A Brief Note on the Future of America’s National Parks

NPS I am Not AshamedAt some point during the government shutdown earlier this month I wrote about the need to find a balance between preservation and access in preserving our national parks. I also shared an image that was being spread around the internet proclaiming that there was no need to feel ashamed about the National Park Service, even if some of our leaders in Congress feel like they’ve acted in a shameful manner. I was asked by several people on and offline whether or not they could purchase buttons, stickers, and/or t-shirts with the logo emblazoned on them. The answer to that question is yes: I was just contacted yesterday by a person who has undertaken the effort of putting the logo onto these items. Click here to purchase a range of items with the “I am not ashamed” logo on them if you are interested. All funds are going to the Association of National Park Rangers, so they’re going to a good and worthy source.

It is important that those of us who are advocates for National Parks don’t take our foot off the gas because the government shutdown is over. The National Parks experienced funding issues long before the shutdown. The Great Recession of 2008 and recent sequestration cuts have only exacerbated these funding issues, leading to employment shortages, maintenance issues that are long overdue for a fix, and a workforce unsure of where the next cut or shutdown will take place.

I’ve read Anne Whisnant’s article on the need for funding for the NPS several times now, and I think it’s an important read for outlining goals for the future. While I am not comfortable assessing blame on one individual or political party, the recent shutdown demonstrated to me that not everyone is a friend to the Park Service. In 1953, Bernard DeVoto called for the complete closing of the NPS because the service was so poorly funded as to be a national embarrassment. Continued complaints about the state of the Park Service eventually led to President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration undertaking a ten-year, $1 billion dollar effort to renovate the parks in time for the NPS’ 50th anniversary in 1966 (“Mission ’66”).

While Mission ’66 was largely successful, I wonder if a “Mission ’16” project would be successful. In an age of economic stagnation and government contraction, how will America care for its National Parks in the future?


There is No Such Thing as a “Digital Native”

Photo Credit: Ashleigh Graham http://ashleighgraham.edublogs.org/2011/01/06/mind-map/
Photo Credit: Ashleigh Graham http://ashleighgraham.edublogs.org/2011/01/06/mind-map/

I have been doing research on teaching students how to assess historical primary sources (both print and digital) and utilize historical thinking in and out of the classroom. One of the best sources I’ve relied upon for this project is the 2011 publication “Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer?”: Teaching Historical Thinking Grades 7-12, written by history teacher Bruce Lesh. The book is wonderful and I really like his lesson plans. Many of Lesh’s activities challenge students to imagine themselves working as curators, archivists, or some other public historian who is interpreting the past for a larger audience. I hope to write more about Lesh’s book in a future post, but for this essay I am going to focus on a brief comment Lesh makes on page 33:

I am always amazed at how visual images, be they photographs, hand drawn, painted, sculpted, stimulate conversation among my students. It is a testament to the much discussed visual generation, of which they are a part. Inundated with images on television and online, combined with the decline of newspapers and print reading, this generation is more inclined to gather information from visual elements or sparse narratives. The predisposition for the visual over the written, particularly complicated text, is also indicative of the fact that students have been trained to see the study of history as one that involves textual sources…to the exclusion of other types of historical sources.

What Lesh essentially argues here is that his students are “digital natives.” They think and understand the world differently than older generations thanks to their participation in what Lesh describes as the “visual generation,” a new era of students who allegedly don’t like reading and who better process information through the use of visual images and short texts. Because our students are more comfortable with visual images, we should cater our lesson plans to that “learning style.”

The concept of a “digital native” was first penned by Marc Prensky in 2001. Digital natives, according to Prensky, are people who were born into what many refer to as “the digital age.” They are inherently different from “digital immigrants” who were born before the “digital age” but who have “immigrated” to this new age. The use of technology, social media, texting, etc. comes naturally to digital natives, whereas this technology is akin to learning a new language for digital immigrants.

