New! Interpreting Slavery with Children and Teens

Interpreting Slavery with Children and Teens by Kristin Gallas will be released this month.

Kristin Gallas, co-editor of Interpreting Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites (2015) and a contributor to my book on Interpreting African American History and Culture at Museums and Historic Sites (2015), has turned her attention on interpreting this essential but sensitive topic with children and teenagers. She will be launching her new book, Interpreting Slavery with Children and Teens at Museums and Historic Sites virtually on Tuesday, October 5 at 7:00 pm Eastern. Registration is free and you can pre-order the book with a 30% discount using code RLFANDF30 (expires at end of September 2021).

Readers of History News will have caught a preview of her new book in a Technical Leaflet that accompanied the Winter 2021 issue. In this Leaflet, Kristin lays out a compelling need to change our approach:

Presenting the history of slavery inclusive and conscientious school programs is difficult and necessitates challenging the prevailing, and incomplete, narrative. It requires diligence and compassion—for the history itself, for those telling the story, and for those hearing the stories. It is a necessary part of the collective narrative about our past, present, and future.

We must talk with young people about slavery and race, as it is not enough to just talk to them or about the subject. By engaging students in dialogue about slavery and race, they bring their prior knowledge, scaffold new knowledge, and create their own relevance—all while adults hear them and show respect for what they have to say. We cannot fail future generations of learners the way many of us were failed by the sites we visited as children.

Her new book will provide more advice, examples, and replicable practices for the comprehensive development and implementation of slavery-related school and family programs at museums and historic sites.

If you haven’t met Kristin, she’s worked in museums for nearly 30 years. She holds a master’s degree in museum education from George Washington University (where I now teach in the museum studies program) and has led the education departments at the Montana Historical Society and the USS Constitution Museum and is currently the project manager for education development at the Tsongas Industrial History Center. She facilitates workshops for museums and historic sites on developing comprehensive and conscientious interpretation of slavery and speaks regularly at public history and museum conferences.

On the Road: Chimney Rock National Historic Site

Chimney Rock National Historic Site, western Nebraska.

History Nebraska (formerly known as the Nebraska Historical Society) has six historic sites, including Chimney Rock near Bayard. Growing up in California, this natural landmark figures prominently in the schoolbook history of western settlement with images of slowly moving wagons crossing empty plains accompanied by men carrying rifles and women carrying children.

As my first experience in Nebraska, my road trip showed me the physical challenges of living in the mountains and plains of the western United States. That’s one of the big reasons I love to travel because it establishes the physical context for historical events and places that can’t be adequately captured in books or exhibitions. It’s one of the reasons I’m so committed to the preservation and interpretation of historic sites—it’s where history happened.

History Nebraska debuted a renovated Visitor Center at Chimney Rock in July 2020 and received a Rising Star Award as an outstanding tourism attraction from the NebraskaLand Foundation. My chance to see it last month showed that it was a terrific experience for tourists with families from the architecture to the exhibitions to the restrooms. It’s a significant improvement from a couple years ago, as described by Karrin Doll Tolliver at A Taste for Travel.

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On the Road: Post-COVID Reopening Trends and Opportunities

I’ve now traveled from Maryland to California and noticing patterns in the ways that museums, historic sites, hotels, and restaurants are reopening after the quarantine. It’s a mixed assortment of responses, mostly because the guidelines and regulations vary from state to state and from museum to restaurant, creating a lot of confusion among travelers. But there are a few trends that reveal how museums and historic sites can create better visitor experiences.

Spreading infection through touch seems to be the most inconsistently addressed issue. When the country first shut down in spring 2019, there were concerns that the virus could be spread by touching surfaces. Research conducted in the last year, however, shows that risk is very low compared to holding a conversation with someone nearby without using masks. Yet most museums continue to have sanitary lotion stands, are covering elevator buttons in plastic, shutting down interactives, disinfecting counters, or warning you about “high touch” areas. Yet there are never any warnings about door handles or handrails, and I rarely find these precautions at restaurants or hotels. Are museums receiving guidance from different authorities, are they particularly risk averse, or do they have visitors that are especially risk averse compared to other similar tourist destinations?

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On the Road: Hitting Triples with a Single Artwork

Entrance hall, National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City.

At the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, a monumental bright white sculpture of an Indian slouched on a horse fills the end of the entrance hall. James Earle Fraser created “The End of the Trail” for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, earning him a Gold Medal. It also became a popular image that signaled the end of a free people.

