Category Archives: Cultural diversity

Museums Responding to Mosul and Nimrud

According to reports received by the New York Times, ISIS has “destroyed parts of two of northern Iraq’s most prized ancient cities, Nimrud and Hatra. On Sunday, residents said militants destroyed parts of Dur Sharrukin, a 2,800-year-old Assyrian site near the village of Khorsabad.”  The extent of the destruction is shown in this video (not for the faint of heart):

It’s a reminder of the important role that museums and historic sites play in preserving heritage and culture–and how easy it is for it to be destroyed and lost. It’s also a reminder that places far away from America can affect us, both politically, economically, and culturally. Some museums have found a way to make this connection through temporary exhibits, including this vacant vitrine at the Field Museum:

Exhibit case at the Field Museum noting destruction at the Mosul Museum in Iraq.

Exhibit case at the Field Museum noting destruction at the Mosul Museum in Iraq.

If your organization is also responding to the destruction of museum collections and historic sites in Iraq, please share your ideas in the comments below.

Tackling Race, Gender, Religion, and Sex in Prison: Oh My!

The big gray brooding mass of Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.

The big gray brooding mass of Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.

Despite the winter weather, I’ve been traveling extensively this month around the country.  In Philadelphia I finally had a chance to visit the Eastern State Penitentiary, an enormous prison close the city’s art museums but otherwise oh so far away.  When built in the early 19th century, it was the most famous and expensive prison in the world, but after it closed in 1971, it became a forgotten ruin.  Today, a private non-profit organization preserves and manages this National Historic Landmark with an usual mission statement:

Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Inc. works to preserve and restore the architecture of Eastern State Penitentiary; to make the Penitentiary accessible to the public; to explain and interpret its complex history; to place current issues of corrections and justice in an historical framework; and to provide a public forum where these issues are discussed. While the interpretive program advocates no specific position on the state of the American justice system, the program is built on the belief that the problems facing Eastern State Penitentiary’s architects have not yet been solved, and that the issues these early prison reformers addressed remain of central importance to our nation.

In a way, old prisons are historic houses so I’ve been intrigued by the way these popular tourist destinations are interpreted to the public.  Eastern State is a significant contrast from Alcatraz Island, which Continue reading

On Ferguson and Related Events: How Should Historic Sites Respond?

Storefronts that were covered with plywood during the protests in Ferguson were painted by local artists and collected by the Missouri History Museum.

Ferguson and related events are sparking broad protests over the treatment of African Americans by the police and the courts.  Should museums and historic sites be involved?  Should they be collecting, preserving, or interpreting these present-day events? Should they provide a place for protest or response?  Or are these beyond their roles and responsibilities?  There are no easy answers because every site and every community is different, but ultimately, people engage with historic places because there’s a personal connection–historic sites are collecting, preserving, or interpreting topics that are relevant and meaningful to the visitor.

Identifying what is relevant and meaningful isn’t always easy but contemporary events offer a glimpse.  People discuss, explore, study, question, react to, and protest about issues that matter to them, and the more people that are involved around the same issue, the more significant it is.

Museums and historic sites inhabit a special “third space” in society that allows us to do things that can’t happen at home or work. They allow diverse people to discuss, explore, study, question, react to, and protest about issues in a safe place.  As Presence of the Past has shown, we are Continue reading

Is Historic Preservation Ready to Preserve Culture as well as Architecture?

Sustaining San Francisco's Living History by San Francisco Heritage

Sustaining San Francisco’s Living History by San Francisco Heritage

The fundamental boundaries of historic preservation have been significantly expanded by San Francisco Heritage, one of the country’s leading historic preservation organizations. In Sustaining San Francisco’s Living History: Strategies for Conserving Cultural Heritage Assets, they state that, “Despite their effectiveness in conserving architectural resources, traditional historic preservation protections are often ill-suited to address the challenges facing cultural heritage assets. . . Historic designation is not always feasible or appropriate, nor does it protect against rent increases, evictions, challenges with leadership succession, and other factors that threaten longtime institutions.”   In an effort to conserve San Francisco’s non-architectural heritage, historic preservation must consider “both tangible and intangible [elements] that help define the beliefs, customs, and practices of a particular community.” Did you notice the expanded definition?  Here it is again:  “Tangible elements may include a community’s land, buildings, public spaces, or artwork [the traditional domain of historic preservation], while intangible elements may include organizations and institutions, businesses, cultural activities and events, and even people [the unexplored territory].”

