The Past is in the Past? A Closer Look into Public History

Added to Medium, March 22, 2018

As a museum professional with a Master’s degree in Public History, recent discussion in the public history field has captured my attention. One of the reasons why I decided to write a little more about public history this week is because I came across Taylor Stoermer’s “Let It Go: The Exceptionalist Narrative in American Public History” on Medium. Stoermer is a Museum Studies (Public History) lecturer at Johns Hopkins University. After reading his article, I thought more about my experience in public history and the lessons I’ve learned especially while I was earning my Master’s degree at Central Connecticut State University.

Stoermer’s “Let It Go” article briefly discussed internal issues museums face including equitable pay schemes, governance development, and better attention to the modern needs of emerging museum professionals in the economy. His article focuses more on external issues especially the disconnection between the America we see outside of our museums and the one that many of our sites represent.

He provided examples of tough issues museum professionals have always had a hard time discussing but are making progress in being awareness to these issues. According to the article, he stated that

Slavery and race have always been thorny issues for interpreters, but tremendous progress has been made to help them tell the stories of enslaved peoples, to accurately and effectively weave them throughout a site’s narrative (and maybe point out that race doesn’t really exist except as a cultural construct). Programs only for Black History Month, like those for Women’s History Month, just don’t cut it anymore, as the penny has finally dropped for museum directors that every month is for black and women’s (and LGBTQ) history (check out Old Salem’s “Hidden Town” project). But larger institutions are slowly, but surely, recognizing their responsibilities as stewards to smaller, satellite sites, in providing workshops and interpretive resources to create a rising tide that lifts all museum boats. The upcoming Mount Vernon/American Alliance of Museums program on museum leadership and the Montpelier/National Trust for Historic Preservation’s recent National Summit on Teaching Slavery are solid examples. We’re not yet where we need to be in those respects, but progress is being made.

It is true that we are not there yet and that progress is being made in discussing slavery and race. We should also acknowledge what smaller institutions are doing to provide workshops and interpretive resources. For instance, I mentioned in a previous blog post about my experience with the Stanley-Whitman House in Farmington, Connecticut.

A historic house museum that also focuses on the history of Farmington, the Stanley-Whitman House began to take a closer look at slaves who have lived in Farmington between the 17th and 19th century. While I was in graduate school, I decided to work with the Stanley-Whitman House on a project that addressed slavery in Connecticut. I had a couple of classmates and colleagues join me in the team to work on this project for a Curatorship class requirement. We researched former slaves who worked and lived in Connecticut before the 1790 Census to present the research results about what slavery was like for slaves in Farmington to colleagues who attended the In Plain Sight symposium presentations and discussion.

Since working on this project and the symposium, there have been more developments on discussing slavery in Connecticut. One of my teammates collaborated with the Stanley-Whitman House to create a database on the information about slaves in Farmington. This project is called The Farmington Slavery Research Project, and the goals were to document captive people – record them as they were discovered in primary source materials such as probate inventories, wills, account books and other records. It is an ongoing volunteer-staffed project that volunteers are welcome to contribute to the continuous research on Farmington’s history with slavery. To learn more about this project, I included a link in the resources section of this blog post.

Also, more recently a new exhibit that opened on February 17th called “Slavery, Resistance & Freedom in Connecticut”; one of the students from the Public History program I graduated from at Central Connecticut State University researched, wrote, and designed the exhibit. By being able to discuss slavery in Connecticut more, we are able to address what life had been like for enslaved individuals and draw more attention to their lived experiences.

Many museum professionals and public historians would have to admit that we still have a long way to go in creating that informative and comfortable dialogue between staff and visitors on tough issues. Our field is constantly attempting to catch up and move forward to remain relevant in the community. Stoermer brought up this question: “What are we trying to catch up to?” He concluded that the answer is that “…sites are trying to catch important, undertold, underrepresented stories up to the same tale of American exceptionalism that has dominated public history…” In other words, museum professionals and public historians research and tell stories that have been forgotten or previously overlooked to figure out how they fit into the familiar narrative of our nation’s history that the majority have become used to over the centuries.

We have realized in recent years that visitors are asking more questions that challenge the narrative and we continue to work towards answering these questions through our programming and exhibitions. Many questions come from what visitors learned or have seen outside of museums especially through our media. Movies in the cinemas are examples of media where debates have emerged to contribute to the ongoing portrayal of our history and museum practices.