The Museum acquired the plaster statue from Tulare County (California) Historical Society, where it sat outside in a city park deteriorating for nearly 50 years. Now the restored statue is the centerpiece of this large museum and they’ve used this one object to hit a triple with visitors, to borrow a phrase from baseball.

Along with a typical label describing the sculpture’s creation, acquisition, and significance, it includes a Native American View in a second label of equal length by Dr. R. David Edmunds, a Cherokee. He states that the sculpture represents the popular view of “a nineteenth century Indian warrior defeated and bound for oblivion—frozen in time. By the 1890s, Native Americans knew their trail had become steep and rocky, but they believed it would continue.” The label continues to discuss the challenges and opportunities faced by Native Americans in the 20th century and that “being Indian has never been cast in stone. Today, Native Americans proudly ride forward on a trail into the future.”

The use of labels to provide multiple perspectives is not uncommon in art museums, but I haven’t seen it used enough in history museums. They are ideal places to show that events, places, and eras are experienced differently by different people. It’s an easy way to enrich interpretation without the need to create entirely new exhibitions or special events on women, African Americans, or Native Americans.

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On the Road: Rethinking “Cast in Bronze”

At my first stop at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, I was faced with a historical marker at the entrance to the parking lot. A unexpected location but far more accessible than on the side of a busy highway. All of the recent conversations about decolonization has me always take a closer look at these markers but more interestingly, I’ve encountered several different types of markers so far on my road trip that have me thinking more about their value, veracity, authenticity, and permanence by being “cast in bronze”.

As you’ll see, location matters as much as the text. Some are intentional efforts to deceive, some are not. Some are historical, some artistic, some a bit of both. They are all designed to be inspirational, some more deeply than others. Do any of them matter? Do they have any impact? What do you think?

“Great Indian Warrior/Trading Path,” Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, Hagerstown, Maryland.
“Eddie Taylor, Mayor of 7th and Wabash,” Terre Haute, Indiana.

“History of Springfield Public Square,” Springfield, Missouri.

On the Road: Small is Beautiful

Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, Hagerstown, Maryland.

On my first day on the road, I made my first stop just after an hour in Hagerstown, Maryland to see the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts. Set in a county park near its historic downtown, it has a surprisingly fine collection of American and European art from 17th to 19th century. Exemplary portraits by the Peale family, bronze sculptures by Rodin, vases by Tiffany and Lalique, and pots by George Ohr are found among its collections of 7,000 objects–that’s small compared to most art museums. Along with displaying their collections, they also organize temporary exhibitions, such as one on Joshua Johnson (ca. 1763-1824) of Baltimore, the first professional African-American painter. Anna Brugh Singer and her husband William H. Singer, Jr. (heirs to a family fortune, not of sewing machine fame) established the museum in the 1931 after they had traveled the world.

More interesting, however, was my discussion with board president Roger Fairbourn and curator Daniel Fulco about the vision of the museum. It’s clear they don’t want to collect more to become another Metropolitan Museum of Art, but they do plan to grow. They are hosting more ambitious traveling exhibitions, such as the current one on 17th century Italian paintings. They are adding more facilities for education, but that’s in response to community interest. They are expanding their collections, but it is to diverse their American art by including under-represented stories and move further into the 20th century. They also recognize their primary audience is the surrounding four counties, not tourists. Their strengths are uncommon and a refreshing change from the usual bigger-is-better, get-more-tourists mentality that usually infests the minds of museums. This is a tough position to take because it goes against the usual metrics, in this case, smaller is better.

Another surprise: a board president who can explain the history of the museum, its vision for the future, and discuss the significance of the current exhibition. I happened to run into him accident, when he caught me taking photos outside and stopped to chat. When I expressed my interest in the history and management of the museum, he took me around to the side of the museum to explain the physical evolution of the building, then took me inside to talk about the exhibitions and their vision. While we were chatting, he noticed another visitor was puzzled by the Johnson exhibition, so he stopped to describe its significance and pointed out a painting that might interest her. And he didn’t do it by flaunting his position at the museum (he just introduced himself as Roger). What!? If anyone on your board of trustees can do this, you’re in luck. Most can’t.

Visiting these small art museums verifies that small history museums, which dominant the field, can be effective and worthy organizations. They just need to develop a vision that pursues impact on their audience rather than size of collections or attendance.

