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People-Watching in the Museum

May 6, 2014

As a Docent at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, I have had the opportunity to observe many visitors as they first enter and begin to look at some of the exhibits. Interestingly, more than a few come down the escalator into the main exhibit atrium and immediately turn left into the museum store. But of those who come into the large atrium, some will walk through the exhibits without stopping to look at any exhibit in particular. Others will stop and start to read the descriptive legends about each item. This is quite normal behavior. Some people like the detail and others want a more general overview. In fact I find myself using both approaches in a new museum – wanting a general overview first and then a more detailed exploration of some parts that seem more interesting to me.

But I have been particularly interested in watching how people approach one exhibit at the Postal Museum. It is the re-creation of a very short segment of the 1673 Indian trail that went from New York to Boston, becoming our first Post Road for carrying the mail. At first for a horse and rider, the trail was soon widened to a wagon road, then for stage coaches, and later paved for trucks. In fact the New York to Boston road today is US Route 1, but street signs in many southern Connecticut towns and cities still say Post Road.

The exhibit entry looks like a dark tunnel to one’s left that draws people in. There is a pinkish wall to its right with descriptions of how it was all started in 1673 by the Royal Governor of New York City when he sent a rider to blaze a trail to his counterpart in Boston. As a Docent in the Museum, I am sitting at a table in the center of the atrium where I often greet visitors and point them to the Post Road entrance as an exhibit to start with. My observation is that by far the majority of visitors will walk right past the wording without so much as a glance. Often my last words to them are, “Read the description on the pinkish wall.” Not more than 1 in 10 (my estimate) will stop to read the description,

There is no right or wrong in this. It is just the way people approach things. But it makes me wonder if this may be reflecting a change in the way people learn nowadays. When I was growing up, books were our source of information. We read books and newspapers and looked things up in dictionaries and encyclopedias. Today we get our news and watch history on TV, smart phones, and computer tablets. Most of it is visual and aural. Are museum visitors perhaps walking past the written descriptions because more people in our culture today tend to ignore reading as a means of imparting knowledge?

Just a thought.

Loren Bullock
May 6, 2014

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