While I agree with Lesh that history instruction has unnecessarily relied upon textual sources to the determent of visual sources such as maps, paintings, and photographs, I cannot agree with the idea of an existing “visual generation” that has a natural predisposition for visual items over textual sources. Additionally, I believe there are no such things as “digital natives” and “digital immigrants.” Here are a few reasons why:

  • Much of the digital technology we use on a daily basis was developed by “digital immigrants” who were not a part of the “visual generation.”
  • Since this technology was developed by “digital immigrants,” any notion of a cognitive difference between Millenials, Generation X, Baby Boomers, etc. lies on shaky ground. Rather than creating a dichotomy that differentiates how people process and apply information, perhaps we should consider the idea that all generations have a disposition to prefer visual images and sparse narratives over dense text. If we acknowledge that the teaching of history from the early 20th century to the present has had many shortcomings and that many students hate the way history is taught and not the discipline itself, then it signals a failure of learning theory, content delivery, and the creation of lesson plans with little purpose among educators rather than any cognitive difference in students today. One of the most exciting aspects of the digital humanities is that historians have so many opportunities to utilize sources that go beyond textual descriptions of the past. I would argue that everyone can have their perceptions of the past sharpened through visual imagery, not just the “visual generation.”
  • Jonathan Berg, a Washington, D.C. Library Director and author of the awesomely titled blog BeerBrarian, cites a recent study in which 315 college students and recent graduates were surveyed about their use of digital technology. The study concluded that younger people were slightly more comfortable using digital technology than people older than them, but it also concluded that younger people were no more comfortable creating technology than older people. In sum, young people are comfortable being consumers of digital technology, but there is no evidence to suggest that younger people are comfortable in their cognitive ability to creattechnology. Additionally, the study also shows that not all young people have access to the same technology. Many people use computers that were created ten years ago and/or don’t have access to smartphone technology.
  • Just because you have a smartphone or participate on Twitter does not mean that you are a “digital native” or that you understand the technology, source code, or power interests behind the creation of that technology. Again, consumption and creation are two very different concepts.

In sum, the notion of a “visual generation” composed of “digital natives” is a myth.


News and Notes: October 24, 2013

Interesting reads from the interwebs…

Musings on culture and technology

  • An addendum to my last post on sports and identity: I had never heard of David Cain before, but this essay on contemporary lifestyles is excellent. Cain argues that the 40 hour workweek is unnecessary in today’s world, but that this form of scheduling continues to be deliberately utilized so that we use what little free time we have to gratify ourselves and spend money. “Western economies, particularly that of the United States, have been built in a very calculated manner on gratification, addiction, and unnecessary spending. We spend to cheer ourselves up, to reward ourselves, to celebrate, to fix problems, to elevate our status, and to alleviate boredom.” In a strange way, I think this may partially account for our collective attachment to sports. This is not to say that sports are trivial or a waste of time. Rather, it seems to me that sports are a meaningful way to keep ourselves occupied with something entertaining and exciting when we’re not working. This is an intriguing article and I’ll be sure to read more of David Cain in the future.
  • Speaking of loneliness and boredom: Here’s a thoughtful essay on a recent rant from the comedian Louis CK on smartphones. L.M. Sacasas argues that Louis CK has a good point in arguing that smartphones are often used to mask boredom, loneliness, sadness, and a myriad of other emotions. When there’s downtime (waiting in line at the coffee shop or at a restaurant, waiting at a stoplight, a commercial on TV, etc.), our first impulse is to go to the phone screen. I’ve certainly been guilty of doing this. Louis CK suggests that these behaviors in children have serious consequences: “You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away, is the ability to just sit there. That’s being a person. Because underneath everything in your life there is that thing, that empty—forever empty. That knowledge that it’s all for nothing and that you’re alone. It’s down there.” Sacasas, however, points out that smashing our smartphones is not the solution. I am reminded of the movie Happy Gilmore, in which a large man is wearing an orange shirt that says “Guns don’t kill people: I kill people.” Sacasas argues for the same sort of understanding when it comes to smartphones. We have to think critically about the ways technology shapes and changes our emotions. Digital technology is here to stay, so there’s no need to be a Luddite. Smartphones don’t make people sad; the way some people use them makes them sad.
  • An interview with Douglas Rushkoff on “Present Shock” and the loss of narrative storytelling.