Taking a Summer Road Trip

Like most of America, I’m taking a road trip this summer. After a long year of teaching and working online, I’m drained so I’m looking to get recharged by this vacation on wheels. I’ve always loved road trips, especially ones with loose itineraries, because it gives a chance to see lots of new places and meet people from around the country.

As I drive across America from Maryland to California, I’ll take you along for the ride with occasional posts of some of the museums and historic sites I’ve visited as well as what I’ve learned from the people who work there. My list is long and my time is short, but I’m eager to see the Ohio History Connection, Missouri Botanic Garden, Cherokee Heritage Center, Oklahoma City National Memorial, and Mary Coulter’s La Posada Restaurant. Plus I’ll be doing some research on Christmas in nineteenth century California when I’m in Los Angeles!

How to Connect Your Site to the Semiquincentennial

Semiquincentennial? That’s the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence—a quarter millennium! Let’s leave the huge words behind and consider that 2026 is coming up fast—and it’s a huge opportunity to raise the profile of your house museum or historic site. When the Bicentennial arrived in 1976, it significantly increased attendance, funding, and interest in history. You don’t want to let this chance get away from you and preparation will be crucial to make the most of it.

If you’re not in Philadelphia, don’t despair. Just because the Declaration of Independence wasn’t signed in your town, no Founding Fathers lived there, and no Revolutionary War battles fought nearby, you can make important connections if you focus on the big ideas that came out of that event. After all, the Declaration of Independence was part of a larger move to separate from Great Britain and become Americans. Well, it’s more complicated than that and the process of becoming Americans continues, and boy, that’s a terrific story with ambition, conflicts, failures, and successes.

Every tour, exhibition, event, and school field trip should have a compelling theme to engage its audience.* Even better, themes should connect across these programs and activities. An overarching theme will help your visitors better recognize the ideas and content that you want to share with them. The ideas are continually reinforced and result in a bigger impact. Good teachers do this all the time in the classroom and it’s easily adapted to museums and historic sites.

What if we adopted a super-overarching theme, one that spanned museums and historic sites across the county or state? It would seem impossible, but help is on the way.

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HLI Seminar: Gone Virtual in 2021

Photo by Katerina Holmes on Pexels.com

The History Leadership Institute Seminar is back this year, going virtual after postponing last year due to the pandemic. Rather than trying to duplicate the residential format online, John Marks, Alex Collins, and I considered the online applications available to AASLH as well as best practices for online learning. For example, effective learning doesn’t occur by passively watching presentations continuously for six hours a day. It has to be broken up to keep participants engaged. As a result, we added considerably more time for participants to work on their own through readings and exercises, building on what is presented and discussed in live online sessions. The new format for each topic is:

  • 2 hours in a facilitated live session to explore a topic through presentations, discussions, and small breakout groups.
  • 2-3 hours on your own to apply the ideas and techniques to your organization or career.
  • 1 hour in a facilitated live session to discuss the results, assess what worked (and what didn’t), ask questions, and determine next steps.

We also have time to add readings to provoke discussions, expand perspectives, and add more detail. This week’s session on “You as the Instrument of Change,” Julie Johnson is suggesting the following:

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Forthcoming: Interpreting Christmas at House Museums

The past year has been so busy for me that I’ve rarely been able to share what I’m discovering and learning through this blog, but with the pandemic restrictions lifting, my posts should be more frequent. The biggest challenge for me was teaching graduate courses online at George Washington University. I usually teach in-person using a whiteboard and a list of goals for each class, using the class discussion to inspire how the presentation will proceed. Online, whiteboards are very difficult to use (try writing with a mouse!) and students were reluctant to have discussions online (most students kept their cameras off). So I built PowerPoint presentations for every class to address each of my goals, keep students engaged, and avoid being a talking head on a computer screen. Incredibly time consuming and exhausting. I’m so glad to be returning to campus this fall for in-person instruction—and so are our students!

Although online teaching was incredibly demanding, I still had time to pursue other projects including a second book with Ken Turino of Historic New England: Interpreting Christmas at House Museums and Historic Sites. Although dozens of books have been published on the national and regional history of Christmas celebrations in the last two decades, there are no how-to books on the research, interpretation, and programming of Christmas at historic sites or museums.  In March, Rowman and Littlefield accepted our proposal and it will be part of the Interpreting series at the American Association for State and Local History. We are working with contributors from across the country to assemble two dozen chapters for publication in spring 2023 and although we’re still identifying contributors and case studies, and the contents are subject to change, here’s what’s happening so far:

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