Museum Interpretation and the Myth of “Drawing Conclusions” from Facts Alone

Photo Credit: Wikipedia
Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Earlier this month I was provided an opportunity to write a professional book review for the scholarly journal Museums and Social Issues. I was given several choices for books to analyze and chose to review Robert C. Post’s newly published study Who Owns America’s Past?: The Smithsonian and the Problem of History. It is a decision I do not regret at all. Post–a retired Smithsonian curator who worked for the institution from 1973 to 1996–weaves primary source analysis, scholarly synthesis, and personal experiences into a well-research study on how Smithsonian exhibits have been conceived, designed, and interpreted since the institution’s founding in 1846. The book is an important read for museum practitioners tasked with interpreting the past for a public audience and for readers who believe the work of interpreting history is objective and apolitical.

One of the most important aspects of Post’s study is his analysis of the Smithsonian’s interpretation of historical events following the Enola Gay controversy of the mid 1990s (readers unfamiliar with the controversy can start with a brief Wikipedia entry and professor Edward J. Gallagher’s website). The exhibit controversy itself was part of a larger conflict of values and disagreements about divisive issues within American society during the 1990s that is frequently referred to as the “culture wars.” Curators working on the Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum attempted to ask questions about why atomic bombs were dropped on Japan in 1945, leading to cries of leftist “historical revisionism” and an unnecessary politicization of history by the institution’s curators. Speaking for many disaffected Americans, House Speaker Newt Gingrich remarked that “Americans are sick and tired of being told by some cultural elite that they ought to be ashamed of their country.” The Smithsonian, argued Gingrich, had become “a plaything for left-wing ideologues.”

Post points out, however, that politicians on both sides took umbrage with the Smithsonian’s efforts at providing museum audiences with an interpretation of history after Enola Gay. Liberal Senator Diane Feinstein–herself a history major in college–echoed the concerns of Gingrich, Ted Stevens, and other conservatives by questioning the notion of interpreting history, arguing that her classes at Stanford taught her that history “was essentially a recitation of fact, leaving the reader to draw their own analysis” (268). Instead of trying to impart “messages” to museum audiences, shouldn’t exhibits be framed in an “objective” mode that allowed visitors to make up their own minds?

A new, redesigned Enola Gay exhibit was completed in 2003 at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Fairfax County, Virginia (Pictured above), an annex of NASM. Post asserts that planes at the Udvar-Hazy Center–more than eighty of them, including a McDonnell Phantom, a Grumann Intruder, a Dash-80, and the Enola Gay itself–did not require much in terms of “enhancement,” i.e. interactive displays or exhibit text. At the Center, “dramatic artifacts were everywhere, and the only thematic touch was the lightest imaginable, a few topical groupings,” according to Post (263). Visitors, it was believed, would be emotionally moved and inspired to “make up their own minds” about these historical artifacts without much interpretation.

Post provides the exhibit text for the redesigned Enola Gay exhibit at the Udvar-Hazy Center on page 264 of Who Owns America’s Past:

Boeing B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay

Boeing’s B-29 Superfortress was the most sophisticated propeller-driven bomber of World War II, and the first bomber to house its crew in pressurized compartments. Although designed to fight in the European theater, the B-29 found its niche on the other side of the globe. In the Pacific, B-29s delivered a variety of aerial weapons: conventional bombs, incendiary bombs, mines, and two nuclear weapons.

On August 6, 1945, this Martin-built B-29-45-MO dropped the first atomic weapon used in combat on Hiroshima, Japan. Three days later, Bockscar (on display at the U.S. Air Force Museum near Dayton, Ohio) dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan. Enola Gay flew as the advance weather reconnaissance aircraft that day. A third B-29, The Great Artiste, flew as an observation aircraft on both missions.

– Transferred from the U.S. Air Force

Post continues by stating that “this spare text was followed by the specs: wingspan, length, weight, speed, horsepower, ordnance, armaments . . . the size of the crew (twelve men) and manufacturer (Martin Co., Omaha, Neb., 1945), and finally a mysterious unexplained number: A19500100000.”

