Communications lessons from “Torn in Two” at the Boston Public Library

What can an exhibit about the Civil War teach you about communications? I took away six lessons from “Torn in Two: 150th Anniversary of the Civil War,” which runs until Dec. 31, 2011, at the Boston Public Library’s map center.

Torn in Two, an image featured in the Boston Public Library exhibit of the same name

Lesson 1: Summarize your message for people who don’t want to delve into details.

When I visited this map-heavy exhibit, I didn’t look closely at many of the maps. Instead, I happily read the large-type wall labels that conveyed each section’s theme.

Lesson 2: Combine words with images.

Even though I’m a big reader, I wouldn’t have entered an exhibit that consisted solely of words. In fact, it was the exhibit’s signature image of two men tugging on opposite sides of a map that attracted me.

Lesson 3: Tell stories.

My favorite part of the exhibit was “Hear Our Stories,” featuring 10 fictional characters describing their lives at each stage of the Civil War.

Lesson 4: Appeal to your audience’s demographics.

The variety and specifics of the characters was compelling. To give you some flavor, they included

  • Isaiah Wilkes, seminary student, abolitionist, Roxbury, Mass., age 16
  • Rebecca Parrish, slave, South Carolina, age perhaps 20
  • Elizabeth Farnsworth, educated girl of means, Civil War nurse, Concord, Mass., age 16
  • John Tilden, non-slave-owning crop farmer, Georgia, age 35

However, I was disappointed to learn later from a brochure that these were fictional characters. The lesson for financial bloggers? Make it clear if you’re using composite characters to illustrate a story.

Lesson 5: Help your audience relate your information to themselves.

I picked up a family activity brochure about slavery at the exhibit. It started by suggesting questions for adults to ask children, such as, “Are you allowed to read?” These questions put the children at the center of the conversation, in addition to providing context for an adult-child discussion of how slaves had few choices.

Lesson 6: Write about your passions.

I suspect that the creators of this exhibit felt excited about their topic. This passion, plus adept use of Lessons 1 through 5 sparked an interesting exhibit.

2 replies
  1. Monique Doyle Spencer
    Monique Doyle Spencer says:

    Dear Susan — You have a wonderful blog, and I am therefore so thrilled that you like “Hear Our Stories.” It was my great pleasure to write them. I agree with your comment that we should have made it clearer that they were fictional. I especially loved what you said about the exhibit showing the passion of the people involved. Our working group included such incredible talent, knowledge and yes, passion. So I was able to work in that environment, which just always produces better work, as I think you agree. The Map Center people are amazing.

    Best regards, Monique

    P.S. Do you have neighbors named Colette and Laura? Colette is my sister.

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