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When a museum display ruins an interesting subject

It’s hard to engage with “Spies, Traitors, and Saboteurs,” now on display at the Chicago History Museum, when the exhibit is so erratically put together.

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Spies, Traitors, and Saboteurs: Fear and Freedom in America," now up at the Chicago History Museum, is an exhibit with a provocative subject that's hobbled by poor presentation. For example, a massive time line—inexplicably mounted on wavelike plastic bas-relief rather than a flat wall—takes up the long hallway at the entrance and immediately confuses the viewer. Walking back and forth along its span, it's possible to trace the events chronicled in each of the exhibition's sections, yet much more difficult to discern connections between them. And because of the time line's physical length, you're actually led past one of the early displays and are forced to double back in order to take in the show in chronological order.

Organized by the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., and arriving at the CHS after crisscrossing the country over the last 13 years, "Spies" focuses on nine events that threatened America's freedom, starting with the War of 1812 and concluding with 9/11. By presenting homegrown acts of terror like the Oklahoma City bombing around the corner from Japanese internment camps, the show challenges visitors to confront the ways the U.S. government and citizenry have dealt with self-inflicted turmoil throughout the country's history.

But "Spies" is beset by weak aesthetic presentation and an illogical layout. Much of the exhibit is presented on divisions that don't reach the room's ceiling, and the supports are made of plywood, foam, and other cheap materials. There are robes and bibles that belonged to members of the Ku Klux Klan, but they're placed next to wall graphics that look like they were printed at a local copy shop 15 years ago. A short anticommunist propaganda film, introduced by Jack Webb, could effectively illustrate the paranoia of the red scare, but the agitprop short is screened across from a wall of ersatz filing cabinets holding reproductions of FBI files on such luminaries as Marilyn Monroe and Paul Robeson. The juxtaposition of actual artifacts and haphazardly manufactured set pieces robs the show of both continuity and impact. Each of the nine events has text, visual, and audio elements, but little ties one section to the next.

In 2004, when "Spies" originally opened, people might have had the patience to sort out the exhibit for themselves, but in 2017 anyone could get more information about the subject matter by reading a few Wikipedia entries and watching some YouTube clips. There are touch screens in the show that ask visitors poll questions, such as how a government should deal with the spies it captures. After one submits an answer, the results of the poll appear, revealing attendees' answers since 2004. An interactive element such as this exists to engage the public, but it just made me realize that I could learn more by going online.  v

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