Inclusion or exclusion? Where is the line?

After the multiple readings, I could not help but think to myself,” Is the inclusion of a group that is normally overlooked exclusion of other groups?” I find that all too many times movements like the #BlackLivesMatter are severely hindered by this thought exactly. Although they clearly did not intend to exclude people from their movement, the wording alone seems to have charged people both to its side as well as against it almost immediately. From the prospective of the museum, where is the line drawn between these two ideas? Often the traditional narrative of American History has been exclusionary. To allow this to go uncontested is one of the many great tragedies of history. On the other hand, for a museum to get involved with groups that are seen by others as exclusionary due to their own lack of inclusion can spell trouble. Certainly, even just by choosing a theme for an exhibit, a museum can show their own possible bias one way or another, such as the National Museum of African American History and Culture choosing to document the history and artifacts of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, but can a line be drawn between documenting a social movement and the goals and actions of the movement itself? I found myself drawn to the section in the Smithsonian Magazine where it talked about Darian Wigfall, and more significantly where the article discussed the idea that “In addition to the poster (New Age of Slavery by Patrick Campbell) Wigfall also donated a 20-foot wide banner that says, “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes a duty.”[1] Also, a sign that said “White silence is White consent” caught my attention. Immediately, being someone who studies the 19th century, I recognized the Transcendentalist overtones in both of these ideas. It made me think of a quote by Edmund Burke (although the source of the quote is argued) “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Although both of these examples were from the #BlackLivesMatter articles, I found the same ideas in the Tenament Museum article only based on the idea of immigrants. The real question to me is, how are museums to walk the thin line between inclusion of often overlooked groups without winding up exclusionary themselves?

[1] Katie Nodjimbadem, “How the African American History Museum Is Curating “Black Lives Matter”,,  December 14, 2015,

It appears museums will do anything to improve their numbers.

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 would "Hamilton" fit in art versus history debate?
Where does “Hamilton” fit in art as history debate?

Where each succeed is in their ability to show the historian the “power of seeing history as stories.”[1]

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?


[1]Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski, eds. Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World. Left Coast Press, 2011. Pg. 189

2nd half of Letting GO?

While reading the second part of Letting Go?, I found it impossible to see the major conflict being brought up between art and history. The themes of historians critiquing art as either historically “correct” or not began to seem like a lost cause to me. It parallels the great search for Truth, which I find to be a ridiculous venture. Rather than looking at the art as accurate or not, why not just take it for what it is worth and simply exhibit it as such. There seems to be no way that an artist is truly either wrong or right but rather giving an interpretation of what they see and how they choose to portray it. Although I can clearly see how, if improperly represented in its description, art can lead to a false sense of understanding about history, I feel that as long as it is made clear what kind of a resource it is and is not used to create a narrative that is historically inaccurate then it too can be a resource for opening the minds of the people that look at it.

I also find the consistent worry about maintaining authority over the general historical narrative and who gets included and who gets excluded by some museums to be equally ludicrous. No one group should have complete control over a story that covers so many different points of view. Many of these points of view have not even been in the eyes of historians until the last fifty or so years. What now makes us think that we as historians have all the points of view now after so many years of excluding so many in the traditional narrative? The best comparison I can make is when Fred Wilson discusses the overturning of institutional narratives. He states that, “I think there will always be another layer that can be looked at because they are institutions, just like the government.”[1]I could not agree more if I tried. Much like any other institution, educated people especially will consistently challenge the status quo because as according to Dr. Horrible in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, “The status is not quo.”[2]

[1]Benjamin Filene, Bill Adair, and Laura Koloski. Letting Go?  sharing historical authority in a user-generated world, (Philadelphia, PA: Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, 2011), ProQuest Ebook, 241.

[2] Joss Whedon, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Los Angeles, CA:Mutant Enemy Productions. 2008. Dvd.


Is User-Generated Content Just Self-Indulgent Validation for the Creators?

I am torn by these readings.  As a kid I went to the Minnesota Museum of Natural History in Minneapolis and to various sites controlled by the Minnesota Historical Society expecting to see and learn from exhibit curators. I still have a sense of wonder whenever I visit any of the museums at the Smithsonian and every trip ends with me acquiring some new bit of knowledge. That opportunity to learn is one of the things that drive me back to museums over and over. As presented in Letting Go? I loved the idea of content more personally germane and therefore more interesting to individual museum-goers. I expect a curator to keep exhibits fresh.  I also expect to be learning from an expert in the field, from an exhibit presenting relevant, factual information. For a curator that is a challenge and I acknowledge, sometimes they fail.  Using different, innovative ways to capture and present information is laudable and I support it. The use of film by the Minnesota History Center is a great example of innovation, so are interactive exhibits. Museums need to respond to public input and user-generated content seems like a logical reaction. However, indulging the public with significant user-generated content goes too far. While these articles presented a variety of ways to engage users, each method only temporarily attracted a narrow audience. Though each article in Letting Go? highlighted how much interest user-generated exhibits generate, I saw no evidence of any lingering benefits in fund-raising, membership or sustained increases in attendance.  In conclusion, I see a correlation between user-generated content on the web and in museums. I am distrustful of user-generated content on the web and have similar concerns about such material in a museum.  On those occasions when web content is interesting enough to look at, 99 times out of a 100, after viewing I just delete it and without bothering to forward it. The web has billions of users so such a low response can still make financial sense to advertisers or content creators. I am not sure it makes a lot of sense for museums.