Communication professor's immersive exhibit in media and news literacy will debut at Kalamazoo Valley Museum

Contact: Melissa Priebe
Sue Ellen Christian sits at a table with two other women, pointing out plans for her exhibit.

Sue Ellen Christian works with interns and Kalamazoo Valley Museum staff on her exhibit.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—A new exhibit at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum puts perceptions of the media in the limelight. Created by Sue Ellen Christian, a Western Michigan University Presidential Innovation Professor, the “Wonder Media: Ask the Questions!” exhibit invites people to critically evaluate media and develop skills to identify misleading and unverified news and information.

“Wonder Media” offers an examination and exploration of the role of media in people’s lives. "Our democracy is threatened by misinformation. If citizens do not have a shared system of facts, they cannot govern themselves effectively,” says Christian. “The attacks on honest journalism and the popularity of belief over fact are serious concerns in our society right now.”

Sue Ellen Christian tosses a ball.

Christian tosses a ball at her exhibit.

A professor in Western's School of Communication, Christian pitched the idea for the 14-station media literacy and news literacy exhibit to the museum in 2020. “Wonder Media” provides an immersive, communal learning experience in media literacy and news literacy that targets an audience of 7th graders. The exhibit, which is free and open to the public, is slated to open April 5, 2022 and run through 2023. Visit the museum's website for up-to-date COVID-19 policies regarding admission.

Christian says the exhibit is relevant and timely due the prevalence of media messages in our digital communication society. The exhibit is appropriate for adults and youth, but it specifically targets middle school students. At that age, says Christian, many students have access to smart phones but lack the tools and training to identify misleading and nonverified news and information as well as the knowledge and skills to assess media messages in general for authorship, purpose and point of view.

“The news literacy stations in ‘Wonder Media’ invite users to question how they get information and what information they decide to trust. It teaches users about how honest journalists function and how to verify information with engaging stories, characters and games,” says Christian.

She says the other half of the exhibit covers media literacy. “Media literacy is all about inquiry; who made this and why? What does this message want me to do, think or believe? The digital games and interactive kiosks are designed to teach the habit of asking questions of our media, just like the exhibit title says!”

The exhibit invites viewers to participate in the “Whack a Fact” wall ball game, meet Algo the Robot and play “Escape the Fake” to avoid misleading messaging on social media. School of Communication student Lauren Schuster is working with Christian to create a card game that will be provided to educators who bring their students on field trips. The fast-paced sorting game aims to teach the main purposes of media messages.

Bringing the Exhibit to Life

Many Western students contributed to the project. In fall 2021, WMU Design Center students worked with Christian and the museum staff to design two walls of displays for the exhibit. From the School of Communication, alumna Tirrea Billings' Reflct Media produced the “Whose Story Gets Told?” exhibit element, and student Zaria Bell, an intern on the project, produced a 5-minute video about deep fake technology.

“One of the most important elements, I think, are the many invitations throughout the content to think about how different groups in our society are represented in media. Media shape our identities and our perceptions of others in powerful—and sometimes damaging—ways,” says Christian.

Christian demonstrates a game at her exhibit.

When she conceived of the exhibit, Christian had just finished writing a book, “Everyday Media Literacy: An Analog Guide For Your Digital Life” (Routledge), so the research and scholarship was top of mind. National scholars in media literacy and news literacy peer-reviewed her application of the concepts for accuracy and relevancy to the target audience. Christian scripted the characters and narratives and vetted the concepts with volunteer students from middle schools. Middle school educators provided direction on their curriculum needs. Educators at Western and Kalamazoo Valley Community College also contributed their input on the educational design and the aesthetics of the exhibit.

“My goal in conceiving of and scripting ‘Wonder Media’ was to create an experience that drew on scholarship and brought the current thinking on media literacy and news literacy into a dynamic community setting,” says Christian. “With every concept I drafted, I thought about how to make the learning engaging. It's exciting to see two higher education institutions in our community cooperating on something that is free to the public, and that serves our society.”

To bring “Wonder Media” to life, the Kalamazoo Valley Museum launched the full-scale production of a museum exhibit from scratch under Christian's creative and scholarly direction. Christian was awarded the prestigious designation of 2021-24 Presidential Innovation Professor for her work on the project.

The creation of the exhibit stations, which are spread across two floors, involved the expertise of Kalamazoo Valley Museum staff and administration, notably Tom Howes, lead exhibit technician. Much of the exhibit was fabricated by Impact Communications in Cleveland, Ohio.

Faculty members across disciplines at Western contributed their expertise, as well. Advisory team members from the College of Education and Human Development included Allison Downey, associate professor of elementary education, Dr. Dini Metro-Roland, professor of educational foundations, Dr. Summer Davis, assistant professor of secondary education, Dr. Brian Horvitz, professor of educational technology, as well as Dr. Brianne Pitts, assistant professor of teaching, learning and educational studies, who partnered with Christian for assessment purposes. Kevin Abbott, interactive media specialist and instructor of kinetic imaging at WMU, advised on the project and also built the software for the digital game, “Fact Check This.”

Christian developed a global media literacy course in 2015 that is a general education course offering. She has worked on the faculty of Western for 20 years. Previous to joining academia, Christian was a staff reporter for the Chicago Tribune and other national publications.

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.