Museums as platforms of controversy…Are we there yet?

In this week’s readings there were ideas of how a museums can become a platform for controversial topics and how current issues can be discussed openly.  Most often museums are thought of as solely a place for objects. Some objects are more thought provoking than others, and they can generate ideas and discussion. But can museums take a firm position on controversial topics and events –like the Ferguson riots? It seems particularly difficult because over 80% of museum goers are white and middle class and likely do not understand racial issues[1]. It would be great for museums to be able to take a firm option on these topics and not receive backlash for trying to engage and educate their public. Is this kind of “education” worth the possibly losing paying members?

Most museums are places to contemplate the past and not the future. When museums first started they were seen as places of enlightenment, average people who did not have the money of the upper class, came to learn about new places and thing that they might not know about otherwise. The museum was also seen as a place where people could get away from the monotony of their daily lives and travel through pictures and objects. Fast forwarding to present day the museum is seen as a communal area of escape almost like a mall. There are nice things to see and maybe some things to buy, but it is not a place where there is much deep thinking going on. Oh there’s the occasional exhibition that proves to be thought provoking but that is not happening in the majority of museum spaces. Museums aren’t institutions that invite change. To tackle a challenge like Ferguson would be to challenge core ideas that we were taught in all though out primary school. I don’t know if it would be possible to shake things up like that.

According to one article that I read, the Missouri History Museums collection manager and team went to places that had been devastated in Ferguson to find artifacts.[2] How are destroyed objects going to educate the typical museum goers? As I read the article they were not trying to help the situation they were just collecting items they thought might have some kind of importance later and items that represented the devastation and emotion of what happen. I guess it is important to collect artifacts to show what was going on, but what about the people in the area how are they affected by the situation and what does it mean for them? They are so close to the area of unrest that they would have a perfect platform to effect some change but they are more interested in pieces that they can place on display and generate their own narrative that may or may not lead to thought provoking insights.

Many museums don’t have a section that talks about struggle. The ones that do talk about struggle are small and do not have the same kind of clout to effect bigger change. There are many parallels between what happen during the 60’s with the civil rights movement and what is going on today.[3] Maybe this can be the starting point of making paths between controversy and advocacy. By showing museum goers that struggles of minorities from the 60’s are still present in today’s minority communities.

Is it possible for a place like the MET or museum with the clout of the MET to become a place for discussion of hot topics or is this just a lofty goal that might not be attainable?

[1] Farrel, B. (2010). Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums. Retrieved November 14, 2015, from

[2] Hampel, P. (2015, January 29). Museum excavates burned Dellwood business for artifacts from Ferguson unrest. Retrieved November 15, 2015, from

[3] Anderson, R. (2015, May 1). Public History Commons. Retrieved November 14, 2015, from

Lightly Edited from Original by Anita Brown

Committed to Change: Public Historians and Advocacy

The various professional blogs assigned for this week provide much insight into the current intersection between advocacy and public history. In “A Joint Statement from Museum Bloggers and Colleagues on Ferguson and Related Events,” a cadre of museum professionals responded to the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson with a renewed commitment to activism. More specifically, they urged their colleagues to include ethnic diversity and conversations on current events in their museum exhibits and historical interpretations. Still, many public historians feel that this change can only occur if organizations first examine and address the staggering inequality within their own ranks. In an effort to adequately and accurately serve their surrounding communities, they call for renovations to professional structures, which for too long have favored the already privileged, namely white people.

Museum professional Alyssa Greenberg lauds the released statement precisely because it focuses on the unequal economic and racial structures within museum organizations, problems that she herself has witnessed.[1] Unpaid work can only be obtained by those who have the money and privilege to support themselves without compensation, or face the dreaded build-up of debt. I have witnessed this across disciplines and around the nation. Internships and low-tier jobs, which are often unpaid, can usually be the only way to get a foot in the door of an organization. It is often the bridge to a career, and by withholding compensation many organizations post a “White’s Only” sign over the entrance. Even if the job pays, it may not be enough money to support someone (or a family), and the issue of extra support and privilege remains. Greenberg concludes, “as museums publicly proclaim their commitment to inclusivity, they perpetuate the exclusion of people of color and those from low-income backgrounds through their own internal labor practices.”[2] I agree with Greenberg’s suggestion that public history sites must first address their own issues of exclusion. These activist historians recognize that in order to be successful in their pursuits, they must reach a diverse public, not just those represented within their own ranks. If no change occurs, museums will be responsible for sustaining inequality.