No interpretations . . . just the facts. Just the way Gingrich, Feinstein, et. al. wanted it. What did Post think of this exhibit label? I quote him at length (taken from 264-265):

A handout for the press preview and the opening claimed, “this type of label is precisely the same kind used for the other airplanes and spacecraft in the museum. Its intent is to tell visitors what the object is and the basic facts concerning its history. Over the twenty-seven years of its existence, the museum has carefully followed an approach which offers accurate descriptive data, allowing visitors to evaluate what they encounter in the context of their own points of view.”

NASM could have done better. With some of its artifacts, there had been no single “approach” over the years, nothing of the sort . . . With the Enola Gay at the Udvar-Hazy, it was remarkable how unhelpful–how unfactual–the label was, even on its own terms. Why did it find its niche in an unexpected theater of war? Of what tactical import were the speed and power? The range? The pressurized compartments for the crew? Why no defensive weaponry? How did it happen that a Boeing plane came from a different manufacturer in Omaha? How many B-29s were there, anyway, and how much did they cost?

Nobody could spend any time in the vicinity of the Enola Gay without realizing that people did want to know more, often quite a bit more, and–unless they happened to be with a forthcoming docent–they did not know how to fill in the blanks.

Indeed. By stripping the Enola Gay of its historical context, its human agency, its politics, its deadly impact, and even its facts, the Smithsonian left its visitors without any substance in which to make up their minds about. Nevertheless, the initial controversy in the 1990s and the Enola Gay’s subsequent re-purposing in the early 2000s point to the enormous challenge of creating museum exhibits that meet the needs of different groups and identities in a postmodern society, exhibits that profess to speak on behalf of all Americans. Should the Smithsonian deliver only facts and answers, or should they also include questions, messages, and interpretations as well? If the institution has an obligation to educate and not just celebrate, shouldn’t an effort be made to provide causes, context, and consequences to help visitors “make up their minds” about the tough stuff of history?


“Salvage City” and Historic Preservation

Photo Credit:
Photo Credit:

A friend on Facebook recently shared an article about a new reality TV show that made its debut on the Discovery Channel on December 22. The show is called “Salvage City” and it’s taking place in St. Louis, where a businessman in the downtown area is going into abandoned properties with a camera crew and finding items to repurpose and sell in his shop.

Apparently this businessman (Sam Coffey) has been searching for items in abandoned properties for years, and he readily admits that sometimes he goes onto private property without the permission of property owners. “Am I breaking the law?” remarks Coffey. “I think it is on a case by case basis. Sometimes I probably am . . . If I have to break the law [to save the item], I absolutely see the greater good.”

While highly unlikely in this particular situation, such comments remind me of the recent fire that burned down the historic LeBeau Plantation in Louisiana last month, where seven “ghost hunters,” frustrated because they couldn’t find any ghosts within the building, decided to burn down the property instead. Two completely different situations of course, but the attitude of “I’ll go there if I want to” appears to be the same in both.

Since the legality of such activities is rather dubious, the Discovery Channel has already made sure to receive approval from property owners before filming. Even if the legalities are taken care of, however, I’m still not sure if this method of searching for “repurposeable” items is in the best interest of historic preservation.

On the popular History Channel show “American Pickers,” the two pickers (Frank and Mike) go to properties and work with owners to purchase goods that they can resell at their shop. I think “American Pickers” is more fair to property owners that “Salvage City” because they discuss the historical provenance of a specific item, negotiate a mutually fair price for purchasing the item, and then make efforts to preserve the item and sell it to customers who will take care of the item. With “Salvage City,” it seems as if Sam Coffey’s decision making process is rather arbitrary. He alone assesses the historical provenance of an item, determines its monetary value without input from the owner, and repurposes the item for uses that he deems important. For example, the article I link above mentions that Coffey once grabbed a bowling pinsetter and turned it into a whiskey rack for his office.

I’m glad that Coffey and the Discovery Channel took efforts to gain permission from property owners before hunting on these derelict properties, and perhaps this whole idea of salvaging “trash into cash” isn’t a big deal. As long as the property owner says it’s okay, some will say, then there’s no problem. Nevertheless, sometimes what’s okay with a property owner is in direct tension with the need for historic preservation of buildings, artifacts, and human stories.