Public History: Remembering, Forgetting, and Shutdowns

  • Forgetting: In St. Louis, the Bernard F. Dickman bridge (popularly called the Poplar Street Bridge) was renamed the William L. Clay, Sr. Bridge. Bill McClellan of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch shares a few thoughts on the short memory of St. Louis and what it means when a city renames its public streets.
  • Shutdowns: Cathy Bell writes during the Government Shutdown and argues that National Parks don’t run themselves (and that much of the protesting going on against the parks was really a faux civil disobedience movement). The Washington Post asks why the national parks closed in the first place, while University of North Carolina professor Anne Whisnant calls for a “Mission 16” movement in the National Park Service that was similar to the “Mission 66” movement fifty years ago.

Open Access

  • I sometimes write about open access here at Exploring the Past. Here’s an excellent 8 minute video that outlines what the open access movement represents and why many of us are so passionate about it:

And Finally…

  • The creators of Digital Sandbox–three fellow IUPUI public history students and myself–recently submitted a poster for the National Council on Public History’s annual conference in Monterey, California, in March 2014. We found out yesterday that our poster was accepted for the conference and that all of us will most likely be there to present our poster at the conference’s poster session on Thursday, March 20. I was already going to be at the conference thanks to my current employment with NCPH, but I am glad that my cohorts will now have the opportunity to attend as well. It’s going to be a great conference and I look forward to my first trip to the western United States.


Reflections on Sports and Identity

Picture Credit: https://twitter.com/Cardinals/status/391549372577501184
Picture Credit: https://twitter.com/Cardinals/status/391549372577501184

For better or worse, many historical topics are discussed here at Exploring the Past. Some blogs have a fairly strict boundaries for what gets discussed, but I’ve always wanted to create a blog with a broad theme, one that has many different topics and strands of discussion. I’d like to broaden that theme a bit further and explore some thoughts that have been rolling around in my head lately about sports and identity. There are several reasons why this particular topic interests me: 1. I’m an unabashed sports fan (St. Louis sports, to be exact), 2. I’ve lived in two cities with two almost completely different “sports cultures” (St. Louis and Indianapolis), and 3. I think sports can tell us a lot about a particular city and its residents.

Both Indianapolis and St. Louis became centers for sporting events during the Gilded Age. Advancements in industrialization provided money, free time, and leisurely opportunities for America’s middle and upper classes, who frequently resorted to sporting events for entertainment. The St. Louis Brown Stockings began playing baseball in 1882 (later joining the National League in 1892 and becoming the “Cardinals” in 1900). Indianapolis has hosted a baseball team since 1887, and in 1902 the Indianapolis Indians–now a triple A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates–were formed, making them one of the oldest existing minor league baseball teams.

In Indianapolis, however, the real turning point in sports history was the creation of the Indianapolis 500 race. Track founders Carl G. Fisher, James Allison, Arthur Newby, and Frank Wheeler had originally conceived the racetrack in 1909 as hosting a series of races over Labor Day weekend. Following the races on Labor Day weekend in 1910, however, Fisher announced that there would be one 500 mile race hosted on Memorial Day in 1911. Historians of the racetrack such as D. Bruce Scott and Ralph Kramer and Carl Fisher’s biographer Mark S. Foster have all failed to explain why Memorial Day was selected as the race day, but this decision requires serious inquiry and explanation. Since 1868, Civil War veterans, religious groups, and many other residents in Indianapolis had utilized Memorial Day as a day of remembrance and commemoration for Indiana soldiers who had lost their lives in the Civil War. Fisher’s decision to switch the race to Memorial Day received strong condemnation from veterans and religious groups, but by the start of World War I, the race was annually attended by more than 100,000 spectators from all parts of the United States.  Fisher and other business leaders in Indianapolis celebrated the race as a demonstration of American ingenuity and Indiana’s strong automobile industry. By hosting the race on Memorial Day, the holiday’s meaning transformed itself in Indianapolis.

What is interesting about this transformation is the changing rhetoric of patriotism that attached itself to the race. An editorial from the Indianapolis Star on May 31, 1913 captures the idea perfectly. Memorial Day, according to the Star, should still be a day of commemoration for Indiana’s Civil War dead, even though the race was being held on the same day. However, “the men and women [who attend the race] are of the twentieth century; they are looking forward, not back as it is the nature of each generation to do.” Additionally, “at the Speedway they celebrate the triumph of invention and industry that of itself was made possible by the services of the veterans.” By looking forward–rather than the past–Hoosiers were allegedly expressing patriotic sentiments and thanking their veterans by attending this annual sporting event.