Richard Anderson explains that one such advocacy-oriented institution, the National Public Housing Museum, counters “narratives about public housing residents in the past,” which “will also stress that social and racial equality remains closely tied to housing issues in the present.”[3] For museums and other public history sites committed to advocacy (and the list continues to grow), this is the crux of the issue. By challenging visitors’ perceptions about certain groups or events of the past, many public historians hope to change perceptions of the present. It is, however, not an easy venture.

As we have consistently discussed, public history, even without a commitment to advocacy, often embroils organizations in a boiling hot political cauldron. In the many blogs I perused, issues of gentrification, race and heritage continually polarize the public and historians alike. Cathy Stanton says it best:

To borrow Shakespeare’s phrase, some public history work is born political, some becomes political, and some has politics thrust upon it. Whether we intentionally locate ourselves in controversial settings, have something blow up in our faces, or encounter less spectacular kinds of resistance or misunderstanding, we’re always on the edge of the political, even when we don’t set out to be.[4]

Stanton identifies some key questions public historians currently face, for example, the impact of partisanship on objectivity and the risky repercussions of certain partnerships and commitments to certain histories. Still, in my opinion, heated controversy does not always need to be despaired, and it may in fact just be a part of the process of change. For example, calls to correct the AP US history exam’s white-washed exceptionalist slant caused uproar, as did the resulting revisions. Yet, Adina Langer reports that after another round of revisions, concerned parties on both the Right and the Left seem satisfied.[5] In this instance, controversy produced change. Finally, as Cynthia T. Renteria describes, despite the challenging and complicated politics during the fight against gentrification in El Paso’s El Segundo Barrio, she only wants to continue “incorporating history as a tool” to fight for social justice.[6] It is, in fact, why she decided to pursue a higher degree in history.

In her brilliant article, Linda Shopes highlights several ways in which public historians can be uniquely useful activists. Unlike the general public, historians have historical perspective and can disseminate accurate information while at the same time recording new events. More importantly, historians can employ history to bolster advocacy efforts and inform those who wish to foment change, and hopefully inform those who oppose it too.[7] Public historians, therefore, can embrace their inevitable relationship with politics, use it to foster understanding and potentially affect positive change.


As future public historians, what can we do to address the systems of inequality present in public history organizations? What about those organizations that do not wish to change? What, if anything, can we do about them?


Cathy Stanton comments, “For a range of reasons, most public historians are reluctant to describe themselves as advocates, activists, or political actors per se.”[8] Do you consider yourself an activist or advocate? Or are you reluctant also? What does it mean to be an activist historian to you?











Source: Committed to Change: Public Historians and Advocacy by Molly Ricks

What’s your point? How to Skillfully Tell a Potential Audience Why History Is important

This week’s readings emphasized the importance of having a mission and goal planned out while presenting history. Whether it is designing an exhibit in a museum, or designing an exhibit online, these authors project the importance of having a clear indication of what is meant to be projected before getting lost in the tiny, minute details around it. Beverly Serrell’s excerpt justifies that by only having an exhibition full of artifacts, objects, and art without a learning objective is not a well-developed exhibition (9). Having detailed labels around this artifacts without a goal in mind doesn’t help either, because the visitor won’t know why they’re even supposed to be reading these labels, let alone be motivated to read them.We touched on this while discussing Letting Go, people might think they want a direct, unmediated history, but in reality, how does that benefit anyone? Without a goal,the visitors are not left with a meaningful,memorable experience, and the professionals do not have the goal-driven motivation to put together an influenced exhibit. Sharon Leon advises in her article “Layers and Links” for professionals to be goal-oriented from the very beginning of their project and to come up with strategies to make sure they are consistently meeting their goals as they make progress.

Without a goal in mind, exhibitions can be incredibly overwhelming and far too complex with entirely too much information from a poorly organized exhibit. It can stress out the writers of the labels as much as the visitors reading the labels. Kind of like when your aunt at Thanksgiving tells a painfully long story of her precious poodle’s horrendously expensive trip to the dog groomer’s. Sure, she might be warning you against joining the costly realm of dog ownership, but if she gives too many details about the coins she used from the bottom of her purse to pay for the grooming session, you’ll never know her main point was to advise you against adopting a dog! You’ll buy one down the road and she’ll say, “Why didn’t you listen to my advice?” And you’ll innocently reply, “What advice? I thought you were just rambling on about coins!”