What do you think?


Update: Here is the Riverfront Times‘ take on “Salvage City.”

Challenges in Explaining Public History to My Friends and Family

I’ve been visiting with friends and family back in St. Louis for the holiday break, and, as is the case whenever I come back to town, I get questions about what I’m doing at IUPUI. When I tell them I’m studying public history, I usually get a variety of responses ranging from “what’s public history?” to “so you’re not teaching anymore?”

To be sure, academic awareness of public history, I think, is improving. Denise Meringolo’s wonderful book on Museums, Monuments, and National Parks demonstrates that the concept of a “public history” outside the classroom has existed in the United States since the late nineteenth century, even though scholarly attention to such a concept was lacking until well into the twentieth century. Amid a serious job crunch for new history Ph.D.s in the 1970s, scholars turned to the federal government, private businesses, historical societies, consulting firms, and museums for employment, prompting an effort by scholars (particularly those at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who started publishing the scholarly journal The Public Historian in 1978) to give public history a tentative definition (“public history refers to the employment of historians and historical method outside of academia”) and a set of best practices/professional standards by which to train prospective students for work in the field.

More recently, the past ten years has seen the number of public history programs in the United States increase dramatically, with some history departments turning to the creation of public history programs (or at least the hiring of one professor with a public history background) to address a declining number of history majors and the continually poor job prospects in academia (which in itself raises questions about the possibility of too many public history programs now in existence). There are now more students than ever who are choosing to pursue public history for a career, demonstrating that there is certainly no shortage of people interested in sharing the stuff of history to a public audience. Even better, the establishment of arguably the best public history blog on the internet, History@Work, provides more opportunities for audiences outside of the academy to learn about the latest scholarship and pressing questions in the field of public history.

Despite these gains, I still find myself questioning the extent to which non-academic audiences understand what public history entails and, in a greater sense, what it means to employ historical thinking. A few recent examples reflect my own concerns. A post by Jason Steinhauer at History@Work points out that the commemoration for the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s March on Washington in August was completely devoid of any remarks from a historian, to which Cathy Stanton deftly responded that the term ‘historic’ “has just become a kind of premium brand for any event or cause, rather than a way of seriously thinking about what happened in the past or what’s happening in the present and how they’re connected to each other.” Additionaly, a study in September found that museums of all types are experiencing serious attendance decreases, but that history and art museums–places where many public historians are employed–are dealing with particularly sharp declines: art museums have lost 5 million visitors since their peak levels decades ago, while history museums have lost 8 million visitors. For someone interested in working in a history museum such as myself, this statistic is quite alarming.

Not too long ago, when friends and family asked me what public history is, I used to tell them something along the lines of “it’s history outside the classroom.” While this is true to an extent, I now realize that this “history outside the classroom” definition may encompass activities like watching Nazi documentaries on the History Channel or participating in a battle reenactment . . . activities that may be considered public history and that may sometimes employ historical methods and thinking, but that no clear consensus currently exists as to whether or not they constitute “public history.” Nowadays I try my best to explain public history as history in an interpretive setting outside the classroom, places where audiences are presented with an argument about the past and challenged to think about a range of historical questions: causes and consequences of historical events, change and continuity over time, how people of the past viewed their world, and what we today can learn from the past.

I also make sure to explain that I’m still teaching, even if not inside a classroom. Philip Scarpino, the person who created the public history program at IUPUI that I now attend, captures this idea when he explains that “all historians conduct research; all historians analyze and interpret what they find; and all historians communicate their findings to others” (emphasis mine). The difference between history in the classroom and history in a public interpretive setting, he explains, is “found in the area of communication, in the audiences with whom we communicate, and in the methods that we use to communicate our scholarship to those audiences.” Public historians are teaching and communicating with audiences–just like academic teachers–but they frequently work with people of all ages, many of whom are not enrolled in a school and who do not engage in historical thinking on a daily basis. Who we’re communicating with may be different, but we’re all communicating.

I try my best to explain these particulars to others not in public history, but who knows if it actually makes sense. I think I can do better, and I’m curious as to how others communicate the essence of public history to their audiences. If you had between 30-60 seconds to explain what public history is to a friend or loved one, how would you go about doing it?


