Controversy and conflict in museums is the subject for this week. We begin with the controversy and politics surrounding the creation of museums before the content is even developed.
In From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement, Andrea Burns discusses the creation of various African American history museums in cities across the US. She emphasizes the origin of these museums in the Black Power movement as a response to the lack of black history in all other museums of the 1960s. She also focuses on the way these museums came from and interacted with their communities (and how that changed over time). She focuses on the founding of four museums in detail, including the African American Museum of Philadelphia (AAMP, which has a very different story from the others). She then discusses problems faced by these and similar museums in the 80s and 90s, involving the effects of the new social history movement and mainstreaming of the underrepresented into all museums. She ends by discussing the creation of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the opposition to it.
The conflict on where to put the AAMP raised some significant issues. In the case of the other museums, planners chose to put them in black communities to provide easy access to the community for visitation, events, and outreach. In Philadelphia, they wanted to put the museum in a white community, with the basis of that area once being a black community. This presents several problems, most important of which is accessibility: 6th and Pine is a decent walk from the Market-Frankford line, which visitors would probably have to transfer to from the Broad Street line ($3.60 total with tokens, probably a 40 minute journey including the walking), and wouldn’t it be better if they could simply walk to the museum from their domicile anyway? Certainly makes it harder to reach out to the community it serves. Second, the argument that is was once a black community isn’t strong enough, because before that it was a white community, and even belonged alternately to the Dutch, Swedish, and Lenape. Finally, the conflict exacerbated a disturbing trend of delegitimizing opposition by simply calling them racists (or sexists, or bigots, whatever) and thereby discrediting any argument and shutting down any dialogue.
In History Wars: The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past, Edward Linenthal discusses the controversy surrounding the proposed Enola Gay exhibit. He documents the events from the idea to the initial refusal to change the script to all of its revisions to the eventual cancellation of the exhibit. I think the biggest problem here was the lack of care in creating balance in a time when America was fighting the culture wars.
"First we wonder, then we read" . . . SO TRUE!
In “Fred Wilson, PTSD, and Me: Reflections on the History Wars,” Ken Yellis discusses his thoughts on how museums should engage controversy. He argues there is a way and a need to do it well. He compares reactions to Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum, the failed Enola Gay exhibit, and his exhibit on swallows to discuss what worked, what didn’t, and why. I liked his challenges to museums: are we telling or showing? Are we didactic or seductive? Do we transmit data, or offer insights? I also like his idea of using objects to make visitors wonder, and therefore read. It rings so true for me: I chose public history because objects and real things attract me and get my interest far more than books ever will.
This week’s readings discuss some of the ways the National Park Service fails to incorporate recent academic history into their parks. Just as there is a genre of public history how-to manuals, there also seems to be a genre of books analyzing and criticizing the way the NPS operates. I feel sorry for them, they have pressure on all sides just to stay in operation, and here we are, scrutinizing their every move.
Cathy Stanton, in her book The Lowell Experiment : Public History in a Postindustrial City, deals with the way the NPS interprets Lowell. She begins with a study of the organization of the park, as well as the contest in Lowell for whose interpretation should be presented. She then engages the presented interpretation by describing the tours offered by the park. She concludes with her analysis that the site fails to connect its history to the present day in the interest of celebrating its past, and claims it is because those working at the site do not belong to the local community (but wait: do academics limit their studies to the communities they belong to?).
I’ve noticed several themes that are starting to repeat in our readings, some which are mentioned here (including the tension between heritage and history, historians vs. the locals, historians vs. the NPS, and historians vs. administrators). When I see these themes, the historians are usually academics living in an ideal world, unwilling to recognize or reconcile with the tough realities of a real world where bills have to be paid to stay in operation, and new scholarship has to be made interesting and engaging if it is to reach the public. Perhaps our messages would be better received if we offered them as help rather than criticism, and were willing to compromise a little.
Some of her analysis doesn’t seem nuanced enough for me; although, to be fair, she may not have had enough writing space to fit more in. In any case, she writes that ignoring the conflict of freedom and slavery would “engender bitterness [and] deepen racial divisions,” and that addressing it would involve the public in “reflection upon a complex, contradictory story
relevant to the lives of twenty-first-century visitors to the park.” How can she know this? What if reflection on slavery actually engenders bitterness and deepens racial divisions? After all, both these things happened during Obama’s presidency. I would be wary of anyone who claims to know the cause.
The readings for this week are focused on museum education and included The Museum Educator’s Manual by Anna Johnson, “Museum-goers: Life-styles and Learning Characteristics” by Charles Gunther, the introduction to Teaching History with Museums: Strategies for K-12 Social Studies, and “Write and Design with the Family in Mind” by Judy Rand.
The Museum Educator’s Manual is a collection of essays by many different museum education professionals, but primarily by Anna Johnson. It is similar to some of the other manuals we have read for this class, which, as I began reading, made me wonder why this form of expert-written manual is so pervasive in the museum field. I concluded it was probably because the traditional format of academic classes is not very helpful for practical application in museum work, and professionals then must self-teach by reading these guides. Deciding this, I proceed onto page 2, and right there the book mentions its use and existence as a counter to the academic focus on theory over application.
The book talks at length about docents, especially how to properly train them so they can lead unique tours tailored to specific audiences, while still staying focused, on time, and engaging, without becoming bored themselves (which is especially important for volunteer docents).
In “Museum-goers,” Gunther begins with lots of theory about learners and learning styles. His focus, however, is on art museums, which may actually be harder to educate visitors in. The most useful part of this article is near the end, where he gives advice to museum professionals, including to consider the role even parking attendants play, using design and signage that helps decode the museum environment, and avoiding canned presentations in favor of visitor-tailored ones.
He also highlights the role of municipal governments, which we can’t always control. In 2008, the America on Wheels Museum in Allentown was founded with the understanding that Allentown’s waterfront building project would occur nearby, bringing visitors to the area. It’s 2016, and the project has yet to begin, as city resources were used downtown instead. Without the visitors, the museum has been struggling financially.
Teaching History in Museums discusses ways for museums to be effective in complementing primary and secondary education. It highlights many of the problems involved (such as standardized testing) but suggests these can be at least partially overcome. It also discusses why educators should choose museum visits, and how educators and museum professionals can collaborate to make museum visits very effective tools for teaching history—not just content, but the critical thinking and analysis skills too.
In “Write and Design,” Judy Rand deals with label writing and design for family-oriented exhibits. She describes family behavior in museums (hunter-gatherer packs seeking facts to bring to the group) and suggests strategies to engage these behaviors. She proposes a method of label writing designed to create labels that can be read aloud by parents to children, without sounding forced and without parents having to translate. As persuasive as she is on properly engaging families, I wonder about other visitors. Do we neglect them when we focus on families? What is the proper balance between content for family visitors and regular visitors?