Category Archives: Historical interpretation

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. 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.

The Museum gets to second base by incorporating a third label for children, but it’s made mysterious to capture their attention. It’s smaller and positioned for their height, featuring just one question. The answer is printed below but hidden in a tangle of color than can only be revealed with a viewer that filters out some of the colors. These labels are found throughout the museum but I have to admit I didn’t see children using them—they found the objects far more fascinating and relied on their parents for the interpretation. Nevertheless, it’s nice to see a museum consider the needs and interests of a specific audience in order to engage them.

Finally, the 18-foot sculpture is an eye-catcher and the Museum saw that its popularity would continue in selfies. So they built on that interest to mark the best place to stand to take a photo and provided a hashtage. Increasingly museums have become aware they need to create “photo opportunities” to engage visitors as well as to aid publicity. Providing a spot on the floor is a terrific idea (and they appear elsewhere in the Museum).

I do wonder, however, if this monumental sculpture sets the right opening tone for the museum. It reinforces the harmful stereotype of the “proud savage” that was defeated long ago and is now gone. Is it any different from a bronze statue to a Confederate general astride a horse in a museum about the Civil War? What’s the message being conveyed? What do visitors think? Visitors rarely read labels and at the Museum, they’ve probably been pulled away by the other nearby exhibits before they’ve had a chance to read how the sculpture reflects one perspective and that the story is much more complicated. The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum needs to be bolder with the interpretation of “The End of the Trail” to overcome the symbolism of the image, and indeed, it may require more than words. Let’s aim for a home run.

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.

Rotate Flip Charts for a Higher Quality Group Discussion

The “rotating flipcharts” technique: beginning, middle, and end.

Earlier this year I facilitated a meeting at the American Alliance of Museums to develop a new education category for the Museum Assessment Program. Their staff and I developed the goals, agenda, and logistics in advance. That’s not unusual, except that goals were incredibly ambitious for a one-day meeting with a dozen leaders in the field:

1. To identify the needs and challenges facing education in museums today.

2. To identify how MAP can best address these needs and challenges throughout the process.

3. To identify how Peer Reviewers can be better prepared and supported in their expanded roles.

I knew that the usual technique of asking questions and going around the table to collect individual responses would quickly become tedious, plus it didn’t take advantage of the sharper thinking that occurs through conversation. Likewise, facilitating a series of topical conversations with a dozen people would discourage full participation.

So I turned to Michael Wilkinson’s The Secrets of Facilitation: The Smart Guide to Getting Results to learn about his technique for “rotating flip charts.” It works like this:

  1. Break into small groups and each group works on a different issue or topic, writing their comments on a flip chart.
  2. The flip charts are posted on the wall and a different small group reviews the comments. Using a different colored pen, they place a check mark next to each item to indicate agreement. If they disagree, they place an X and add their response using a sticky notes. They can also add items at the bottom of the flip chart.
  3. When finished, the groups rotate to review another flip chart.
  4. When the small groups have rotated back to their own flip chart, they will see multiple check marks in different colors indicating agreement, as well as points of disagreement. They review all the disagreements (that is, the sticky notes) and mark yes or no if agree with the comment.
  5. As a large group, all the issues marked “no” are discussed and the entire group decides whether to accept or reject the comment.

I found the technique was efficient and effective, gathering lots of thoughtful perspectives plus people are more actively involved compared to the traditional reporting-out session (when they usually zone out). The participants enjoyed the process as well because they can have meaningful conversations around a focused topic (see Robert Forloney’s post on the AAM blog for a participant’s perspective). AAM staff was pleased with the richness of the responses and it helped them craft the new Education and Interpretation MAP that recently debuted.

Facilitation is a helpful skill if you’re working with groups (and who isn’t nowadays?) but it can be daunting. It always feels like I’m choreographing a Broadway show where I’ve chosen the music but not the dancers, so I’m not ever quite sure what will happen. Trying a new technique adds to the risk, but I’ve found the clear step-by-step guidance in Wilkinson’s book gives me enormous confidence.