In 1957, an annual parade around Indianapolis the day before the race was inaugurated (the date of the parade now varies). According to the Parade’s website, “the committee [in charge of organizing the parade] felt the project should be a civic-oriented, annual activity keyed to the 500-Mile Race.” John Bodnar argues in Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century that this annual parade “emphasized not commemoration [of the soldier dead] but fantasy and escape rather than the serious matter of life” (91). Entertainment was (and still remains) an important part of these parades. For example, parade organizers of the bicentennial celebration of 1976 arranged patriotic floats that included an infant with an Uncle Sam hat and a colonial soldier playing flute with a bear that strummed a guitar (93). Nevertheless, there were messages of American patriotism and civic pride in Indianapolis that attempted to portray the city as a center of “uncontested patriotism” thanks to its annual race.

In St. Louis, Cardinals baseball has dominated the sporting landscape. When the Cardinals win, the city’s residents (and those like myself who support the team from afar) feel good about themselves. We often assert ownership in our teams and our city (“that’s my team!”, “Our city is the best sports city in America!”, etc.) and frame these victories as a reflection of the good people who live in that area. Yet this recent month of Cardinals playoff baseball has me asking why such expressions are made. None of the Cardinals players or coaches except for David Freese were either born, raised, and/or trained for their professional careers in St. Louis. Team owner Bill DeWitt Jr. was born and raised in St. Louis, but moved away from the area long ago and now resides in Ohio (the same questions should be asked of the Indy 500, which is now dominated by racers born outside the U.S.). Sure, the people of St. Louis buy tickets and support the team through thick and thin (I think), but the success of the team on the field really has little to do with anything local St. Louisians have done.

Furthermore, while it’s perfectly normal to take civic pride in a local team through its successes on the field, such success does little in actually assessing the health of a city, as St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan argues. Detroit has had relatively decent sports teams for years, but their city is bankrupt. What does that say about the priorities of the city’s leadership, team owners, and citizenry?

I’m no sports historian, but it’s clear to me that the creation of individual and civic identity and the popularity of sports are intertwined in ways that demonstrate that sports are far more than just games or races. In 1983, Benedict Anderson famously asked in Imagined Communities“What makes people love and die for nations?” The more I think about and understand the power of sports in popular culture, I find myself asking, “What makes people love and die with sports teams?”


Is it Time for Jon Jarvis to Retire?

For five hours today, National Park Service Chief Jonathan Jarvis was grilled by members of the U.S. House of Representatives. House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa of California was particularly harsh on Jarvis, arguing that “I believe he should resign. But the better term is I think he should retire because he no longer serves the public interest.”

Jarvis was charged with immediately shutting down 401 National Parks by October 1. Of the 300 staff members who work at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., all but 12 were furloughed. Parks don’t operate by themselves, and Jarvis correctly argued that such a tenuous situation at the National Mall put the public at potential risk of a serious accident, injury, and/or vandalism. Arguing that Jarvis “no longer serves the public interest” is a pretty mean comment to make, especially by someone who helped facilitate the government shutdown in the first place.

I was unable to watch the hearings today, but I initially applauded Jarvis’ response to Issa when he was quoted as saying that “what I do is I open parks and operate parks, not planning for a closure.” When I first read the quote, I thought it effectively argued that the National Park Service is not in the business of closing parks and preventing access to America’s National treasures to their rightful owners, the American people. However, fellow blogger Al Mackey made a good point that is worth considering:

Based on what I understand about the National Park Service and their contingency planning for past government shutdowns (this is not the first time such an issue has arisen), I feel confident in asserting that the NPS was ready for the government shutdown. My friends in the Park Service were certainly ready for it. Was their room for improvement in communicating the NPS contingency plan to the Public? Perhaps, although the real issue is the handling of contingency details for open-air spaces like the National Mall, not places like Yellowstone or Yosemite (I think). Many people would have complained no matter how good the contingency plan was anyway.

Has Jon Jarvis failed in his capacity as NPS Chief? Should he now be forced to retire, as Issa has suggested? I say no, as I believe Jarvis has been a capable leader of the NPS, even if we acknowledge that there were shortcomings in planning for the shutdown. His work (along with Dwight Pitcaithley’s) in remodeling the interpretations of the Civil War made by Park Rangers at Battlefields and other National Parks is worthy of lavish praise on its own.