The Internet as an Archive of 21st Century History

The Stream
“The Stream”

Several days ago I read a fine piece in The Atlantic from anthropologist Alexis C. Madrigal on real-time internet content/information delivery, what Madrigal refers to as “The Stream.” Whether it be Facebook, Twitter, Google Reader (R.I.P.), or the New York Times, many websites have turned to the stream as a means for instantly delivering information that is ostensibly meaningful to readers. The screenshot above is from the “Times Wire”–which is run by the New York Times–and it exemplifies the machinations of the stream: instant updates, individualized content, and and a sense of inclusion, by which I mean a feeling that you are keeping up with and understanding (at least somewhat) what’s going on in the world.

Madrigal explains the stream as such:

The Stream represents the triumph of reverse-chronology, where importance—above-the-foldness—is based exclusively on nowness. There are great reasons for why The Stream triumphed. In a world of infinite variety, it’s difficult to categorize or even find, especially before a thing has been linked. So time, newness, began to stand in for many other things. And now the Internet’s media landscape is like a never-ending store, where everything is free. No matter how hard you sprint for the horizon, it keeps receding. There is always something more.  Nowness also transmits this sense of presence, of other people, that you get in a city when you go to a highway overpass and look down at all the cars at any time of the day or night.

Given my recent embrace of Twitter and my belief in its enormous potential to deliver information to me that I find important, I am now more than ever a product of the stream. Rather than reading a newspaper, I now check my Twitter stream in the morning to see what’s happening, to find information that “newsworthy” to me. When I find content personally interesting, I contribute my own small part to the stream through tweets, Facebook posts, and essays on Exploring the Past. Since I started this regiment of blogging and tweeting one year ago, I’ve been blown away by the connections I’ve made with people all over the world and the number of visits I’ve had to this blog (more than 10,000 so far).

Yet there are times when I feel as if the stream overwhelms me. Sometimes I feel like I can’t get away. I try to work on projects, school assignments, etc., but the pull of nowness sucks me in, challenging me to stop work to check and see if I’m missing something important in the stream. Equally frustrating, these streams make little distinction between what Robin Sloan refers to as “flow” and “stock.” “Flow” refers to information designed for the here and now: updates and tweets about weather, daily activities, your pumpkin spice latte, etc. “Stock” refers to content that I’d argue is more than information in that it actually contributes to knowledge construction; material that you’d still refer to long after its incorporation into the stream.

Madrigal’s article raised larger questions within me about how we view the internet from a holistic viewpoint. If we rely on the stream for obtaining information, how do we promote and preserve meaningful flow and stock content for the long term? Can we break away from the pull of the now to make room for reflection on what has already occurred in recent memory?

Part of the solution, I think, is understanding that while the internet provides us meaningful information for the here and now, the internet should also be viewed as a historical, archived space. Sure, there are sites like the Internet Archive, Google Books, HathiTrust, and Chroncling America that provide public access to historical events, documents, and artifacts from the twentieth century and earlier, but how do we go about archiving the history we make every day through our interactions on the stream? Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and other related sites are not just sources for nowness: they’re also tools and resources for future historians looking to interpret the history of the early twenty-first century.

Viewing the internet as a historical archive will require more discussion and questioning, as far too many website proprietors view the content and interactions on their websites as disposable rather than historical. Ian Milligan points out that major websites such as Yahoo! and MySpace have recently destroyed millions upon millions of historical digital records, embracing the notion of “who needs old stuff when the future is here?” In the case of MySpace, bloggers who used the world’s largest social media website from 2005-2008 to share their thoughts had their information wiped out instantly in June of this year. As Milligan argues, MySpace “meant something to multiple millions of people,” and future historians are now more impoverished thanks to this focus on the now.

How do you go about preserving your digital records? What would you do if Facebook, Twitter, or WordPress suddenly deleted all of your content, all of your flow and stock?


