I wrote an essay for the American Association for State and Local History about doing educational programs with fourth graders and what we as public historians can learn from such experiences. Check it out here and let me know what you think!
Next week I’ll be heading out to Indianapolis to attend my fourth straight Annual Meeting of the National Council on Public History. I lived in Indy for two years while pursuing my Master’s degree at IUPUI and am looking forward to seeing a lot of my old friends inside and outside the public history field while there.
I initially planned on keeping my obligations light for this conference compared to past years, but that changed quickly. As co-chair of the NCPH Professional Development Committee I helped organize this year’s Speed Networking session and will be emceeing the actual event. I was also asked to moderate/facilitate a really fascinating panel on Friday, April 21st at 3:30PM: “Touring Sites of Nostalgia and Violence: Historical Tourism and Memory in Germany, Poland, Turkey, and the United States.” Each presenter is really talented and the conversation should be fascinating. On top of these events I’ll be mentoring a grad student throughout the conference and will help run the Professional Development Committee’s yearly meeting at the conference.
Last year’s conference theme was “Challenging the Exclusive Past,” and I came away thinking that the actual theme was “Challenging the Exclusive Public Historian.” This year’s theme is “The Middle: Where Did We Come From? Where Are We Going?” I’m not sure what to make of this theme right now because “The Middle” seems like an ambiguous term in the context of public history, but hopefully after what will turn out to be a fruitful meeting my thoughts will clarify afterwords. Stay tuned!
One of the last things I did in 2016 involved taking a short trip to New Orleans, Louisiana, to visit a good friend of mine and explore some of the historical sites in the area. The trip was wonderful and I also enjoyed the eighty-degree temperature outside, a nice contrast to winter in the Midwest.
About three years ago I had the opportunity to visit the National World War I museum in Kansas City. The National World War II museum just so happens to be located in New Orleans, and we made a point of spending nearly an entire day visiting the site. I came away from the World War II museum impressed with some aspects and less impressed with others. I’ve been thinking about the similarities and differences of my experiences at both museums since the trip, and what follows are some rough thoughts on those experiences.
One of the major aspects of the World War II museum is its use of technology throughout the museum. Upon arriving at the museum, visitors have the option of obtaining a “Dog Tag” card that looks like a credit card. Computer stations throughout the museum have a spot where you can put your card on a scanner, upon which the computer shows a short video of a World War II solider who is assigned to your card. Five stations throughout the museum tell a different aspect of your soldier’s experiences before, during, and after the war (if they survived it). Notwithstanding the difficulty of finding some of the computer stations (I missed two of them) and the lack of available computers (I don’t think I’ve been to a museum that was so busy and people were almost always hounded around the computers), I though the activity was thoughtful and educational. My “Dog Tag” had the story of four-star General Benjamin O. Davis, who happens to be an extremely important and heroic figure in U.S. military history. Elsewhere there was an interactive activity about the USS Tang, a ship that sunk thirty-three enemy ships during the war, that was immersive and interesting. Visitors were assigned to a station within a recreated model of the Tang and given a specific duty on the ship to complete during a mission.
Other uses of technology in the World War II museum were not as successful, in my opinion. The museum was full of videos throughout the exhibits, all of which had sound. The sounds from each of the videos often bled into each other, creating a wall of cacophonous sound that distracted from the exhibit text and artifacts in a given area. Equally frustrating was how the walkways throughout the exhibits were not large enough to isolate video-watchers from the rest of the crowd. People would stop to watch the videos and block the walkways for other museum-goers, creating cramped hallways and little breathing room to maneuver through the museum. The World War I museum, by contrast, doesn’t utilize as much digital technology in its exhibits but uses its resources in ways that are more user-friendly. Videos about the political situation in the 1910s, the coming of World War I, and the United States’ decision to enter the war are isolated from the rest of the museum exhibits, allowing visitors who want to see the videos the freedom to do so while not distracting from others who want to visit the museum’s other exhibits. While the World War I museum doesn’t offer a “Dog Tag”-type activity for visitors, it did offer one interactive activity in which visitors created their own propaganda posters using graphics and artwork from posters used in various countries at the time.
