A Comparative Review of the First Ladies Exhibit

The First Ladies. Created and maintained by the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian, Washington, D.C, Reviewed Feb. 11, 2022.

The comparative review I chose was The First Ladies exhibit that is located in the National Museum of American History. I chose this exhibit because I found it both peculiar and interesting. The set-up of the physical exhibit is incredibly easy to navigate through. It primarily provided a single flow of traffic, which made it nice to not bump into people. There is a single loop within the exhibit. The loop is defined by Michelle Obama’s Inaugural Gown. The digital presence was also incredibly easy to navigate. Everything is individually categorized by either name, object, activity, etc. The physical exhibit has a much more regal, almost pageant-like feel to it. When looking for the argument of the exhibit, the digital site encourages the viewer to consider the ways in which the role of the first lady has changed over the course of the years. Although this was the argument for the physical exhibit, I came up with my own while walking through it.  The argument that I felt was embedded within the physical exhibit was “what was the true role of the first lady?”. I felt that this argument was also applicable to the virtual tour of the exhibit. The items that were on display within the exhibit included gowns worn by the first ladies, pieces from their china collections, as well as other small trinkets. I found that the answer to this posed argument was simply entertaining guests at the White House. The physical design of the exhibit made this answer easier to reveal. The design consisted of a very dim room with glass display cases. In each case was an object under a spotlight. I felt that this design decision accurately described what life was like for the first ladies. They were constantly in the spotlight in terms of when it came to the public. They were expected to be the perfect wife and role model for the rest of the women in the United States. When looking at the digital site, users are able to take a virtual tour which helps create a similar experience with those who visit the physical exhibit.  The main audience for this exhibit is women or young girls. This was apparent in both the physical and digital presence. When I was at the physical exhibit there was a majority of women and children viewing the exhibit. I believe the assumptions that can be drawn from this exhibit is that those who curated believe that these dresses and china collections are the best expression of what a first lady is. These were prevalent more in the physical exhibit than in the digital presence. The digital presence had more information concerning other activities of the first ladies such as campaigning and other political advocacy. There are some interactive elements for the exhibit on the digital presence. When on the site, you are able to take a virtual tour of the exhibit and look through the belongings of certain first ladies. During the virtual tour, the user is able to click on the dress of a first lady. Information is then displayed about who the dress belongs to, which event it was worn at, and a description of her shoes and jewelry that were worn with the dress. Although there are not a lot of interactive elements on the digital space, it does give a good idea and feel as to what the exhibit is like in person. The interactive dress selection is very neat and almost feels a bit like online shopping. I think the small amount of interactive elements on the digital space is due to the size of the exhibit, as it is rather small compared to many others. Unfortunately, there were no interactive elements within the physical exhibit. However, I do not know how they would incorporate an interactive element in this exhibit due to the items on display. When visiting the physical exhibit, I saw those who worked at the museum within the exhibit but I did not see much interaction between them and other visitors. The digital space does not have opportunities to get in touch with the specific curators of this exhibit.

If I was given the opportunity to change the physical exhibit, I would include more than just dresses and plates. Many people tend to think of the first lady as just some pretty face that is used for the gain of their husband who is running for office. It is their job to make the public believe that they are a happy couple. However, there is much more to many of these women. I felt that the physical exhibit represented the idea of the first lady and who the country thought she should be. I would like to add more items, objects, diaries, etc., that showed what made them different and unique to the position. Many first ladies were very politically active. I would like to include other materials that represent the power that the first lady is granted. I believe that this would make the exhibit more effective and open up the curiosities of more people than just women and children.

If I was given the opportunity to alter the exhibit on the digital space, I would include a page where visitors can exchange thoughts, ideas, opinions, etc. The main reason I believe this would be effective for the digital space is that the main question is posed on the first page of the exhibit. The curators are asking for visitors to see if there are any changes in the first ladies over the years. I think that this space would allow people to generate answers to this question. It could also allow for new questions and opinions to be formed. Another interesting addition to the digital space could be linked to some of the organizations or projects that have been created by certain first ladies. It would give the user more information concerning who that first lady was as a person, her beliefs, and values. This would not only help establish a better connection between the viewer and the material but also between the viewer and the first lady herself.

Overall, the physical exhibit and digital space of the exhibit are incredibly similar. Again, I believe this is due to the size of the exhibit. However, both presented the viewer with many questions concerning the lives of the first ladies. They are both incredibly easy to navigate through and leave you wanting more. I believe that this exhibit, both physically and digitally, offers more than just one argument. This is mainly a result of the items that are on display. It was the same items for every woman, which can encourage the visitor to become even more curious about who these women were as individuals. I think that this exhibit is beautiful and showcases the elegance and regality of these women. However, it also represents how these women were more than just pretty dresses and fragile dining china. I hope those who decide to visit this exhibit leave feeling more curious than ever.


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