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Sophomore exhibits shine light on human rights

Virtual reality helps create simulated displays

Grand Rapids — What makes a museum exhibit resonate with viewers? What gives it a social impact and makes it relevant, not only to the past but to the present and future? 

Sophomores at Grand Rapids Public Museum tackled the question using human rights as a lens, and virtual reality as a tool. 

The 10th-graders were tasked to design museum experiences about marginalized groups or important community issues. They had to pick a topic, select artifacts to represent it and plan an exhibit in a virtual reality simulator with assistance from Casual Simulation, a Grand Rapids-based tech company that partnered with the school for the project. 

The scholars cast a wide net in terms of themes, focusing on topics like data privacy, homelessness, food insecurity, climate change and more. 

Exhibits in Action

Some unexpected days off — the result of winter weather and a water main break in Grand Rapids — cut into students’ prep time, but they still managed to get up and present their ideas during a late March showcase, to one another and to a panel of museum staff members.

Connor Thompson and Ezra Degraaf, whose group opted to do an exhibit on food insecurity, said they work at a nonprofit called New City Neighbors

“They’re like an urban farm, youth empowerment nonprofit,” Connor explained. “I think working there inspired us both to do something like that.”

The subject is a massive and amorphous one, and the group members said it was a challenge to find artifacts to represent it. In the end, they made use of food-related signs and a diner setting for the VR component of the exhibit.

Stephanie Ogren, vice president of science and education at Grand Rapids Public Museum, tries out a virtual reality rendering of a student exhibit

The work was worth it, given the importance of the subject, Ezra said. “It’s one of those topics that’s always surrounding us but is never really addressed.”

Milo Nogues and Maxwell Robach created an exhibit about sexual assault.

“We wanted to bring more awareness to it,” Milo said. “We wanted to mention it and talk about it.” 

The group’s artifacts included pieces of clothing from assault victims and survivors, and the VR portion of the exhibit featured areas devoted specifically to the personal experiences of group members. The aim was to channel the “What Were You Wearing?” traveling art exhibit, which seeks to dispel the notion that victims who wear provocative clothing are complicit in their own attacks.

“It’s closing the stereotype and breaking down the stereotype that what you’re wearing causes it,” Milo said.

The group just barely managed to finish their project in time for the presentations, said Maxwell, but “We got it all done … and we’re really proud of it.”

‘The main thing we try to focus on is empathy and representation, and how to utilize something like a museum exhibit to represent people who really need representation.’

— Benjamin Hoff, Grand Rapids Public Museum School teacher

‘Empathy & Representation’

The human rights showcase is Museum School’s biggest annual collaboration with Grand Rapids Public Museum, science teacher Benjamin Hoff said. It’s also internally collaborative, with Hoff teaming up with history, English and computer science teachers to guide students through the assignment.

Not only does the assignment help students identify worthy causes to learn about and rally behind, it also shows them how powerful a museum experience can be in shaping the minds and hearts of a community.

Sophomore Jack Helmholdt gestures to a rendering of ‘artifacts’ used in his group’s exhibit on housing insecurity. The group used children’s drawings and fliers for discussions about housing issues

“The main thing we try to focus on is empathy and representation, and how to utilize something like a museum exhibit to represent people who really need representation,” Hoff said. 

The assignment aligned with a visiting Nelson Mandela exhibit, which students viewed as they planned their projects. Hoff called it a “happy coincidence” that such a relevant exhibit was at GRPM at the same time.

“Because the Mandela exhibit … really fit within the topic that we gave them to try and represent a marginalized group or rights movement, (it) was just perfect for the project, and it all fell into place.”

Read more from Grand Rapids: 
Montessori students sound out the basics of bluegrass
Zoo School ‘stays exciting’ after first 50 years

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Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley is a reporter covering Cedar Springs, Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids and Sparta school districts. An award-winning journalist, Riley spent eight years with the Ludington Daily News, reporting, copy editing, paginating and acting as editor for its weekly entertainment section. He also contributed to LDN’s sister publications, Oceana’s Herald-Journal and the White Lake Beacon. His reporting on issues in education and government has earned accolades from the Michigan Press Association and Michigan Associated Press Media Editors. Riley’s early work in journalism included a stint as an on-air news reporter for WMOM Radio, and work on the editorial staff of various student publications. Riley is a graduate of Grand Valley State University. He originally hails from western Washington.


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