The word “exhibit” is one you might associate with a courtroom, or with a museum. In both cases, exhibits are things—texts, visual representations, objects—that are presented for an audience to examine closely, then use to draw conclusions or come to a new understanding.
Similarly, it’s often important for writers to introduce their readers to exhibits. In the context of writing, the term “exhibit” refers to anything that a writer analyzes directly (or “close reads”). You are probably used to using literary texts as exhibits when you analyze literature in English courses—you can click here to see how one Baruch writer close reads a literary exhibit. In history courses, exhibits are often called “primary sources” and analyzing them generates specific evidence for arguments about how and why something happened the way it did.
Exhibits can also help writers to create specific instances of general trends. For instance, in a case study of problematic accounting practices, Enron might serve as an exhibit.
By now, you may have noticed that exhibits can take almost any form, depending on the discipline and genre of the writing. Here are some examples:
- Textual exhibits: works of literature; political speeches; diaries; the Emancipation Proclamation; song lyrics; the Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore
- Visual exhibits: photographs; films; a painting; Mickey Mouse; the graffiti at Ellis Island; a YouTube video; the 1967 MTA map; tourist postcards; sculpture
- Other exhibits (people, places, organizations, experiences and things): Mount Rushmore; Michael Jackson; walking the Appalachian Trail; Enron; the Unisphere in Flushing Meadows Park; watching a reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg
Let’s look at how one student writer introduces and uses an exhibit in his writing. John Baran’s essay, “Mysticism and the Material Girl,” argues that the superficial imagery of Madonna’s career (including Kabbalah and sexuality) obscures a much more nuanced artistic intent. To support this argument about a category as large as “Madonna’s entire body of work,” Baran needed to select a specific instance—to select an exhibit. In close reading such an exhibit, he could then generate strong evidence. In the passage below, Baran presents one of his exhibits (the video for the theme song to Die Another Day) by describing it:
By 2002, Madonna was no longer hinting at Kabbalistic references in her music, and her videos began to use Jewish themes. In the video for the title theme song to James Bond: Die Another Day, Madonna displays some Jewish and Kabbalistic imagery. The video draws some inspiration directly from the film. James Bond is being held captive in a North Korean prison and is tortured for over a year by his captors. Madonna is depicted in her music video in similar situations as those that appeared in the film….
In the video’s finale Madonna is strapped into an electric chair with the tefillin [leather straps worn by religious Jewish men]. Before her captors can complete the deed, Madonna is able to escape. What is left at the end of the video is a black and white image of [an] empty electric chair. As the camera zooms in, the audience can see the inscription of [the Hebrew letters] LAV carved into the back of the empty electric chair.
Baran then analyzes many components of the video mentioned above. (In fact, ten paragraphs are devoted to this single exhibit in this particular essay.) In the passage below, he focuses on the electric chair:
The image of the empty electric chair is shown in a fashion which is very similar to a group of 1963 works by Andy Warhol, most notably Double Silver Disaster. It can be argued that the chair in Madonna’s video is a reference to these works. At the time of debut, people speculated on Warhol’s intentions. Was it a statement against corporal punishment? Was it completely abstract? Or was the chair just used purely for its shock value? Warhol rarely made his intentions completely clear, but the works did spark a conversation on a topic which was not too commonly debated. The works appear today frequently by protesters of capital punishment who use them to make a statement against the death penalty.
Noticing the emptiness of the electric chair, Baran observes a commonality between Madonna’s imagery to that of artist Andy Warhol. He uses this comparison to apply the questions posed by and about Double Silver Disaster to “Die Another Day.” Having developed this kind of evidence again and again about various elements of the video, he can make convincing claims:
At first it seems likely that Madonna’s video is speaking out against some Judaic laws, but the depiction of Madonna being punished for her actions shows a much deeper message. The use of Warhol’s electric chair combined with these scenes of bondage and abuse speak out against imprisonment and torture, as well as criticizing religious laws of forbidding. But, whatever Madonna’s true message may have been, whether to criticize Jewish laws or speak out against capital punishment, the message was lost once again by the critics and rather their focus was on the controversial aspects.
By following a similar process of carefully describing a specific exhibit, then analyzing the significant details of the exhibit and drawing conclusions about the significance, you too can develop your own original claims in your writing.
Baran, John. “Mysticism and the Material Girl.” Lexington Review. 1 Feb. 2010, https://blogs.baruch.cuny.edu/lexingtonreview/journal/mysticism-and-the-material-girl/.
Israel, G. J. “Are These Actual Dead?” Lexington Review. 24 Feb. 2010, https://blogs.baruch.cuny.edu/lexingtonreview/journal/are-these-actual-dead/.