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
I didn’t realize it at the time, but twenty years ago I began working with interpretive themes when I was refreshing the tours at the Homestead Museum in California. The tours were organized and based on recent research, however, they seemed to lack cohesiveness and structure. Armed with a freshly minted M.A. in history, I applied the idea of a thesis to the tour. It wasn’t until I was introduced to Great Tours by Barbara Levy, Sandra Lloyd, and Susan Schreiber and worked on the interpretive plan for President Lincoln’s Cottage that I developed a much better understanding of how to develop interpretive themes.
Unlike topics, which are simply subjects like colonial life or the Civil War, themes are a complete idea with a message. I often explain them with an analogy to music, where topics are notes and themes are melodies. Since then I’ve been on the hunt for excellent themes, ones that provide a memorable, hummable melody for historic sites that stays with people long after they’ve visited (like the song in the Disneyland ride, “It’s a Small World”). In the years that followed, I’ve treated it like fine art: I’ll know it when I see it.
Thankfully, Sam Ham, the interpretation guru from the West, wrote Continue reading
Question-storming women’s history at George Washington University.
Over the years I’ve done a lot of brainstorming, either by myself or with groups, to find creative solutions to various challenges. The technique has been around for decades and consists of listing as many ideas as possible without discussion or judgment. It can be fun and lead to some new ideas, but I’ve also found that its success is significantly shaped by who’s in the room. It’s also so focused on finding an answer that you often overlook if you’ve defined the problem correctly.
As an alternative I’ve been experimenting with question-storming, an idea pioneered by the Right Question Institute (yup, there is such a thing). They’ve designed it for K-12 teachers as a way for students to develop their analytical skills, but I’ve had success with graduate students as well. Rather than provide a list of solutions, the goal is to produce as many questions as possible about the topic or issue. I’ve set twenty-five as the minimum, aiming for fifty questions. As in brainstorming, you don’t discuss, judge, or answer any questions—that’s done later. For more details, Continue reading
Berlin has an incredible number of memorials, museums, and “documentation centers” that address the history and consequences of the Nazis but one that can be easily overlooked is the “Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism” (Denkmal für die im Nationalsozialismus verfolgten Homosexuellen) installed in the Tiergarten (Berlin’s Central Park) in 2008. From a distance, it looks like a grey concrete slab. It’s not until you walk around it that you notice a small window in which a short video plays in a loop. Even after watching it, you wouldn’t be sure what you’ve experienced until you found the low interpretive panel placed off to the side. It reads:
In German: Im nationalsozialistischen Deutschland fand eine Homosexuellen-Verfolgung onhe gleichen in der Geschichte statt. . . . Continue reading
TED Talks has spawned the renewal of lectures as an engaging form of education (who would have guessed?) and many universities and organizations are regularly sharing lectures from their public programs, staff workshops, and student courses online with the public. They’re also a great resource for house museums and historic sites, who can use them for professional development and staff training, or to check out a potential speaker for a special event. They might even inspire museums to record their own events and share them online. Here are a couple programs that caught my eye: Continue reading
While I’m in Indianapolis for the Seminar for Historical Administration, I had a chance to view the “The Power of Poison“, a traveling exhibition at the Indiana State Museum. Organized by the American Museum of Natural History, it includes a wide variety of exhibition techniques but one I’ve never seen before is a “Harry Potter”-style interactive book that features moving images activated by touch as well as pages that can be turned. It’s best explained in a short video, so watch as these two girls look at the book to see what happens (and whose father told me it was their fourth visit to the exhibition).
Historic House Museums in the United States and the United Kingdom: A History by Linda Young. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017. v + 299 pp.; bibliography, index; clothbound, $85.00; eBook, $80.00.
Historic house museums are one of the most popular ways that the public experiences history in the United States, although we only have a fragmentary understanding of their history. Linda Young tackles this topic not only for the United States but also the United Kingdom, with occasional examples from her homeland in Australia.
