Supporting Visitors in Exhibitions Dealing with Difficult Histories

By Rosie May, Associate Director, Interpretation and Visitor Research, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

Editor’s Note: This content is part of a series of posts based on presentations from our 2019 AAMI convening in Detroit.

The MCA Chicago recently acquired a video by filmmaker and cinematographer Arthur Jafa called Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death. The video, composed of found footage and set to Kanye West’s gospel-inspired anthem “Ultralight Beam,” juxtaposes the heights and depths of African American experience in the United States. Our senior curator, seeing parallels between the themes of trauma and transcendence in the video and in several works in the MCA’s Collection, made  the video the center of an exhibition exploring the way contemporary artists tackle the complexities and extremes of emotional and social life. 

Installation view of the MCA Chicago. Courtesy of Rosie May, MCA Chicago.

During the exhibition planning process, our curator screened the video for staff and suggested providing a space outside the video for people to sit and decompress with tissues and trash cans. However, in conversations with my team, we anticipated that  visitors would need more structured support for reflection after viewing this seven-minute-twenty-five-second emotional roller-coaster ride of a video.

The Interpretation Department just recently held a daylong docent training with the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, a non-profit organization specializing in training cultural workers to have difficult conversations in a thoughtful way. At the same time, we were collectively reading a book called Interpreting Difficult Histories at Museums and Historic Sites by Julia Rose. We learned from our training and reading that if an exhibition ends with a theme, artwork, or object that speaks to or recalls something traumatic, it’s likely visitors will walk away feeling sad and frustrated. Instead, we found, we can better support visitors by offering ways to participate and take action so they leave these experiences feeling empowered and heartened.

Our team concluded that we needed a response space with a carefully crafted prompt that would allow visitors to reflect and find hope. Although unprecedented at the MCA, we suggested placing it within the exhibition, directly outside of the video screening space. The curator was very supportive and offered plenty of room outside of the room to house visitor responses. We worked with one of our designers to carve out an intimate area for response and reflection in our otherwise cavernous galleries. She created an eight-foot-tall board and an eight-foot-long writing area. Our prompt read: “After seeing this exhibition, what will you remember, do, say, or share?” and was printed at the top of black cards. Visitors write responses with the white pencils installed in the writing area and slip their response cards into the wall, creating an archive of experiences intended to grow over time. 

Another part of our strategy around this project was to partner with Visitor Experience and Security to schedule a viewing of the video with all frontline staff before the exhibition opened. This was attended by both departments directors, the exhibition curator, and was hosted by the Interpretation team. We screened the video in our theater one morning, followed by a conversation addressing any questions and concerns. Additionally, we created a guide with talking points for frontline staff, including a pocket-size version for Security.

Although we are still in the midst of visitor testing, we know the response wall has been extremely popular. Over the first six months of the exhibition, we collected more than twelve-thousand submissions. Additionally, while other museums reported challenges showing the work, the MCA has had none to date. On the contrary, our front-line staff have continuously relayed visitors’ enthusiasm, sharing that people spend time carefully crafting their responses and reading those of others. All-in-all, we have found that our visitors find our response area a helpful place to process what they are seeing and feeling: an enormous success in supporting this intense artwork.

About the Author

Rosie May is Associate Director of Interpretation and Visitor Research at the MCA Chicago where her teams works accross the museum to bring knowledge about informal learning environments and visitor research into the decision-making process around exhibitions and ensure visitors to the MCA feel comfortable, engaged, and empowered. She has worked in the field of museum learning for over a decade at institutions including the The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She holds a PhD in art history from Temple University, an MA in art history from the University of Illinois, and a BA in English literature from the University of Oklahoma.

Create a website or blog at