The other noticeable aspect of both museums is the role of politics in their interpretive exhibits. The World War I museum does a masterful job in both its exhibits and videos of analyzing the political conditions that existed in Europe before the coming of the Great War. Topics such as nationalism, colonialism, imperialism, racism, and entangling alliances are explained with clarity and precision without sacrificing complexity. Equally important, the World War I museum places particular interpretive emphasis on conditions in Europe, not the United States. I believe this distinction is really important. While the museum is tasked with educating visitors about the American role in war, the staff at the museum astutely understand that this role must be fit within a larger story that spends several years in Germany, England, France, Austria-Hungary, Serbia, and the rest of Europe before the U.S. became a leading actor. The museum’s splitting into two sections between the years of 1914-1916 and 1917-1918 (when the U.S. entered the war) reinforces the importance of not focusing on the war’s history through too strong of an American lens.
The World War II museum, however, struggles to address the equally messy politics of that conflict. The exhibits throughout the museum barely touch political matters beyond the interactions between politicians and generals with regards to military strategy and tactics. A film narrated by the actor Tom Hanks does acknowledge that the U.S. faced two growing enemies in fascist Europe and imperial Japan, but doesn’t explain how these two forces came to be. Visitors are told, for example, that the Nazi party ruled Germany through the ideological lens of hatred and Aryan racial purity, but doesn’t explain how the Nazi party appealed to a wide swath of German voters or point out that Hitler was democratically elected. Likewise, Japan is portrayed as a militaristic, land- and -resource-hungry empire bent on conquering all of Asia, but why Japan held these ambitions and how they gained such power in the first place is left unexplained.
Another contrast of equal interest is the use of patriotic themes through these museums. The World War I museum takes a somber, reflective tone throughout its exhibits. The most notable example is the Paul Sunderland Glass Bridge. Underneath the bridge lies 9,000 poppy flowers in a field. Each flower represents 1,000 deaths during World War I, symbolizing the nine million people worldwide (not just Americans) who died in that conflict. No such display is exhibited in the World War II museum, and while the Tom Hanks film points out that 65 million people worldwide died in World War II, it becomes evident in the film and surrounding exhibits that the 400,000-plus Americans who died during the war will get particular attention in the interpretive programs. Nothing demonstrated this fact more than a musical program in one of the World War II museum’s buildings. Three women in 1940s-style dresses–one red, one white, and one blue–sang patriotic songs for roughly thirty minutes, including the songs of each military branch and Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.” During Greenwood’s song the women pulled out a U.S. flag, which in turn led to rancorous applause among the museum’s visitors. This exercise isn’t necessarily wrong or out of place at a museum of American history, but I can’t help but feel like such a display would feel unusual at the World War I museum. Likewise, similar exercises would feel awkward in a German museum like the Jewish Museum, Berlin, or the German Historical Museum, both of which I visited in 2015, where such open displays of patriotism and nationalism are fraught with their own difficulties and historical baggage. The musical program reinforces the history of World War II as a “Good War” in American memory, as historian John Bodnar explains in his 2010 book on the topic. U.S. involvement in World War II was good, of course, but the story is more complicated than singing a Lee Greenwood song.
In sum, the interpretive focus of the World War I Museum is a warning in the dangers of excessive nationalist sentiment and an elegiac meditation on the destructiveness of war, particularly one in which modern technology further amplifies the killing. Conversely, the interpretive focus of the World War II Museum is openly nationalist, Ameri-centric, and a borderline glorification of war. The World War I museum explains the causes of the war, its effect on world affairs, and the consequences of an inadequate peace treaty that helped foster another tragic world war just a few decades later. The World War II museum only mentions the causes of the war in passing through a video. While it does highlight the bloodshed of the war, particularly the blood shed by American soldiers, it struggles to tie in the conflict with other global affairs and chooses to stop at the war itself. The messy politics of the Cold War are put to the side in favor of a simple narrative of American progress and freedom.
I enjoyed both museums and believe that everyone would benefit from visiting both, but I believe that the World War I museum is superior in its interpretive programming and educational themes. It remains one of the best museums I have ever visited.
There’s a lot of buzz within the public history and museum fields about Franklin Vagnone and Deborah Ryan’s new book, Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums. I’d been waiting for a while to have a chance to read the book, and I finally got around to it this week. Overall the book aims to challenge standard practices at historic house museums in regards to interpretation, education, and preservation at these places, and it will definitely provoke new conversations within the field about how and why historic house museums are important for understanding and appreciating the past.
