The Future of Public History

Over the course of this semester, we have consumed ourselves with questions of what public history is and how we should approach the field, so it seems natural that our parting question should be, “Where do we go from here?” Although the most prominent historical problem facing our current society are issues of Confederate memorials across the nation, I would instead like to focus on how museums react to complicated histories and relate this information to the public.

James Gardner’s speech for the National Association of Public History asks these questions concerning his position at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History: “How do we tell history as it really was rather than as we wish it had been? How do we as public historians avoid yielding to our own insecurities and keep focused on interpreting history? How do we do good history instead of spending all our time worrying about whom we might offend?” (12) These are not easy questions to answer, and I think every single historian, both public and otherwise, knows that there WILL be offended people, no matter how politically correct or neutral the exhibit.

While it is a complex problem for an undergraduate history major to approach, there are a few fundamental steps that public-facing historical institutions like museums could take to ensure widespread support. As we read at the beginning of the year, many institutions reissued mission statements to realign themselves with preserving minority historical records; the Alabama State Archives acknowledged their position as a mostly white organization in need of more artifact diversity. The Statement of Recommitment was a smart move for an institution steeped in historical racism and originally grounded itself in preserving Confederate history. In our current political climate, it is necessary for those places concerned with public-facing historical interpretation to maintain positive representation both in the media and the populace. While statements such as these must also be backed by action to mean anything, it is a step in the right direction to acknowledge the flawed history of a department devoted to preserving Alabama history.

Another route that many museums have begun taking in the past few decades is collecting and presenting the narratives of minorities and historically oppressed peoples. Rather than focusing solely on stories that have been told countless times, many museums are working to reinterpret the past through the lens of those who have often been silenced. The Smithsonian’s two newest museums, the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of the American Indian (both built within the past twenty years), are examples of a new dedication to these victims of America’s past. Their historical artifacts and exhibitions present an important narrative of American history that has been overlooked since the professionalization of history; the origins of historic preservation as an upper-class white pastime did not bode well for either Native Americans or African Americans before more modern issues of representation were raised.

All of this boils down to one basic tenant that public history must continue to value – representation. Institutions must continue to acknowledge past shortcomings and work to remedy them to maintain public support in uncertain social climates and continue progressing their historical education.

Final Student Projects

Here are links to final student projects for Fundamentals of Public History, Fall 2020.
Laura King “North Alabama Lynchings: Violence & Terror in the Mining District 1890-1921

Kyle Munroe and Jack West “Early Black Experiences in Auburn

Joseph Hyatt and Jack Smith “Cuneiform: The Writing System of Ancient Kings

John Bryant “Lynching Sites in Mobile and Baldwin County, Alabama

Deanna Berryman and Hamilton Medley “Hidden Histories: Memorials on Auburn University’s Campus” 

Public History

Barbara J. Dismukes

Who decides what is important in history? Is it politicians or the general laborer? Is it the teacher or the housewife? Is it the University President or the lawn care person? It should be all of us but in most cases it is those who want to make a change in some way that influence who and what is the most important.

Everyone has their own option and sees things in their own way. No two people agree on everything, so it goes to reason that there will always be someone for something being important and vise versa. What is important to me might be menial to you.

Having public opinion about history has its good and not so good, but both opinions are important in the final outlook.

Public history is changing in todays society. Instead of looking at history for what it was and learning from those things, people are playing the blame game and accusing people who have never owned a slave and who’s families haven’t either of being racist and thinking they deserve restitution. They don’t deserve anything except to live in this great country and to have the opportunities to make a good life for themselves instead of waiting for the next handout! They should be looking for a hand UP instead!

Destroying monuments and renaming buildings will not change anything. The way that people treat each other and how they react to others is what is important.

Public History Blog

When we’re looking at the future of public history, one of the most visible trends to follow has to be how we as members of a larger community represent what we deem to be the most important aspects of our past. I know that sentence is incredibly generic, but what I mean is what kinds of memorials and monuments do we build? 

We’ve spent a lot of time talking about monuments that have already been built, but even tearing those down isn’t much of a financial burden on the communities they exist in. Yes, there’s often an emotional or cultural argument to make, but renting a crane and a truck usually won’t destroy a city’s budget. 