Interpretation does so much more than that. Interpretation means communicating between a knowledgeable guide and an interested listener, where the meaning making and knowledge of the listener is as important as the guide’s” (Serrell, 9). This concept is very similar to what we discussed in Letting Go. There is certainly a reciprocal bond between museum professionals and visitors. Visitors don’t want museum professionals to give up their authority. They like having someone to explain the importance and significance of the exhibits, but the visitors want to feel involved and engaged as well, because they certainly have their own insight and response to give. A successful exhibition ends with satisfied, curious visitors who feel they’re leaving with a whole new grasp on a concept which reflects positive feedback to the educators who created the exhibit with that very intention. Having interpretation has a better chance of not only grabbing the visitor’s attention, but also explaining to them why the exhibition even matters in the first place. Visitors rightfully are bound to ask the questions, “What’s in it for me?” “Why should I care?” “How will knowing this improve my life?” (Serrell, 9). It’s important to consider these questions ahead of time while planning an exhibit to have a better chance of these questions getting answered.

In Veverka’s article “Creating Interpretive Themes,” he advises that it’s important to have the biggest or most significant details about a particular history. From there it’s important to decipher what the audience even want to know from it, and how the educators want the audience to use the information they provide. The theme should somehow connect or relate with the visitors so they have a reason to come and have a meaningful experience. There needs to be a creative way of “hinting” to potential what they will gain from coming to an exhibit. This leads to my first question, because I feel this article directly correlates with our zoo project. How can we, as a class, come up with creative ways to “hint” to Baltimore families that they will benefit from our zoo project? We obviously will have our own strategies in our groups to reach out, but I think it’s important to promote our project as a whole as well.

My second question comes from Sharon Leon’s article “Layers and Links.” I felt this was a crucial read, especially since we will be doing work for the Baltimore Heritage app. Leon certainly makes the case that creating a digital exhibit is like an art. There needs to be ways of motivating people to look at all of this information online, because it’s considerably different from visiting a museum and skimming the labels. For example, it is a craft to create attention-grabbing headlines that provide as much clarity as possible to avoid confusion and frustration. Every word counts when providing interpretive history online. This leads to my second question, has this made you think about how your group will provide information in the Baltimore Heritage app? How can we use all of the research we have brought together and not only project it towards an audience, but also do so in a way that we won’t lose their attention?

Now that we all put together a large sum of research, it’ll be important to consider the key concepts that these authors discussed. All of these articles provided questions that we are meant to ask ourselves while presenting our research. What is our goal in mind when we provide Baltimore families the histories we’ve found about the zoo? What is the big idea or concept we want them to take away from this? What details in our research are too far-fetched far too intricate that they should be taken out so they don’t take away from the point we’re trying to make?

Source: What’s your point? How to Skillfully Tell a Potential Audience Why History Is important by Jennifer Montooth

Practical App-lications in Public History

This week’s readings provided much more concrete advice on the practical application of public history than our past readings have done. As we begin our process of creating physical signage for the Maryland Zoo and digital content for Baltimore Heritage, many of these readings will provide us with a useful stepping stone from the theoretical to the more functional and practical processes necessary to construct our projects.  Based on these readings, the main theme, and often difficulty, in presenting concrete information seems to be in determining what (exact) information we are getting to our audiences and who in fact our audiences are in the first place.

The first main concept that seemed to repeat itself in many of these readings was the importance of a “big idea,” as Beverly Serrell calls it in her book Exhibit Labels.[1]  This “big idea,” or simply theme, should be a statement, in one sentence, of what the exhibition is about.  Having such a clear unambiguous theme allows for a team to focus and more easily delineate what will or will not be included in an exhibit.  From the other readings, this still seems like a difficult task however, since we as public historians must decide how to include enough information that will interest the audience and provide a knowledgeable and complex story, but not too much information that it loses the “big idea” and scares our audience away.  Essentially, we must take our research papers and decide what aspects we will include in our signage and app and what does not make the cut. As someone who normally believes the “more the better,” after reading these excerpts it would seem that this is not always the case; there must be a balance between including details, but in a brief manner so that a visitor can come away from an exhibit with a clear understanding of what it was meant to communicate.

