The Vastly Significant Topic of Slavery and Public History

The topic of slavery is a difficult one regardless of background and personal experiences.  I agreed whole-heartedly that Americans know little about history, slavery in particular.  My own experiences attest to that.  I attended K-12 grades in California and Nevada, much removed from issues concerning the Civil War, segregation, and slavery.  I received the standard glossed over narrative of the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement.  Last semester, taking the History of Race and Rights class, I was embarrassed by the amount of information that was unknown to me.  I left that class with a much deeper understanding of contemporary issues that others are clueless about.  I know I’m not the only one with this experience, and I think it shows the holes in public education.  I also agree with the statement that history must be taught in various non-academic settings.  Many of the examples shown in the book represent exhibitions appearing on the eastern side of the country.  That is problematic because it further distances the information from people like me, who have never traveled east of Utah (besides Florida, but it was only for a day so I don’t count it).  It’s important for these exhibits to tour the country to reach people who otherwise would only receive the national educational standard version of the South, supplemented by Gone With the Wind.  Although I wonder if it is futile to try to reach the Southerners who so deeply believe that the war isn’t over and that slavery did not cause the Civil War.

Within the reading I was interested in how the power of places was presented.  This was profoundly present in the Williamsburg slave auction and with “Back of the Big House”.  By removing Williamsburg from the slave auction, and replacing it with a mall, the power of the dramatization is completely lost and becomes a farce.  It amazes me that when planning such an event, people were blind to the lost context that came from the site itself.

I’m curious how the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture last fall has presented the difficult topic of slavery and subsequent Jim Crow oppression.  I have not heard much outcry, which makes me wonder if it’s not as “shocking” as it should be.  Like the book suggests, race and slavery within American memory risks provoking defensiveness and confrontation.  I’m also curious if the museum utilizes any participation elements that we’ve previously discussed.  I would hope that whites take advantage of the opportunity to visit the museum and hopefully fill in some of the gaps in their understanding of history.  It is so important to continue to find ways of discussing race and slavery.


I think it’s also noteworthy that the museum is on the National Mall down the road from monuments and buildings honoring the very men who owned slaves.

BoiseSpeaks Inspired by StoryCorps Brought to you by the Public Library

I saw this advertised on the public library’s facebook page for anyone who is interested in participating.

Here is the description and link:

The Library! at Collister invites you to bring a friend or family member to interview you, or be interviewed by a library staff member about a story from your life. Interviews are recorded on the Storycorps app and may be shared on the website. All published stories are archived in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. A staff member will sit in to make sure the recording runs smoothly. Enjoy this opportunity to document your experiences for future generations! What is your story?


Collaboration and Communication is Key

This second portion of the book was much more interesting and easier for me to visualize in terms of public curation.  I love the idea of increasing the amount of history blended with art.  I feel that as historians, we all have similar educational backgrounds.  Many artists come from outside that background and provide creative ways of showcasing history (and do not shy away from controversial subjects) that perhaps historians would not otherwise consider.  Mining the Museum represented a good balance of art and history collaboration.  Wilson stressed context and environment when he was creating the installation, as well as communication and trust with the museum staff.  That trusting relationship and communication between curator and artist is the key to creating these installations, and having expectations met.  I cringe at the prospect of relinquishing control of anything, but with trust and communication, I think we can see the benefits.  Art and history are so connected that I don’t think you can separate them, even with contemporary artists and their interpretations.

I was happy that the Story Corps chapter addressed some of the questions I had when reading it.  I liked that Story Corps took these stories and created a “bottom up” framework and empowered people, but was hesitant to call it history.  I agree that when the goal is to connect people emotionally without context, and not necessarily to inform, then can it really be called history?  I understand that it can loosely be seen as oral history, but having an agenda attached, specifically to make people cry, is it fair to be included?  We have seen that when historians edit and manipulate evidence, as the Story Corps people have done, it calls into question your whole body of research (David Irving, anyone?).  By making the people telling the stories nondescript, I feel like that takes away from the historic value that can be gained from listening to people’s experiences.  I see the draw and power that these stories have, but I suppose the problems for me were that they were nondescript people and that the narratives were heavily edited.  Since I was hesitant to consider this history, I was confused why it was included at all.

