At the end of my last post on the Vodou Exhibition at Chicago’s Field Museum, (you might want to click the link and give it a read if you want to come up to speed,) I mentioned that I’d visit the exhibition again and see if my thoughts changed.
Friday night was an event in which Chicago’s Haitian community welcomed the new exhibit with delicious verve (See Figure 1 below). It was a great opportunity to speak with artists and others about the exhibit, to get their opinions.
Many of theirs were similar to mine.
However, I did do something different this time. I spent more time looking up at the banners, and I spent more time on the artifacts that didn’t appear to be from secret societies. (I didn’t just look, I studied, read, worked at really trying to understand.) In the end, this lightened the experience considerably, but did it dispel the overall dark vibe of the exhibit?
What will help?
My suggestions for event would be the following.
- Change the banners that are used for publicity. They contain Secret Society Lwa. Do something lighter.
- Tell a story with the exhibition. Start with the misconceptions you want to dispel, the points you want to get across. Then start dispelling and telling the story of Haiti and Vodou. Explain the day to day in Haiti and where Vodou fits. Show how it interacts with other religions – perhaps even how families often practice Catholicism and Vodou simultaneously.
- Build an elevated area that is behind a red curtain (or make the curtain look like a forest covered mountainside. ) Entitle that section: “Inside Vodou’s Secret Societies”. Maybe put a small disclaimer at the beginning saying small children might be disturbed by what’s inside. Put those Secret Society artifacts (an example of which is in Figure 2 below), behind the curtain and out of the main stream of the exhibit. Make sure it’s somewhere in the middle of the exhibit. The Secret Societies are not mainstream and mixing these artifacts in with the everyday artifacts mischaracterizes what many people experience in everday Vodou. However, Secret Societies need to be referenced in the everyday exhibits- after all, they did indeed impact Haitian life. I also believe that ‘hiding’ the Secret Society artifacts will do another thing: people will slow down. When people are in fearful situations, they tend to move more quickly. If you want people to move slowly and observe – hide the dark stuff.
- Children are noticeably absent from many of the videos and explanations. Of the Haitians I spoke with, all of them had non-intimidating memories of Vodou as a child. They remember the brightness, the music, the activity on Holidays. If a child can feel it, adults will too.
- Move explanations closer to artifacts and make them readable without having to bend neck or body. Bring banners closer to eye level. Create exhibits that allow the most visitors to stand straight and tall. Haitians wanted this (and still do!) and Vodou helped them.
- Include more ways for people to interact and touch. Granted, the artifacts at the exhibition are were used in Vodou and as such, are not open to touching. But, there are other ways to help people to hear, taste, feel, smell, touch. Drumming is key to Vodou. Let people make virtual drums (or real ones!) Get innovative!
- Provide more of the beauty of Haiti! More green, more color, breezes, salt water aroma, music, you get the idea. Vodou is about the interconnectedness of all things, life, death, sky, earth, plants, water, etc. Set more of the context, not just socio-politically (which incidentally, this exhibition did a better job of doing.)
- End the exhibition showing how Haiti is growing (albeit slowly and painfully at times) and what challenges lie ahead. Reiterate how Vodou has been a misunderstood part of the process, that Vodou comes from the heart of the Haitian culture and it’s been responsible for establishing a spirit of (and physical!) freedom in a nation. Show bright artwork that comes from Haitian artists, even those works from those mounted by spirits.
With the above changes, I believe the exhibit would better accomplish its goal of dispelling misconceptions of Vodou.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and what you’d do!