I finished Anarchist’s Guide feeling underwhelmed. While I found the book’s appendices useful for researching visitor feedback and evaluating a given site’s standard practices, I felt like most of Anarchist’s Guide’s conclusions were neither revolutionary, radical, nor original. I might expand upon these thoughts in a future blog post. Nevertheless, I do agree with one central argument made by Vagnone and Ryan that should be repeated to all house museum professionals, however: historic house museums are first and foremost about the people, past AND present, who occupy the house’s space. As Vagnone argues, “the breath of a house is the living that takes place within it, not the structure or its contents” (21). Hear! Hear!
With the National Park Service–at least among those of us who work at historic homes–there is a running joke about the dreaded “furniture tour.” You arrive for the tour and the guide that accompanies the group room-by-room focuses almost exclusively on the furniture pieces of the room and the minute details of each piece that no one will remember when the tour concludes: what year this chair was produced, what state this table came from, how thankful we tourists should be for the good museum professionals who’ve preserved all this furniture for us today. What often goes missing from these tours is the humanity of it all. Why is any of this furniture important? Who are the people who owned this furniture, and why did they buy it? What is so important about this house and why should we continue preserving it? Why should we care about this place today?
To be sure, there is an important place for material culture analyses at historic homes. A gifted interpreter can take a historic artifact and tell nuanced stories about the people who owned it and that artifact’s cultural, economic, and political history. Who built this artifact? Why was this artifact valuable at the time and why did the owner purchase it in the first place? What can this artifact tell us about the times in which its owner lived? When historical artifacts act as tools towards the end goal of better understanding and appreciating the past and the people who lived in it, visitors leave with a better sense of empathy and the humanity of the past. Conversely, tours end up becoming boring and stale when historical artifacts become ends within themselves, reinforcing the idea that the study of history is primarily one of rote memorization and filling the “empty” minds of visitors with dates and facts.
The situation at my own workplace is somewhat unique in regard to historic artifacts. At the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site we have no original furniture inside the historic White Haven estate. While the structure itself is still mostly original today, the lack of original furniture disappoints some visitors. This feeling is understandable, and by no means do I consider such a sentiment misplaced or silly. We all visit historic homes partly because we are curious to see what they look like inside, and at first blush an empty room is nothing to be too excited about. But I take pains to point out to visitors that the National Park Service didn’t choose to preserve this particular house because it was old or because of the way it was designed, but because of the people who lived in it. The house, to paraphrase Vagnone, breathes life because of the people who were there during its 170-year existence as a private residence and the people who still visit it as a National Historic Site today. If the house and its original structural elements were to be completely destroyed tomorrow, the National Park Service would continue to oversee the site and tell the stories of the people who lived there, even if there was nothing original to actually see. But if people stopped coming to the site and the house became an empty hole of nothing beyond a historic structure, what would be the point of the NPS staying to preserve the site? It wouldn’t matter if each room had an abundance of historic artifacts – no one would be there to see it.
A historic house without any people in it breathes no life. Anyone who holds a leadership position at a historic house museum ought to remember that when designing interpretive programs or explaining to stakeholders why their particular site is important and worth preserving.
As a fairly recent MA graduate of a public history program who is in the early stages of a professional career in the history world, I admit that how I think about the evolution and future of the public history field is largely shaped by my own limited experiences as an interpreter and educator on the front lines of history. The questions I face on a daily basis revolve around issues of acquiring historical knowledge within my field of study (19th century U.S. history), communicating that knowledge to many diverse publics, and playing a role in creating visitor experiences that stimulate intellectual curiosity and an appreciation for the National Park Service and the study of history more broadly. I was trained in graduate school for public history employment through a mix of public history and museum studies courses, and I believe that training has served me fairly well so far in my career. But I acknowledge that my training and work experience has not tackled what might be described as the “business side” of public history: financial budgets, staffing, administration, mission statements (which I hate), boards of directors, endowment funds, and much more. I personally don’t think that’s a bad thing because we should be trained as historians first and foremost, but there has been a great deal of recent debate within the field about graduate training for public historians and whether or not more of these business-related concerns should play a larger role within the public history curricula, either through coursework or internships.