While reading this book, I was asking myself the very question that appeared on page 198. Does public curation engage a broader audience or does it simply engage a different audience?  I know more research needs to be done to answer this question, and I’m curious to see the results.  In my experience, I keep thinking back to a few people I know that have no interest in museums, regardless of the content.  Either they do not have the money or time, or they feel that other things are more important and leave the museum visits to school field trips.  I see the value in public curation and the attempts to gain broader audiences, but I wonder how many people like this are out there who just refuse to go to museums.  Is the goal of these efforts to change their minds?

Lastly, I couldn’t help thinking of a history-art instance that went terribly wrong that I experienced, again in my trip to Paris in 2008.  One day of my visit was spent at Versailles.  At the time, Versailles was home to an art installation by Jeff Koons, which featured giant balloon animals and vacuum sculptures amongst the baroque palace rooms.  In my personal opinion, it was ugly and bizarre, with no collaboration between art and history.  As a tourist, you go to Versailles to see the Hall of Mirrors, the gardens, and Marie Antoinette’s bedroom.  You go for the extravagance, albeit the very thing that ruined the monarchy, but nevertheless, the sheer extravagance and significance is the draw.  The sculptures had no context or relevance to the baroque period and were completely out of place.  Had they been in a museum that covered a range of time periods and pieces it would have made more sense, but by choosing a historical site such as a baroque palace, it really soured my memory of touring Versailles.  Call me old-school, but I did not appreciate modern art juxtapositioned with the most famous French palace.   I think this can be considered an example of what not to do.


Here is the link where I found the picture. It contains a slideshow of all the pieces at Versailles if you’re interested in seeing more:

On a side note, this weekend I watched a documentary on Netflix called A Ballerina’s Tale.  It follows Misty Copeland’s journey to become the first black principal dancer of any major international company in 2015.  The documentary remarked that by casting Copeland in famous major roles with the American Ballet Theater, it brought many different people to the theater, a place that historically does not contain much diversity.  It discussed the growing diversity within the arts, the “color of ballet”, and the influences that can have.  I connected it with our reading because museums are trying to do just that.  Their goal is to broaden audiences, just as ABT had done.  Plus, you get to see some beautiful dancing. Just thought I’d mention it because this happened so recently (2015) and shows that boundaries still exist within art and history.

In Over My Head?

Where do I even begin?  As I can see from those who posted before me, I am not alone in feeling conflicted about the reading.  It left me with many questions, first of all, how I can move forward?  Most of the ideas presented were about participatory techniques, increasing the use of social media and technology, and embracing co-creation within institutions- all foreign concepts to me.  When reading about these efforts, issues arose for me because I had difficulty visualizing such exhibits and had never encountered them before.

Of course I understand the need to reach more diverse audiences and dilute the idea that museums are the “end-all” historical authority, but I found my logical goals as a historian clashing with my experiences as a museum patron.  As a historian, I agree that content should be presented in a way that allows visitors to feel personally connected to history, and foster active engagement with unique dialogues.  You hope that museums become bustling places that people are not intimidated to visit, while they experience wonderment with challenges to perspectives that normally would not occur.  On the other hand, I was constantly thinking about my own museum experiences.  Contrastingly, as I patron I relish the “empty” days at museums, which allow me to slowly and silently reflect without interruption.  I enjoy the time to turn my phone off and “disconnect” from the world incessantly needing “likes”.  In this way, I found the sections about engaged participation through social media and technology daunting.

Perhaps the chapter that I found most interesting was Minnesota’s “Greatest Generation” Film Festival.  I enjoyed reading about how filmmakers were able to conduct their own familial investigations and become historians.  The combination of pictures, oral accounts, and research created poignant entries that would be fascinating to watch.

Through the different projects discussed, it struck me how empowered people can become by “owning” their stories within the larger historical picture.  I think it is important that museums are embracing the notion that everyday subjects are worthy of being displayed and explored.  As we all know, perspectives and ideas of significance shift.  As interesting as all these different projects are, I am left with a sense of “What did I get myself into?” and “how can I ever hope to contribute to these types of projects?”.  I guess we’ll  find out.


On a side note, I have included a picture I took from my visit to the Louvre from 2008.  It shows the wall of people encircling the Mona Lisa in the distance behind the glass. It was an amazing visit, but the amount of people was a stress factor.  I am curious how museums such as the Louvre could instigate changes discussed in the book.  As one of the biggest and most popular museums in the world, is it necessary to embrace these new techniques?  They already have the diverse global pull of famous art so is it worth it to switch things up?