental participatory elements, and it has been a success so far. The Connecticut Historical Society has been preserving and sharing the stories of what makes this state unique for almost 200 years. Since most of our visitors are from Connecticut, we wanted them to connect and share their stories because they, too, are part of the state’s history.

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The exhibition starts off with introducing places that make Connecticut unique. We installed three magnetic boards stuck with reproduced historic postcards. We chose postcards that represented places of Connecticut that no longer exist, or still do. We also chose postcards that had interesting messages from the sender to the recipient.

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We then blew up a map of Connecticut and asked visitors to place a small sticker on where they were from. This is one of the most popular activities in the gallery. It’s was interesting, but not entirely surprising, to see where the majority of our visitors were from. It was fun to see the map take shape—almost all towns are represented—but it’s even better when visitors add in their own locations!

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Next, we give an opportunity for visitors to brag where their favorite place to eat is in Connecticut, where they think everyone should visit, and what they think the state represents. There are always a plethora of fun and unique answers for these talkback boards. Of course, there’s always an argument on the best pizza place to eat in the state (the right answer is Pepe’s!)

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The next area we have is a scent station. We wanted visitors to smell scents to evoke memories—hopefully of specific ones in Connecticut. We put scented candles and cubes into salt and pepper shakers and asked users to smell and write about their favorites, and why. This activity requires a more engagement versus sticking a sticker on a wall, but it provides a much deeper, personal connection among visitors.

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From Connecticut places, we move onto Connecticut people. Here, we don’t highlight the great figures of Connecticut history but place the emphasis on the people who never made it into the Connecticut history books (yes, CT history books exist—you should see the Waterman Research Center for proof).

While contemporary society no longer commissions sculptors to create busts to preserve our likeness, we still do find ways of reproducing our personal identities. Visitors can poke fun and dress up a bust with costume accessories, as well as dress up themselves and pose in our empty painting frame. Surrounded by portraits of past nutmeggers, visitors can borrow our instant camera to print and share their goofy portraits. There are many creative poses and costumes visitors have done and it’s really fun to see the number of submissions grow over time.

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We then move onto CHS’s connection to the state and how we collect the things that represent the stories that visitors have revealed throughout the exhibition. We are always organizing our collection and we thought an activity that can be satisfying for younger audiences would be to organize a collection of their own. In this section we have a large acrylic case filled with an assortment of objects from the CHS collection. On the wall, we have magnetic cards to represent each object. Visitors are encouraged to “be a curator” and organize the cards into respective categories. If the categories are sufficient enough, they can write their own in and sort them accordingly.

So if you plan on coming to CHS for the first time, or are returning, make sure you check out Try It! Connecticut Places, People, Collections, & Me and be sure to contribute!

Mike Messina is the Interpretive Projects Associate at the Connecticut Historical Society.

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