The floor is yours.


Designing an Interpretive Strategy for Museums

A few weeks ago I put together an outline for designing an interpretive strategy for museums. I am taking a museum education course this semester, and it has been excellent so far. I created this outline for a class assignment, but I’d like to share it with readers of this blog because I think this document could come in handy for museum practitioners (or teachers or librarians).

Beverly Serrell argues in Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach that an interpretation “is more than presenting information and more than encouraging participation. It is communication between a knowledgeable guide and an interested listener, where the listener’s knowledge and meaning-making is as important as the guide’s” (10). I think this is a wonderful definition of what public historians and museum practitioners do when they interact with visitors to their institutions (although I wonder if a “knowledgeable guide” is really necessary for an interpretation to take place). Freeman Tilden’s 1957 publication Interpreting Our Heritage expands on the definition of interpretation through six principles that are still used by the National Park Service and similar institutions today:

  • Any interpretation that doesn’t relate to the content being displayed or described is sterile.
  • Information is not interpretation, although information is necessary for interpretation.
  • Interpretation is an art (as is communication).
  • The chief aim of interpretation is provocation, not instruction.
  • Interpretation should aim to present a whole rather than a part of given topic.
  • Interpretation to children under 12 should not dilute the presentation to adults. Tilden recommends that children under 12 participate in an alternative interpretive program, but this is not always possible

An interpretive strategy is important for determining how an institution is going to communicate with its visitors. What type of learning theories will be utilized? What objects, artifacts, exhibits, and/or programs will used to deliver content? What argument will be made in the process of interpreting objects, ideas, and information to audiences? What boundaries will be set through the interpretive strategy?

Here’s my outline of what an interpretive strategy can accomplish:

  • WHY?

– Ensures that exhibits are relevant and accessible for target audiences
– Provides framework for planning, decision making, and funding applications
– Integrated approach, shared ownership of strategy
– Establishes common understanding of Museum’s Mission

  • What Does it Cover?

– Short, Medium, and Long Term Goals
– General principles and aims of communication
– Detailed strategies for individual exhibits
– Resource inventory: Accesses availability of time, money, staff, space, and equipment
– Methods for evaluation before, during, and after museum experience

  • Content Guidelines: Physical Context

– Individual characteristics of museum: Size, Structure, Space
– Nature of collections: Size, Appeal, and Environment needed for display
– Display Methods: What types of media are available, and how are they displayed?
– Accessible spaces that promote inclusiveness and social interaction
– Orientation Aids: Signage and floor plans that stimulate curiosity
– Health and safety of visitors and staff

  • Content Guidelines: Learning Objectives

– What are the learning needs of our audiences?
– What is the content/storyline to be discussed? Can it be broken into themes or sections?
– What are the Museum’s learning theories, objectives, and desired outcomes?
– Is the exhibit providing a variety of breadth, depth, and learning levels?
– How are staff being used in Interpretation?
– What is the Museum’s target audience?
– What is the Museum’s Mission Statement?

You can download the PDF here.


Preservation and Access at National Parks

NPS I am Not Ashamed

On October 1, a group of Massachusetts residents arrived at Yellowstone National Park to discover that the park had been closed thanks to the government shutdown. What occurred at that point was then described by the tour organizer in near-apocalyptic terms:

We’ve become a country of fear, guns and control. It was like they brought out the armed forces… They looked like Hulk Hogans, armed. They told us you can’t go outside. “Some of the Asians who were on the tour said, ‘Oh my God, are we under arrest?’ They felt like they were criminals… My father took a lot of crap from the Japanese,” she recalled, her eyes welling with tears. “Every day they made him bow to the Japanese flag. But he stood up to them. He always said to stand up for what you believe in, and don’t let them push you around.”

Another person in the tour group described their treatment by NPS guards as akin to “Gestapo tactics.”

Meanwhile, the National Park Service’s Facebook page has become a cesspool of misplaced outrage and vitriol, as many commenters blame the shutdown of America’s National Parks on the National Park Service itself, not the Congress that is in charge of funding it. One comment that particularly outraged me stated that they would do anything to subvert the wishes of the NPS:

Ha ha, I love this about America… That’s exactly what I’d be doing right now if I had planned and traveled to some of these open-air monuments and parks that are “shut down” for no defensible reason.