Taylor Stoermer of Harvard University is one public historian whose writing I look to for a broader perspective on the state of public history today. His extensive background in public history in both interpretation and administration is noteworthy, and his website The History Doctor is a regular read for me. I now find myself musing quite a bit on his most recent essay on public history training and employment practices.
Stoermer argues that there are too many public history PhDs in the field*, that the training for these graduates is too theory-based and “almost everywhere privileged over practice,” and that, amid a lack of full-time permanent positions for new graduates within the field, public history institutions have and will continue to evolve towards the “gig economy” business model that has been embraced in many corners of the broader business world.
I have thoughts.
Since graduating in 2014 and observing the struggles of many colleagues who can’t find gainful employment in public history, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are simply too many public history programs in existence and, more importantly, too many programs that are not being honest about the realities of the poor job market for public history employment. Does there really need to be more than 100 public history programs throughout the United States and Canada when the few full-time job opportunities in the field are offering only $30,000 a year? As I have previously stated on this website, there needs to be a realization within the academy that public history is not going to fully alleviate the shortage of academic history jobs by providing gainful “alternative” employment in public history for graduate students who can’t find an academic job. Moreover, while I believe that every academic history department should employ at least one scholar with public history experience, we should not expect all history programs to be in a position to train and help students find work in public history. Whether or not students are pursing an MA or a PhD is less of a concern to me as the fact that there are simply not enough jobs to go around for all of us. We are fighting for crumbs.
I have previously outlined my thoughts on theory vs. practice here. I am strong believer in the idea that good practices come about through a thorough understanding of theory. Practice without theory doesn’t exist. Claims of “too much theory” in public history education beg the question of what theories are most integral to good practices.
Stoermer outlines how a “gig economy” would function in the public history world as follows:
With 40 percent of the American workforce set to be freelance within the next four years, public history might already be well ahead of that curve, which poses as much promise as peril. The successful organizations that I’ve seen have already embraced that trend, seeing its potential. The best example is a historical society with a tremendous collection and exceptional vision that employs no full-time curator, historian, or education director. The most important long-term bases are covered (registrar, membership coordinator, etc.), but it otherwise reaches out to experts as needed. Need to catalogue a collection of 19th-century landscapes? Hire a guest curator whose expertise is 19th-century landscapes, rather than forcing a full-time curator, whose background might be in 17th-century stoneware, into a role for which he or she is not prepared. Want to put together living history programs to connect with guests about local events during the American Revolution? Bring in an experienced producer of such programs to establish the interpretative ground rules and set up a usable operations template . . .
The result is a leaner, more flexible, and more accountable budget and, more to the mission-oriented point, fresher and more active programming in which the occasional staff can introduce perspectives gleaned from related experience elsewhere. The core full-time staff provide consistency and vision, while freelance experts inject cost-effective knowledge, skills, and insight. Another exceptionally effective organization follows a similar route, bringing in special program providers as needed, rather than increasing the level of FTEs for positions that might not be sustainable. Again, the proof of such an approach is in the clear health of those institutions.
From a financial perspective, the gig economy makes sense. But in my view, this model will only hurt young public historians trying to break into the field. For one, I take issue with the idea that curator, education director, and historian positions don’t constitute long-term interests for historic sites. A historical site with administrators, registrars, and membership coordinators, but no one that’s a content expert? Is that really the best path forward? I understand the idea of consolidating positions so that someone may jointly be an education director and historian, but fully outsourcing these jobs will lead to young public historians who work from project-to-project barely scraping by without health insurance or benefits. It will lead to more part-time, temporary, and seasonal job openings and fewer full-time permanent openings. It will lead to project-based jobs similar in nature to adjunct teaching with no upward career mobility. It will lead to historical sites relying on college students, internships (many unpaid), and volunteers to cover the bases and cut costs. It will lead to less historically-informed programming at historic sites (who on staff will fact-check the work of the outsourced historical consultant? Who at these sites will be able to explain why their historical site is worth preserving if they don’t actually understand that history?). It will lead to the continued devaluing of our labor. It will reinforce the idea that when public history institutions experience financial difficulties, educational and historically-trained staff should be the first to go.
