Controversy in the Classroom

Small Steps in a Museum, Big Steps for History? Questions from an Intern

Jonathan Gunter Post, May 2010

Museums are not often seen by most people as classrooms or as sites of controversy. But when I began to work as an intern at a museum I discovered quite quickly how controversial and challenging even seemingly simple exhibits can be.

My first experience teaching was as a student intern in a small museum in Georgia. Our museum served as a resource for local school districts that would bring groups of about 70 students on field trips to learn about Cherokee history and the history of the state of Georgia. We had two very detailed scripts that we used depending on the grade level of the student groups when we conducted tours. Our tour guides were all volunteers and they would guide students between stations exposing them to early tools used by settlers, Native American art and other hands-on learning activities. Once a year we held a Georgia History Timeline event in which paid enactors worked with the students while playing historical figures like James Oglethorpe, Sequoyah, and Hernando De Soto.

We served counties for the most part that were rural and very conservative most notably Forsyth County famous in Georgia history for removing their black population at gunpoint in the early 20th century. Despite the environment visiting students often asked tough questions for which we did not have ready answers in our script. Students of color who came to the museum would, in particular, seek to know more. A question from a young African American especially inspired me to look at exhibits differently when she asked me the question, “Why do the Indians dress like white people?” I did not have a good answer, but her question, which dealt with forced cultural assimilation, was every bit as relevant to her own life in 2010 as it was to the Native Americans of the early 19th century whose culture she was examining in the museum.

I discovered that even in the museum setting, it was not easy to deal with such topics, loaded as they were with controversial themes like race, ethnicity, and oppression. With the support, however, of my immediate supervisor and some volunteers, we were able to bring the discussion of these controversial issues to the foreground and present them to our visitors through the use of historical enactors. The historical enactor we chose to play the role of a slave in the annual Georgia History Timeline turned out to be remarkably gifted, and teachers, parents and students alike were ecstatic. Her gift is music, and through music, she taught visiting students about the pain of slavery. She brought shackles and she let students hold them and pass them around. Being herself Nigerian born she captured the joy of life in Africa before slavery and she painted a picture of Africa that was quite different from what the students had been exposed to before. She taught about forced assimilation in a way that left students feeling positive, not angry, by reminding them that the role of such education was to make sure that slavery was never again allowed to return.

Will my experiences in a small museum easily make the transition to a classroom? I think they will. Hands-on learning, especially through music, can open doors, and help to diffuse much of the pain and anger surrounding controversial topics. This is the kind of history that has the power to reach many inner-city students who do not usually feel that what they learn in school has any connection to their daily struggles at home and in the world.

In my museum work, I also discovered that music can play another role as well, besides helping to facilitate the communication of historical information. It can assist in the creation of a sense of group identity, particularly useful in teaching about enforced cultural assimilation. When I learned the drums, for instance, we sat in a circle and established a collective identity. A drum or other musical instrument in a learning setting can serve as a tool to determine who is speaking. Students then may be able to find a rhythm that expresses their feeling about the topic. This, in turn, may encourage historical empathy among the students, who can try to imagine how people in a different time and place felt. Such activities may seem too much like story time in kindergarten, but in the museum, I saw them engage eighth grade students as well.

These are small changes in a small museum in rural Georgia, and they had to be secured through tactful and slow persuasion of critical decisionmakers who had to give up inherited ideas and the museum scripts they had used for decades. But the changes did take place, and they received lots of positive feedback from many who recognized that even such small mutations were long overdue. And I believe that even these small changes can make huge waves and not only help the visitors to the museum itself, but also carry larger, long-term implications for how we all understand our history, at the local, regional, and national level.

Jonathan Post is an MA student in history at Georgia State University. He interned at the Funk Heritage Center on the campus of Reinhardt College, where he received his BA in history.