Today the big exhibit opened. Instead of blogging about the trials and tribulations of the last week before opening, I wanted to give some serious thought to the emotional content of the exhibit.
It's intense. As I mentioned in the last post, I have to wonder about the intensity level for our visitor base. We're warning folks with kids under the age of 9 or 10 that we don't recommend it for them; this is all well and good to tell people, and yet on opening day I saw a hundred kids under the age of 10 zipping around the space. Did parents ignore the greeters? Did they not hear them? Does it matter? It might, at that. At several points, I saw small kids tugging on their mom's hand and saying, "I don't like this. Can we go?" And I've no idea if that was a reaction to content--the unfun subjects--or if it's a reaction to the fact that there are no activities geared for younger visitors in the gallery.
For me, this week, it's been a re-opening of the emotional responses I've had over the past 6 months to doing content research for the exhibit. On Monday, Ryan White's mom came to the gallery for the first time since the structures went up. I was applying some graphics of her son to a panel, and I stepped aside so she could read it. We exchanged pleasantries, I told her how happy we were to have her there and how I hoped she liked what we'd done. She's a lovely woman. And then she went into the "Ryan's Room" area of the exhibit, which is pretty much all of his stuff from his room at the time he died, all arranged as an immersive environment. And all I could think about was how I can't even begin to imagine what that would feel like--to walk into a museum exhibit, 16 years after the death of your son, and see his whole life on display like that. It was wrenching.
This exhibit has been a long series of emotional blows to the gut. Which is what it should be, don't get me wrong--I'm proud that we did this exhibit, it's important. But working on it has been months of that kind of wrenching. I watched films about the holocaust, and the children who experienced it--not just once, but over and over and over as I made selections for editing, transcribed them for captioning, and reviewed them before installation. I watched news films of kids who were my age back in 1986, talking about how they were going to kick Ryan's ass if he came back to their school, and interviews with Ryan's friends and family and Ryan himself talking about how that felt... over and over and over. To see the exhibit finally open gives me a sense of pride in the accomplishment of the small part I played in it, and a sense of relief; but most of all a sort of hollow sensation of knowing that working on this exhibit has changed me, too.