Non-complicit Neutrality and “Public Engagement”

(As a preface, I ended up reading a larger scattering of online blogs throughout this process so I’ve inserted links when I quote something rather than just referring to the author because I think a couple were actually linked in the readings but not the actual assigned readings)

Museums should be neutral institutions and they should reflect the public they serve and the communities in which they lie. Unfortunately, neither of these is true. First, I offer a definition of neutral that differs from the traditional concept. Here, neutral does not mean silent. It does not mean complicit. Neutral means providing the public with the opportunity to engage with all sides of an issue. Museums should not be afraid to engage with difficult issues and should certainly be venues for public discussions on such issues. “By providing a space for difficult conversations on issues of race, class, gender identity, and immigration, museums establish themselves as a place where communities can come together to discuss conflict and begin to find resolution.” (Melanie Adams) As public institutions they need to serve the public in a democratic (equitable) manner. I am hesitant to support the idea that museums should take a stand on one side of an issue or another because, in so doing, I wonder, is half of the dialogue shut down or turned away? I do not mean to suggest that museums should not challenge their visitors’ beliefs. Rather, they should be facilitating the public dialogue that challenges long-standing prejudices, on both sides of an issue. In order to have true democratic deliberations on tough issues, all sides must be represented. In the past, one side dominated the other and public institutions (schools, museums, libraries) served to perpetuate that side’s viewpoint. Museums must be sites for open dialogue. A neutral territory is needed. Museums are capable of filling this need. “How do we facilitate a conversation that may include opposing, and heated, perspectives? How do we maintain a safe space while allowing people to disagree? How do we correct misunderstandings and faulty assumptions that emerge in conversation? How do we guide these conversations to help people better understand each other and the world we live in?” (Rebecca Herz). By remaining neutral and by training frontline staff in facilitation of difficult discussion, museums can begin to answer these questions and begin to create safe spaces for conflict conversations.

As for the idea that museums should reflect and serve their communities – it is fairly clear from the readings this week that many museums struggle with this. First, the history of museums are tied up in the institutionalization that perpetuate many of the problems between races, ethnicities, genders, and classes. Museums began as the wealthy white man’s collections and many museums still maintain this depiction, although they are open to an increasingly multicultural public. “Oppression plays a role in the history and acquisition of all the works in our collections, and if we are to grow with our communities we need to move towards a place where we can honestly talk about even the unpleasant aspects of all our histories.”(Nikhil). Multiple blogs called for top-down self-examination to ensure that museums are not just preaching equality, but also truly practicing it. “Most museums are largely staffed by white people. They often evidence a difference in the color of administrative and support staff. They are run by boards made up of the “One Percent”. Until we can make change in our own institutions, any effort to address issues such as the Ferguson grand jury verdict will be artificial, and will be perceived as such.” (Rebecca Herz). This is the first step in the process of ensuring that museums become institutions of the public as well as for the public. The next step is to include the public. As Melanie Adams said, we need to begin talking “with the community” and not “to the community”. How can we hope to serve the community if we do not know what the community needs? Museums must begin by engaging the public before a crisis arises. Museums should be inviting the public to participate and partnering with local groups to build relationships. This must be part of the vision and mission of the museum and involve the entire museum, top to bottom. Jeanne Vergeront states, “Nothing less than a whole-hearted, sustained effort, guided by an aligned vision and mission and community outlook; with committed resources and activities; and support all across the museum from leadership to the newest hire is essential for relevant and meaningful action to issues like Ferguson.”

As a slight aside, but relevant to this discussion, did anyone else hear any of NPR’s This American Life this weekend? (I tried to find a link to the actual episode, but their website wouldn’t load on my computer. There is a free podcast you can subscribe to if you are interested.) It discussed police and policing across the US in light of the events in Ferguson, New York, and elsewhere. One of the points that struck me while I was reading for this class, is the simple fact that the police in the interviews were constantly talking about “public engagement” and building trust within the communities they serve. It was interesting to find out what that engagement entailed and if any part of it included addressing institutionalized issues and prejudices.

