Category Archives: Historical interpretation

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: 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.

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