The readings for this week got me thinking about several complex issues in the field of public history today. One is the debate over whether or not museums and other public history institutions are meant to hold knowledge with authority and attract visitors based on this merit alone, instead of making historical practice and learning a collaborative effort. The other is the importance history can hold in constructing personal, family, regional, and national identities and narratives, and how public history is involved in that.
For example, in her article, “Playing Into the Past,” Brenda Trofanenko calls attention to the question of whether or not museums are focusing more on “experiential and performative aspects in exhibitions,” instead of individual learning and engagement with objects on display. This issue has many layers, but the one that sticks out to me is the fact that museums, as Trofanenko’s article later proves with high school students, adopt technology experimentally, focusing on impressing their audiences, yet they fail in that mission. The students in the article claimed that they did not experience a deeper level of learning because of the use of technology in the National Museum of American History. This was because the technology had a mostly aesthetic function, such as video and photo technology, instead of an interactive function.
If museums, especially the nation’s most well-known museums like the Smithsonian, subscribes to the idea of impressing an audience over sharing knowledge, that presents a problem for the field of history and public history. It is an ineffective use of digital tools for spreading historical knowledge, and it is based on the idea that museums are there to hoard knowledge and hand it out, as if it were granted to the visitor as a reward for visiting, instead of facilitating and cultivating individual growth and learning about history for visitors in an open, interactive way.
Visitors to museums often read a standard interpretation about an object, and then that is all they take away from it, passively moving through a line of more objects presented in the exact same way. This is not interactive enough to foster critical thinking about the objects and their place in history, or to establish connections between the objects, their history, and the modern identity of visitors. Also, it is one interpretation made by an authority, and depending on who interpreted it and what their biases are, could be contributing to the silencing of different narratives related to the object. For more info about this concept, I highly recommend checking out Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, by Michel-Rolph Trouillot.
One possible scenario of this might be interpreting an object created by an enslaved craftsman without including the enslaved individual’s story in the interpretation. For example, MESDA (The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts) in Winston-Salem, has several stoneware jars in their collection created by the enslaved craftsman David Drake, otherwise known as Dave. He inscribed his name into his work, as can be seen in the picture below, courtesy of the MESDA database website:
If those who interpret this object at the museum fail to include mention of and adequate attention to the story behind the name on the jar, they do a disservice to visitors and to the descendants of David, because they are silencing a story that deserves to be told and is historical truth. They are also doing a disservice to Dave himself, by ignoring his experience and talent. Not to mention, leaving out an explanation of the name on the jars leaves visitors with more questions than answers to begin with. Ultimately, this practice is also a way racism and discrimination can be perpetuated, even unintentionally. This is just one danger of museums hoarding knowledge and not promoting interactive interpretation and viewing of objects.
Another danger is that people don’t get to connect to the objects, and to the stories behind them. Therefore, connections to modern life and to current events are also not made in the minds of visitors. They need access to further information about objects, and inspiration to pursue that information, in order to truly carry something away from a museum visit. This is where digitization and the discussion of the project the students in Trofanenko’s article come in.
The students spent a long period looking at objects and exhibits in the National Museum of American History, specifically in the exhibit entitled “The Price of Freedom: Americans at War,” which was actually related to a History Channel documentary of the same name. Students were tasked with creating a project relating history to identity, and were overwhelmingly successful. They had to question the authority of the information at the museum and how that information could go further than the basic interpretations the museum provided. Their deeper learning involved making connections between the objects they saw and a larger American historical experience of warfare, and consequently warfare’s impact on American societal development, moving into modernity.
This is something the author stresses youth should be able to do in museums, and I agree, but I also think adults should be able to do this as well. This requires, in part, access to information outside of the museum’s basic interpretation of the object, such as online data. Museums are slowly gravitating toward this idea, but have not in the past, perpetuating their identity as hoarders of knowledge, instead of completing the mission to educate people about history and their objects they have collected through facilitating learning with a collaborative attitude, promoting individual visitor research about objects instead of taking on an attitude of finality of fact in their interpretations.
One museum that I feel does this well is MESDA, because they provide access to their objects on their online collections database, which is how I had access to the picture of Dave’s jar. Not only does this catalog the objects, it also provides all the necessary information that the museum staff possess about the object in order for viewers to take that information and try to connect it to other info and further research on the object. This is an open way to communicate information to audiences about objects, and gives them insight into the museum’s knowledge. Providing more online databases for museums like this could help audiences feel less like passive viewers and more like active learners.
This concept also relates to the article by Sheila Brennan, entitled “Public, First,” where she mentions the concept of shared authority in terms of digital humanities and public history, coined by oral historian Michael Frisch. Basically, reconsidering who has the right to be the holder of knowledge, and who can participate in creating and sharing knowledge about an object or exhibition. In “Pedagogies of Race: Digital Humanities in the Age of Ferguson,” by Amy E. Earnhart and Toniesha Taylor, this concept is taken further when students and members of the community were invited to participate in a project called “White Violence, Black Resistance,” in which they were to help document and interpret “historical moments of racial conflict” digitally.
To me, including people in projects like this is a museum or archive acting as facilitators of learning and making connections to history instead of hoarders of knowledge, and is an exciting possibility for engaging the public in an active, instead of a passive way with history, both digitally and in person. All Americans, not just historians, have the opportunity to see how their past connects to their present and how history has significance to their lives, which is ultimately what needs to happen to keep the field of public history, and history in general, alive.