On the other hand, monuments that cities decide to construct can be quite expensive — and thus often require a greater amount of cooperation and agreement. For that reason, I think the constructive actions that we as communities make say more about how we understand our historical context than the deconstructive ones do. With that in mind, let’s look at the biggest public history monument and museum which have been built in Alabama in the last five years: The Legacy Museum and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice. 

These two sites are both in Montgomery, and both were built and are managed by the Equal Justice Initiative. First, if you haven’t been to both of these sites, do so as soon as the pandemic ends. Second, I think the most powerful aspects of these two sites — and the ones most relevant to this entry — are how they connect the past horrors of slavery to the modern experiences of Black individuals. They do this in a number of ways.

First, the museum very clearly lays out the path that our society took from slavery to mass incarceration. It literally has you follow a path where the information is presented chronologically until you get to the present day. When I went, they literally had a former inmate working at the museum to tell his own story. Second, the memorial ties the history of lynching to modern day action by having a duplicate of each metal box which a county can claim if they prove that they are taking adequate steps to address Black inequity in their community. Basically, the memorial is extendable, but only on the condition of substantive action toward justice. 

This combination of historical context and modern-day activism is where public history will continue going. Gone, hopefully, are the days where history and historical artifacts are presented in a marble hall, suffocated behind glass panes, and devoid of any relation to contemporary realities. In their place, we are going to see more installations, more museums, and more historical sites which demand the audience participate, not by raising their hands or trying to answer trivia questions, but by actively self-reflecting about their roles in perpetuating systems and institutions. 

Then, — and this might be the most important part — we as public historians should call our audiences to action. Afterall, self-reflection without action isn’t worth much.

Auburn University: A Perspective on History

Before arriving at Auburn, I knew little about its history. I was aware of individuals such as Hank Hartsfield, Jan Davis, Ken Mattingly, Kathryn Thorton, and James Voss but I knew little else about both the University and the town itself. Most of my experience with Auburn’s history has come through not only the astronauts above, but also through individuals such as Dr. James Hansen and Dr. Launius. These are two individuals I was familiar with before arriving on campus. Living in the middle of SEC territory myself, I was also familiar with Auburn’s football and baseball programs. As a former competitive gymnast, I was also aware of Auburn’s program’s success. Admittingly, in my several month stay in Auburn, I have rarely left my house. Because of this, I have not had the time to explore the town, or campus, which still leaves me unfamiliar with much of its history. What I do know about Auburn, I have learned through the classroom.

Through classes, I have became aware of Auburn’s dedication to the Lost Cause and preserving its role in the Civil War as well as Auburn’s past preservation of white supremacy. Through the 1960s, the University was hesitant to enroll African American students and when they did, the student body was highly segregated. Until recently, Auburn still, and arguably still does, have a reputation for catering to primarily wealthy and white individuals. In recent years, Auburn has been attempting to rededicate itself and diversify. Along with this, the University is being more open about its past and attempting, though they may just be surface level gestures, to make amends. While these gestures may be the first steps in a long marathon, it does bring some hope for the future.

The Smithsonian Experience

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is a place of wonders, which is especially valuable nowadays as it contained exhibitions of the past pandemics. By paying a virtual visit, I learned about the history of fighting the past pandemics and how people who were caught in it moved on with their lives.

        My first impression of visiting a museum virtually is that it is rather “Stationary” in comparison to being there. Although I got to see the pictures and panoramic views of the exhibition, the static images did not open my mind to let me think of each event and their consequences. Which inhibited my memorization process. In an actual in-person museum there would be people casually walking around looking at the postings while tour guides would lead groups through the halls, teaching them each issue comprehensively. This is better compared to virtual visits in my opinion since the atmosphere is curated for people to learn and the explanations those tour guides usually give provides ample detail. There is one issue which needs attention—there are no exhibits for COVID-19. History is not just writing down and memorizing events in the past but rather it is an account of the combination of both events in the past and issues in the present. As of the time of this essay, people around the world are developing vaccines and issuing preventive measures to reduce the spread of COVID. The hard work of the doctors and nurses who initially found the disease and patiently cared for their patients have become the missing link as the reports never mentioned them. I propose the Smithsonian set up a special exhibit only for COVID-19 since it is fundamentally different from other diseases in the way that it killed more people than any other contagion in history and it represents a mutated part of the SARS virus. By having such an exhibit not only will future generations remember the work we have done to save humanity but also pay their respect to the medical personnel who risked their lives to find a cure.