Reimagining House Museums: Fall 2019 Release

collage book contents.pngThis blog has been fairly sparse this past year because Ken Turino and I were editing and assembling two dozens essays for Reimagining Historic House Museums: New Approaches and Proven Solutions, an anthology to be published by Rowman and Littlefield as part of the AASLH series. I’m delighted to announce that it is now off my desk and in the hands of the publisher; we expect it will be released in fall 2019.

One of the biggest consequences of the under-resourced and over-stretched community of house museums is that it is difficult for them to share their successes with others—they just don’t have time. The field doesn’t learn about them except through publications, blog posts, or conference sessions—that’s one of the major reasons we assembled this anthology. There’s lots of good work happening in house museums but we’re simply not aware of it. Our hope is that this book is a good place to grab a hold of the current thinking about reinventing house museums so that they are more relevant, sustainable, diverse, inclusive, equitable, and accessible, hopefully broadening and deepening the current conversations in the field.

The book is a result of a 2014 conference, How are Historic House Museums Adapting for the Future? sponsored by the Historic House Museum Consortium of Washington, DC and the Virginia Association of Museums at Gunston Hall Plantation in Virginia. They invited to give presentations to the 120 participants and noticed that while historic site practitioners and their boards recognized that the world of historic houses has changed dramatically, they weren’t sure how to go about reimagining or reinventing themselves.

With the support of the American Association for State and Local History and local funders, we embarked on a series of workshops in subsequent years to lay out a “reinventing process” that has taken us to Missouri, New Hampshire, Vermont, Kansas, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Illinois with more to come (Washington, DC in June; New York City in October). The one-day workshop, Reinventing the Historic House Museum includes an analysis of the most important opportunities and threats facing historic sites in America based on the latest Continue reading

Webinar: Interpreting Women at Historic Sites

Helping Hands Memorial to Jane Addams by Louise Bourgeois (Chicago).

Although women are a crucial part of our heritage, historic sites often portray them as pleasant homemakers or radical feminists. Is this an accurate representation? No. Historians use many tools in interpreting history, and the tools used by present-day historians give the impression that men make history. However, by using a different set of tools to interpret women, a new narrative arises where women are just as active as men, participating in all facets of society and redefining history as we know it. In this free webinar on Wednesday, March 27, 2019, 1:30 – 3:00 pm CT, Mary van Balgooy will discuss the state of the field of women’s history; examine the current challenges and opportunities for interpreting women at historic sites; and give audience participants the right tools to research, uncover, and interpret women and their significance in history. To register or to find lots of other webinars offered by the Wisconsin Historical Society, visit WisconsinHistory.org.

Mary A. Van Balgooy is vice president of Engaging Places and executive director of the Society of Woman Geographers. Her presentation is based on her chapter in the forthcoming book, Reimagining Historic House Museums: New Approaches and Proven Solutions edited by Ken Turino and Max A. van Balgooy. Mary is an award-winning museum professional who has worked in a variety of institutions, including archives, botanic gardens, historic houses, historical societies, museums, preservation organizations, universities, and governmental agencies at city, county, and federal levels with major responsibilities for administration, collections, education and interpretation, fundraising, governance, preservation, and public relations.

How to Improve the Interpretation of Slavery by Engaging Descendants

A year ago, James Madison’s Montpelier invited me to the National Summit on Teaching Slavery to create a “methodology for how public historians work with descendants” (program, 6 Mb pdf). Over a long weekend, fifty people from across the country with a wide range of experiences and perspectives worked in small groups to define and prioritize standards and best practices for interpretation, research, and involving the descendant community. It builds upon Montpelier’s award-winning exhibition, A Mere Distinction of Colour, to help “Americans of all types truly understand the ongoing struggle for freedom, rights, and equality in our nation.” The National Council on Public History recently posted a nice series of discussions on the exhibition with students in the Cooperstown Graduate Program.

One of the major challenges was determining what is distinctive about teaching slavery from interpreting other topics, such as women or Asians. At first, the discussions identified practices that had already been figured out years ago by the American Historical Association and the National Association for Interpretation, but that was to be expected because many participants had little experience in scholarship or interpretation–what bound us together was improving and enhancing the interpretation of slavery at museums and historic sites. Although the rehash of these professional practices was frustrating and I wondered why we were going over old ground, it eventually dawned on me that Continue reading

Canadian Geography Conference Highlights

Exhibition hall at IGU/NCGE/CGA meeting in Quebec, August 2018.

