The Facebook Exhibit—a wall display with integrated elements of social media—was the first attempt at enhancing the viewers’ experience and breaking away from the traditional archival exhibit. In the new project “The Wheels of History” I’m using a different engagement tactic: I invite the public to contribute content. In this case, I ask for images and stories related to Lethbridge’s ‘automotive culture’.

This participatory project—a supplement to the main photographic exhibit—consists of four submission panels, categorized by auto makers such as Ford, Chevrolet, Dodge and Others. The public is invited to submit their own images depicting family vehicles in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. The participants are instructed to bring the photo to the archivist who scans the item and converts it into a card that is then pinned to the board.

The idea of crowd-sourcing an exhibit is nothing new for museum professionals. In her book, Nina Simon describes several models that rely on people’s participation: contributory, collaborative, co-creative and hosted. The difference is largely in the degree of functional and creative control. The Wheels of History fits nicely into the ‘contributory’ category: the archives maintains overall control, while asking for defined (and mediated) contributions.

The experience has been quite interesting so far. I learned that the logistics of participation is key and as important as the visual presentation. This includes submission instructions, breaking things down into categories, and color-coding. All these elements facilitate interaction (Simon’s ‘scaffolding’) and inform the experience.

I also learned to ask for submissions in a variety of ways. At the beginning, I assumed that a shout out on Facebook would be enough. It wasn’t. I received a number of reactions but no submissions. Then I started ask for submissions face to face: staff, volunteers, patrons, etc. This method got me a few submissions right away with several leads. Then I got lucky to connect with a member of a local auto club and got invited to speak at the club’s general meeting. One thing lead to another and over several weeks the boards became populated with images and commentary. (And I finally got two submission through Facebook too.)

With the design, I intentionally stirred away from the slick exhibit panel look in favor of a pin-board format. The latter has more approachable, amateurish, hands-on feel that attracts and invites participation. The ‘card’ template added a layer of complexity, but it made for a more attractive color-coordinated presentation.

Yet another lesson I learned – your rules will be broken, make peace with it. The plan was to showcase community photos from the era, with cars and their owners. Right from the beginning, people started offering contemporary images of their vintage engines. (Lethbridge has a number of enthusiasts of antique and classic vehicles.) Now I had a dilemma: turn down these ‘wrong’ submissions or incorporate them?

After some hesitation, I opted for an “honorable compromise”: accepting some contemporary images, along with period photos of the same car, if available. The purity of the original plan was sacrificed to the idea of inclusiveness. I feel it was the right choice as it allowed adding new community connections and taking the vintage car enthusiasts on board. (The decision paid off right away–I netted a public program with a panel of speakers from the Auto Club.)

Several commentaries that I received ended up the board alongside images. The stories helped round up the display, give it personal touch and depth. Below is a posted comment from a proud owner of 1968 Ford Mustang:

I ordered the car through Dunlop Ford, after doing research on what features I wanted to get. There weren’t many options for features in 1968! I ordered it with an AM radio with an 8-track player, a 302 V8 engine, and front disc brakes (this caused a delay in production because the Bendix brake company had gone on strike at this time). Another option was radial tires; the dealership suggested that the car could come in with any tires and they could switch them, but I said that if the radial tires didn’t come with the car from the factory, I didn’t want it! I must have left work to pick up the car the day it arrived from the factory in San Jose, which explains why I’m wearing a suit in the photograph.

For the car’s 40th birthday, it got a full repaint at a local body shop (matched to the original metallic green and gold factory colours). It cost twice as much to have repainted as the original price of the car, and took over a year to complete! I still drive the Mustang on special occasions, and my son owns a 2001 Ford Mustang Bullitt in the same colours.

Author: Andrew Chernevych