        I would say that the outbreaks exhibition focused on persuading and teaching both students and families or communities who are affected by a certain disease to understand that they can alter their fate if they work together, as a posting on one of the walls read: “It takes people from many professions and walks of life, working together, to fight infectious diseases.” (Smithsonian, Outbreak Exhibition) If in the near future there is a day the pandemic ended and museums reopened to the public, this particular exhibition would be documentation to the bravery of the human race and the teaching ground for future generations. It will be possibly the most iconic place in the museum as the postings of collaborative effort of the international community indicates a possible shift in politics. In a world where the hidden dangers can be life-threatening to the very existence of humanity, we humans always survive by utilizing our intelligence combined with our team effort.

Smithsonian’s Spotlight: Country Music

With the Pandemic closing museums across the country many have opted to create virtual collections and offer video tours. One of the many ways the Smithsonian Institute has begun offering experiences online is through curated galleries on a variety of topics. Although the collections are large, they seem to consist primarily of photographs with identifiers and short descriptions attached to them when clicked on. Many of the photos are of Country music stars, posters, or attire, but some of them lack a detailed description, with many of the posters and similar items descriptions reading “mint” instead of explaining the history of the piece.

The overall layout of the exhibit seems to be very scattered and without a clear organization or noticable pattern. The gallery lists items in neither chronological nor alphabetical order. The items also don’t appear to be used to tell any kind of overall story, but just describe random items associated with Country music. The Collection is massive and spans most of the Country music world from the 1940’s to the late 1970’s/early 1980’s. The exhibit also seems to lack items pertaining to the origin’s of Country music, as well as information on the themes and concepts that drove Country music to become so popular.

Due to a scattered layout and the issues of being reset upon pushing the “back button”, the Smithsonian Spotlight seems to be less of an exhibit and more of an explorable collection. Being a collection would not typically be a bad thing, but due to a lack of organization and the ability to sort by date or alphabetical order, it feels like digging through a pile of loose photos. The nature of this Spotlight was to “Discover Country Music”, but the gallery seems to lack a path to guide an audience towards and ends at all. The gallery is also too lengthy with numerous sections available at the click of the “view more” button. The exhibit lacks the interactivity of physically attending a museum and does so in a very noticeable way. The photo’s could be made better by short descriptors or even pop-up windows that tell you their history, but they opted for a very flat and aesthetically bland approach that is closer to a google images result than what I would expect from a museum.

I believe that online exhibits are trying a variety of methods right now to drive engagement with their audiences, but this chaotic method made for an unpleasant experience that did not seem to serve any educational purpose. I also watched some virtual tours of the Smithsonian, but they were all third-party. The virtual and video tours were all very surface level and felt very clunky. In a class I had with Dr. Ray last semester we did virtual tours of historic sites in Africa. These tours still left a bit to be desired, but I believe that they provided a good look at the scale of structures that can’t be captured on video or in photographs. Hopefully with the progression of VR technologies we can make virtual museums that work, but from my experiences that technology has not yet arrived.

Mary Anning Virtual Museum Exhibit

Mary Anning, The Natural History Museum

Although the concept of virtual museum exhibits is one with which I am familiar (thanks to previous courses and the Google Arts and Culture app), I had never paused to reflect on the very nature of these projects. Previously, my focus was directed towards the ability to casually peruse different museums from the comfort of my couch during the pandemic; however, this assignment really made me reflect upon the digitization of museum exhibits and their effectiveness.

The digital exhibit that I explored was “Mary Anning: History’s Pioneer of Palaeontology” presented by The Natural History Museum in London, England. This presentation centered around Mary Anning, one of the first paleontologists of the early 1800s; she made many key discoveries along what is colloquially known as the Jurassic Coast, where even nowadays important fossils are uncovered. While it is difficult to pinpoint the exact audience for this exhibit, it can be assumed that it is geared towards those interested in dinosaurs and other fossils. The content pairs these artifacts and a geographic location familiar to those knowledgeable in paleontology with a somewhat lesser-known figure who made a significant impact on the shaping of the science.