I’ve just returned from Quebec where I attended an international geography conference that was a combination of the annual meeting of the Canadian Association of Geographers (CAG), the annual conference of the National Council for Geographic Education (NCGE), and the regional conference for the International Geography Union (IGU).  Despite the combination of organizations, I’d guess it would be comparable to a regional museum association meeting of about 500 people with the usual sessions, plenary speakers, and exhibition hall.

The big difference from museum and history conferences is that the geography associations seem to accept all presentation proposals. Each presentation is assigned a 15-minute slot in a 60 to 90-minute session according to their committees or study groups (e.g., health care, tourism, indigenous peoples, islands). Presenters in the same session usually have not met each other and there’s no moderator, so it’s just one presentation after another with no introductions or transitions. The result is that a session can be a mixed bag, so a session on “teaching geographic content” included Continue reading

Video: Virtual researchers at work at Huntington Library

This 1:30 video features a video projected on a table showing scholars at work behind-the-scenes as part of a small exhibition on research and conservation at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California. It was installed a few years ago in the former board room of the historic library building and is another example of the expanded ways that video is being used in exhibitions (it’s not just a tv monitor anymore).

You may notice that there’s no one in the exhibition. I do deliberately take photos of exhibitions without people so that the entire design can be seen, however, I also take them with people to show how they interact with the content. In this instance, it was a busy day but very few people wandered in and when they did, it was a quick glance and then back out–despite the cleverness of the video projection.  I can perhaps guess at the reasons—located off to the side, uninteresting topic, and passive experience—but it could also be a lost opportunity to do something more intriguing and distinctive.

Look again at the video. What’s distinctive about the exhibition? Continue reading

What Can Historic Sites Learn From Geography?

You’d think historic sites and geography would be an obvious combination because they both focus on place, and yet, I didn’t really see the connection until a few years ago when I started teaching at George Washington University. Joe Downer, an archaeologist at Mount Vernon who was participating in my historic house museum class, inspired me with his work using ArcGIS and their annual conference. By coincidence, I was conducting research for my anthology on interpreting African American history and culture and encountered useful articles in the Journal of Historical GeographySoutheastern Geographer, and Geographical Review. Finally, my wife became the Executive Director of the Society of Woman Geographers, which introduced me to lots of geographers across the United States (you mean they don’t just create maps?). As a result, I’ve increasingly used geographical along with historical approaches in my courses and in the business and interpretive plans I develop for my clients.

Next month, I’m diving in deeper by attending a conference of geography conferences: 2018 International Geographical Union (IGU) Regional Conference; Canadian Association of Geographers (CAG) Annual Meeting; and the National Council for Geographic Education (NCGE) Annual Conference (or as they say in Quebec, Congrès régional de l’UGI – Congrès annuel de l’ACG – Congrès annuel du NCGE). Yes, it’ll be in Quebec, so I’m a bit nervous that the language and content will be foreign to me. Nevertheless, I’m encouraged by the preliminary program, which lists dozens of presentations that immediately appealed to me (and they’re in English!): Continue reading

Exhibition: Unseen: Our Past in a New Light

UnSeen: Our Past in a New Light at National Portrait Gallery (2018)

Ken Gonzales-Day and Titus Kaphar are exhibiting a series of their contemporary paintings and photographs at the National Portrait Gallery that explore how American history could be interpreted, using the perspective of African American history and Native American history.  The works are large and dramatic, clearly conveying counter-narratives or stories that often overlooked or ignored. As a historian, much of it resonated with me but I did wonder if others found it puzzling or undecipherable. But surprisingly, many people read the labels and it may be because there was enough of an image that was familiar but the rest of it was mysterious, so they sought answers in the labels.

In case you can’t visit Unseen this year at the National Portrait Gallery, here are a few photos of the exhibition and excerpts from the labels to give you a taste (boy, they write exemplary labels at NPG!). Continue reading