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.

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.

A (Belated) Observation of a Mundane Landscape

Although the rain this weekend interfered with my ability to find a unique or interesting landscape to study, one that I thought would be interesting to use for this assignment was my apartment complex – Logan’s Square. I spend almost every day interacting with this environment somehow, yet I have never stopped to fully observe my surroundings before coming to this assignment. It was a nice break to pause and rediscover somewhere that has become so ordinary to me in the past few months.

I decided to observe my surroundings from the stairs right outside my front door, giving me a slightly higher vantage point since I am on the second story. Despite the man-made overabundance of buildings and cars, I was pleasantly surprised by the greenery that is consistently overlooked by those on a mission after leaving their apartment. There are many trees visible over the horizon of asphalt that assaults the eyes; the landscaping over the complex is particularly well maintained, as the bushes all appeared well-manicured and the grass, though a little soggy from the rains over the past few days, is still inexplicably green. Although I saw few people out and about while I was taking notes, the ones that I did were not at all surprising to me, as they were all white, male and female college-aged students coming and going from their respective apartments. A few brought out their dogs to use the restroom around the same time. Most of the noise stemmed from these two activities, as many cars were driving down the road, and dogs could be heard barking in the distance. As I mentioned, much of the area was damp from the previous rains, which also left an enjoyable musty smell in the air; however, it was a lot less pleasant when mixed with the car exhaust left in the wake of someone leaving the complex.

Even though I have stated this seems like a very mundane landscape to spend the time observing in such a detailed way, the major reason I found this activity to be interesting lies in its use as a transitional space. Very few of us would willingly spend time in a parking lot if not to either leave or return to your apartment; most of us are on autopilot from the moment we turn into the familiar surrounding, only thinking about what we need to do once we are finally home. By reading this environment, I was able to broaden my understanding of the scene and observe other people’s interactions with the setting, furthering my convictions that it is often overlooked and considered unremarkable. This area is mostly associated with transportation, transition, a “getting somewhere,” but lingering in this place conjured questions of “What was here before?” and “What was destroyed out of necessity for more caused by the growth of the university?” Researching deeper into the grounds that Logan’s Square now sits on would be fascinating and another layer of implications for the space.

Presence of the Past Survey

When I began interviewing my roommates about their interactions with the past, it became immediately apparent that there was confusion over the wording of certain questions in the survey. Neither one of them have much experience with history aside from some entry-level college classes taken years ago, and so when asking things like “how connected to the past do you feel on certain holidays,” they were unsure whether to answer related to the historical past or their personal history. While this might have been the point of the exercise, it led to confusion throughout the questionnaire.

The questions could use updating and proofreading, but overall, it succeeded in assessing how much non-historians interact with the past. Adding inquiries related to social media and the internet would provide an even more accurate understanding of how often those who do not study history conceive the past. We live in an increasingly technological world, and while television, movies, and books are still prominent forms of media, most interactions within society revolve around the internet. The wording of the questions could also be tweaked a little in order to make them easily understood by the audience, whether that be through specificity or rewording. Some words were also misspelled throughout the survey, which is a minor thing but one that I noticed nevertheless and wanted to mention. Despite these few flaws, the survey works well to discover what most of the public understands to be “the past,” and I think it functioned as a worthwhile exercise for our class.

My Experience with Public History

One of the best teachers I had in elementary school was my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Schmitt. His primary area of expertise was history, and the one thing that he emphasized throughout the year was our understanding of the Holocaust during World War II. He was from Germany and felt particularly strongly that we understood the things that happened by creating activities that pitted us as certain victims of the Holocaust and teaching from the Diary of Anne Frank. At the end of the year, he invited Ruth Greuner, a Holocaust survivor who’s autobiography we read, to speak and have dinner with all of us, which was an amazing experience that every one of us, even as eleven and twelve year olds, understood the depth of.

Removal of Historical Monuments

In this tumultuous period, questions of historical monuments spark considerable debate among the population, urging matters of how the removal of certain statues should be handled. Although most call for the destruction of monuments venerating white supremacy and the oppression of minorities, there may be more that could be learned from the relocation of particular objects than from outright destruction. Historical interpretation is essential to represent when learning about the past – what better objects to understand historical interpretation than a monument?

defaced Confederate monument; Huntsville, Alabama; August 5, 2020; source:

Since the George Floyd riots began earlier this year, the Confederate soldier statue residing outside of the Madison County Courthouse in Huntsville, Alabama, has been vandalized with blood-colored paint. Although there have been claims that it will be moved to Maple Hill Cemetery, the Memorial Preservation Act has left it standing in the center of town. Moving this monument to the cemetery does relatively remove it from the public eye; however, a more poignant statement is made in the lack of cleaning attempts that have been made since is defacement. If the statue were to be removed in its present condition, it becomes an even more versatile object for special collections. Both the art museum AND historical museums (like the Space and Rocket Center, which often houses temporary exhibitions) could facilitate contextualization of the statue.

As parts of the landscape in many cities, Confederate monuments prove problematic in their promotion of white supremacist narratives of the Civil War. The destruction of these symbols of oppression is understandable and needed, but the preservation of a few statues could prove to be beneficial in reshaping the effects of the post-Civil War South. Although impossible (and unnecessary) to save EVERY object, historians could work together to identify the most significant ones and preserve them within local archives or even storage spaces of museums. Issues of space at the museums and framing of the artifacts pose the biggest problems of this approach toward relocating the monuments, but this could be an important step for future historians eager for primary sources on the erection of Civil War monuments during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While controversy is possible and probable when considering saving these artifacts, some of the heat could be diverted by leaving the pieces in storage or creating temporary exhibits using the monuments (or parts of the statues, since they are rather large) as centerpieces for a larger, contextualizing story.