Indigenous people want museums to heed TRC’s calls to action

Sophia Reuss recently wrote an article on  how “Indigenous people want museums to heed TRC’s calls to action: Cultural institutions have an important role to play in Canada’s reconciliation process.”  Reuss’ piece looks at the role museums and archives play in caring for and presenting materials relating to Indigenous communities and the need to the heritage field to critically responsd to the TRC Calls to Action.

Reuss’ article incorporates comments from Jay Jones, the current president of the Children of Shingwauk ALumni Association and myself.  Jay and I both discuss the unique history of the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre and the important of Indigenous community perspectives in managing collections.  Jay and his entire family are an inspiration and I am constantly grateful to be able to work with them through my involvement with the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre.

Reading: Interpreting LGBT History At Museums and Historic Sites

Ferentinos-210x300Months ago as part of a National Council on Public History annual conference workshop I received a copy of Susan Ferentinos book Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic SitesI started reading the book months ago but somehow it managed to get lost in my to-read pile until fairly recently.  This book examines queer history in the United States, provides an overview of sexuality and gender studies in the US, includes three case studies on interpreting LGBT history at historic sites, and a lengthy additional reading list for more information.

I learned more than I anticipated in the sections which covered queer history in the US – perhaps partially because queer history touchstone events in Canada follow a different time line and the history of the LGBT movement in Canada has been documented in different ways than the US.  This background section is worth a read if you’re not familiar with queer history in the US. I also really enjoyed the case studies which included in the book – all of which looked at approaches and challenges related to interpreting LGBT history as a public historian.  The case studies looked at queer history in museum spaces, historic houses, and archival settings.  They also touched on the value of integrating queer history in permanent exhibition or interpretation guides vs the inclusion of LGBT materials in special or temporary programming.  For me these case studies where the real value add and the best part of the publication.

This book contains a lot of advice around consultation, community based interpretation, and the need to have institutional and local buy-in to projects relating to LGBT history.  It’s a great resource for anyone looking to learn more about queer history in the US or about successful initiatives relating to the display and discussion of LGBT history in the US.

Public History on Stage: Theatre and the Past

The latest issue (Vol. 34, No. 3) of The Public Historian finally arrived at my house this week.  The issue presented a number of interesting field reports and case studies, many of which focused on areas of nontraditional historical practice.  One article which drew me in, was “Theatre: A Neglected Site of Public History” by David Dean.  Admittedly, the draw was partially the Canadian content, but I was also intrigued by how public history and theatre co-exist.

Dean’s article focuses on the use of theatre as a point of historical interpretation.  Dean’s particular case study examines Vern Theissen‘s play Vimy.  Theissen’s play uses the context of the battle of Vimy Ridge addresses subjects that many Canadian historians have struggled with — the nature of memory, attitudes toward war, Canadian nationalism vs. regionalism, and myth making.  A visit to the Canadian War Museum includes exhibits which explore many of these issues with in a more traditional public history setting.  

Prior to reading Dean’s work I hadn’t actively given much thought to theatre as an interpretive style for traditional history. I like theatre and I like history and I also love historical film, so I’m not sure why I hadn’t previously made the connection before.  Perhaps, my ignorance is in part due to what Dean points out as a lack of traditional acceptance of theatre as historical interpretation and a general lack of professional writing on the subject.  That being said, Dean does an excellent job of making a case for historically informed theatre as a valid method of historical interpretation.

Theatrical productions can be dynamic, emotional, and historically accurate means of engaging a larger audience.  Perhaps the stage production of The Sound of Music (no matter how great might be) isn’t the best introduction into Nazi Germany.  But, more historically researched and accurate productions such as Vimy can provide an excellent introduction to a range of historical topics.   

Comparing theatre to film, living history animators, and re-enactments highlight the logic behind the acceptance of theatre in historical interpretation.  After all, re-enactors and living history site staff are all acting and tend to be using a script to guide their actions.  This scripted interpretation is exactly what is occurring in a theatre setting.  Just like any other form of historical interpretation theatre is susceptible to  poor research and misinformation, but this is just as likely in a museum panel as it is in a well researched play. 

Dean’s article also inspired a consideration of the prevalence of history in theatre. History, historic events and settings are often used as backdrops for theatre.  Settings, speech patterns, clothing and material culture are all aspects of history that can be portrayed (well or poorly) in theatrical productions.  I’d be interested to know if anyone has seen a seemingly well historically researched production recently or other examples of Canadian history on the stage.

Rolling the Dice With Guided Tours

Our group with our tour guide at the Ermatinger Site

Interpretation can make or break a museum visit.  Context, signage, and interpretation strategies are essential to creating a heritage environment which is inviting, educational, and ultimately enjoyable.  Properly trained interpretive staff can infuse a visit with enthusiasm, context, and information that isn’t always accessible to the average visitor.  Untrained or less than great interpretive staff can also make a museum tour seem boring or uninformative.