This point brings up another main concept, the importance of having interpretive exhibits; displays that “tell stories, contrast points of view, present challenging issues, or strive to change people’ attitudes.”[2]  It seems that interpretive exhibits rely heavily on this aspect of sharing authority that we have talked so often about in class.  To have effective interpretive exhibits, public historians must do more than just present a story; there must be an open communication between the expert and the visitor, an inclusive aspect to the exhibit in which visitors feel like they will come away with new knowledge and have the ability to do something with it.  This transitions into what Veverka referred to as exportable interpretation,[3] which will be an important aspect when we are constructing signage for the Maryland Zoo.  Zoo visitors should come away from our respective exhibits with the ability to use the information we have interpreted to them in their daily lives. For instance, with the polar bear exhibit, my group hopes signage will educate zoo visitors on climate change while enabling them to take away direct actions which then can implement in their own lives.

Something that we must think about for both our zoo signage and the digital app is what audiences we are trying to reach and how to effectively reach them.  Sharon Leon suggests that the audience online can be vastly different from those who visit a site or institution in person.[4]  One of the best ways to identify the audience can be through testing content to ensure that the information and writing will achieve the desired outcome for a project. With the time and scope of our project, we ourselves might not have the ability to test audiences to see who we might be attracting with the app.  This brings me to my first question: How do you think the audience of the app will differ from that of the zoo signage? How should we cater to such different audiences? Leon points out that the medium of the web can also be taken advantage of to deliver content that is quite different from physical signage displayed within an institution.[5] How do we need to adjust our content to fit a web specific medium?

Second question: A common point referenced by both Serrell and Veverka was the fact that what might be interesting to the researcher, expert, or forth, might “not interest, engage, or positively impress most visitors.”[6]  This point is something that we have talked about in prior classes, wondering if guests or visitors to a site would find certain concepts as informative or eye-catching as the public historian might.  Veverka says that public historians must ask themselves “who cares?”[7]  Going forward with our projects, how should/ can we determine what will not just be interesting to ourselves but also interesting to our intended audiences?

[1] Beverly Serrell, Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach (AltaMira Press, 1996), 2.

[2] Ibid., 9.

[3] John A. Veverka, “Interpretive Planning for “Exportable” Interpretation: Ideas to Go Away With,” 1.

[4] Leon, Sharon, M. Layers and Links: Writing Public History in a Digital Environment (George Mason University), 5.

[5] Ibid., 9.

[6] Serrell, Exhibit Labels, 1.

[7] John A. Veverka, “Creating Interpretive Themes for Heritage Tourism Sites and Attractions,” 3.

Source: Practical App-lications in Public History by Sarah Huston

National Identity Crisis

This week we read four selections from Contested Histories in Public Space: Memory, Race, and Nation edited by Daniel J. Walkowitz and Lisa Maya Knauer. Each article analyzes a situation of contested history in a modern nation. Read together the articles make clear that there are a common set of problems in public history that transcend national and cultural differences. While these challenges manifested themselves in manners unique to each nation, they address similar issues. Whether in Canada, the United States, Ecuador, or France, national institutions of public history are connected to processes of  nation-building. Each example describes the  challenge of reconciling (or not) competing national narratives and conflicting memories.

In the First Peoples’ Hall of the Canadian Museum of Civilization , museum professionals were faced with the challenge of having to represent two cultural perspectives as relevant to larger ideas about Canadian civilization—those of Aboriginal peoples and those of the formal Canadian state which is largely made up of European descendants. While the two cultures are completely different, and sometimes hostile, both histories are valid. The First Peoples’ Hall recognized the need to respect as equivalent the authority in traditional indigenous knowledge and in Western scientific knowledge (63). For example, within the hall there was no attempt to resolve discrepancies between stories that account for the human habitation of North America (64). Within the article the question is raised about whether two bodies can occupy the same space –in a museum or in a nation– or if they must find their parallel and separate paths. This specific exhibition hall certainly sends the message that Canadian history is made up of two groups, each of which has contributed equally to the process of nation-building. Their conflicting memories are actually evidence of this process, not a problem inside the process.

Ellis Island presents similar challenges. On one hand, visitors expect to find both a larger national narrative and a more intimate connection to their own family’s history. On the other hand, curators wish to advance a more generic history of Ellis Island (145). As a result, the site seems to embody dual narratives, and leave one narrative un-addressed. The author of the article argues that the stories of the people who worked in the bureaucratic Ellis Island system should be told because they played a huge part the immigrant story (148). Furthermore, exploring those stories in connection with “white” immigrants can help explain what helped the immigrants establish the world economy that drove them from their homes to America (152). In other words, expanding the narrative can explain part of the nation-building process of the United States.