I have little sympathy for this tour group, especially because they defied the wishes of the NPS to leave the park and put themselves in potential danger by getting out of the bus to take pictures of nearby bison anyway. Many bloggers have correctly argued that the tour organizers–not the NPS–deserve further scrutiny for the organization of their trip. The government shutdown was anticipated long before October. Others that have expressed their wishes to defy the NPS also deserve little sympathy.

Folks, the parks are closed (except for Utah’s). It takes money to run a National Park, and even though the parks are owned by the American people by virtue of their tax dollars, it doesn’t mean that Americans have unlimited access to their parks, especially when their funding agency decides to cease all funds. What seems to get lost in many of these discussions is that one of the central educational goals of the NPS is promoting conservation and preservation of nature, wildlife, and historic artifacts. Much like practitioners in a library or museum setting, National Park Service employees must find a delicate balance between preservation of and access to resources. Access is important, but that access is meaningless if the resources being accessed are destroyed in the process of accession. When Congress stops funding the NPS, it means that our National treasures are no longer being preserved. Just because you “planned and traveled” to go see a National Park during the shutdown doesn’t mean your wishes will be granted. Rather than blaming the NPS, consider contacting your representation in Washington, D.C.

National Park Service employees fight wildfires, protect borders, provide aid to hikers, educate visitors about American history, and help set boundaries for safe usage of our National Parks (as evidenced in this case here, where someone didn’t follow the rules.). The importance of the NPS and its workers is also clearly laid out here. Sadly, some NPS employees lose their lives protecting visitors of National Parks, and it’s times like these when we need to do a better job of acknowledging the work of the National Park Service. Of all the things Democrats and Republicans disagree on, I’d like to think the NPS is one national organization we can all agree serves an important purpose in promoting and protecting our national heritage.

I am tired of hearing criticisms of the NPS. I stand with the National Park Service.

Progress and Nostalgia in History

It seems that whenever a newsworthy political event unfolds nowadays, social media becomes the central destination for many people to vent their political opinions. These outbursts can be quite frustrating at times because they seem to be self-serving rather than an act of genuine concern with civic engagement and community building. I’ve been guilty of going on political rants occasionally, and I’ve actually learned a lot from political discussions with friends on social media. However, I realize that change most often takes place with real people in the community, and if I really care about making a difference and helping others, writing a status update on Facebook doesn’t equate to much.

The recent shutdown of the U.S. Government has elicited another round of digital outrage. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of these discussions has been the ways in which history is used to justify present day political positions, and there were two common arguments I would like to highlight here. Both are often used to help make sense of the past, and they do much to shape our understanding of the world today:

1. History as Progress: One argument places the blame for the government shutdown squarely on the American people. Their political apathy is the reason why the current members of Congress and the President are in office. With so much information at the fingertips of almost every American today, there is enough information for voters to make informed decisions (ostensibly), so politicians, business leaders, and other elites in society cannot be blamed if they engage in inappropriate behavior or help to shut the government down. The peoples’ political apathy, it was argued to me, can be traced to history. Americans have not had a “real crisis” since the Cold War, and people today don’t know what it’s like to face “hard times.” “Only when real crisis arrives will citizens awake from their slumber and care again,” the argument goes.

2. History as a form of Nostalgia: Another perspective acknowledges that we live in a complex world with many uncertainties. If only we could turn back the clock and live like people did 200 years ago, when things made sense. One person stated this viewpoint as such: “Every family for themselves. Hunt and grow your own food. Pay for your own healthcare with whatever you had to pay with. Teach my children respect and how to use a gun and how God has blessed us with every single thing we have.”

Perspective one acknowledges that people in past societies endured hardships and tribulations. In times of crisis, the people banded together and involved themselves in political issues for the betterment of the United States, something that doesn’t seem to happen as much today. While I certainly agree that the American people hold a good degree of responsibility for electing the same cast of characters in the 2012 elections as they did in 2010, this perspective fails to acknowledge the agency of politicians and the media in shaping how we perceive contemporary political issues. Additionally, it fails to acknowledge that many people are enduring “hard times” today. It also fails to acknowledge the fact that 9/11 was indeed a “crisis” that has profoundly shaped the domestic and foreign policy initiatives of the United States over the past twelve years.