One of the most surprising guided tour experiences I’ve had recently was at the Ermatinger-Clergue Historic Site in Sault Ste Marie.  I had previously visited this site with a co-worker who had previously worked at the Ermatinger site.  That visit was great, my co-worker talked a lot about the development of the Historic Site and institutional practices at the Site.

My most recent visit was with a larger group of 12 people and we had a formal tour provided by the Site’s curator (who was in period costume for the occasion).  Our guide focused mainly on the history of the area, fur trade politics, and First Nation-Settler relations.  The majority of the group I was visiting with was from out of town and learned a lot about local history from our guide.  I was impressed by how well she geared her discussion and annotates to the interests and learning levels of our group.  The guided tour allowed me to learn more about the site than I had on previous visits and allowed our large group to partake in a shared experience that we could then discuss in a educational context later on.

Deciding to take a guided tour at an institution can be a dice roll between getting a tour leader/interpretive staff member that is knowledgeable or one who seems to dread their job.  Which leads to the question, is participating in guided tours worth the effort?  It depends on what type of museum visitor you are and what type of institution you are visiting.  Some people like to move at their own pace and read every artifact label in sight, making a guided tour too fast paced and broad sweeping for their preferences.

Many guided tours provide collection and institutional overviews.  This can be great if you have limited time, want to learn more about contextual factors that aren’t mentioned in current exhibits, or as a new way of seeing an institution you have visited many times.  Guided tours are also great if you are visiting a museum in a large group, as it allows for a shared learning experience that is sometimes missing from large group visits to museums.

One of the easiest things to do is ask museum staff about the tour prior to taking it.  Ask about tour length, depth, exhibits/spaces covered — does the tour let you into spaces that you can’t see as a solo visitor, and about the staff leading the tour.  Alternatively, a lot more institutions are now posting detailed tour information on their website, making it possible to look into tour options before you arrive at an institution.  I find knowing what type of tour I’m entering into saves me a lot frustration and helps manages my expectations.

What was your best or worst guided tour experience? 

Personalizing Traditional History

Family, voice, sense of place, and time travel.  According to Benjamin Filene, these are the core themes in history created by non professionals, all of which are driven by a personal and emotional approach to the past.  Filene’s recent Public Historian article, “Passionate Histories: ‘Outsider’ History-Makers and What They Teach Us,” grapples with the development, validity, and spread of history created by persons outside of the formal history profession.

The struggle to quantify what constitutes ‘real’ or ‘good’ history is nothing new.  Public history as a field faced considerable from traditional academia during its rise to acceptance.  Genealogists are often scoffed at by academic historians and local historians are over looked.  Filene does not ignore the professional/outside divide in the history field.  Rather, he suggestions that both parties could learn from each others strengths.  Granted, suggesting two segregated sects work together is a lot easier said than done.

Public history that doesn’t reach the public isn’t very good public history.  Similarly, it wouldn’t hurt more traditional historians to try new avenues of disseminating their research.  History practitioners outside of the formal field have interpretation and display techniques that could easily be adapted to public history.  Focusing on individual stories, using clear language, providing specific examples instead of broad themes, and relating history to present events are all approaches which can assist in interpretation. Some museums have already begun adapting new methods of interpretation.  This often means changing their exhibit style to be more personal and emotional and less telling an overarching story of a historical event.

Academic and professional history can be emotionally compelling.  However, this typically isn’t the aim of professional history or something that is considered a top priority in presentation.  But, when people identify and can relate to history they show greater interest and are more likely to actively participate.  Historians of all shapes and sizes need to look at how they are reaching the public and begin to draw on interpretation and outreach work done by those outside of their immediate circle.

Representation of the Indian Wars and Networking Galore

The second session I attended as part of #ncph2012 focused on the reinterpretation of the Indian Wars by the National Parks Service (NPS).  The panel contained a number of NPS service staff who worked at specific parks and at the upper management level.

The main desire to reinterpret many historic sites has arisen from many Forts clinging to older interpretation models which approach the past in a ‘John Wayne’ fashion or only tell one side of the story.  Many of the sites which were crucial to the Indian Wars make no mention of the impact of colonialism or take into account the Native point of view.  NPS hope to change this in upcoming years. 

The panelists had a number of good ideas about the importance of creating programming with the audience and not for the audience.  Some individual parks have made efforts to connect with local native groups and begin to start to understand a more complete history of their site.  These conversations and ultimately partnerships are crucial to any approach the NPS takes in revamping their interpretation strategy. 

I found a number of parallels between the interpretation of the Indian Wars and Canada’s ongoing struggle to educate the general public about the legacy of Residential Schools.  Both pieces of history are important to their country’s past, but have been long neglected in national stories of interpretation.

