Museums and Community
This weeks reading, Private History in Public, has made me question the nature of public history and professionalization in the field. I went into this book thinking that degrees and the professionalization of museum studies and public history was integral to the development of the field. While in many ways I still think that is true, I am questioning whether this makes public history fundamentally less democratic. If only some people, professional public historians, can interpret and create exhibits this prevents the public from engaging in history in the same way. In her book, Gordon makes clear that while professional historians might not approve of the interpretation in many local community based museums, they encourage discussion and education in a way that bigger and more professional museums do not. It also calls into question "what is history?" Are these community museums doing public history or are they doing something different? Is the field of public history implicitly elitist in ways that are more commonly associated with academic historians? While not as "professional" community history often offers personal connections and an emphasis on objects that can appeal to visitors.
The other articles focused on more traditional museums and the controversies and arguments that arise surrounding those. However, having read Gordon's book first I went into these articles with a focus on community history. In Lithenthals "an anatomy of a controversy" controversy over an Enola Gay exhibit in the Smithsonian is used to explore debates between historical analysis and commemoration. This controversy reached far beyond the historical community and was debated publicly. This article also makes evident the challenges of creating an exhibit (or any work on historical scholarship) when the subjects are still living. Should these people have a say? Who is write? Who "owns" or controls this history? While on completely different subjects and very different kinds of museums, the issue of who has the "right" to control narratives and engage history was important in both Lithenthal's and Gordon's work.
These sources really emphasize the challenges in creating museum exhibits. On one hand, one must live up to academic integrity and the goals of a project. But on the other side, many of the museums that engage visitors are local and to decry these museums as lesser is in some ways fundamentally challenging the idea of democratically controlled history. Who's right is it to tell a story?
While I have been to a huge amount of museums over the years, this weeks readings, paricurly that of Tammy Gordon, made me think of my own hometown museums. While my home town, Red Lion, PA, has approximately 5000 residents it has two museums. One museum, the Ma and Pa Train Station museum focuses on the role of railroad in the development of the town and in the lives of residents. The other museum, the Square museum, focuses on the more general history of the town. Both of these museums are run by the Red Lion historical society and heavily focused on personal stories and collecting the lives of townspeople. They definitely tends toward nostalgia. But is this type of historical engagement wrong? what are these museums doing for the town? These readings have me considering these questions