A Lancaster bomber at the Canada Air and Space Museum in Ottawa. Photo credit: Doug Zwick
From art museums collecting Instagram posts for mobile photography exhibits to natural history museums getting visitors to actively participate in digitizing their collections or museums using crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and Causevox to raise funds for special projects and exhibits, crowdsourcing is becoming increasingly prevalent in heritage and cultural institutions. Crowdfunding, which has been defined as “asking many people for ‘microdonations’ for a specific project or cause, usually within a specific time frame and online,” differs from traditional donor campaigns in that it is equal parts marketing, audience engagement, and of course, fundraising. Continue reading
Earlier this year the Indian American Heritage Project at the Smithsonian launched its inaugural exhibition Beyond Bollywood. Housed in a gallery at the National Museum of Natural History through March 2015, the exhibition “explores the heritage, daily experience and numerous, diverse contributions that Indian immigrants and Indian Americans have made to shaping the United States.” For the last year I’ve been involved peripherally with the exhibition, as a contributor to the Beyond Bollywood blog.
There are a lot of things that this exhibition has going for it. It’s located in a high traffic museum, and it embeds the experiences of Indian immigrants and Indian Americans in a context filled with music, photographs, and art. The exhibition has spurred pride, excitement, and interest. However, it has also spun out into a broader discussion about representation and identity. Continue reading
This is the first post in a series on issues of diversity in the public history field.
Waymond, the custodian who challenged me to think differently about diversity at a community history event. Photo credit: Angela Thorpe
“I’m surprised to see you here. You know this museum is for white people, right?” These words greeted me during my first days of an internship at a Greensboro, North Carolina, museum last August. This statement alarmed me for a couple of reasons. First, the speaker is an active member of one of Greensboro’s most historic black communities. I worried that if other members of the community shared his sentiment–that the museum wasn’t a space for them–the museum was not confronting diversity head-on in their exhibits, program offerings, and outreach work. Second, if our communities do not see museums as spaces where diverse faces should be employed in leadership roles, an issue is exposed that is highly complex and not easily remedied.
My name is Angela Thorpe, and I am a recent graduate of the Museum Studies MA program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. I first noticed a problem with diversity in public history when I canvassed public history programs across the country. As a black female, I felt it necessary to understand how my prospective programs confronted diversity. Each program director admitted their program “struggled with diversity,” but that they were “working on it.” My former program director, in comparison, was candid with me about the program’s spotty track record for attracting a diverse body. I appreciated that and was honored to eventually train in the program. Continue reading
Participants gathered for a farewell photo on the final day of the seminar on the campus of Shanghai Normal University. Photo credit: Chen Xin
This summer I traveled to Shanghai, China, with a group of fellow students and faculty from Princeton University for an immersive seminar in public history, memory, and preservation. The trip provided an opportunity to think about public history in a transnational framework, which is important to me for two reasons. First, public history remains far too parochial in the United States, despite efforts in many corners of the discipline (and on History@Work’s International Perspectives section) to fashion a more expansive geographic and cultural lens. Second, I’ve been struck by how many of my Princeton classmates most enthusiastic about public history specialize in fields outside North America. As a historian-in-training who studies–and resides in–the United States, I see both a need and a demand for transnational approaches to public history. Continue reading
Section of the “Lake Effects” exhibit defining the lake effect in the context of the Great Lakes region. Photo credit: SeekingMichigan.org
On August 24, 2014, the temporary exhibition Lake Effects closed its doors after a ten-month run at the Michigan Historical Museum. Attempting to absorb as much Great Lakes culture as I could before relocating to the southeastern United States, I visited the Michigan Historical Museum with my family in July. Michigan summers are idyllic, not an epithet often applied to our new home in Atlanta, Georgia. What more appropriate activity for celebrating the beautiful Michigan summer than visiting a museum exhibit all about Michigan’s special weather systems? I was disappointed, however, to find that the exhibit, poised to offer a public platform for a friendly discussion of climate change in the Great Lakes region, made absolutely no mention of this central problem of our time. Continue reading
Digitized collections unsettle the role of tangible objects, like these antique duck decoys. Photo credit: Marcus Jeffrey
I’d never held a duck decoy in my hands before and certainly not one that was important enough to be in a museum’s collection. It was my first day as education curator at the Tuckerton Seaport Museum in Tuckerton, New Jersey, and along with Jackie Stewart, the director of the folklife center (it was her first day, too), I was organizing a small exhibit for the nature center. We arranged objects into a narrative about cultural experiences of nature, wrote labels, and tried to tell a story–albeit a short one–in that one vitrine. Even though this was the mid-2000s, it never occurred to either of us to go back to our desks and scour the Internet for photos of decoy carvers or ducks. We were focused on the physical objects housed at the museum.
