Media in Museum Geographies: Two Case Studies

Authors: Samuel Smith*, University of Colorado, Boulder
Topics: Cultural Geography, Tourism Geography
Keywords: Cultural Geography, Museum Geography, Narrative, Heritage
Session Type: Paper
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Cultural geographers have recently reconsidered the function of museum displays. Once thought of largely as repositories for objects, museums are increasingly recognized as important venues for presenting cultural meaning to public audiences, as well as for calling those meanings into question. Moreover, many museums have increasingly focused on engaging visitors through the physical layout of narrative-focuesd exhibits, multi-sensory displays, and interactive multimedia. These presentations invite visitors to examine their own knowledge and expectations as they “co-construct” meaning, but also to explore how this meaning unfolds across complex geographies. They are thus an intriguing form of spatial media, which has only recently attracted research interest. Within this emerging “museum geography,” some exhibits offer particularly rich engagements with existing media. Drawing on an extended project researching state history museums in the United States, this paper examines two such case studies. One, the Atlanta History Center’s recently-opened “Cyclorama: The Big Picture,” presents the history of an immersive painting of the Civil War Battle of Atlanta, tracing how the painting itself was reworked to accommodate changing audiences and historical narratives. A second, the State Historical Museum of Iowa’s “Hollywood in the Heartland,” traces how filmmakers have represented the state, and how national audiences have imagined Iowa. In each case, museums’ media-focused exhibits invite audiences to consider not only local and regional-scale histories, but also how those media capture changing historical meanings, and apply those meanings across geographical spaces. In doing so, they extend museum presentations beyond exhibit galleries, and into richly discursive worlds.

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