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Nearly a quarter century ago, Warren Leon, the director of interpretation at Old Sturbridge Village, and Roy Rosenzweig, the Mark and Barbara Fried Chair of History and founding director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, published History Museums in the United States, a pioneering critical assessment of history museums, historic houses, historic sites and open-air living history museums. Fifteen scholars and museum staff members examined the versions of the past that these institutions offered the public and evaluated the extent to which they reflected the latest historical scholarship and incorporated the perspectives of those people—women, Blacks, Native Americans, Latino/as, immigrants and workers—whose history had previously been ignored or caricatured.

Their conclusions were indeed highly critical:

  • Financial and institutional considerations too often resulted in a bland, insipid and wishy-washy portraits of the past.
  • The largely white, upper-middle-class audience, often accompanied by children, resulted in exhibits, themes and interpretations that avoided controversial subjects, with even historic battlefields downplaying the soldiers’ experience.
  • The historical reality that many of these institutions displayed was highly biased, overemphasizing elites, prosperous farmers and planters, and pioneers and reinforcing cultural myths about progress and American exceptionalism.
  • The reliance on traditional museum artifacts—letters, books, paintings and photographs—tended “to force historical material into certain conventional modes” of display that rendered visitors passive and unreflective.

In the years since Leon and Rosenzweig’s volume was published, history museums and historic sites have undergone a reckoning of, yes, historic proportions. New kinds of history museums opened, focusing on civil rights, African American history and culture, Native Americans, and the Holocaust, as well as on topics like toys and play and fashion.

At the same time, history museums started to confront tough issues head-on, including slavery and Jim Crow, and adopted new modes of presentation, including (to great controversy) role-playing by costumed interpreters.

To attract broader audiences, many history museums embraced emerging technologies, introducing orientation films, dramatic lighting, simulations and interactives.

Today, there are 10 times as many historical museums, historical sites, battlefields, historic homes and living history museums in the United States as there are art museums. With over 100 million visitors a year, far more people go to these history institutions than to children’s museums, natural history museums or science museums—or attend professional baseball games. Yet these institutions receive little respect or esteem and, on average, have only a fraction of the funding of every other kind of museum.

Not only does the history museum lack the cultural cachet of the encyclopedic or modern art museum, but all the charges hurled at those bastions of high art—as elitist, ethnocentric and sexist relics of colonialism—pale compared to the criticisms leveled at history museums, which are often accused of distorting, romanticizing and airbrushing the past, of erasing history’s conflicts and struggles and inequities and casting history as ancestor worship or a story of onward and upward progress.

These institutions, we are repeatedly reminded, reinforce common ways the public relates to the past. As Andrew Joseph Pegoda of the University of Houston has explained, certain tropes govern the ways that people think about the past: that “things were better then” or that people were less enlightened back then or that my story was excluded or misrepresented or that history is simply bunk, a mishmash without relevance today.

Worse yet, the nonprofit history museum faces intense competition from for-profits, whether the various spy museums or the kinds of popular history presented at Disney theme parks.

Yet whatever their flaws, history museums and historic sites represent the only public spaces where visitors encounter the material culture of the past, not as artworks or fossils or decontextualized technologies, but as artifacts that show how our predecessors lived and what they thought. As Drew Faust has observed, through their artifacts, these museums expose visitors to “the physical embodiments of thoughts and ideas voiced by a person long since silenced by death.”

At their best, these places go further and interpret and interrogate the past and draw connections to the present in ways that can provoke, incite, inspire and prompt questions.

If the overarching goals of the art museum are to cultivate artistic taste and refine and elevate the sensibilities, the aims of historical museums and sites are to retrieve a vanished past, even if only partially and momentarily, physically connect us to those who preceded us, and let us enter their authentic world in its complexity and strangeness.

This can indeed be done, even when confronting the most painful historical issues.

There is an incredibly touching, truly heartrending moment in Julia Rose’s 2016 Interpreting Difficult History at Museums and Historic Sites, itself a powerful and poignant study of the challenges that museum professionals and public historians face in bringing the past to life without succumbing to nostalgia, sentimentality or whitewashed, sanitized or commercialized conceptions of history.

