Raising the curtain: From extreme exhibits to artists in residence

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.

“Quakers and the Challenges of Freedom”  Mixed media on canvas, Curtis Woody, 2014.

“Quakers and the Challenge of Freedom,” mixed media by Curtis Woody, 2014, was inspired by the collections at the Sandy Spring Museum, MD. Photo credit: Curtis Woody

If it’s true that museums only exhibit 2% of their collection, opening rarely or unused collections to people other than curators is one way for a museum to pull back the veil on the interpretive process to draw them “into an explanation of why some subjects are discussed at the site, but not others.”[1] The Sandy Spring Museum, a community history museum in Sandy Spring, Maryland, has always had an extremely small staff and has never employed a curator, making much of our collection off-limits. We are experimenting with ways to make it more accessible by allowing people without museum training the opportunity to work with our collection. Two projects, an Extreme Exhibit Makeover and an invitation to local artists to make work inspired by our collections, are attempts to connect community members more meaningfully with the museum, give them hands-on experiences that show how curatorial choices shape the interpretation of history, and bring new perspectives to our collections. Hopefully, along the way, the participants, staff, and visitors had some fun, too.

Extreme Makeover-Exhibit Style

The Extreme Exhibit Makeover brought together a dozen individuals who had never worked together before and had no affiliation with the Sandy Spring Museum to improve our permanent exhibits. Participants were selected through an application process and put on one of two teams, depending upon their experience. In the end, each team had a designer, a researcher, an artist, an educator, and other assorted museum professionals. 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

Pop-up reflections from the NCPH conference

photo with label

Photo credit: Cathy Stanton

First, thank you to everyone who participated in the first pop-up exhibit at the National Council on Public History conference in Monterey, “Seeds of Change: Public History and Sustainability.” The exhibit was a great success, and we are very excited about the positive responses that we received.

We created the exhibit around the conference theme of “sustainability.”  Working with the NCPH program committee, we researched, created, and facilitated an exhibit that explored how public history work intersects with issues of sustainability.  “Seeds of Change” served as a forum for public historians to share their experiences with sustainable practices, brainstorm creative ways that historians can promote and historicize sustainability, engage in conversations, and pose new questions. Continue reading

A public historian tells all

Well, not quite all. Let me elaborate.

Riding a highwheel bicycle at the Smithsonian Institution. Photo courtesy of author.

Riding a highwheel bicycle at the Smithsonian Institution. Photo courtesy of author.

How many times has someone told you that you have the coolest job? I’ve heard this comment at various points in my career, and admittedly, I have had the opportunity to work on some really fun history projects. One in particular—the National Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Exhibition—was truly one of the best. My friends kept telling me to write about these experiences. The time I received a grizzly bear in the mail. My trip on the Lewis and Clark trail with teachers from reservation schools. The meeting of tribal advisors. I decided that if I didn’t record the stories, I would soon forget them. So I began to write. As I wrote about my Lewis and Clark experiences, I thought of earlier projects that molded my thinking about history. I kept writing. I wrote whenever I felt inspired, in the evenings and on weekends. Ultimately a book idea formed, and I ended up with eighteen eclectic chapters about history projects from throughout my career. Because I have worked at some rather high-profile institutions that a wide audience would recognize, I began to think that just maybe someone would be willing to pay to read my stories. Continue reading

“Seeds of Change”: A pop-up museum for Monterey

plantsHeading to Monterey for the National Council on Public History’s annual meeting next week?  Don’t forget to pack your contribution to NCPH’s first pop-up exhibit, “Seeds of Change:  Public History and Sustainability”!

Generated entirely from participant contributions and built onsite at NCPH, “Seeds of Change:  Public History and Sustainability” will examine how issues of sustainability converge with the work we are doing in public history.  We hope that the exhibit will facilitate conversation and serve as a forum for discussion about the conference theme.  We invite conference attendees to share their experiences with sustainable practices and to brainstorm creative ways that historians can help general audiences comprehend, historicize, and complicate discussions about sustainability. Continue reading