Behind the velvet rope: Revealing process with museum tours and programs

Editor’s Note: In “What I’ve Learned Along the Way: A Public Historian’s Intellectual Odyssey,” outgoing NCPH President Bob Weyeneth issued a call to action to public historians to include the public more fully in our work by “pulling back the curtain” on our interpretive process-how we choose the stories we tell. In this series of posts, we’ve invited several public historians to reflect on projects that do exactly that, assessing their successes and examining the challenges we face when we let the public in through the door usually reserved for staff.

Beauport, the Sleeper-McCann House, in Gloucester, Massachusetts is now interpreted as the home of a gay man.

Beauport, the Sleeper-McCann House, in Gloucester, Massachusetts, is now interpreted as the former home of a gay man, Henry Davis Sleeper.  Photo credit:  Historic New England

As a public historian working in a museum, Robert R. Weyeneth’s call to “lift the veil” and bring the public into the interpretive process is welcome–and necessary if we want to broaden the kinds of stories we tell. As Jennifer Pustz writes in Voices from the Back Stairs, “the influx of academically trained historians on museum staffs and the subsequent influence of social history on exhibitions and interpretation have resulted in a broader definition of authenticity that can encompass the whole truth, warts and all, and the history of all Americans.” [1]

Why, then, are many museums and historic sites so reticent to explore diverse stories? Do they fear the public’s reaction? If so, why aren’t we involving the visitor more in the process of historical interpretation? Continue reading

Lifting our skirts: Sharing the sexual past with visitors

Editor’s Note: In “What I’ve Learned Along the Way: A Public Historian’s Intellectual Odyssey,” outgoing NCPH President Bob Weyeneth issued a call to action to public historians to include the public more fully in our work by “pulling back the curtain” on our interpretive process—how we choose the stories we tell. In this series of posts, we’ve invited several public historians to reflect on projects that do exactly that, assessing their successes and examining the challenges we face when we let the public in through the door usually reserved for staff.

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene 1864 Simeon Solomon 1840-1905 Purchased 1980 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T03063

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene, 1864. Simeon Solomon.  Photo credit:  Tate Museum

In his presidential address, Bob Weyeneth calls for public history sites to “lift the curtain” and reveal to the public the “interpretive fluidity of history.” I have good news for Weyeneth from my little corner of the profession. When interpreting Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) history, we can scarcely do anything but display the messy underpinnings of our work. With regard to same-sex love and desire, sound evidence and clear-cut categories rarely exist. In place of definitive statements, usually the best we can offer is a scant handful of clues. Let me first describe the aspects of LGBT history that lend themselves to Weyeneth’s suggestion, then consider one example of these ideas in practice: the alternative labeling project at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum (JAHHM) in Chicago.[1] Continue reading

National Women’s History Museum & Material Culture Wars

Women’s History – Still A Sensitive Subject?

Women’s History – Still A Sensitive Subject?

Sonya Michel’s recent post brings the behind-the-scenes issues that have plagued the National Women’s History Museum (NWHM) project for years into public view. In 2012, when the Huffington Post reported “National Women’s History Museum Makes Little Progress in 16 Years,” it listed a catalog of concerns, from the overblown CV of the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) to financial irregularities. In fact, long before this recent crisis, historians were invited to join the original advisory board, only to be dismissed, along with all of their recommendations [see comments].

The consequences have been profound. While CEO Joan Wages may not think historians are integral to the project, the resulting online exhibitions, labelled “amateur, superficial, and inaccurate” by Michel, are certainly disappointing, mixing trite sentimentality (“Profiles in Motherhood”) with shallow celebration (“Daring Dames,” and “Young and Brave: Girls Changing History”). As the Huffington Post article noted, “there appears to be little rhyme or reason to who or what is featured on the museum’s website.” Yet despite the upbeat tone and narrow emphasis on great women and their accomplishments, the exhibitions are still too provocative for the right-wing opponents of women’s history. Since 2008, legislation to grant NWHM permission to build near the National Mall has stalled six times, blocked in Congress by Republican opponents acting on behalf of anti-abortion interests. Michele Bachmann’s charge that the museum will create an “ideological shrine to abortion” is just the latest in this repeated strategy. In 2010, Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Jim DeMint (R-SC), placed a hold on a bill two days after Concerned Women for America requested one, claiming that the museum would “focus on abortion rights.” In response, Wages reassured opponents that reproductive health will never be tackled in the museum. “We cannot afford, literally, to focus on issues that are divisive.”

I know first-hand that the content of the museum’s website owes more to the fears of a political backlash than to the results of decades of groundbreaking historical research. Continue reading

A women’s history museum without women’s historians

From [http://www.nunes.house.gov/tours.htm] {{PD-USGov}}On May 7, the US House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill authorizing the creation of a commission to explore the feasibility of establishing a women’s history museum on the National Mall. Yet many women’s historians and museum professionals are not celebrating. Why not? Because this bill (H.R. 863) carves out a special role for the National Women’s History Museum, Inc. (NWHM), a non-profit, non-professional organization that has been lobbying for this project for more than 16 years, but does not guarantee a place at the table for either professional historians or museum experts. Continue reading

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