Linda Young is a senior lecturer in cultural heritage and museum studies at Deakin University in Melbourne, trained as a historian focused on nineteenth-century Britain. She has also worked as a curator at several house museums. After completing a survey of house museums in Australia, she expanded her scope to include the United Kingdom and United States in order to develop transnational comparisons that would reveal patterns in the motivations for transforming private houses into public museums (a process she calls ‘‘museumization’’). Furthermore, she wanted to distinguish house museums from other types of museums, giving them a distinctiveness and prominence that the museum ﬁeld rarely considers. In a sense, she is giving house museums their own history and identity.
Her research into guidebooks, directories, Wikipedia entries, articles, and books, as well as ﬁeld trips, convinced her that there are Continue reading
Seminar for Historical Administration 2017 in Indianapolis
This year’s Seminar for Historical Administration (SHA) is meeting in Indianapolis and all of our hard work in selecting participants and presenters over the past months is coming to fruition. For three weeks in Indianapolis, a dozen people in the history field will be discussing the leading issues facing leaders and debating their solutions. I’ve assembled the schedule and directing the program, so I’m particularly excited to see how it unfolds each day. A big thanks to the dozens of people who are helping to make this extraordinary experience happen.
SHA opened on Sunday with Erin Carlson Mast, the President and CEO of President Lincoln’s Cottage, laying out the trends in the field. She noted how much has changed in the last ten years and that our work is more important than ever. I was particularly intrigued by her insistence that the mission and vision of the organization need to be manifested not only in the public programs and activities but also in the budget and operations. For example, their interpretation of slavery during Lincoln’s era motivated them to examine modern-day slavery (human trafficking) through their award-winning SOS program for teens AND make choices about the restoration materials used in the Cottage. Afterwards, we visited the library and archives at the Indiana Historical Society and had dinner together at a local restaurant.
Yesterday, David Young, Executive Director at Cliveden and Tim Grove of the National Air and Space Museum discussed the opportunities and challenges for making history relevant. It seems that everyone is struggling to make this happen, either through their programming or evaluation, and perhaps the most important discovery is that we need to learn more about our audience’s interests, motivations, and needs.
Today, Pamela Napier and Terri Wada at Collabo Creative will lead us through a short workshop on “design thinking” and then we’ll visit the Indiana State Museum to meet their new CEO Cathy Ferree and visit collections, and return to the Indiana Historical Society to learn about conservation.
One of the big challenges in interpreting history is conveying the uncertainty of the future. When we look back at the past, the decisions around the pitfalls seem so obvious but at the time, it’s hazy and unclear.
My recent visit to the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas presented an effective technique using a “touch table” to explore LBJ’s response to the Vietnam War, putting visitors in the hot seat. In this interactive activity, the President is faced with a decision, such as increasing U.S. ground troops in Vietnam, and you’re asked to advise him yes or no. On the screen you can explore primary documents, watch news reports, and when the phone rings, overhear LBJ talking about the issue. In the upper right hand corner, the clock reminds you that time matters and you can’t dawdle. After you provide your advice, you’re told what actually happened. I seemed to never give the right advice (or my good advice was ignored, depending on how you look at it), but nevertheless it was fun to have a glimpse of the moment (and thankful I didn’t have to make these decisions).
Gallagher and Associates designed the exhibition and Cortina Productions developed the interactives.
1760s Council Chamber in the Old State House in Boston. If the woman at the table looks familiar, it’s Dr. Jane Kamensky, professor of history and Pforzheimer Director of the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University.
The Old State House in Boston reconstructed its eighteenth century Council chamber several years ago but only recently was I able to visit as part of an advisory meeting.
The Council Chamber appears to be a typical period room from the 1760s, except that it’s actually an exhibition that requires visitors to get involved. When they sit at the Council table (yup, on those beautiful chairs), they need to handle the objects to discover the interpretive elements hidden inside.
It’s designed to provoke surprise and causes visitors, even teenagers, to look more closely. Although the restoration of the room was expensive, the techniques used are not and can easily be adapted by others who want to create an interactive hands-on activity.
Here are several before-and-after images so you can see Continue reading