The discussion surrounding the film, Black Panther, is especially important for the museum field and one of the excellent examples of public history. Before I proceed with talking about this film, there is a spoiler alert for individuals who have not yet seen the film since I will mention a scene from the film that museums should pay attention to.

Released last month, in case if one is not familiar with the film, Black Panther is a film from Marvel Studios about a superhero also known as T’Challa. He is also king of an African nation that is isolated and technologically advanced called Wakanda. According to IMDB, when T’Challa rises to power after the passing of his father, his claim to the throne is challenged by a vengeful outsider who was a childhood victim of T’Challa’s father’s mistake.

I saw the film last month, and I enjoyed it. In addition to special effects and other elements that go into making this film, I admired its look into the issues it presented especially when one of the main antagonists, Erik Killmonger, visited a museum that had items in the collections which belonged to the nation he was born in. In that scene, the curator approached Killmonger to explain the history of these items; a little while into the scene the curator told him the items are not for sale when he made an attempt to take them, and he responded by asking if her ancestors paid a reasonable price when they took them from his native country. I took notice of the museum scene not only because of what happens within that scene but my perspective as a museum professional made me think about past museum practices of obtaining items in its collections and the ethical practices we have today.

In the online museums journal, The Hopkins Exhibitionist, Casey Haughin wrote about the Black Panther film in the piece “Why museum professionals need to talk about Black Panther”. The article went into a deep discussion about the museum scene and wrote about the impact the film had on the continuing conversation on our nation’s and global history. Haughin stated that

Black Panther provides a platform to discuss a multitude of topics on a national scale. With issues such as police brutality, the ever-present effects of slavery in Western society, and black identity approached in the film, it is easy to gloss over one of the more exposition-driven scenes of the film that engages with the complicated relationship between museums and audiences affected by colonialism.

What I have learned in my history courses all the way up to the end of graduate school and beyond the classroom is that colonialism had a major impact on world and it continuously makes an impact as we deal with its consequences. We still have a long way to go to be as inclusive and accepting of one another as we need to be in an ever changing world.

Haughin proposed a response for museum professionals to make after seeing this film. According to the article, among many things that were proposed, it stated

The first step after this movie is to publicly confirm the reality of the situation; museums need to step up and acknowledge the fact that Killmonger’s anger in the exhibition and the experience he had were not entirely fictionalized, but rather a magnification of museum practices in the modern world. The next step is to listen. Listen to people of color, to communities, and to whole countries who see themselves both robbed by and cast out from international institutions. By communicating openly with the audience of a museum, professionals can determine how better to adapt their practices and make the institution a place that is relevant and respectful for all visitors. Until a truly symbiotic dialogue is established, this scene in Black Panther will represent the reality of museum politics where fact is truly more alarming than any fiction.

I also came across an opinion piece written by Lise Ragbir, who is a writer, curator, and the Director of the Christian-Green Gallery and the Idea Lab, both part of Black Studies at the University of Texas. In her piece, What Black Panther Gets Right About the Politics of Museums, she went into detail about the representation of current attitudes towards museums in the film while sharing her perspective of the scene, a similar situation that occurred in the film happening in France, and shared data from the American Alliance of Museums of how many African Americans visits. These are only a few examples of what she discussed in her piece.

One of the statements she made that stood out to me was the importance of access and how it creates opportunities to learn especially about how we are represented in other narratives. She then went on to say

To be clear, museums and other cultural spaces have functioned under the weight of these truths since people began publicly exhibiting art and artifacts. But old truths are giving way to new attitudes, as evidenced by France’s more diplomatic version of Killmonger’s vigilante repatriation of African artifacts. However, ongoing debates about representation, repatriation, and cultural appropriation — all cannily encapsulated in Killmonger’s memorable visit to the Museum of Great Britain in Black Panther — affirm that a great deal of work is still needed to make our museums truly welcoming and diverse. Besides, as Princess Shuri puts it: “Just because something works doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.”

Both Ragbir and Haughin emphasized what museum professionals need to do, and continue to do, is to work towards being truly inclusive and diverse organizations.

We need to invest in time to address each issue that we face in the public history/museum field. So many issues are brought to our attention and we need to keep moving forward to remain relevant in the changing climate of our society. We should be asking ourselves the tough questions, and finding effective ways to invite our visitors in to help our communities fully understand our past.

What do you think of our museums progress of being more inclusive and diverse so far? Have you discussed about Black Panther within your own organizations?

Farmington Slavery Research Project:
To learn more about Black Panther and the impact it has in the museum field:


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