Following the session on NPS reinterpretation I attended a speed networking session, desert before dinner, and the opening reception of the conference.  All of these events provided me with opportunities to meet other new and experienced professionals, discuss trends in the field, and get a better field for the NCPH.   The conference continues to be a great learning experience.

Academia Meets Community in a Battle of Understanding

Last week I attended a presentation that was part of a community commemoration event.  The lecture touched on the history of a minority community one, that the speaker was not part of.  Many of the audience members were part of this community and were offended by the approach the speaker took to ‘their personal history.’  Since this lecture I’ve been struggling with the presentation content, audience reaction, and the gap between academic and public conceptions of history.

I’m sure the audience outrage at the event wasn’t a unique experience.  Many communities –women, indigenous people, racial groups, and the LGBT community, etc — have had the history of their communities explored by ‘outsiders.’  This type of research is far from inherently bad, it has the potential to create bridges and provide new insight to research topics.  However, cultural sensitivity and awareness are crucial to this type of work. Without awareness and understanding, historians can easily tread into unwelcome ground with communities.

The nature of academic publishing and conferences can cause academic historians to miss opportunities of engagement with the community who’s past they are researching.  Additionally, it is entirely possible that during the composition of a research paper an academic historian spends numerous hours on archival research and doesn’t ever visit or speak with the community they are researching.  This approach completely ignores the value of oral history and community resources.  It also disengages historians from the general public.

Back to the previously mentioned outraged audience.  Was the academic wrong to take a new approach to an accepted past? Of course not.  Was this community commemoration event the proper place to address this approach? Possibly not.  A number of audience members thought the presentation offensive and some considered it outright racist.  Had the audience been composed of academics the response would have most likely been completely different and not contain such an emotional response.

The very nature of public history involves sharing the past with the general public.  So, how does one bridge the gap from academia to public forum?  In my mind, community participation in all stages of research is key.  Knowing and reaching out to your audience/community can help bridge the academic-public gap.

Community and Relevancy in Rural Museums

The latest issue of Curator: The Museum Journal was recently posted online.  This issue contained a number of interesting approaches to issues in the museum field.  One article I found particularly interesting was Rhianedd Smith‘s “Searching for “Community”: Making English Rural History Collections Relevant Today.”  The article can be read online here

Smith’s work focuses on rural history museums in the United Kingdom, however her logic and the trends towards more active community engagement are applicable in Canada and in the museum community at large. The tendency of smaller museums to represent a single interpretation of the past is fairly common.  Many institutions struggle to include interpretations that will be representative of a culturally diverse area.  In Canada this may be in part be due to overarching Euro-Canadian history which has long been the dominate force in small museums.

So how does one make a rural or local heritage collection relevant to a wider audience? Smith provides case examples of some actions that have worked – outreach to a wider range of donors, focusing on the human element, using digital technology to reach a broader audience.  More strikingly, Smith highlights the need for flexibility.  There is no one size fits all outreach initiative that suit all organizations, however it is imperative that organizations look towards new programming and interpretation options.


Photo credit: Marion Doss

Chief Vann House: Conflicted Interpretation and Restoration

Tiya Miles article, “Showplace of the Cherokee Nation: Race and the Making of a Southern House Museum”, that recently appeared in The Public Historian, volume 33, issue 4, presents an intriguing examination of the role racial perceptions can play in heritage interpretations.

Miles’ work focuses on the Chief Vann House State Historic Site in Georgia.  This particular heritage site is the former residence of Chief Joseph Vann, who was a predominant plantation owner in Georgia until his family was forced to leave under the 1830s federal Indian Removal bill. 

Throughout “Showplace of the Cherokee Nation” Miles describes the 1950s restoration efforts of the Vann House and highlights the ongoing tensions in interpretation viewpoints. Miles illustrates the ongoing tensions between the desire to portray a  local heritage indicative of high class Georgia and the government desire to frame the House in ‘Indianness.’  These contrasting notions of focal interpretation points resulted in an interpretation that Miles describes as reflecting “the dual themes of Native American material culture and antebellum plantation culture.  The home was decorated with antiques befitting a well-heeled planter family, but the attic was reserved for display of Indian artifacts such as arrowheads.” (p.29)  Since no single narrative could be decided upon, the two prominent narratives were intermingled.  Both the local heritage advocates and the state government believed that the House had tourism potential, but they differed greatly on what they thought the prime attraction was — Indianness or Southern plantation heritage.

The Vann House site is not unique in its struggle of historical viewpoints.  History is often contested and there is always more than one way to tell the same set of events.  I am interested to know how the Vann House site currently functions as a house museum, do the interpreters address the ongoing struggle of viewpoints? Miles also notes that during the 1950s no thought was given to representing the slave presence that once drove the work on the plantation.  It would be interesting to see if this heritage is now represented in the House’s displays.

What are additional examples of struggles of historical interpretation coming to the forefront in heritage sites?

Photo credit: J. Stephen Conn