I personally found the Ecuadorian and French stories to be an interesting read alongside one another because both dealt with nations coping with a colonial/imperial past. The mythical story of the Kingdom of Quito is so ingrained in the culture that it is part of school curricula , despite the fact that it has been disproven (181). Quito is important to national-identity because it legitimizes Ecuador’s claim to the land—something incredibly significant for a former colony (184). Although it seems clear that there is no monolithic national history, public history plays a role in legitimizing particular stories as part of a larger process of national stabilization. In France the inclusion of Delgres among Republican heroes represents a shift, a nation built on imperialism finally rethinking its own history of colonialism and slavery and transforming the dominant narrative. Including Delgres and Louverture in the Pantheon was a purely symbolic gesture, but it was packed with significance. While the two narratives of French history have not been resolved, this moment officially acknowledged that the leaders of slave rebellion in Guadeloupe were on the right side and eventually laid the foundation for the abolition of slavery in France (312-313). It is clear that the goal is to ultimately reconcile the two narratives.

From these selections I think we can draw the conclusion that nation-building takes on many different forms due to the complex interplay of narratives and memories. While nations confront similar problems, the solutions are never going to be the same, nor should they.

“If, in other words, there is no resolution outside the museum, it would be dishonest to pretend to one inside the museum” is a quote from page 67 of the article on the First People’s Hall of the Canadian Museum of Civilization. It raises a question for me about the role of the museum. Should exhibits inside a museum reflect what is going on outside of the museum, or should it attempt to influence the world outside the museum? Or both?

Should schoolchildren be taught about the Kingdom of Quito in Ecuador as if it were fact? Is this doing them an injustice? What should the role of myth be in public history?

Edited from Source: National Identity Crisis by Katherine Fusick

Challenging the Exclusive Past

With this week’s reading Contested Histories in Public Space shows how minority groups have been trying to challenge and change the ways they are been represented in textbooks, museums, monuments and historic places. Many historians working in the public sphere are making good progress to involve previously ignored group narratives in their projects.

Ruth B. Phillips and Mark Salber Phillips argue that power struggles within nation-states can complicate interpretive practices in exhibits and museums. They say that ‘an important moment of rupture’ regarding ‘the new postcolonial politics of land and nationhood’ (p. 50) – appears in the displays at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. They describe the difficulties of how the past and the present are brought together. In a museum, there are many contexts and interpretive strategies merging together in one space. Well designed museums try even to ensure the architecture is inviting rather than offensive. This perspective trickles down into every facet of the design. The museum selected an architect who is of indigenous heritage; Although the facade of the building is neo gothic, it incorporates elements of native design.  The interior space is also a hybrid of native and classic design. The museum planners had to find ways to incorporate the goal of honor native peoples’ past practices while still creating opportunities for entertainment. Holding people’s attention and providing them with opportunities to learn something is challenging. I understand the reason for not providing full stories but are the brief summaries as effective?

Daniel Walkowitz seems to have had a similar question about the audio tour at Ellis Island. He wrote, ‘I listened to see if I could detect any influence of the last decade’s writing on postcolonialism or whiteness. All I heard in an hour and a half was one specific reference to whiteness’ (p. 147). The full story is not being told. The curators are trying to appeal to so many people that they leave out crucial parts that might be controversial or perceived as negative. Many people who come to Ellis Island are there to learn more about their own family and cultural heritage. They may not want to hear a lecture about discrimination. However, they should still get a complete story. I feel as though this museum has a little more freedom in the narrative that they tell because –in the larger story of immigration– America still looks like the good guy. Curators’ biggest problem lies in trying to find a way to reconcile public expectations with challenging and sometimes uncomfortable histories. They cannot go completely with what they think the audience wants because then the information might become too superficial. Curators and public historians who have found success in this field are always working strike a balance; there is no way that everyone will be satisfied.

Do you think there is a way for national historic spaces to provide more complete stories rather than brief snippets of information? What should we think about or do with the fear of offending audiences?

Is it easier to produce fuller and more complex interpretations for the history of group to which you do not belong or do the stories –particularly of under represented groups– strictly belong to the group?

Walkowitz, Daniel J., and Lisa Maya Knauer. Contested Histories in Public Space: Memory, Race, and Nation. Durham: Duke UP, 2009. Print

Edited from Original by Anita Brown