The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1992, Volume 38, Number 4
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

History Museums in the United States: A Critical Assessment.
Edited by Warren Leon and Roy Rosenzweig. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989, xvii + 333 pp. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $14.95 paper.

Reviewed by Patty Gregory, Curator of History, Sacramento Archives and Museum Collection Center.

How do museums fulfill their mission to educate their constituency by accurately interpreting history? How is the historical context or significance addressed? How are the links to the past related to our present experiences and realities? How are museums dealing with sensitive, controversial social issues? Are 19th century artifacts interpreted in the context of social value and technical value? These questions and more are discussed in the theses authored by the various scholars and museum professionals who contributed to this anthology. This work does not attempt to answer these questions, but takes a “critical assessment” of how history is interpreted in museums of all sizes and constituencies ranging from nationally known institutions to local museums. Its most valuable contribution is that it opens a dialogue into areas that many museums have difficulty in interpreting or have avoided, conflict and tragedy, and sensitive social issues.

Historically, there is a correlation between contemporary national events and exhibits of museums and historic sites. Few museums are able to interpret sensitive issues and conflicting ideals. The authors offer a critique over time of historical exhibits.

The unsettling aftermath following the American Revolution was the reason Charles Willson Peale left politics and focused on his museum. He was the first to address present day museum staffs’ concerns on what to collect, how to display, and how to teach history, art, and natural sciences. He was the first to attempt to combine a scientific system with a broad educational intent. His intent was to make order out of chaos.

The Smithsonian Institution was founded in the 1880s to “increase and diffuse knowledge among men.” Its curator, George Brown Goode, encouraged the collecting of portraits and busts and personal items of this country’s heroes as well as collecting the ordinary and commonplace, which he called “humble and simple objects.” Goode was joined by A. Howard Clark, the National Museum’s history curator, who was committed to the preservation and display of “relics of important national events or of persons prominent in the history of our country.” The natural history and anthropology exhibits effused the same message: “All life proceeded in a ‘steady progression . . .from the simple to the complex.'” The exhibits were cluttered and the text was directed toward scholars and specialists. Trained professional historians lacked interest in “things.” They “were preoccupied with words–charters, constitutions, and treaties among other documents, and defined history to preclude the study of ordinary people.” The Smithsonian exhibits during this Victorian period echoed the time. “The cluttered nature of its displays, not unlike Victorian parlors, became a measure of its moral worth.”

In 1924 the American Wing of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art opened. At the time Congress was passing racist resolutions and legislation that reflected “the fear that immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, were unassimilable and harbored radical and un-American ideas.” The American Wing served as a “patriotic antidote and portrayed founding fathers as connoisseurs and patrons of the arts.” Its curator, R. T. H. Halsey thought the new wing would teach true principles of design. Unfortunately, its message was lost to all but those “who brought considerable knowledge with them.”

In 1945, the New York Historical Society established the Farmers’ Museum. It interpreted “the implements of the worker.” According to Clifford Lord, its director, the Farmers’ Museum “is useful in a democracy in order to produce a truer appreciation and a healthier respect for the dignity and accomplishments of those who practice agriculture or trade.” In 1963, the Farmers’ Museum opened “The Farmer’s Year.” The exhibit interpreted the story of the importance of the seasons to the preindustrial farmer. Considered one of the first interpretive history exhibits, it consisted of twelve sections corresponding to the months of the year in which characteristic tools, graphics, and labels defined the activities. The New York State Historical Association was the predecessor to the new 20th century trend of collecting the commonplace, developing the interpretive exhibit, and introducing trained historians at museums.

George Kulick points out that most museums still remain shrines. While many have dealt with conflict and tragedy, most museums remain shrines unless the same standards of scholarship with which books and classroom lectures are designed is applied to exhibits.

Before the new social history of the last two decades, which attempts to encompass the history of ordinary life, museums tended to exhibit the life of middle class Americans. For example, critical review of Mount Vernon points out that half the population was African-American, however, there is very little interpretation of their existence. The new social history of the last several decades has brought a new patronage to museums. There has been formations of new museums and reinterpretation of our past to include African-Americans, women, blue collar workers, and immigrants.

According to Michael Frisch, the obligation of modern urban history museums is to accurately interpret the diversity and often conflicting public constituencies. There is a need to develop and display collections and to focus on broader “didactic or thematic historical concepts.” How can museums interpret social history in relation to the larger “currents of change?” Frisch discusses the complex issues in the planning stages of South Street Seaport Museum in New York City. The Port of New York represents a larger view than an interpretation of social history could provide, and that a more holistic approach was necessary such as a “historical ecology, a city-building force, and an element in the complex web of world economic and political relationships.” He further states most of the planning group (consisting of twenty historians) “sensed that the proper target of interpretation would be found at the intersection of two axes: one involves the way in which individual experience and local structures can be related to broad-scale systemic changes, and the other involves the way in which the past’s relation to the present can be understood and expressed, that paradox by which people need to find the past recognizable, as textured and as human as the present, in order to appreciate its complexity and reality, while at the same time they need to appreciate that history means differences as well–in how things worked, how people lived and thought, and what they valued.” Using this concept, “an exhibit strategy would have a chance to present a very different conception of what and who was relevant to the history of New York Port and what that had to contribute to an understanding of the present.”

According to Warren Leon and Margaret Piatt, Americans prefer to watch and interact with historical interpreters than read museum labels. Living history museums can provide the public with odor, color, taste, texture, and sound and as a result will remain popular for some time. Leon and Piatt review the advantages and disadvantages of this type of interpretation.

In the 1980s museums have attempted to confront sensitive issues that have previously been avoided. Conner Prairie recreated funerals, temperance meetings, and pauper auctions. Old Sturbridge Village looked at the conflict over slavery and the anti-slavery movement, and used the venue of town hall meetings to illustrate the deep division in the community.

Throughout the writings in this book the authors have included major emphasis on historical scholarship and the absence of it in exhibitions. For example, there has been an increase in the study of women’s history, however, there are many aspects of gender and sexual conflict that are avoided.

Many museums have a constituency to please. The “take” at the door may determine the existence of the museum. Unfortunately, there may be an unrecognized need for “show time” and an aggressive exhibition schedule that may not allow adequate time to thoroughly research the history of the particular time or subject, or the time it takes for brainstorming and considering sensitive issues in order to provide the most accurate interpretation.

History Museums in the United States: a Critical Assessment, should be read by every museum professional, and be required reading in museology classes. It is an invaluable tool for self-study, as well as providing a reality check asking the question “Are museums accurately interpreting history and are visitors leaving exhibits with an understanding of that history?”

Or, are our exhibits influenced by politics and financing? The purpose of this book is not to induce defensive or judgmental reactions but to serve as a tool to evaluate and reassess how museums interpret history.