I would love to be proven wrong. I’m often asked to provide advice to current grad students since I was one of the fortunate ones to find a full-time job right out of school, but I simply don’t know what to say without being a pessimist who must preface my comments by saying that “the job market is really bad right now.” My current job, as is the case for many other jobs in the broader business world today, is as much attributable to luck and who I know as much as any talent I may have for doing public history. So it goes.
*Update: To further clarify my position on public historians pursuing PhDs, I don’t see it as big a problem as Stoermer does. I don’t even think there are too many public history PhDs out there right now. I think it’s great if a public historian chooses to pursue their PhD. Pursuing a PhD and furthering one’s education, regardless of discipline, is a worthwhile endeavor. All I am suggesting in this essay is that there is a supply and demand problem in public history employment, and that there are a lot of graduate students out there–MA and PhD–that are fighting for a very limited number of jobs in this field. We choose to pursue this education and career track at our own peril, and there are reasons for pursing a graduate degree besides getting a job. But I also believe that public history program directors are obligated to do their homework in understanding the field’s employment numbers and being honest with their students about what to expect when they’re ready to join the workforce, whether that be in an academic setting or within the public history world.
A few of us at work had an extended conversation today about a Facebook post that is getting attention and making the rounds. The post came from a concerned parent here in St. Louis who visited two public history sites that interpret Civil War history with a school group and came away unimpressed. I urge readers to check out the post. I am not sure how well-versed this person is in Civil War history or museum education initiatives, but she does a pretty good job of highlighting how supposedly “neutral” Civil War sites often end up–whether intentionally or unintentionally–downplaying slavery’s role in the coming of the war while glorifying the Confederacy and lamenting its demise. She also highlights a particularly troubling discussion at one site about Civil War gun bullets that turned into a discussion about the sorts of weapons police officers used during the 2014 events in Ferguson.
For some practitioners and scholars in the field these complaints are nothing new. Indeed, the National Park Service’s efforts to revise its interpretive programs to more accurately discuss the causes, context, and consequences of the Civil War date back to the 1990s when Dwight Pitcaithley was Chief Historian of the agency. But what I see at play here is a continued disconnect between the work of larger federal agencies and non-profits and the work of some smaller publicly- and privately-run museums that are operating on shoestring budgets. Many of these places are run by volunteers or by employees who don’t have the time to dig into professional development sessions or new historical scholarship. They are too busy dealing with budgets, fundraising, outreach efforts, and the daily grind of working in a museum. For example, one time a small museum owner openly admitted to me that not a single employee of his had any sort of training in education or interpretation. I rarely meet people at professional development workshops or the annual National Council on Public History conference who are coming from the small museum world, and I understand why. Mary Rizzo wrote a brief article about small museums in Public History News that further explores the challenges these small sites face.
These challenges don’t excuse teaching bad history to visitors, however.
Two other points stuck out to me in this post. Speaking about parents and teachers on the trip she mentions that “no one wanted to discuss this history and its implications on this history field trip.” That’s a pretty astute comment. Different school groups bring different interest levels with them to these sites, but it’s always tough from my end when I interact with a group where things feel artificial and everyone goes on vacation mode. I blame that mentality partly on teachers and parents who don’t prep students for these trips and partly on public historians who put together bad programs and dull presentations.
The other point I noticed was the general feeling of intimidation students felt while at these sites. “You are told to say, Thank you,” she says. It’s unfortunate whenever someone feels this way while visiting a public history site, and I’m sure there are people in this field that would say the best museum is one with no one in it. But I think we need to be ones saying “thank you” to our visitors. We don’t exist if nobody comes to our sites, and in an age of Netflix, TV, and the internet to distract us 24 hours a day, we should cherish the presence of every visitor who takes time out of their day to visit a cultural institution. And we should do everything in our power to remove any semblance of an artificial hierarchy that puts our visitors in a place of submission or intimidation. You can see how easily this occurred at the two sites mentioned in the Facebook post. Hopefully we in the Park Service can use this opportunity to check our own practices and extend a helping hand to some of the small sites in our area.
Imagine that you are an emerging museum educator about to finish a museum studies or public history degree. You have closely studied historical methods, historiography, education theory, and visitor studies. You probably worked at least one unpaid internship while taking out thousands in loans to finish your degree. Now you’re about to start applying for jobs.