Also, this David Fleming tweet.

Collaboration, Slavery, and History Education

Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory

James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton

(These are just some of my thoughts, but I also thoroughly enjoyed chapters four, six, and ten!)

Throughout the process of reading this book I felt saddened, indignant, angry, hopeless, hopeful, and did I mention angry? Maybe angry is too harsh a word, but over and over I thought, “Why won’t you talk about this? How dare you leave this out or cover this up! How can we hope to understand our past if we pick and choose what we will and won’t preserve?! How dare you!” Anyone else? (Mind, I am not sure who the ‘you’ necessarily is in every case). Has anyone else read or heard of A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn? Some of the stories of sites and histories covered in this book reminded me of his approach to sharing our past. While reading Zinn I was continuously angered and saddened as I discovered pieces of my past that were kept from me through a public education system that deemed them ‘inappropriate’ or ‘unimportant’. My reaction to most of the chapters in this book was similar, but I’m now angrier because these places and histories are supposed to be run by people who should know better! “Historians are custodians of the past; we are preservers and discoverers of the facts and stories of which people imagine their civic lives.” (Chapter 2, p. 34).

I thought Blight did an amazing job of truly outlining the difficulties of discussing slavery and managed to come to a great conclusion with those words. “‘If you don’t tell it like it was,’ he said, ‘it can never be as it ought to be.’ Whatever else we do about the legacies of slavery [or any topic] in our history, our institutions, or our lives, we can do no less than heed Fred Shuttlesworth’s plea.” (Ch. 2, p. 45). The chapter by Nash on the Liberty Bell gave me hope and highlighted an excellent, if trying and difficult, example of working in collaboration to tackle the hard topics of history. The fact that the NPS has a General Management Plan that calls for that collaboration raised my spirits. I really liked the quote from Kenneth Moynihan at the end of the chapter that stated, “an ongoing conversation that yields not final truths but an endless succession of discoveries that change our understanding not only of the past but of ourselves and of the times we live in.”

Chapter three, “Slavery in American History: An Uncomfortable National Dialogue” caused a loud and rather heated outburst as I read about the research on history education. Did anyone else lose it there? Teachers with inadequate or no training in history?! The following percents of students were taught by teachers without even a minor in history: 88% in Louisiana, 83% in Minnesota, 82% in West Virginia, 81% in Oklahoma, 73% in Pennsylvania, and 72% in Kansas! WHAT?! How have we as a society, allowed sports to become more important than adequate education for our children? Do we believe that history is a secondary subject unworthy of our attention? I absolutely love the point this chapter makes about our failure to educate our youth. “Public education prepared children to think about slavery and race in ways consistent with the assumption of white supremacy built into twentieth-century American law and custom.” (p. 52). Recent events in Ferguson and elsewhere elucidate the fact that we are now reaping the consequences of this miss-education. “Gettysburg National Battlefield, for example, mentioned neither slavery nor slaves with regard to the war. Significantly, at that time Gettysburg was attracting almost two million visitors yearly. The pattern of ignoring slavery was widespread within the national parks.” (p. 54). As trivial (and possibly ironic given my statement about sports above) as it may seem, the reference that immediately popped in my head when I read this was a scene from Remember the Titans. One hundred years after the battle of Gettysburg, the fear and hatred and racism of slavery’s legacy separated adolescents before they knew one another. It still separates us and if we continue to refuse to engage in dialogue about the tough pieces of history, we will never learn and we will continue to fail our children.

P.S. I meant to put this on here too.

Authority, Social Commentary, and Subjectivity

I was all over the place in this half of the book. I agreed with some and had qualms with some aspects of each of the sections. The following is a highlight reel of the most important takeaways for me in some semblance of themes…

The concept of power and authority is extremely interesting to me. It often raises ‘should’ questions and also becomes controversial in an almost hidden way. “Who should tell that story?” The controversy is hidden because it has become almost politically incorrect (or at least “uncool”) to not share authority. The problem often then lies in the execution as authority is grudgingly relinquished and the trust that should develop is immediately hindered. In “Peering Behind the Curtain”, Rachleff states, “Ideally, the boundaries between the commissioned work, the institutional voice, and the public become fluid in collaborative projects, and trust builds over time” (p. 221). Along the same lines, “the relations of power are transformed and a culture of cooperation, exchange, mutual respect, and urban vitality is developed” (Yalowitz with Stathis, p. 172). In both of these cases, the sharing of authority and power over the telling of history is key to the success of the projects.

