Small Towns, Big Stories: How Emerging Museums Are Leading the Way in Exhibition Design and Social Justice

The Systems of Anti-Blackness Gallery at Greenwood Rising: The Black Wall Street History Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma

Recent explorations in cities like Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Bentonville, Arkansas underscore an emerging trend in the museum sector: smaller towns and communities that are pioneers in the realm of exhibition design, particularly in the context of Black history and social justice themes. These cultural institutions are redefining the narrative, and adopting innovative design approaches to grapple with challenging subjects and previously untold stories.

Greenwood Rising: The Black Wall Street History Center, recognized with a 2022 Exhibition Honor Award by SEGD and designed by member firm Local Projects, stands as a prime example. The center’s immersive design, highlighted by a film from a local African American filmmaker and featuring Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise,” engages visitors deeply with the history and resilience of the Greenwood community. The global acclaim and visitor feedback for Greenwood Rising not only attests to the project’s design excellence but also its profound impact on educating local, regional, and international audiences about significant yet often overlooked aspects of American history.

Similarly, the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa showcases how museums can adeptly highlight civil rights advocacy, with several aspects of the museum experience designed by SEGD members including CREO Industrial Arts and Art Processors. Though not directly linked to Greenwood Rising, the center integrates Bob Dylan’s activism with his musical legacy, encouraging visitors to reflect on the nexus of art and social justice.

This evolving museum landscape is bolstered by insights from arts administrator and historian Tsione Wolde-Michael, who emphasizes the continuous relevance of Black history beyond the confines of Black History Month. It’s a call for museums to actively engage with the ongoing implications of historical narratives in the present.

The Society for Experiential Graphic Design (SEGD) and its community have been instrumental in fostering museum designs and content that embrace diverse narratives. Experience designers are at the forefront of this movement, crafting exhibitions that not only evoke emotions and facilitate interactions, but also encourage meaningful dialogue. This approach underscores the complexity and multifaceted nature of historical narratives.

The Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

For instance, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art exemplifies how art by people of color is integrated with works by historically recognized artists, offering a comprehensive examination of themes like beauty, patriotism, power, and identity. This integration challenges traditional museum narratives and fosters a more inclusive examination of American art.

The notable increase in exhibitions and museums in the Central US tackling themes of racism, inequality, and colonialism marks a significant evolution in museum design. This shift challenges longstanding paradigms and sets new standards for presenting history, making it clear that smaller communities and cities are leading the way in innovative exhibition design and content presentation.

2024 SEGD Exhibition + Experience Design, scheduled for June 20-21 in Washington D.C., is poised to delve deeper into the transformative role of exhibition design in today’s societal landscape. The event aims to highlight the critical role designers play as catalysts for change, showcasing how design can address and illuminate complex issues of our time.

As museums in smaller towns and communities continue to excel in exhibition design, they expand the ways audiences perceive museums’ roles in addressing racism, civil rights, and equality. This shift not only enhances the museum experience but also enriches the cultural and educational landscape, proving that impactful narratives and design excellence are not confined to major urban centers.

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