I am sure it is no accident that we are reading Slavery and Public History at the beginning of Black History Month. It has always perplexed me as to why the society we live in views rights and recognition as a zero sum game. The Nash article, describing the fight between local Park Service people, and historians highlights this point. It also, again not surprisingly, addresses some of the same issues highlighted in Letting Go? specifically the role of museums (but in this case, it’s a historic site) and whether it should be a shrine to past events, or whether it should be a forum to discuss those past events, and how they effect the present.
I had read “Southern Comfort Levels” previous to this, and it made me as mad then, as it did this time around. I understand the reasons for not punitively punishing the South after the war, but it is my humble opinion that it was the wrong decision. And things like “Monument Street” in Richmond is evidence of this point. No such monuments exist in London for Guido Fawkes, instead he is burnt in effigy every year. There are no statues of Cornwallis, Burgyone, or Benedict Arnold in New York City (which remained firmly in the British camp through the Revolution). Because they lost. For me it’s too close to those fascist $&@#%€£ who claim that everything is the Jews’ fault, or immigrants are a problem, or any of those other things that they say. These people/ideas need to be discussed, but in a way that shows them as they really are, not for what they pretend to be. (And I expect my own ideas and such to be put under the same scrutiny.)
Which brings me back to Black History Month, and the “zero sum game” theory. As historians we need to be willing to wade into these troublesome issues. But as Joanne Melish’s article about the John Brown house pointed out, we need to be able to do it expecting nuance and a more complex narrative.
The different perspectives in Reinventing the Museum provided useful insight into the different issues and concerns museum workers face today. While I have very limited experience within this museum world, I still found myself nodding along with their worries. Museums issues often take the form of a clash between old world and new world ideas. While wanting to update a 60 year old museum you are faced with lifetime patrons that will literally boycott the museum should they find their old saddle is no longer on display. On the other side how does a museum honor its own institutional values and keep up with the modern world at the same time. The authors all seemed to agree that bridging the gap between the old and the new does not have one clear answer. In this struggle, however, I think museums honor their original value. By even making an attempt to honor their original purpose while remaining relevant they do their community justice. Not all attempts are successful, the discourse between these authors and different museums bodes well for the future.
Graham Black’s short discussion on sharing authority raises the largest issue I saw while working with my museum. I often personally witnessed this “… fear of their expertise not being recognized and of losing control,” (274) and more likely than not it harmed the progress of the museum. Distrust of other institutions and extreme competitiveness did nothing but harm the different museums in my city. Black focused more on the sharing between users and communities rather than institutions, and I feel like he missed part of his argument in that. I never witnessed a fear of the public gaining too much power but often witnessed almost paranoia towards those darned heritage centers and art museums. I feel like Black and the other authors should have touched on this harmful prejudice between museums as much as a need to share authority with the community.