At Magnolia Mound, a sugar plantation in Baton Rouge near the Mississippi River, 17 third graders entered a dimly lit two-room slave cabin where two families lived, “furnished with a rope bed, a three-legged stool, a work table, a basket with cotton cards and a cast iron kettle.” Their parochial school teacher asked the 8-year-olds to gather in a circle and join her in prayer and recognize this space’s historical significance.

After all, real people had inhabited this cramped, dimly lit, decrepit space, where they had lived and ached and grieved and, one can hope, experienced moments of intimacy, love, joy and celebration.

As Rose, now the director of Johns Hopkins’ Homewood Museum, observes, at that moment those students and their teacher connected to the past in a way that is far more visceral, immediate and powerful than almost ever takes place in a history classroom.

How might history museums—and history instructors—bring the past to life while avoiding simplification or sentimentalization?

Rose calls for an approach that she describes, somewhat inelegantly, as “commemorative museum pedagogy.” The keys are to focus as much on the visitors as on the historic artifacts; to recognize that the audience is anything but homogenous and therefore an exhibit must speak to a vast range of visitors who bring their own distinct interests, motivations, concerns and divergent backgrounds and conflicting attitudes; and to recognize that a history museum is also a memorial site: a place where people today must come to connect to and come to terms with trauma, tragedy, injustice, power differentials and moral complexity.

Here, Rose invokes the geographer Kenneth E. Foote’s argument that history museums are “shadowed ground,” “war zones” and “battlefields,” with competing and conflicting meanings depending on each visitor’s perspective. In tackling difficult issues, a museum ought not seek “single messages and unequivocal answers.” Instead, treat the museum or the historic site as a place of remembrance.

Here are the lessons that I take away from Rose’s book:

  1. Recognize that difficult issues are highly charged emotionally and are likely to provoke resistance or prompt profoundly emotional responses that include shame, emotional pain and anger. In its landmark Slavery in New York exhibition, the New-York Historical Society incorporated the works of contemporary artists that were created in response to the show’s themes and helped give tangible expression to visitors’ feelings and visceral reactions.
  2. Embrace complexity. Accept the fact that sites of tragedy or violence or conflict will evoke very different reactions from visitors. It is therefore not a mistake to tell the audience that these events produced conflicting and contradictory historical interpretations. This is not a call for false equivalence. Be fair but also be clear about where the weight of the evidence leads.
  3. Treat visitors as learners (but not as ignoramuses). History museum visitors inevitably bring various expectations and preconceptions to an exhibition. Curators, designers and docents should not condescend. Rather, they should be utterly transparent about the facts and findings that have shaped a particular exhibit, including their design considerations. Be open about the way that a particular exhibit challenges or revises existing interpretations.
  4. Focus on real individuals that visitors can identify with. It’s essential to humanize an exhibition. A key to the success of the New-York Historical Society’s Slavery in New York exhibition was to identify a young girl who was kidnapped and enslaved and brought to South Carolina on a New York vessel and whose many descendants are alive today—transforming slavery from an abstract topic into an intensely human experience with repercussions that reverberate today and will echo into the future. But humanizing the past also entails scrutinizing those who acted in ways that we find reprehensible. We must strive to understand why they could act as cruelly and callously as they did.
  5. Connect to the audience. A big challenge for the New-York Historical Society and El Museo del Barrio’s Nueva York (1613–1945) exhibition, on Latinx New York City, was to connect the pre–World War II history with the Caribbean and Latin American immigrants who arrived in unprecedented numbers after the war. One solution was to create and screen a brief film in which immigrants explained why they had left the Caribbean and Latin America and the reception they received in New York. Equally important is crafting a narrative that strives to connect past and present and that exposes continuities as well as discontinuities.
  6. Treat collective memory seriously. Don’t disrespect collective memory. Academic or scholarly history is only one of many ways to relate to the past. Whole communities also have their own deeply held traditions, beliefs, stories and collective memories about the past that ought not to be neglected, dismissed or trivialized. A history museum or historic site can bust myths, but it also needs to treat communal memories as worthy of attention by explaining how communities invest the past with meaning, how these meanings shift over time and their functions and significance. At any time, there are various collective memories, and inclusion means that these competing memories demand recognition.
  7. Create opportunities for reflection. It’s essential that an exhibition stimulate the audience and be as interactive and engaging as possible. But it also needs to give visitors chances to process the information they’ve encountered and work through their affective reactions. The New-York Historical Society made sure that a host of individuals of various ages and backgrounds were available to converse with visitors after they toured the exhibitions, giving them a chance to ask questions, share their thoughts and simply emote.
  8. Make sure the visitors exit with substantive and meaningful takeaways. No longer are history museums or historic sites inward-turning institutions concerned chiefly with collection, preservation and curation. In addition to providing a stimulating and illuminating experience, these institutions are educational entities, and their visitors should come away with a fresh and rich understanding of the past. Therefore, it essential that an exhibit have a payoff: of new knowledge acquired, perspectives broadened and novel insights.

