Drummers from the youth dance group, ODUNDE365, perform at the Penn Museum in March. The museum holds special events and programs in conjunction with the Imagine Africa exhibit.

Credit: Courtesy of Penn Museum / The Daily Pennsylvanian

“I want them to write on the walls.” When Director of Exhibitions at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology Kate Quinn first proposed this idea to the Museum’s staff, she was met with long stares.

Charged with the task of re-envisioning the museum’s African collection and creating a more engaging museum experience, Quinn thought allowing visitors to write their thoughts and reactions right on the exhibit would really connect them to the Museum.

Now, with whiteboard panels lined along the exhibit walls, visitors of Imagine Africa can do just that.

The Imagine Africa project, launched September 2011, aims to engage the public in discussions about the museum’s African collection as part of a long-term plan to re-imagine its gallery for a 21st-century audience.

The collection, consisting of about 20,000 artifacts, was one of the earliest and remains one of the largest collections of African artifacts in the United States.

The gallery was constructed “piecemeal” as objects arrived to the museum, explained Quinn, with “no strong driving narrative” to organize them.

As they looked to a future makeover, Quinn’s team felt it was important to hear from the community. “We wanted to ask: what do you want to know, and how do you want us to tell you?” she said.

The African collection remodel seemed to be the perfect occasion to pilot this audience-feedback approach.

Quinn plans for the exhibit were influenced by the 2010 Cultural Engagement Index, a biannual report published by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, which found that African Americans ranked among the highest in cultural engagement, a measurement based on how frequently respondents attended cultural events and how important those activities are to them.

She noted that the Penn Museum was an exception to this Philadelphia-wide trend, and traditionally has not been particularly well-attended by African Americans.

The Imagine Africa exhibit was an opportunity for the museum to attract more of the local Philadelphia community, explained exhibition developer Kevin Schott.

Teams from the museum spent a full year preparing for the exhibit, going into West Philadelphia schools and community centers to consult people’s opinions on how the exhibit should be run.

Building on that feedback, the exhibit developers created an interactive gallery presentation organized around broad topics ranging from healing practices to the history of enslavement.

When visitors enter the gallery, they can select from a monitor several words and images that remind them of Africa. These are then displayed on the screens along the exhibit wall, giving the visitor an initial opportunity to visually impact the gallery. They can also select the music they want to hear from a jukebox near the entrance.

“Visitors have a lot of autonomy here,” Schott said.

Every evening, museum employees catalog the most recent comments and collect data from the day’s visits.

Over the year since the gallery opened, Quinn said there has been between a 23 percent and 41 percent increase in attendance from the African-American community.

The data has also shown that although visitors say they are visiting the museum to see the artifacts themselves, they spend quadruple the amount of time on interactive elements.

“Something about that combination of interactivity and material culture is allowing people to experience this space more strongly,” Quinn said.

As a consequence, the museum has integrated interactive elements into each part of the exhibit.

Though the complete African collection remodel is still far into the future, the museum staff is already integrating the knowledge gleaned from the Imagine Africa data into current exhibitions.

For example, the Imagine Africa exhibit’s “Strength” section showcased two sets of bones — one from an enslaved man, the other from a free man — and was one of the highest scoring elements of the exhibit.

In response to the great interest sparked by this display, the museum staff decided to develop an entire project on telling the history of race through the evidence of remains.

The resulting “Year of Proof: Making & Unmaking Race” exhibit features the notorious Morton skull collection. Samuel Morton, a 19th-century physician and physical anthropologist, collected about 1,200 skulls to investigate his beliefs about racial hierarchy. This exhibit opened earlier this year in September.

The Imagine Africa exhibit itself, originally set to end that same month, has been so successful that the museum decided to extend it beyond January 2013, giving visitors more opportunities to “tell us what they want while we’re especially listening,” Schott said.

Evidence of the exhibit’s success is written on the walls. Among the opinions scribbled on the last wall panel before the gallery’s exit last Friday afternoon, three schoolchildren left behind their messages for the museum staff.

For one, it was the “best time of my life!” Another asked for “more videos of mummy’s please,” and one student put in a request for “more [of] everything!!”

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