News and Notes, Friday the 13th Edition

The past two weeks of school have absolutely consumed me. Two major projects, two professional book reviews, and writing the last ten pages of my third and final master’s thesis chapter have left little time for blogging and, quite frankly, I’m temporarily burnt out on writing. I have a lot of new ideas rolling in my head and over the next month there will hopefully be a lot of content worth sharing, but for the time being I’ll share some noteworthy articles worth reading:

  • The median grade at Harvard University is an A-, prompting claims that Harvard faculty are engaging in grade inflation.
  • Andrew Hartman on the curious avoidance of Noam Chomsky by historians.
  • The eminent American historian Michael Kammen passed away on November 29. A major loss to the entire discipline.
  • Michael Piotrowski muses on the dangers of creating a definition of “digital humanities” that is too rigid and exclusionary.
  • Philip Bump argues that while learning to code can help to develop important and marketable skills, “every American should know basic math. Every American should understand the logical underpinnings to coding, the way conditional clauses work and the cyclical way in which systems are constructed. Americans should know that the way a website works isn’t the way a video game works which isn’t the way a bank’s database works, but they don’t need to learn to “code” all of those things. Just as every American doesn’t need to get certified as a mechanic, but should know how to change a tire, every American should know how computer systems work in the abstract but doesn’t need to code.”
  • Google launches Open Gallery to help any museum or gallery create online exhibits.
  • A Pew Study finds that while public library usage is down in America, 94 percent of Americans still believe that libraries postively contribute to the quality of life in a community.
  • Rachel Laudan on the relationship between history and the historical sciences: “What’s So Special About the Past?”
  • Alexis Madrigal on Stream-based information delivery services. More thoughts from me on this excellent piece in a future post.


Words to Live By from Nelson Mandela

Photo Credit: Wikipedia
Photo Credit: Wikipedia

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” – Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom

Bill Keller’s brilliant obituary of Mandela in the New York Times.

The wisdom of Nelson Mandela.

Some useful questions for historians to consider when assessing the legacy of Nelson Mandela.


A Student’s View of the NCPH Guide

I was recently tasked with writing a short essay for the National Council on Public History’s Public History News as a part of my duties with the organization for the 2013-14 academic year. For my first essay I felt it important to reflect on the NCPH Guide to Public History Programs and talk about my process for finding a public history program that fit my needs. This guide was a great help to me when I applied for programs and we’re hoping more public history programs will take advantage of it to provide interested parties with up-to-date information. Current NCPH members can find this essay in Public History News 34, no. 1 (December 2013), 7, which is heading to your mailbox right now.

When I began my search for a graduate school to develop my skills as a public historian two years ago, the National Council on Public History’s Guide to Public History Programs became a vital aid in helping me choose a program that was most appropriate to my needs and interests. This guide—distributed as a print publication for members of NCPH as late as 2006 but now accessible online to anyone—is an important resource for prospective students and public historians seeking a clear picture of the state of the field.

Public history education at both the undergraduate and graduate levels has experienced tremendous growth over the past ten years. As NCPH President Bob Weyeneth has argued, history students who are interested in taking their work outside the classroom have turned to public history to “shape public attitudes about the past,” work in a collaborative setting, and make history meaningful to themselves and their audiences. I graduated in the spring of 2011 with a social studies teaching degree and worked as a teacher for one year, but my own experiences with several public history internships during undergrad inspired me to consider a career teaching people of all ages about the past in an interpretive setting.

I acquired valuable skills during those internships, but I understood that I needed more training in public history theories, methods, and practices. At the time I was unsure where to go or who to turn to for help in finding a public history graduate program that worked for me. Thankfully, a professor led me to the Guide, which helped to start the process of learning about and applying for public history programs

I began my search by combing through each hyperlinked guide entry, which led to a PDF document that outlined a specific program’s history, contact information, financial aid opportunities, places where students had internships, and employers who hired students after graduation. I made an excel spreadsheet with each of these designated fields and a list of 30 schools that looked compelling to me. I then visited each program’s website to learn more about tuition costs, curriculum requirements, and campus life. I also made phone calls to program directors, telling them that I had looked at the Guide and that I wanted to hear a “pitch” for their program (I discovered later that email was oftentimes a faster and more reliable means of communication than a phone call). As I narrowed down my list, I arranged formal phone interviews and campus visits with my top choices.

