Legal Mumbo Jumbo

I already have two immediate projects on my plate at my new job. One is that in a couple of months, the museum will start major building improvements. The museum is installing better climate control and compact shelving in collections storage, where all of the artifacts are stored. As a result, I will be in charge of managing and coordinating the move of all collections. We have to clear everything out of collections storage before construction and renovation can begin, and then move everything back in to the new shelves & storage furniture once the renovation is complete.

The second project is to research, write, and create a new temporary exhibit. In addition to the museum’s permanent exhibit, the museum opens a new smaller (1200 square feet) year-long exhibit on various topics. While the topic would normally be up to me, this time I’ve been handed the topic that previous curator was working on before she left. And it is

sorry, fell asleep there. The new topic is….yawn…Local legal history.

Just makes you want to jump up and down, doesn’t it!

I’ve spent this afternoon trying to discern what “local legal history” means, but I still have no idea. The way the Boss explained it to me was that the topic was already researched, an exhibit develop committee was in place, ideas had already been formed, the structure and content was being worked out. But all that’s in the files are scribbles and brainstorming notes from a couple of different meetings. There’s no overall theme or concept here. Some of the notes pertain to individuals who played a role in shaping local legal history — a lawyer who worked in water rights, a criminal whose case resulted in Miranda Rights, and a bio of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner. There are print-outs of wikipedia articles on specific crimes that happened here, and a list of books about the Indian wars. I’m not seeing how this all relates. And it’s not a topic I am particularly interested in, nor sold on, which makes it hard for me to get other people excited about it.

It strikes me that this topic was chosen simply because it’s sensationalist and not because of anything particularly significant. Don’t get me wrong, there are juicy episodes here — murder, cases that set national legal precedents, and nefarious characters. But to weave together these unrelated episodes is artificial and contrived. I’m all about using the trees to present the forest — each display and topic relates to another and together, help to convey an overall point. But this? I have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing here, and I’m unable to draw any conclusions from these tidbits. I mean what are we trying to say here? That Phoenix is riddled with crime, racist cops, and an unevenly applied justice system?

The bottom line is if I can’t wrap my brain around what the story is here, and I can’t be bothered to summon interest, how can I expect our audiences to do the same?

Still having no clue and no guidance for the museum’s legal history exhibit, I had asked the Boss for clarification on the idea behind the exhibit. As in, what is this supposed to be about? What was the thinking behind this, in terms of the overall concept or point? What she handed me was a one-page writeup that she had submitted as part of a small grant application. The writeup confused me even more. Basically it said that the exhibit would be about the “history of laws, vice and crime.” Okay….

Hoping for more meaningful advice, I turned to a discussion forum for help. I posted a question asking if anyone had any ideas on any themes or patterns I might expect to find? Like, do laws in western cities from the 1800s through today say something about the community, and what should I be looking for?

The responses nearly all started with, “I’m not sure what you mean by the history of laws, vice, and crime.” HA! Yeah, me neither!

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