Tag Archives: African American history

Black Lives Matter (Sort Of)

The “Silence is Not an Option” banner on the website of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute links to their statement.

Across the country, history museums and historical societies have issued statements in response to the recent police killing of George Floyd and protests against racism—but it’s a mixed bag. I’ve examined more than fifty history organizations and found that while there are some common values in the field, there’s a wide disparity of thought.

Who is Concerned?

About twenty percent of the history organizations in this study made no statement but it is likely lower because statements were posted on websites, as news releases, sent as emails to members, or shared on Twitter or Facebook (and rarely on more than one channel), which makes it difficult to easily collect statements. Where you make a statement is just as important as what you say. Listing a “Statement from the CEO” in the “Press” section of a website is different from a banner on the home page is different from an email sent to a few hundred members is different from a single tweet.

“A Message from the Arizona Historical Society” on the News page of the Arizona Historical Society website.

Typically, the CEO or executive director issued the statement and very few included the board chair. Did the CEO take a personal risk to issue a statement? Are boards unwilling to get involved or unable to achieve consensus? Will current events force organizations to rethink their mission, vision, or values?

Without conducting interviews, it’s unclear why this pattern exists. It could be uncertainty about what to say, fear of offending donors or their community, a lack of consensus among staff and board, a policy on statements, or an effort to avoid conflict or current events. Nevertheless, the patterns are revealing and suggest that history organizations have a long way to go in their efforts to be a relevant and meaningful part of their entire community. I strongly encourage all history organizations who are making statements to include them on their websites—unless there’s an important reason to avoid it.

History organizations issued their statements as early as May 30 and most during the first week of June, about a week after George Floyd’s murder on May 25 and when the protests had spread nationally. These statements are more challenging to write and I know some went through extensive review processes to gain consensus and approval, which can take days to accomplish. I also sense that Floyd’s death was a tipping point for many organizations because African Americans had been senselessly killed for decades but rarely had historical societies responded. About half of the statements mentioned George Floyd by name and about a quarter also included Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, so recent events seem to have been the greatest influence on these statements. About ten percent named other victims as far back as the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991, but some looked back centuries to put recent events in historical context, such as the American Historical Association, Historic Germantown, Maine Preservation, and Minnesota Historical Society. I recommend that history organizations clearly connect their statements to their mission or vision to ensure this is not merely a token effort; connect your concerns to the history of the region or period you interpret because, well, you’re a history organization; and include individual names whenever possible to move from the abstract to the personal.

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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

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

Delaware Historical Society Cleverly Interprets One Object Two Way

Wall between two exhibitions at the Delaware Historical Society.

Wall between two exhibitions at the Delaware Historical Society.

The Delaware Historical Society reopened their museum last fall with two new complementary exhibitions designed by the Gecko Group, one a comprehensive history of the state and the other on the history of African Americans in Delaware.  I recently visited the museum with Scott Loehr, the CEO, who pointed out a clever interpretive technique.  The two exhibitions share a common wall, which has a doorway that allows visitors to walk from one to the other and exhibit cases on either side. It’s not immediately obvious, but the objects on display are interpreted differently depending on which side of the wall you’re standing.

For example, a Crown Stone from the Pennsylvania-Maryland Border has a two-sided label. The side facing Continue reading

George McDaniel of Drayton Hall Announces Retirement

For the past 15 years, McDaniel also taught the AASLH Historic House Issues and Operations Workshop with Max van Balgooy, most recently in Charleston, South Carolina.

For the past 15 years, McDaniel also taught the AASLH Historic House Issues and Operations Workshop with Max van Balgooy, most recently in Charleston, South Carolina.

The Drayton Hall Preservation Trust (DHPT), a privately funded nonprofit organization responsible for the operation and administration of Drayton Hall, a National Trust Historic Site, today announced that President and Executive Director George W. McDaniel, Ph.D. would be stepping down on June 30.

“Drayton Hall has been my passion and purpose for more than 25 years,” said McDaniel, “and I can’t imagine a better or more fulfilling vocation. But the time has come to turn over leadership responsibilities so I can focus on family, research, writing and other projects. I thank the Drayton family, whose vision made all of this possible, and the Drayton Hall Preservation Trust board of trustees, our outstanding staff and the thousands of Friends and visitors who have supported us during my tenure.”

Under McDaniel’s leadership, Drayton Hall earned Continue reading

Reconstructing a Lost “Field Quarter”

In this 34-second time-lapse video, James Madison’s Montpelier in Virginia constructs a log “field quarter” (a dwelling for enslaved field workers).  It’s first constructed in a building to cut and fit all the pieces in a protected place during winter, then re-assembled in the field on a beautiful spring day in 2015.  It’s now on the exact spot where the foundations for a house were uncovered through archaeology (if you look carefully to the horizon on the left, you’ll see the Visitor Center).

Montpelier is in the midst of reconstructing many of the lost buildings associated with the enslaved African community, using archaeological and documentary evidence assembled over the past decade.  Their major project is the South Yard, six buildings next to the Madison’s mansion, which will be completed in the next few years, thanks to a generous gift from David Rubenstein.

Thump! Interpreting African American History and Culture Arrives

Interpreting African American History and CultureThis morning brought the first snow of the season.  While schools closed and cars were slipping on the road in front my house, the mail arrived with a thump on my doorstep.  Inside was Interpreting African American History and Culture at Museums and Historic Sites, the book I worked on for the last few years with two dozen contributors.  I try not to judge a book by its cover, but Rowman and Littlefield has increased its attention to graphic design and it really paid off.  It’s a handsome book. But it’s even better inside!

If African American history isn’t a topic at your historic site, do check out the others in this major new series produced by the American Association for State and Local History.

At the press: Interpreting African American History and Culture

Cover Interpreting Af Am History smallMy book, Interpreting African American History and Culture at Museums and Historic Sites is now at the press and will be available in December from Rowman and Littlefield.  I’ve been assembling it for the past two years and just completed the index, so now it’s firmly in the hands of the publisher.  This book is part of a new “interpreting” series launched by Rowman and Littlefield and the American Association for State and Local History.  Also released this year are books on topics that include slavery, Native American history and culture, LGBT history, and the prohibition era.  If you’d like to order a copy of any of these books at a nice 25 percent discount, use the code 4F14MSTD by December 31, 2014.

Interpreting African American History and Culture at Museums and Historic Sites is another step in a path being laid by many people for nearly 150 years. Although much has been accomplished at museums and historic sites to enhance and improve the interpretation of African American history and culture, we’ve also learned Continue reading

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