Amsterdam Museum, a people’s history

(Editor’s note: This post is the first of a two-part series looking at the Amsterdam Museum.)

Amsterdam Museum. Photo credit: Jean-Pierre Morin

Amsterdam Museum. Photo credit: Jean-Pierre Morin

As a certified History Nerd and lover of cities, one of the first things I do when I arrive in a new city is check out the local history museum. I’m particularly fascinated by the way a city’s historical development influences its contemporary identity (and yes, I think all cities have their own unique identity). In my opinion, the way a municipality interprets and exhibits its history is a window into that collective identity. Continue reading

History without vision: A struggle over art at the City Museum of New York

Mike Alewitz's "The City at the Crossroads of History" mural was commissioned for the City Museum of New York, which has declined to display it.

Mike Alewitz’s “The City at the Crossroads of History” mural was commissioned for the City Museum of New York, which has declined to display it. Photo credit: Mike Alewitz

Muralist and activist Mike Alewitz has finished his tribute to the labor and social justice movements, an imposing four-panel painting titled The City at the Crossroads of History–but the museum it was commissioned for doesn’t want it.

The Puffin Foundation, a grant maker that frequently supports politically left artists, engaged Alewitz to create the mural for a new gallery at the Museum of the City of New York. The gallery is now open with an inaugural exhibit about social activism without the mural, while the artist has launched a petition drive to try to have it displayed as originally planned. Continue reading

Adventures in crowdfunding: A museum’s perspective

A Lancaster bomber at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa.  Photo credit: Doug Zwick

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

Rethinking diversity: Introduction

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. Credit: Angela Thorpe

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

What I learned on my (public history) summer vacation

Participants gathered for a farewell photo on the final day of the seminar on the campus of Shanghai Normal University.  Photo credit: Richard Anderson

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

All that is solid? The politics of digitization

Digitized collections unsettle the role of tangible objects, like these antique duck decoys.  Photo credit:  Marcus Jeffrey

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