Historian/Sociologist Jim Loewen has described this historical narrative of progress as a form of “ethnocentrism”:

[Americans] have a touching belief in progress. Our high school history textbooks’ overall storyline is, “We started out great and have been getting better ever since,” more or less automatically…This ideology of progress amounts to a chronological form of ethnocentrism. Thus chronological ethnocentrism is the belief that we now live in a better society, compared to past societies. Of course, ethnocentrism is the anthropological term for the attitude that our society is better than any other society now existing, and theirs are OK to the degree that they are like ours.

Chronological ethnocentrism plays a helpful role for history textbook authors: it lets them sequester bad things, from racism to the robber barons, in the distant past. Unfortunately for students, it also makes history impossibly dull, because we all “know” everything turned out for the best. It also makes history irrelevant, because it separates what we might learn about, say, racism or the robber barons in the past from issues of the here and now. Unfortunately for us all, just as ethnocentrism makes us less able to learn from other societies, chronological ethnocentrism makes us less able to learn from our past.

Perspective two acknowledges that our lives today are complex. New issues like the Affordable Health Care Act are complex to the extreme, and all of us are uncertain as to what the future holds. In acknowledging the complexities of our world, however, this perspective reflects a specific way of looking at the past that sanitizes the trails and tribulations people have had to endure throughout history. The fact that African Americans before the Civil War faced the fear of their masters selling off their family members at any moment or that most were never allowed to learn how to use firearms (for obvious reasons) seems to escape this particular view of history. Additionally, “paying for healthcare” implies that there was actually an effective system of healthcare available to most people in past societies.

Is there a way to move beyond viewing history as a form of progress or nostalgia? In my opinion, history is both painful and inspiring. We must acknowledge the hardships and injustices endured by people in history. We can celebrate the great moments too. However, these acknowledgements shouldn’t come at the expense of forgetting the hardships of people today. We don’t have to join the Green Party and sing Kumbaya together, but we should always strive for a greater sense of empathy for the human condition, even if we don’t fully understand the circumstances of others (both past and present). When we talk about an America in which the last “real crisis” was fifty years ago or we portray the past as a nostalgic fantasyland in which everyone got along and had all their problems solved, we actually share our understanding of the world today more so than any understanding of the past. As Peter N. Stearns argues, “history should be studied because it is essential to individuals and to society, and because it harbors beauty.” Through a careful analysis of the past, we can “emerge with relevant skills and an enhanced capacity for informed citizenship, critical thinking, and simple awareness.”

We’ve come a long way, but that doesn’t mean we’re done.


Making History Museums More Participatory

I have been thinking about my visit to the National World War I Museum last weekend, and I find myself reflecting on a few things I would have changed in the museum to make the experience even better (don’t get me wrong, though. It was awesome). From an interpretive standpoint, I found the discussion of postwar issues (the Treaty of Versailles, the creation of the League of Nations, Woodrow Wilson’s failed effort to have the U.S. join the League, etc.), to be strongly lacking, with only one exhibit and a looping video about these political issues and the eventual rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany. Additionally, I thought the way in which the museum interpreted the experience of WWI combat to be problematic in that it almost wholly disregarded the remarkable changes in warfare brought on by the advent of flight. Then again, this interpretation is most likely due to the nature of the museum’s collections, which are full of military uniforms and firearms but lacking in airplane technology (which is understandable). That said, I will focus this post on the concept of museum design and text labels.

Historically, many museums–especially art and history museums–have relied on text-heavy labels and their collections to tell a singular grand narrative, one that often reflected the values and beliefs of the white, upper class curators who oversaw these museums. As David Fleming explains, “Many museums were designed to overwhelm visitors. The classical columns and pediments, the banks of steps, the ornate iron gates… the quasi-religious museum setting is no accident. It derives from a period when the Victorian Establishment believed that this setting was the most appropriate for absorbing knowledge” (216).