These two pieces and the StoryCorps piece share an issue that caused a small epiphany for me. While there is merit in each as they tell untold stories and highlight crucial social issues, are they not what Bogan calls “‘hit-and-run’ social commentary”? (p. 223). These types of efforts often highlight an issue for the moment and may even bring about short-term change, but what about the long-term? I think this is what the “Why?” question from earlier in the book is really trying to address. Yes, we know it is important to tell all of history, but why? What do we hope to do in the long run by telling all of human history, not just the official line or the juicy bits? My epiphany came when I realized that similar ‘hit-and-run’ or ‘band-aid’ social efforts are the current solutions for problems in the US education system and true, long-term change is the ultimate loss.

The StoryCorps piece also brought to light a concept academics and especially historians are hung up on – objective and subjective. “Years of graduate work and peer review inculcate the value of being dispassionate. We are supposed to gather evidence, evaluate preponderances, and track patterns, all with an eye toward creating balanced interpretations, free of factual inaccuracies, that advance or overturn conclusions in the body of literature that precedes us.” (p. 181-182) I absolutely love that quotation. Here is my weekly book plug – you should all read The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer. In it he addresses this issue and outlines two theories of learning – an object-centered theory and a subject-centered theory. In the first learners are vessels to be filled by the expert who is the only one who has contact with the object. In the latter the community of knowers is continuously learning and engaging with the subject and with other knowers. That is an extremely simplified version, but the idea of creating a community in which we all share our experiences is so inviting and I think academics sometimes live in their ivory towers too long and forget to look for the invitation.

Moving Pictures: Minnesota’s Most Rewarding Film Competition

This is a slightly unorthodox post. I enjoyed reading a lot of Letting Go? and have comments and questions on many of the short pieces. I love the amount of education theory that continuously creeps up and the possibilities for using technology to find balance in who has authority and power in the telling of our shared past. Throughout the first ninety or so pages of Letting Go? I highlighted and took notes about learning theories, technological influences, and community involvement in museums. Then I hit “Moving Pictures: Minnesota’s Most Rewarding Film Competition” and I lost my composure at the bottom of the first page. I will preface the rest of my response with this: My grandmother passed away last week and my grandfather, her husband, passed away this past August.

As I read this piece, the history of the film competition and the stories of Grandma Lucy and Grandpa Bill, the raw emotion it evoked caught me off guard. I am sad and I miss them both dearly, but I am also angry with myself for never taking the time to do what these filmmakers “had always meant to do” and finally did. I spent plenty of time with both Nona and Papa, but I never asked the questions I wanted to ask. What was the Navy like during the War? Where did you serve? Will you teach me to play backgammon? What was life like growing up with a mother who only spoke Italian? What did you do as a teenager, before you married Papa? How do you make that salad dressing that makes every vegetable taste like heaven? While I am personally more upset about those stupid little questions, as a historian, I am angry that I failed to preserve their story in a meaningful manner. I failed in my “obligation to future generations” by not capturing their story using all of the technology available today, to make it as vivid and as genuine as possible.

Like that of Grandma Lucy, my grandparents’ stories are not remarkable or fantastic, but ordinary. I know bits and pieces from my father and my aunt; and I believe as Drube does that “the defining characteristic of the greatest generation was not the circumstances that they endured, but rather the hope they had for a better tomorrow” (p 105). I believe this because I saw and felt it when I was with my Nona while she cooked for her family and when I was with my Papa when he taught me to play cribbage. I know it is not too late to capture their stories the way Grandma Lucy’s was captured by Drube and his daughter and to make them part of the conversation of our past.