Review: America’s Civil War exhibit at FMPOA

One of the principal pleasures of visiting a museum, aside from engaging with representative collections on an aesthetic level, is gaining erudition, insight, perspective on the subject displayed. The roots of our nation are planted in difficult soil that bore strange fruit still leaving its bitter tinge at the edges. It is that still-felt ripple to this day from the upheavals our ancestors witnessed with their own eyes that I wish to better understand. With photography in its nascence, in those moments of American cataclysm, a way had been found to capture what the eye beheld, and then share outside of the moment in a way never known to us before.

The newest home of the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts is an awkward one. Perhaps it is that I fully expected to exit through the gift shop and happily spend what I could afford on something to support their efforts in the community. Not so. The central block massive desk /study console/command center/thingy helmed by the reception desk that you have to walk around to get to the exhibit spaces is uninviting, as was the pleasant but entirely apathetic manner of the young woman who took our money.

The world leaders portrait exhibit was spot-on. The largeness of the photos and the lighting in the space, along with the clearly enunciated title cards made the portraits themselves really approachable. Faces often give themselves away, and this collection of world leaders’ portraits was elucidating to me in a very new way. Much appreciated.

Each piece on display for the junior exhibit from the museum’s summer children’s programs was delightful. The creativity and sheer fun of each youthful piece deserved more than the poorly lit hallway directly in front of the reception area it was housed in. A random plastic chair with metal legs and an extension cord going nowhere in an alcove was a a bit jarring. I suggest considering moving that entire collection out into the surrounding area of the reception desk, where the light is excellent, and next to the itty bitty gift shop, this would certainly have enticed me to linger and spend money.

The Civil War photography exhibit was up the elevator on the second floor, and again around the  and in two lateral sort of hallway areas that were also not beautifully lit, something I fully expected from of a museum of any kind.

The titles were almost non-existent and contained not one jot of historical or contextual reference aside from the LoC’s designation within the frame from the original prints. Instead, there was a stack of stapled double sided 8 1/2 by 11 sheets of copy paper with a coversheet that made me feel like I was getting ready to grade a 10th grader’s term paper.

As I swiped through the pages of the “Gallery Guide”, I was distressed to see that the formatting was completely off center margins and aligned within millimeters of the paper’s edge a razor left margin and a ragged right margin. It is divided into three “sections”- on the back of the coversheet, a chunk of copied text from PBS.org about the Civil War, a section each for the North and South Galleries. Large chunks of copied text split the list up into aggravating non-referential references. A reference in the Guide to the Display Case handout made me look for another stack of paper, but I saw nothing in the little enclave.

The display cases’ contents were much more evocative than the LoC photos on the wall, in the way that personal items are always in comparison to journalistic ones. They also deserved better than the sliver glitter numbers next to each item that I’m guessing were referenced on the missing handout to give me more information about what I was seeing.

The process of having to look up and down from the photo to the print out detracted from the experience of viewing the photos. I didn’t realize how much I missed contextual plaques within immediate view of the displayed pieces until they weren’t there. It was also dimly lit throughout the gallery sections, which I couldn’t tell was due to intentional avoidance of  glass glare or just not well-lit. Either way, it was frustrating.

The photographs themselves were informative, of course, and I am glad I took advantage of the opportunity to connect with a piece of my American ancestry. The exhibit is open until October 14th.

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