Intimate lives on display: Monticello and Mount Vernon

Photo Courtesy of Ad Meskens (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

Mount Vernon.  Photo Credit:  Ad Meskens (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

Jennifer Tyburczy’s brilliant observation that all museums “have played an important but often overlooked role in the institutionalization of categories of sexual ‘normalcy’ and ‘perversity’” can also be applied to house museums and historic sites. House museums, as sites for interpreting private lives, are engaged in complex ways with presentations of sex and sexuality. The most famous and oft-visited house museums in the United States are George Washington’s plantation Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson’s mountain-top plantation, Monticello. Mount Vernon receives one million visitors each year and Monticello some 500,000. Monticello and Mount Vernon serve as case studies to illustrate the physical and inter-personal ways in which house museums convey information about the Founders’ personal lives. Continue reading

Interpreting gender and sexuality at historic sites: What’s happening out there?

woman in mask

At a summer 2013 tour to historic sites around Boston, participants explored questions about gender, sexuality, and interpretation (and did a little gender-bending at the USS Constitution Museum). Photo credit: Cathy Stanton

On a summer 2013 study trip to historic sites in and around Boston hosted by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage in Philadelphia, participants were struck by the wide variety of ways they saw gender and sexuality interpreted–or in some cases, not interpreted at all.  As Cathy Stanton asked in her August 9 History@Work post, “Where is the next generation of gender studies in public history?” and “Is there a new interpretive landscape beginning to take shape now that we’ve made gender a more central part of public historical inquiry?”

In the wake of the trip, staff from the Pew Center–particularly Bill Adair and Laura Koloski –wanted to keep that conversation going.  Together with Cathy Stanton, they reached out to Leslie Guy of the African American Museum in Philadelphia, and to me as a women’s and public historian, and we’ll be hosting that discussion at a session at the upcoming National Council on Public History meeting in Monterey, California. Continue reading

Revisiting Monterey 20 years after “The Politics of Public Memory”

book cover

Norkunas’s 1993 book was an early contribution to the literature focusing on silence, history, and power.

When I was researching the The Politics of Public Memory: Tourism, History, and Ethnicity in Monterey, California (State University of New York Press, 1993) in the late 1980s, I was deeply affected by the disparity between the haves and have-nots in Monterey. Nearly every day I saw Jaguars, BMWs, and Mercedes on the streets, and from time to time I saw a Rolls Royce. Pebble Beach and Carmel (and the then-mayor of Carmel, Clint Eastwood) joined with Monterey to create an atmosphere of wealth: old wealth, new wealth, and the wealth of those who knew great places in the world.

Where, I wondered, did the workers live? How could they afford an apartment anywhere near their places of work? Who lived in Monterey? Who once lived there? I could see that many of the workers were of Mexican or Latin American heritage. I knew there had once been a significant Chinese population on the peninsula, that Native peoples lived there, that African Americans lived in the area, and that there were other ethnic and cultural groups in the past and present. Continue reading

Where is the next generation of gender studies in public history?

mill model

Lowell National Historical Park’s interpretation of women’s industrial labor, as reflected in this model of an integrated textile mill, remains ground-breaking after 35 years.

This summer I had the pleasure of being part of a tour organized by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage in Philadelphia. A group of practitioners from across the arts and cultural sector spent several days in the Boston area exploring questions relating to gender and sexuality in public historical interpretation.

When I was first invited to accompany the tour as a kind of traveling-scholar-in-residence, my first thought was, “But I don’t do gender in my work.” That was quickly followed by the realization that in a world inflected by feminist and queer scholarship and activism, most of us do indeed do gender, at least implicitly, whenever we think about interpreting the past in public. Like race and class, it’s become something that we automatically tend to ask ourselves about. It’s a crucial way to pry open received histories and connect to present-day concerns. And the question that I found myself returning to as we visited museums, historic houses, a textile mill, a ship, a college campus, a settlement house, and a cemetery or two, was, “Is there a new interpretive landscape beginning to take shape now that we’ve made gender a more central part of public historical inquiry?” Continue reading

Teaching tough issues: online vs. in-person?

At the NCPH annual meeting in Ottawa, Margo Shea and Will Walker, along with other public history educators interested in online teaching and learning, began a conversation about the challenges, risks, and opportunities of having civil and productive conversations about tough questions related to public history (i.e. class, race, gender, and sexuality issues) in an online class setting. Here they reflect on the differences between bricks-and-mortar and online classrooms, online facilitation issues, potential obstacles, and ingredients for transformative conversation and discourse. Continue reading