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Posts Tagged ‘haitian history’

How Curation and Design Didn’t Dispel the Darkness of Vodou (Which is NOT Voodoo)

Posted by Plish on November 3, 2014

I had an opportunity to go to a Member’s Only night at Chicago’s Field Museum.  The event was in honor of the opening of a new exhibition entitled: Vodou – Sacred Powers of Haiti.

One of the highlights of the night was a discussion led by Field Museum Exhibit Project Manager, Janet Hong. On the panel were Dr. Serge Pierre Louis and Kira Tippenhauer.  Both people are Haitian born, and brought unique perspectives on Vodou (which is considered different from Voodoo, which is identified with New Orleans)

From Left to Right: Dr. Serge Pierre Louis, Kira Kira Tippenhauer, and Janet Hong.

Figure 1  From Left to Right: Dr. Serge Pierre Louis, Kira Tippenhauer, and Janet Hong.

To start the discussion, Ms. Hong asked for Dr. Serge’s and Kira’s impressions of the exhibit.  Their answers were not, judging from the reaction of Ms. Hong, what she expected.

Kira’s first word was “dark”, and she spoke the word with a hint of disappointment in her voice.  Clearly she did not want to say those words.  She struggled for more words…  Dr. Serge chimed in and agreed, and used the word “ferocious”, to which Kira agreed it was the word she’d been searching for.

Dark…Ferocious…

Those are the types of words you’d expect to hear from people who are unfamiliar with Vodou.  Those words describe my impression of the exhibit and the impressions of others I spoke to as well. Unfortunately, those were the impressions that the exhibition team was trying to dispel: “…the exhibition team made a concerted effort to eschew the image of vodou as a “scary” or “spooky” subject…seemingly-macabre motifs like skulls, bones, skeletons and weaponry are represented in a reverent light, similar to the role of decorated and candy skulls as part of Dia de los Muertos in Mexican culture. Images of Vodou as dark and death-centric stem from misrepresentations the exhibition aims to dispel.”

So, where did the exhibition go wrong?  How does something that’s supposed to dispel perceptions of darkness, perpetuate it? How does darkness permeate when Haitians live in perpetual summer, lush greenery, flowers and nature, and live life filled with joyous dance, song, and savory foods?

It’s not like the exhibit was designed in an asympathetic manner.  The exhibit was co-designed by Rachel Beauvoir-Dominique, who is a PhD anthropologist and practicing Vodou priestess.  Yet, design and curation did not harmoniously weave an experience that dispelled misrepresentations of Vodou, and instead, darkness prevailed over experiential light.

Why did this happen?

The exhibition is not brightly lit. (The pictures I took below give the impression lighting was quite bright. This is a side-effect of the camera settings used because flash is not allowed)

While not necessary per se, there is scant multimedia and no interactive technology  at all.  Again, Vodou seems to be very tactile and sensory based.  Not having ways to interact in some way was a negative.

The layout was not easy to take in.  There is a wall explaining the history of Haiti’s struggles and victories and it runs into a wall at the end.  When you finish reading you are right next to the entrance to the exhibit. (This is visible in Figure 4. below.  The ending is behind the lwa in the corner by the drapes.) You literally have to start the exhibit over again, and you’re put into the flow of those entering.

Then there’s the  upper and lower displays.  Even though everything is on one floor, it is actually split into two halves, either by accident or by design.  Sculptural works are on ground level, and beautifully decorated, brightly colored ceremonial banners, as well as many artifacts, are hung high above.  As a result, artifact descriptions are not correlated directly to their artifacts in an intuitive manner, hence there’s confusion about what description belongs with what.   The descriptions are also written with uncomfortably small letters.   It forces people to bow their heads and/or hunch their shoulders and/or bend ever so slightly to read.  This posture is uncomfortable and is also one of vulnerability, and people don’t like to be vulnerable in front of something that they don’t know, especially if it looks scary!

Forcing people to look down also had an unfortunate side effect.  Beautiful, sparkling banners that radiate light,   Read the rest of this entry »

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Posted in Arts, Case Studies, Conveying Information, curation, Design, Experience, Information Visualization, Politics, Religion, Society, Spirituality, The Human Person | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

 
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