A Visual Analysis of “Remembering Our Indian School Days: The Boarding School Experience” at the Heard Museum

I wrote a critical paper entitled, A Visual Analysis of “Remembering Our Indian School Days: The Boarding School Experience” at the Heard Museum, for a course in Historical/Critical Research methods at Regent University in Fall 2014.


As museum visitors, more times than not, the design and functionality of a display is lost in the “moment of time” – the moment – when we step into an exhibition experience. Our senses are engaged immediately as we contemplate the visual representation or the “big picture” of the design. Rarely do we stop to think of how the exhibit was created or consider the reasons why certain objects and artworks were chosen. We accept the designer’s and curator’s reasons for their construction and inclusion without much thought simply preferring instead to enjoy the “moment.” We accept our role as a passive observer. We are there to observe and not to engage with the exhibit – or so we think.

Although we might believe that our role as audience is passive, visual scholars (those who study visual rhetoric, visual anthropology, and museology) say otherwise. They see the role of audience as a critical component when it comes to understanding how museum exhibitions function as a whole, and they consider how the design elements, the artifacts, and the audience share in a symbiotic-like relationship whereby meaning, value, and worth are established[1]. These scholars are interested in understanding the relationship between audience and exhibit, and they consider it significant and vital to constructing meaning. As such, they study audience involvement, affectation, and experience to learn how values and identities are formed[2].

Furthermore, visual scholars, specifically those that critically analyze the way exhibits are designed, seek to comprehend the relationship between audience and exhibit terming it “shared connection.” These scholars believe that this relationship fosters a type of “community” when audience participation integrates with the visuality and the textuality of museum exhibitions.[3] Historically, researchers have explored this “shared connection” between museum exhibit, design, and audience through the framework of time and space[4] or by looking at how exhibits occupy the spatial confines of museum galleries. However, since the 1980s, when museum designers began to enlarge the idea of “experiential space” by using multimodal media  and immersion in exhibitions,[5] research has led scholars to seek to learn how multimodal exhibitions function to create liminal space[6] – space in between – where ‘framed exhibits’ and the ‘audience viewing the frames’ join together to co-create meaning[7]. Therefore, scholars who study visual rhetoric or the way in which visual texts or artifacts are used persuasively to communicate and construct meaning will also seek to understand the role of audience and how audience participation and interaction with a particular text, in this case a museum exhibition[8], can shape audience values and identities[9].

The intended scope of this paper is to analyze how the visual construction of the exhibit, “Remembering Our Indian School Days: The Boarding School Experience,” and the use of key design elements such as sound, lighting, photography, and artifacts function to communicate the meaning of the history of the off-reservation Indian Boarding Schools experience. A visual examination of the exhibit, as well as a close reading, will seek to identify how audience perception co-contributes to the overall experience, and how audience values and identities may be shaped through strategic rhetorical design. The “Remembering Our Indian School Days: The Boarding School Experience,” was chosen specifically for this assignment because it offers a visually stunning and intensive immersive audience experience that clearly seeks to communicate persuasively the history of Indian education as experienced by Native American Indian school students.

[1] Corrine A. Kratz, “Rhetoric’s of Value: Constituting Worth and Meaning through Cultural Display.” Visual Anthropology Review 27, no. 1 (May 2011): 21-48. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed November 20, 2014).

[2] Ibid, 22.

[3] Ibid, 22.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Kerstin Smeds, “On the Meaning of Exhibitions – Exhibition Epistèmes in a Historical Perspective,” Designs For Learning 5, no. 1/2 (June 2012): 50-72, Education Source, EBSCOhost (accessed November 20, 2014).

[7] Corrine Kratz.

[8] Kerstin Smeds.

[9] Corrine Kratz, 23.