With many historic preservation organizations, it’s all about the architecture so protecting landscapes, public spaces, and artwork is already a stretch.  They’re often not aware that Continue reading

Upcoming Workshop on Understanding Audiences

If you want to engage your audiences to build support and increase your impact, you first need to understand their interests, needs, and motivations.  In today’s busy world, the traditional tactics of advertising, rackcards, and signs are no longer sufficient to attract visitors to museums and historic sites.  We have to refresh our understanding of today’s audiences and develop new approaches that will engage them.

On September 22, 2014 from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm, I’ll be facilitating a one-day workshop on Understanding Audiences at the Middlesex County Community College in Edison, New Jersey.  Sponsored by the New Jersey Historical Commission and New Jersey Historic Trust, this is part of a series of three workshops on engagement for nonprofit history organizations.  The workshop will be based on the Standards and Excellence Program for History Organizations of the American Association for State and Local History.  Registration is $20 (a bargain) and includes breakfast and lunch (even better!); deadline is September 18.

A Bibliography on Interpreting African American History and Culture

As many of you know, I’m assembling an anthology on the interpretation of African American history and culture at historic sites and in history museums, expected to be published by Rowman and Littlefield later this year as part of the AASLH book series.  To provide an overview of the field during the past twenty years, I’ve developed an eleven-page bibliography of published articles and books.  Although not comprehensive nor definitive, it provides a gateway to the breadth and width of the work underway in the United States for inspiration and best practices, and suggests needs and opportunities in the field.  Due to limited space, this bibliography will be reduced in the book so I wanted to provide it here for those who are interested in the expanded version.

This bibliography primarily focuses on theories and methods (the “how”) of interpreting African American history and culture at museums and historic sites, such as tours, exhibits, events, programs, videos, and websites.  Related, but not part of this bibliography, are Continue reading

Can the Exploratorium Help Us Explore History?

Last week I visited the Exploratorium in its new home on Pier 15 in San Francisco. If you haven’t veen there, it’ll seem like a science center but you’ll quickly discover it’s really a place about learning, especially through direct experiences with art, tinkering, and phenomena (yep, that’s how they describe it).  It’s an incredibly active place (almost to the point of overwhelming) that seems to effectively engage its visitors, so I continually watch to see if any of their exhibits or ideas can be applied to historic sites or history museums.  During my latest visit, I found two exhibits that with a mild tweak could be really be innovative for interpreting history.

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1.  Question Bridge:  Black Males.  This temporary exhibit is, “comprised of many individuals asking and answering questions about the experience of black men in modern America.”  Inside the small dark room are Continue reading

Video: YAP! The North Star Journey

In this 5:29 video, students in the Youth Ambassador Program (YAP) discuss their visits to historic sites as inspiration for their music.  Featured are the Nathan and Polly Johnson House in Connecticut and the Bucktown Village Store in Maryland.

Program in New England Studies Offering Diversity Scholarships

Program in New England Studies at Hamilton House, 2013.

Program in New England Studies at Hamilton House, 2013.

Historic New England presents its Program in New England Studies, an intensive week-long exploration of New England from Monday, June 16 to Saturday, June 21, 2014. Now entering its second decade, the Program in New England Studies features lectures by noted curators and architectural historians, workshops, behind-the-scenes tours, and special access to historic house museums and collections. Last year I had a chance to talk with some of the participants and they said they were attracted by the chance to see the houses and collections, but found that they really loved the expert lectures.

This year, Historic New England launches a diversity scholarship to support a mid-career museum professional or graduate student.  Applicants must represent a racial or ethnic minority group in the U.S.  The scholarship covers the full registration fee of Continue reading