Publication Date

May 1, 1995

Perspectives Section



Public History

The good news is that history and history museums are front-page headlines. The bad news is that the stories often focus on conflicts between scholars and the public or between "dispassionate outsider and passionate insider" as a recent New York Times article on the Martin Luther King, Jr., memorial in Atlanta described the two parties.[1] “Who Owns History?” the headline asked. Who indeed? National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) chair Sheldon Hackney asked the same question of writer William Styron and Colonial Williamsburg historian Cary Carson in the January February 1995 issue of the NEH magazine Humanities in relation to the highly publicized controversies over a proposed Disney theme park and the Smithsonian exhibition on the atomic bomb.

The controversy that erupted with the proposed exhibition of the Enola Gay at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum is a case in point. A number of newspaper columnists have responded by suggesting that historians in museums should stick to presenting facts, not meanings. A column in the St. Paul Pioneer Press titled “Museums Should Stick to the Facts” recommended that “museums should do their best to gather artifacts, documents, clothing, whatever is necessary to reflect a particular period or event, put it behind glass or behind gold braided ropes, post the hours of operation and then open for business.”[2] The same sentiment was expressed by a national columnist who advised that to win back public trust the Smithsonian “must give up moralizing and lecturing and return to the facts.”[3] Few of us who work in history museums are ready to revert to presenting history as antiquarian accumulations, but how should we react to what seems to be increasing public controversy about the presentation of history in museums? What is the nature of this conflict? Is it a concerted effort to undermine the professional authority of intellectuals? Is it politically motivated? While it is easy to dismiss the comments of newspaper columnists as the misguided opinions of a public that doesn’t understand or appreciate the work of history, those of us who serve the public as our primary audience cannot ignore these comments. We need to understand how changing societal attitudes toward expert authority and increased public participation in our institutions can limit or enhance the ability of museum curators to pursue valid and rigorous scholarship in a public setting. In this process we are reexamining and redefining the nature of scholarship in historical museums.

Rather than positioning the museum and its public as "them and us," museum historians have to recognize and accept that we work in a public domain. Increasingly, the publics we work with appreciate the power of information and understand all too well the importance of who interprets it. Our authority as "experts" is being challenged in ways that would have been unthinkable 30 years ago when I began working in the museum field. A recent article by Louis Menand, "The Trashing of Professionalism," in the New York Times Magazine describes what is clearly a trend toward distrust of what he terms “the standard of disinterestedness” adopted by professionals. Menand maintains that “anti-professionalism, in the deep sense of skepticism about the possibility of independence of mind, is not a partisan sentiment” and that the “cult of the expert is ripe for demystification.”[4]

Operating in a public environment beyond the purview of scholarly standards, museum historians struggle with how to balance the scholarly value system they bring with them from their academic training with a public value system they may or may not share. Museum exhibitions are further complicated by integrating both nonverbal and verbal sources of information. Efforts to simply make museums more like universities underestimate the complexity of the public-museum relationship. To be successful, museum historians have to first understand and acknowledge the scholarly values that they bring to the process of developing exhibitions and then learn to understand and respect the values that members of the public bring with them. Museum historians become mediators negotiating between radically different value systems—the authority of personal experience, memory, and meaning, and the authority of scholarship and facts.

Museum curators trained in the discipline of history are familiar with the rules of scholarship. We do research, analyze information, and construct a narrative argument to support our thesis. We judge our competence by the same standards that the AHA put forward in the 1974 Statement of Professional Standards: “mastery of primary and secondary sources, analytical ability, methodological rigor, capacity for interpretation, originality, thoroughness, and skill in writing.” In fact, many of us communicate our research not only through exhibitions and programs for the public, but also in books, catalogs, and scholarly articles that are read and re viewed by peers who share our understanding of history as an intellectual pursuit.

As historians, we are most comfortable asking scholarly questions from a position of separation, detachment, and objectivity. Factual accuracy—what happened, when something was made, how it was used—is the basis for one line of questioning. Historiographic questions about how our interpretation departs from previous work also informs our research. As historians, we pose questions about change, conflict, comparison, and contrast.

When we leave academic settings to work in museums, we find ourselves in a very different environment, with little training or preparation to pursue history outside the agreed upon rules of the discipline. Suddenly we are at the planning table or in the gallery, not with other historians or professional peers, but with members of the general public—our board, our members, potential funders, a community advisory group, or individual visitors. This is a more diverse public than the one that museums served in the 19th and early 20th century, when the scholarly audience and the museum's audience were generally indistinguishable. For the public who visit history museums today, the experience is social as much as it is intellectual. The experience of learning is not only a verbal exchange, but also kinetic, visual, and emotional. Rather than scholarly and historiographic questions of accuracy and new interpretations, public questions focus on values, ethics, and the present, often leading to intensely personal meanings.

The juxtaposition of memory and history helps distinguish between public understanding of events and up-to-date scholarly interpretation, but memory is also used by the historical profession as a code word for bad history. Memory is a powerful force in human experience that is dangerous to ignore because it plays an important role in creating both personal and social contexts.