I fear that we are living in a time when it is becoming ever harder to connect even with the relatively recent past, let alone the distant, pre-industrial past. Even some of the most country’s most esteemed history departments are abandoning or downsizing ancient and even medieval history, and many of their U.S. wings are radically reducing their offerings in colonial and antebellum history.

History museums remain one of the few mechanisms where audiences can encounter the authentic physical remnants of the past.

Movies, television and the streaming services certainly embrace history, but no one really expects anything approaching historical accuracy or a serious, sophisticated interpretation from a costume drama. At best, audiences get cinematic social history, features that bring largely ignored historical incidents or figures to the audience’s attention, like Hidden Figures, with its portrayal of the Black women who processed data for the 1960s space program. More often, audiences get docudramas that mix a period setting and real historical figures and events with fictional characters, dialogues and incidents, often coupled with a presentist agenda. At worst, there are the ethnocentrist histories that populated the silver screen during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s and glorified colonial expansion and the conquest of the American West.

Only very rarely does the audience get pictures like the Oprah Winfrey version of Toni Morrison’s Beloved or Forrest Gump or The Big Chill or The Return of the Secaucus Seven, which grapple with the human impact and meaning of historical change.

If history museums are to truly fulfill their educational responsibilities, these institutions must do more to address the toughest issues of our collective past, not just by staging exhibitions on slavery or colonialism or westward expansion through a more critical lens, but by exploring and explaining how people as intelligent as ourselves could engage in the most callous and violent behavior and how those who were exploited and subjugated were able, to an extraordinary degree, to succeed in creating and sustaining a vibrant cultures and resist oppression.

Those of us who are college teachers have a great deal to learn from those who are reimagining museums, whether those are history museums, art museums, children’s museums, natural history museums or science and technology museums. We, like the museum professionals, must address very difficult issues that many find too upsetting or troubling or stressful to bear.

We, too, run the risk of alienating swaths of our audience—our students—stirring strong emotional responses and provoking political controversy. We, too, must respect the sensitivities and beliefs of a highly diverse audience that comes to us with contrasting assumptions and clashing perspectives.

We, too, run the risk of telling stories that will upset and overwhelm our audience while evoking intense feelings of guilt, embarrassment and shame that can hinder learning—or, conversely, result in an estrangement or alienation that will produce denial, disengagement and disconnection.

What I learned from Julia Rose’s book is that the biggest challenge we face when we teach hot, difficult topics is to recognize that our responsibility is not just academic or cognitive, it’s emotional: to help our students process troubling, unsettling information and assist them to work through their own emotions about the topic that evokes an intense affective response, whether rage or guilt and shame or confusion.

When we speak of education as transformative, one thing we mean is that it requires students to undergo wrenching psychological changes as they come to terms with difficult, disconcerting information that challenges their prior views and forces them to reconsider received opinions. As instructors, it’s not enough to simply present a particular set of facts. Our most important task is to assist them as they come to terms with new and often threatening ways of looking at the world.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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