My book, Interpreting African American History and Culture at Museums and Historic Sites is now at the press and will be available in December from Rowman and Littlefield. I’ve been assembling it for the past two years and just completed the index, so now it’s firmly in the hands of the publisher. This book is part of a new “interpreting” series launched by Rowman and Littlefield and the American Association for State and Local History. Also released this year are books on topics that include slavery, Native American history and culture, LGBT history, and the prohibition era. If you’d like to order a copy of any of these books at a nice 25 percent discount, use the code 4F14MSTD by December 31, 2014.
Interpreting African American History and Culture at Museums and Historic Sites is another step in a path being laid by many people for nearly 150 years. Although much has been accomplished at museums and historic sites to enhance and improve the interpretation of African American history and culture, we’ve also learned a great deal and discovered there’s still more to be done. This book suggests some future directions, organized in three sections.
The first section lays out some of the current challenges in the interpretation of African American history. Amanda Seymour shares her observations of tours and programs at the homes of the first five presidents to provide a baseline for the essays that follow. The next two essays by Kristin Gallas, James DeWolf Perry, and Julia Rose help address slavery and other sensitive or difficult topics, which often cause many museums and historic sites to hesitate. They originally appeared as technical leaflets in History News and are further expanded as separate books in this series. David Young describes Cliveden’s efforts to more fully engage the surrounding neighborhood in African American history, giving his executive director’s perspective on the benefits and conflicts.
Michelle McClellan opens the next section on research. Although it’s often claimed that it isn’t possible to interpret African Americans because there’s no information, she shows how much can be learned by examining Dr. Tann’s visit to treat the family’s malaria, a brief episode in the Little House in the Prairie books. Bill Peterson reminds us to question assumptions in historical interpretation. By conducting original research, he uncovered a mistake made more than a century ago that revealed the enslaved childhood of Sarah Bickford, a business leader in Virginia City, Montana. Teresa Church, Matthew Pinsker, Bernard Powers, D L Henderson, and Martha Katz-Hyman show how research into community, the law, churches, cemeteries, and material culture open up entirely new sources for understanding the African American experience. Lynn Rainville encourages us to consider Facebook and other social media as ways of conducting research, an approach that can be easily adopted by museums and historic sites.
The final section contains a diverse collection of case studies of successful exhibits, programs, activities, and projects to inspire ideas and provoke discussion. George McDaniel and Benjamin Filene describe how the study of one local place can make big connections to state and national history. Stacia Kuceyeski and Andrea Jones show ways to engage students in history, both inside and outside the museum. Preserving sites associated with African American history is an ongoing challenge and Jenny Scanlin and Teresa Grimes share some of the urban planning and historic preservation tools they used to protect 20th century buildings in Los Angeles. Wendi Manuel-Scott and Sara Howard-O’Brien provide an alternative to preservation in their case study of a now-demolished segregated school in Virginia. Although all of these projects rely on a collaborative approach, it’s emphasized in the closing essays. Robbie Davis reviews the award-winning exhibit on Vietnam veterans at the Heinz History Center and provides a behind-the-scenes view of its development. Robert Connolly and Ana Rea built a relationship between a museum and the local community through an unconventional service learning project (and the essay itself is a collaboration between the museum director and one of the student leaders). Ellen Spears and Shelia Washington collaborate as well on their essay, which describes a grassroots effort to interpret the Scottsboro Boys in Alabama that ultimately led to “full and unconditional pardons” to the three defendants with standing convictions. It’s a fitting conclusion to this book because it shows the tremendous impact that museums and historic sites can have when they interpret African American history.
A review of the author biographies shows this book is a collaboration as well: experienced scholars, newly-minted graduates, directors, educators, historians, anthropologists, urban planners, African Americans, and non-African Americans. That diversity is intentional because the best interpretation is done as a collaboration to ensure it incorporates multiple perspectives. In interpretation, the process is as important as the product. Learning should occur not just in our visitors but also in our institutions and ourselves as we design and implement programs, exhibits, and tours. Expect change to happen.