You start browsing job openings online and find one that sounds almost perfect to you: K-12 Museum Educator. There is much appeal in this job. You get to work with a diverse range of students teaching them the importance of history in our daily lives. You get to teach them about the ways history is viewed through multiple perspectives and help them better understand local and national history. You get regular training and professional development as a part of your job. And you don’t have to grade papers at the end of the day!
The qualification requirements suggest that you’re probably in good shape. The museum asks that you posses at least two years of college, but a BA is preferred. You’ve got that. But then you look at the fine print, and your overpriced Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte falls to the floor: you will be paid only $9 an hour and limited to working 15-25 hours a week if you get hired for this job.
You may have just drank your last Pumpkin Spice latte.
Fortunately this sort of frustrating situation never occurred during my own search for a public history job last year, but this job posting is real and comes to you courtesy of the Missouri History Museum. And, sadly, I am sure there are many other desperate people out there who are probably going to apply for this job because they have no leverage and no other options save for abandoning the museum/public history field for other employment.
It’s a shame that so many talented and educated people are forced to live on a teenager’s wages if they hope to have a chance of breaking into this field. True, there are many small museums and institutions that are working on shoestring budgets, and perhaps–perhaps–they can be excused for relying on volunteers, unpaid interns, and/or part-time employees to keep the boat above water. But a popular, well-endowed institution like MOHIST paying its educators barely above minimum wage is simply inexcusable.
The taxpayers of St. Louis city and county give the Missouri History Museum ten million dollars a year for operating costs. The museum’s former President, Robert Archibald, ran the institution for twenty-five years and was making an annual salary of $515,000 by 2012. But then Mr. Archibald ran into trouble when an audit revealed that he and another museum board trustee spent $875,000 of the museum’s money, without an appraisal, on a tract of land that was valued by the city of St. Louis for only $232,000. A lot of taxpayers were angered when they heard that news, and eventually local politicians and the museum board forced Archibald to retire. Luckily for Mr. Archibald, however, upon retirement he cashed in his vacation days and sent in a bill for a six-month consulting project he had recently participated in, and the same museum board that called for his retirement compensated him with a cool $820,000 payout. This action also led to a lot of taxpayer head-scratching, and in order to save face the museum board announced that they would not use any taxpayer dollars for Mr. Archibald’s payout. Instead the money would unexpectedly come through private donations from people like Marian and Ethel Herr, twin sisters who regularly volunteered and collectively left $900,000 to the museum after Marian died in 2010. But museum educators? Nine bucks an hour for you! We’ll even tweet the job opening using the hashtags #museumjobs and #STLjobs to make it seem like this is a really important and highly valued position within our institution.
Whether you’re interested in teaching in a classroom, a museum, or anywhere else, you learn quickly that the closer you are to students and/or the public on a daily basis, the less money you make compared to the administrators who almost never interact with the same students or public audience. Society pays a lot of lip service to the importance of education in enriching children’s lives, but they don’t pay much money to actually do that work. The museum world is particularly guilty because they want to have their cake and eat it too. There are a record number of museum studies and public history undergrad and graduate programs in the United States today, and the opportunity to get a good education in these fields has never been easier. But with the increase in programs comes an increase in educated candidates looking for gainful employment. Credential creep occurs as more and more overqualified candidates fight for a limited number of available jobs that have not kept pace with the number of graduates on the market. Similar jobs to the one posted by MOHIST, as Kelly Gannon of Emory University pointed out to me, often provide no career track or hope of a future promotion. Wages get driven down and future museum educators find themselves fighting for crumbs. This “Yoga Instructor Economy” works great for the museum industry as a whole, but it absolutely sucks for its workers, including those interested in education.
To be sure, I actually love the Missouri History Museum. I enjoy many of their exhibits, and their work in helping to heal the St. Louis community in the aftermath of the Ferguson shooting last year should be commended. I am going for a visit within the next few days and will continue to be a regular visitor as long as I live in the St. Louis area. I also wouldn’t take away a single penny from the museum’s ten million dollars in tax revenue. But I am not just a patron of this industry – I am a worker too, and people like me who have been encouraged to dedicate our lives to history, museums, and informal education ought to be compensated in a way that allows us to put food on the table, gas in our cars, and money towards our mortgages. I am lucky to be in a good financial position with my current job, but I know so many people who are unemployed or underemployed, and I hate seeing it.
