Is the primary mission of history museums providing visitors with the opportunity to learn or keeping the doors open? If learning history is the goal, I think few of the museums included here are achieving it. If getting attendance, membership, and donations up is the goal, there is almost no evidence indicating success.
Letting Go? provides interesting ideas in how to move museums from being presenters of content to facilitators of learning. Public Curation, finally provides an approach to validate whether or not new approaches accomplish the learning incumbent on all history museums. The authors ask the right questions and suggest these issues be fully researched.
Embracing the Unexpected shows the art-history dialectic taken in a more useful direction, not a shared-authority alliance as much as it is a more tightly-bound collaboration between artists and historians. The American Philosophical Society approach shows what can occur when there is meaningful conversation between, and useful boundaries set, for both participants.
Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum highlights the failure of the resident historians at the Maryland Historical Society. By juxtaposing various pieces found at the museum and utilizing various museum tropes, visitors confronted an uncomfortable reality regarding slavery and the relevance of that reality, today. Why didn’t the museum curator think of a way to accomplish this?
The performance art pieces capturing the life and community of The Black Bottom and the individual stories of working class people captured by Story Corp and described in Listening Intently show where great ideas can take you. The materials collected in each effort may be invaluable to the historian, but both fall short in their own way. Chaotic pieces of performance art and personal stories with no context are of little use to historians.
Where each succeed is in their ability to show the historian the “power of seeing history as stories.”
For brevity’s sake The Fever Dream of the Amateur Historian, Sanford and Sun, and London Travelogue are lumped together as failures. The The Fever Dream of the Amateur Historian wasn’t even a good idea and shows what can happen when an artist is given too much latitude. I have no idea why Sanford and Sun was included in this book and London Travelogue may be a wonderfully novel idea, but it would be one place I would avoid in London. There is no historical context to what I see and no one to provide it. Without context what is to be learned?
Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski, eds. Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World. Left Coast Press, 2011. Pg. 189