What a difference a decade makes. Theresa Koenigsknecht’s recent posts on this blog, ”Surfing with purpose: Online collections as exhibit resources,” discuss how the availability of digital historical resources, particularly from the Internet Archive, shape how exhibits are created at the Indiana Historical Society. That digitization is the way of the future seems incontrovertible. In the ten years since that decoy exhibit, the amount of cultural heritage material that has become available on the Internet has exploded, giving small public history institutions access to resources that were previously unimaginable and helping museums make better use of their own collections. According to the New York Times, only two percent of a museum’s collections are on exhibit at any time (“The Good Stuff in the Back Room,” March 12, 2009), mostly because of issues of space. There’s just not enough room to put out all the interesting stuff. In that case, digitization seems like a godsend: take photos of it all and upload them to the museum’s website and, voilà, instantaneous access!
Or is it? Physical objects have a different aura than their digital counterparts. And despite the sense of ease that “plug and play” technologies often give us, serious digitization projects are neither easy nor cheap. Continue reading
Proposed location for Cuban Exile History Museum. Map credit: googlemaps.com, Google Earth
On July 17, Miami-Dade County Commissioners—several Cuban-Americans among them—approved a controversial plan to construct a Cuban Exile History Museum (CEHM) alongside Biscayne Bay. Few would deny the importance of the Cuban community to Miami’s rise from sleepy getaway to sprawling “gateway to the Americas.” The museum project, however, raises troubling questions about not only the development of seaside green space or the apparent clout of one group in city government but the slippery politics of the past in a changing Miami present.
Located behind American Airlines Arena in the heart of downtown, the proposed site for the CEHM has been the source of public wrangling for some time. After rejecting a proposal to build a soccer stadium on the plot, commissioners gave the exile museum the go-ahead. Conservationists and non-Cuban constituents alike have grumbled at the inside political baseball seemingly favoring the city’s preeminent ethnic voting bloc.No one, though, seems to be debating just what would go into the new building in the first place–the kinds of exhibits it would feature or stories they might tell–let alone how this new institution would sustain its mission over time. Continue reading
Continued from Part 1.
Creative Commons offers several levels of easily-applied licenses to facilitate digital publishing of images while offering some protections to owners and creators.
Navigating copyright for images is tricky and presents one of the biggest challenges in my work as an Exhibitions Researcher at the Indiana Historical Society. Although I admit to only a rudimentary understanding of copyright, this is where open access comes in very handy. While it is certainly important to support other cultural institutions and individuals by purchasing images, the back and forth involved in determining copyright, ensuring a file is a high enough resolution, or waiting for a physical copy to be delivered doesn’t always fit into a production schedule. That is why I increasingly rely on sites with hassle-free permissions and files I can download immediately. We still always credit the source of photos used in our exhibits even if they are open access.
Issues of copyright become even more complex with online materials, and new legal conventions are emerging along with digital collections. Continue reading
Digital collections like those of the Internet Archive have drastically expanded the resources available to exhibit creators. Photo credit: Internet Archive
Thanks to the exponential increase in availability of digitized collections, possibilities in exhibit research have drastically expanded. Digital collections have become essential tools that help ensure the success of projects with limited budgets and tight deadlines, which most public historians might agree is just about every project. At the same time, it is often overwhelming to sift through the wide range of options. How can researchers, curators, and designers best utilize and understand the many resources provided through digital repositories and open access collections?
I recently responded to a tweet by Mary Rizzo asking for examples of people using the Internet Archive, an open access digital collection, in their public history work, and she suggested I write a blog post about using tools like this. As an Exhibitions Researcher at the Indiana Historical Society, my initial reaction was to think “I don’t know much about open access collections, I just use them.” Considering again, however, I realized that even though I was trained during the era of digitization and I use these resources as second nature in my work, I’ve still gone through a learning process in my job. Continue reading
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 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.” 
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