Over the past twenty-five years, the mission and purposes of museums have come under intense scrutiny. A large part of this scrutiny is due to declining attendance numbers at all types of museums–but especially history and art museums–where frustrations with the overwhelming experience of museum-going and perceptions of museums as places where the values of high society are widespread. In fact, a recent report has stated that art museums have lost 5 million visitors and history museums have lost 8 million visitors from their peak attendance numbers decades ago. Even children’s and science museums–which don’t rely on collections as much and are more participatory than art and history museums–are struggling. Indeed, five years ago Cary Carson of Colonial Williamsburg wrote a provocative piece in which he warned practitioners at history museums about the need to start preparing for “Plan B.”

Part of this critical dialogue revolves around text labels. As Deborah Perry explains, “traditionally, exhibit labels have served primarily to convey information and interpret objects and artifacts.” Text labels can help guide visitors through a museum exhibit, especially if they provide “meaningful information for visitors, information that answers their questions…information that addresses issues” (28). However, we now understand that museums are social institutions, even more-so than learning institutions. Sure, people come to a museum expecting to learn something (by which I mean that they use their critical thinking facilities, connect new information to prior knowledge, apply creative skills, interact with others in their social group, and realize past mistakes), but the primary inspiration for museum-going is to facilitate interaction with friends and loved ones in a social setting. As P.M. McManus pointed out in a 1990 essay, text labels in museums have an unfortunate tendency to be “conversation hogs” that stifle meaningful conversation in a museum setting. McManus argues that people do in fact read labels at museums, but that people will ignore text labels if they get in the way of their social interactions (4-6).

Perry challenges us to think of ways to design text labels that make learning fun and sociable. She asks, “What if rather than just presenting information to visitors like a textbook, the exhibit served as a more knowledgeable and experienced member of the social group? What if instead of ‘lecturing’ visitors, the exhibit was designed to provide the guidance and direction that is essential for visitors to…move further along in their learning journeys? What if the exhibit asked and answered questions, directed attention, explained the most salient ideas, and made personal connections[?]” (86-87). Ultimately, museums should be working towards “honoring and respecting visitors, their time, and their agendas. It’s about sharing the conversation space with them rather than monopolizing it” (29).

I thought about some of these ideas as I looked at this exhibit in the World War I Museum:

"The Birth of Modern Public Relations" Photo Credit: Nick Sacco
“The Birth of Modern Public Relations” Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

This exhibit is located in the “1917-1919” section of the museum, which spends a lot of time analyzing the United States and their role in the war. There are several things going for this exhibit:

  • It is an interesting topic (at least to me!)
  • the text is relatively easy to understand
  • there is a dose of local history with the mentioning of George Creel
  • there are war propaganda posters to the left of the text that connect with this panel

However, there are problems too:

  • The exhibit is lodged in a corner, making it hard to read for people with accessibility issues
  • If I remember correctly, not all of the artwork to the left is American war propaganda, which can create confusion among visitors (there is also no date mentioned in the text)
  • the text is a hair too long (just envisions yourself standing in place while trying to read this, perhaps with children running around you)
  • the text is delivered in a passive, lecture-based style

How do we make museums (and in this case, history museums), more participatory? That’s a complex answer than cannot be fully answered in this blog post, but I think Deborah Perry is correct when she argues that “Visitors will feel confident and competent when they experience success” (118). This means asking questions, writing clear, easy-to-read-text labels with simple sentence structures and vocabulary, and removing unnecessary or potentially confusing text from the label. By taking these measures, visitors of all ages will feel like they are capable of learning and they’ll be able to do so in a way that doesn’t sacrifice social interaction.

Just for fun, I’ll write a (very) rough draft that tries to utilize Perry’s model for “building confidence” in visitors.

The Birth of Modern Public Relations

Look to your left.

What do you see in these propaganda posters? In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson appointed George Creel of Kansas City to head the Committee on Public Information (CPI).

This organization attempted to promote the United States war effort through posters, patriotic films, and four-minute speeches during movie intermissions at theaters.

Efforts were made to spread the CPI’s messages to all Americans, including non-English-speaking immigrants, African Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanics.

Have you ever seen propaganda before? Where did you see it?

(Original Text: 119 words. Revised: 84).

(Notice how I grab visitors’ attention by directing them to look at the posters on the wall and how I “chunked information” by splitting the text into separate lines, which makes it easier to read).

It’s not perfect, but what do you think? How would you revise the original text (or would you change it at all)? How can we make museums more participatory?