In 1990, educator and cultural critic Neil Postman described a museum as "an answer to a fundamental question: what does it mean to be a human being?"
I must admit that I've never found this definition very helpful. While I understand Postman's argument that every museum portrays a perspective on the nature of humanity, in most cases, I find that portrayal so abstract, so stripped of personhood, that it's hard to see the human in the institution. Without an explicit "I" voice, the museum's perspective on humanity is oblique to say the least.
But I came back to Postman's quote when viewing Welcome to Pine Point, a multimedia documentary about a small mining town in the Northwest Territories. Pine Point was a single-industry town, and when the mine closed in 1988, the town closed along with it. Welcome to Pine Point is a kind of virtual museum exhibition about the town, told from the perspective of Michael Simons, an artist who grew up in the nearby town of Yellowknife and visited Pine Point as a boy.
Welcome to Pine Point is not a museum project. It is an incredible narrative work that incorporates text, music, videos, and images into a lightly interactive, utterly engrossing digital story. (When you check it out, make sure to put your browser on fullscreen mode.) It is, in short, the best multimedia history project I've ever seen, and I wish more museums were pursuing projects like it.
What makes Welcome to Pine Point so amazing?
- It's nostalgic in the best sense of the word. In 2009, Dan Spock wrote a beautiful essay, In Defense of Nostalgia, arguing that history museums should embrace the emotional power of loss, memory, and personal connection that comes with nostalgia. By interweaving images, artifacts, sounds, and the human stories of the town, Welcome to Pine Point invites people with no prior connection to the Northwest Territories to care deeply about its story.
- It uses multimedia beautifully. I was really impressed by the diversity of artifacts in Welcome to Pine Point--from yearbook photos to VFW badges to video and photos from the 1980s and today. The variance and effective use of different media types reminded me of any great exhibition design, and it also highlighted how rarely museum professionals apply creative, surprising design techniques in online or media-based exhibits.
- It tells layered personal stories. The subjective "I" voice of Michael drives the whole story. Because he cares about Pine Point, you care, or at least you're up for the adventure. Michael's strong narrative voice makes jumps in location or story manageable (even if I did spend some time confused about the connection between Cosmos 954 and Pine Point). Michael also interviews former Pine Pointers, and the highly personal "then and now" features on Kim Feodoroff and Richard Cloutier are highlights of the whole project.
- It makes you contemplate your own connection to history. The first-person narration allows the project to directly address the audience with deep questions without sounding unnatural. When Michael wonders what it would be like to have your hometown disappear, he doesn't sound pretentious. He's a real person trying to figure it out, and that makes you as a viewer want to join him in figuring it out too. Some of the artifacts--government documents explaining that Pine Point will be taken off the map, videos from the final week of the town's existence--are devastating. It's impossible to watch people toasting the end of their town and not think about how you would feel in the same situation.
- It makes you think about what it means to be human. Coming back to Neil Postman's quote, and Postman's related concerns about people blindly allowing themselves to be controlled by technology, Welcome to Pine Point is an arresting exploration of the conflicts between technological progress and humanity. If a mine makes a town exist, is that good? If a mine closes and it makes the town cease to exist, is that bad? What happens to the people? How do we make these decisions, individually and collectively? These are big juicy questions that few exhibitions really force me to grapple with the way I did as I watched Welcome to Pine Point.
Welcome to Pine Point has a lot to teach all of us who strive to design exhibitions and experiences that explore history in a meaningful way. It also, in my opinion, has something to learn from the museum model. The one negative reaction I had to Welcome to Pine Point was its insistence on a linear presentation of the story. While I appreciate the benefits of a straight narrative, in this case, I think the content could have been just as powerfully presented in a hub and spoke model with freer user navigation. The "chapters" of the project were loose, and I didn't necessarily feel I needed to see them in order. Some I wanted to return to, and some I wanted to skip. I would love to see an exhibition version of Welcome to Pine Point, in a gallery where I can flit in and out of various alcoves of memory... and then talk about it with others in the cafe. This is a project that begs conversation.
I hope we can start that conversation here. Experience the project, share a comment, and let's talk.