Because of relatively new and unprecedented protocols implemented throughout society, virtual exhibits such as this one on Mary Anning are important for museums to continue cultivating interest and public support. Although there are quite a few shortcomings with this new medium, the accessibility of exhibits is a major advantage of digitizing entire exhibits. I would have never been able to experience this Mary Anning project had it not been for The Natural History Museum’s partnership with Google Arts and Culture to bring about a virtual tour; I had neither the money or proximity to visit the museum in person, and thus, I am very appreciative of their willingness to share via a channel lacking profit. The added benefit of seeing the displays and captions deemed important by creators is something that could be considered both a positive and negative effect of digital exhibits. As someone who has frequented her share of museums and has always insisted upon reading EVERY piece of writing within the place, having a specifically curated and concise presentation reduces the intimidation that can be produced by entering museum halls. Although this limits the scope of what could be a rather large collection and exhibit, it also counteracts the ability to overwhelm and makes the material more approachable because of that. The material on display also determines the quality of the virtual museum exhibit; if the artifacts do not transfer well into digital media, the collection’s impact will be lesser and could even dictate opinion of the museum or topic. The fossils used within the presentation to illustrate the critical work Anning did were not as impressive in the slideshow that comprised the exhibit; the size of the extinct creatures was not conveyed in the pictures as well as it would have been in person.

All of this being said, I thoroughly enjoyed exploring this exhibit and wish I could engage with it in person rather than purely through a website and app. I appreciate the expansion of digitization as a feasible way to attract “visitors” to the museum and think that it will be especially important given the current social climate in which we are living. There will always be features that do not translate well, but more often than not, I feel as though collections could be successfully shared with the public through the internet.

Virtual Museum Visit

I visited the Montgomery, Alabama: New lynching memorial, Legacy Museum and civil rights history.  I visited this museum in person a few years ago and just looking at pictures online does not have the same effect that it has on you in person.

This Museum is just stunningly beautiful and sad at the same time.  It has a hanging metal banner for many of the counties in the each state in the United States with the name of each person that was lynched and the year that it took place!  Looking at each banner, as they go on and on for over a hundred yards.  

Outside of the covered building there are many more rows upon rows of metal slabs that continue to show the counties and names and dates of those lynched.  It is just mind blowing that so many people were killed unnecessarily!  I find it even more astounding that there are records of them!  I’m sure that most of this information was in newspapers at the time but it took hours upon hours of investigation to find all of the names of the people who were killed.

There are also several statues outside on the grounds.  They show slaves in chains, men, women, and children.  It is very powerful.

Just thinking about looking for that type of information makes me believe that this was carried out by multiple people, due to the substantial amount of work and the many hours of  looking for and finding relevant information for this museum.  People had to go to all of the southeastern states to find this information, which must have been really daunting!

I think this museum was created to bring to light the injustices that have been perpetuated upon people of color, so that the deeds of our fathers won’t be forgotten and repeated!  It is for anyone interested in History.  It is for everyone!  Everyone should go to this place and see the results of  racism and hate.  They might learn a thing or two.

I think this is a lovely tribute to those who were murdered, in many cases, for a very minor infraction.  It tells a story of the people, remembering them forever in a beautiful, permanent display for anyone to come see, or to see online, if they wish.

I think that seeing this in person is more powerful than it is just seeing the pictures of the museum.  You can hear the wind blowing when you’re there and feel the breeze.  It makes you wonder if those thoughts went through the persons mind as they were being strung up….will I ever hear the wind again or feel it blowing over my skin?  Just thinking about what someone was thinking at the end of their life, so unnaturally, makes me sad.

I often wonder if the people who did the lynching of someone ever felt remorse.  Did they do it because they felt they had to just to show they weren’t “soft” for blacks?  Did they wonder if they had done the right thing?  Did they, perhaps, know the person, even just in passing?  Do they see that person’s family when they go to town?

When I went there in person it was packed!  People were everywhere.  Buses just kept coming, bringing more and more people to see this place where history is being preserved!  If you haven’t been here yet, please make it a top priority!  You won’t regret it.