When applying for public history programs, I thought about the following questions:

  • Do I understand what public history is? Do I know the difference between public history and museum studies?
  • Do I want to study a specific concentration within public history (archives, historic preservation, interpretation, etc.) or do I want more generalized training?
  • Am I willing to relocate for graduate school? If so, where?
  • How much will it cost to attend school? What is my budget? What are some possible avenues for financial aid?
  • What is the status of the economy? Are there jobs in public history?
  • What is the history of the school’s public history program? Does it fit my needs?
  • What were my impressions of the faculty I communicated with during the application process? Did they sound committed to helping me achieve my scholarly and career goals?
  • Am I prepared to fully commit myself to graduate school? Going to school simply to wait for the job market to improve is problematic.

Answers to some of these questions are still coming into focus for me, especially while I have been helping to update the current NCPH Guide in my role as the NCPH graduate assistant this year. The previous complete update for the Guide was in 2010. Rapid changes in the field and the negative effects of the Great Recession, I think, make it more important than ever for public history programs to provide precise information for prospective students and professional public historians.

Some Additional Thoughts on Jane Sutcliffe’s Biography of Barack Obama

A few weeks ago I wrote an essay on a children’s biography of Barack Obama written by Jane Sutcliffe. I read about this book through an article expressing outrage over the book because of several allegedly racist and outrageous claims made within the first few pages of the book. I went to Amazon and read a few pages of the book while also comparing it to another biography Sutcliffe wrote on Ronald Reagan. I came away disappointed in what appeared to be a deliberate attempt by Sutcliffe to eliminate Obama’s family from the narrative of his childhood and posed several questions for readers to consider when choosing historical biographies for elementary classrooms.

I took a “digital break” over Thanksgiving and stayed away from Exploring the Past for about a week, but I read a very fine piece from fellow scholar and emerging historian Andrew Joseph Pegoda on his take of Sutcliffe’s book. Much to my initial surprise, Andrew came away impressed with the book and did not take any offense to it. He took the time to purchase and read the book all the way through and concluded that within the larger context of the book, Sutcliffe actually portrays Obama as a young boy without a father for most of his life, leading to many uncertainties about his personal identity but ultimately a drive to succeed in life. Most importantly, Andrew reminds us (myself included) that context matters. To wit:

Context matters. Actually reading the book before having any opinion matters. And the drama around this book is a good reminder for all of us, including myself, that two passages do not represent an entire work. The book simply tells the story of Obama’s life. It opens with details about his childhood, family, and early school days. It talks about his “coming of age” events and starting college. It talks about how he worked long and hard from being somebody no one knew to somebody many people knew. It talks about his rise to becoming president. That’s it.

It’s safe to say that I probably overreacted to a sensationalist news article without digging deeper for the larger context of Sutcliffe’s argument. I went through the same pages again and definitely see Andrew’s point of view. Nevertheless, I still think the one passage I found offensive on page 11 is sloppy writing. Sutcliffe refers to “the black characters [“Barry”] saw on tv” as influencing him to act tough, curse, and perhaps even trying drugs in the future. While that all may true (I don’t know), I still think the wording on that could lead to misunderstandings within young students. Not all African Americans behave that way on the television today and that wasn’t the case when Obama was a boy. Andrew’s persuasive piece forces me to retract my claim of the book being “blatantly racist,” but I still think the page 11 passage holds the potential to perpetuate old stereotypes and misunderstandings about African Americas. Likewise, I still find it interesting how Sutcliffe’s portrayal of Reagan doesn’t seem to make any attempt to show any personal crises or identity issues within him, even though I’m sure such issues may have emerged at some point in his life. Ultimately I’d like to see if there are other children’s biographies of Obama that are used in elementary schools and compare those with Sutcliffe’s to see how they interpret Obama’s childhood.

I consider this exercise a lesson learned on my part. I think sometimes it’s easy for me to get riled up about controversial topics in the classroom. I often read articles through twitter, engage in lots of online conversation, and sometimes write blog posts on the spur of the moment. I believe the questions I posed in my last post should be taken under consideration, but I now realize with much regret that I was mistaken in some of my interpretations of Jane Sutcliffe’s biography. Sometimes it helps to wait an extra minute and do some extra digging before writing out my thoughts online.