The turn of Spring is always an exciting time at work. The weather starts improving, the nearby bike trail teems with runners, walkers, and bikers, and our attendance numbers go way up. It’s a great time of the year for interpreters to roll out new ideas and programs while helping visitors make meaningful connections about history, nature, and themselves. Most folks I interact with during our busy season usually say nice things to me and come away with a positive experience, but there are occasional moments when visitors take a more critical perspective about their experiences. One such moment occurred this weekend.
A visitor came to the park and browsed our museum for about ten minutes. The visitor returned to the visitor’s center desk and asked about the last time the museum had been “updated.” The museum is still relatively new, having been completed in 2007, so another ranger and I said that it had not been updated for that reason. The visitor then responded by saying, “your museum’s content is inflammatory. It says that racism and sexism are still prevalent today and I find that pretty provocative. I grew up during a time when those things were actually prevalent, and it’s not the same today! You have visitors from other countries who visit this park. Is that what you want to be telling them about our country?”
The visitor did not yell these things at us, but they were said in a manner that was very aggressive. It’s the sort of moment when your stomach turns during an uncomfortable situation and you are unsure of how to ease the tension in the room.
I responded in the best way I could while also proceeding with a great deal of caution. I stated that our museum is an interpretive one – a museum where arguments are made about the past and connections are made to present-day issues. Not everyone who visits this sort of museum will agree with the exhibit text, the content on display, or the arguments made within its walls. And, in an effort to acknowledge this visitor’s comments and show that I was taking them seriously, I added that there was probably room to revise the text in a way that was more cautious about contemporary issues. That seemed to do the job; the visitor went on a tour, said nothing else about the museum, and thanked us for a nice visit.
(For the record, I’ve walked through and read the text in our museum probably hundreds of times. As far as I know there is no exhibit that makes the claim that “racism and sexism are still prevalent,” although the museum does show visitors the virulent racism and sexism of Ulysses S. Grant’s time and it challenges them to think about our own shortcomings with these issues today. I think that is a completely appropriate and necessary position for the museum to take).
There are a couple takeaways I got from this interaction. One is that for all of the talk I hear about avoiding politics when talking about history at work, it is an undeniable fact that any museum exhibit that connects historic issues to contemporary society is inherently political. That doesn’t mean the content under discussion is necessarily “liberal,” “conservative,” or what have you, but public historians and museum practitioners should not be surprised when our interpretations provoke critical feedback that questions the arguments we’ve made. There’s a fine line between what we consider the past and what we consider the present. And there’s a fine line between “connecting history to the present” and “using history to make a political argument about the present.” The precise moment in which history crosses into advocacy is a matter of interpretation, and visitors to cultural sites will make those interpretations whether or not the content on display was intended to be political or not.
I think acknowledging that museums are political is a good thing, however. Obviously I would like for visitor critiques to be conveyed in a constructive and polite manner, but it’s good to see and hear visitors being provoked and talking about the issues a cultural site discusses. One can hope that this person went home and decided to read more about racism and sexism in society today. Who knows. If I could go back in time I might have tried to facilitate a short dialogue and challenged that visitor to further explain why they took the position they did and what they think we could do to improve the exhibit they took issue with.
Another challenge with this interaction is envisioning what history museums today would look like if they took out all connections to the present or if they tried arguing that racism and sexism are things of the past. I just don’t think that sort of interpretation is honest or accurate. Maybe we shouldn’t argue to international audiences that racism and sexism are prevalent in the United States, but isn’t it just as bad to say that we all love and get along with each other? Who’s really going to believe that? And with regards to racism in the U.S., what would it say about a museum like ours–a mere thirty minutes away from the now-infamous Ferguson, Missouri–to make arguments along these lines? Nowadays we might have fewer people who engage in blatant acts of individual racism, but that doesn’t mean that we have solved systematic racism today (or individual racism, of course).
In this era of 24-hour news cycles, partisan clickbait, and social media’s role in perpetuating confirmation bias, I believe museums offer an alternative space to check our prior assumptions and participate in meaningful reflection and dialogue. I’m not sure how to measure the “success” of this visitor’s particular experience and whether our museum achieved the goals of reflection and dialogue, but it was certainly an interesting moment for my own personal reflection as a public historian.