Some of those changes can be seen throughout the chapters, although they are more subtle. African Americans are not treated as a homogenous group with the same interests, motivations, and histories but as distinct individuals with names and families. The topics go farther than slavery and civil rights, travel outside the South, look at life in places other than cotton fields and basement kitchens. Not that those topics and places are unimportant to African American history, but it has to move beyond what are quickly becoming clichés of interpretation at museums and historic sites.
During the past two years as I assembled this anthology, I’ve become increasingly aware of some needs and opportunities in the field. There’s a general absence of program evaluation and visitor research to help us measure and increase the impact of the interpretation of African American history, particularly in museums and historic sites outside of Virginia or on topics other than slavery and the Civil Rights Movement. Reviews of exhibits are plentiful compared to tours or school programs, but they typically focus on the scholarly content and very little on the audiences, visitor experience, interpretive methodology, or development process.
Secondly, and much more difficult to resolve, is the assumption that African Americans are a separate race. Race is an idea developed during the infancy of modern science to explain human differences. History shows us that race is a slippery idea in America with categories changing rapidly (especially if you are Irish, Italian, Slavic, or Jewish) to justify status in response to political and cultural needs. Because race is socially constructed, it can also be deconstructed—and history organizations can play a crucial role because they can unpack and explain the history of race. I don’t suggest that any of this is easy. Indeed, while races do not exist, racism does, but as Frederick Douglass reminds us, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning.”
For a preview of Interpreting African American History and Culture at Museums and Historic Sites, here’s the complete table of contents:
- Foreword by Lonnie G. Bunch, III
- Chapter 1: Introduction by Max A. van Balgooy
- Chapter 2: Pride and Prejudice: Interpreting Slavery at the Homes of Five Founding Fathers by Amanda Seymour
- Chapter 3: Developing Comprehensive and Conscientious Interpretation of Slavery at Historic Sites and Museums by Kristin L. Gallas and James DeWolf Perry
- Chapter 4: Interpreting Difficult Knowledge by Julia Rose
- Chapter 5: Expanding Interpretation at Historic Sites: When Change Brings Conflict by David W. Young
- Chapter 6: There is a Doctor in the House–and he’s Black by Michelle L. McClellan
- Chapter 7: Finding Sarah Bickford by William Peterson
- Chapter 8: Documenting Local African American Community History by Lila Teresa Church
- Chapter 9: Interpreting the Upper-Ground Railroad by Matthew Pinsker
- Chapter 10: Churches as Places of History: The Case of Nineteenth Century Charleston, South Carolina by Bernard E. Powers, Jr.
- Chapter 11: Imagining Slave Square: Resurrecting History through Cemetery Research and Interpretation by D L Henderson
- Chapter 12: Furnishing Slave Quarters and Free Black Homes: Adding a Powerful Tool to Interpreting African American Life by Martha B. Katz-Hyman
- Chapter 13: Six Degrees of Separation: Using Social Media and Digital Platforms to Enhance African American History Projects by Lynn Rainville
- Chapter 14: Asking Big Questions of a Small Place by George W. McDaniel
- Chapter 15: Power in Limits: Narrow Frames Open Up African American Public History by Benjamin Filene
- Chapter 16: Connecting Students with Community History by Stacia Kuceyeski
- Chapter 17: Do You Have What it Takes to be a Freedom Fighter? by Andrea K. Jones
- Chapter 18: Preserving Los Angeles’ African American Historic Places by Jenny Scanlin and Teresa Grimes
- Chapter 19: More Than Just a Building: Interpreting the Legacy of the Frederick Douglass Elementary School by Wendi Manuel-Scott and Sara Howard-O’Brien
- Chapter 20: Soul Soldiers: Giving Voice to Vietnam’s Veterans by Robbie Davis
- Chapter 21: Making African American History Relevant through Co-Creation and Community Service Learning by Robert Connolly and Ana M. Rea
- Chapter 22: The Scottsboro Boys Museum: University-Community Collaboration Yields Unanticipated Results by Ellen Griffith Spears and Shelia Washington
- Selected Bibliography on the Interpretation of African American History and Culture by Max A. van Balgooy
- National Organizations