Memory is one of the hot topics these days in a variety of fields. I recently had the opportunity to take part in a symposium entitled "Memory: Historical, Biological, and Personal Meanings" cosponsored by the Minnesota Historical Society and the Minnesota Psychoanalytic Study Group. It was interesting to hear how another field—psychoanalysis—understands the use of memory to construct personal narratives that connect past and present as part of a healthy orientation to reality. In fact, psychoanalysts understand that two different truths often operate simultaneously. One of the participating psychoanalysts described how there is an understanding between patient and doctor that the facts of the narrative constructed during psychoanalysis may not all be accurate, but that their meaning is true. When public or personal memory is placed against historical scholarship, two different truths similarly emerge and conflict—the factual truth of what happened and the meaning that the remembered experience represents. Eschewing advisory groups or outside reviewers will hardly eliminate this implicit conflict. The museum experience, by its very nature, involves visitors in interactions with objects, information, and each other that evoke personal and highly emotional memories.

The work of museum historians is further complicated by the nonverbal nature of museum sources and presentations. Research for a paper involves gathering facts and information that are sorted, analyzed, and arranged into a compelling narrative or argument. Collecting and displaying artifacts for exhibition is a similar process. One artifact, like a single index card, rarely tells the story. Bringing objects together reveals patterns and poses questions. But the answers that objects reveal are often more subjective, and more difficult to measure and quantify, than the written texts and statistics of more traditional historical research. Gaynor Kavanaugh, author of History Curatorship, suggests that artifacts are gathered and studied as part of a complex social language that involves nonverbal communication (gestures, movements, body language, and etiquette); sign and symbol (use of objects and space); as well as verbal communication through speech and writing. According to Kavanaugh:

The study of objects in their context and use and in the wider patterns of social and cultural signification … is, however, a process which is profoundly complicated by the fact that the meaning of any object undergoes tremendous revision, from its creation to its ultimate destruction or loss, and even beyond. It can never convey one single message, uncorrected, unambiguous and unqualified. … The curator has, therefore, to enter into a process of questioning: the evidence that the object presents internally … and externally from its contexts and relationships.[5]

Objects, the primary sources of museum scholarship, function as conveyers of complex meanings rather than of factual data. The danger of underestimating the capacity of objects to communicate information beyond the verbal and factual script is illustrated by the case of the 1989 Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) exhibition entitled Into the Heart of Africa. The project began as a serious and thoughtful effort to demonstrate the negative impact of late-19th-century British colonialism on African society and culture by showing how artifacts meant different things to the Africans who made and used them, the soldiers and missionaries who collected them, and the Canadian public who viewed them in the museum. Unfortunately, this sophisticated message was communicated primarily through written text in labels. Referring to the ROM exhibition in the December 1994 edition of the Journal of American History, Canadian curator Adrienne D. Hood wrote:

In the visual context of the exhibition, however, many saw … a celebration of the triumph of imperialism. As a consequence of this kind of misreading, its curator, and the ROM were accused variously of being racist, imperialist, and insensitive to the African-Canadian community—all the things they were trying to avoid. The resulting public controversy has had a major impact on how museum and the acad emy think about the role of curator-professor as the voice of authority.[6]

There is a growing body of theoretical literature to help historians who work in museums understand the complex environment in which historical information becomes meaningful to a public audience. New literature about how learning takes place in museums is based on sophisticated visitor research and analysis of museums as cultural institutions. Ivan Karp and Steven Lavine's Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display (Smithsonian Inst. Press, 1991); Ivan Karp, Steven Lavine, and Christine Mullen Kreamer’s Museums and Communities: The Politics of Public Culture (Smithsonian Inst. Press, 1992); and Museum Culture: Histories, Discourses, Spectacles, edited by Daniel J. Sherman and Irit Rogoff (Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1994) all contribute to better understanding the complexity of the museum experience as a way of communicating cultural and historical meanings.

Many of the essays devoted to "the practice of American history" in the December 1994 edition of the Journal of American History touch on some of the same issues from the experiences of historians who have worked in both academic and museum environments. In field research, folklorist Henry Glassie has studied the multiple meanings that community historians create by connecting some events by time and others by place, in contrast to the proclivity of academic historians to organize the past into a single paradigm. [7] 20John Kuo Wei Tchen’s model of the dialogic museums developed at the New York Chinatown History Project proposes “a learning environment in which personal memory and testimony informs and is informed by historical context and scholarship.”[8] Tchen’s essay in the Journal of American History continues to define this different way of practicing history in a public setting. “I would tell historians who look for ever-greater challenges,” he writes, “that I have found it more difficult to write about Chinese New Yorker history with and for fellow community members than for fellow academics. Those who have lived the experience have far more critical questions to ask and different assumptions to explore than those for whom it is a more purely intellectual exercise.” [9] Thomas Bender’s essay similarly suggests that “if we wish to address the public, whether on the local level, or occasionally on the national level, we must understand the difference between a scholarly question and a public question.”[10]

As I think about how curators developing history exhibitions in museums can maintain historical integrity and take into account the memories and opinions of the public, the place to start is with the questions that we pursue. Posing questions is central to the work of historians and critical to the successful outcome of any research. The recognition that scholars and the public pose different questions is something that those of us who risk the balancing act of museum scholarship come to understand, only too often after trial and error. The recent conflicts between scholars and the public over history exhibits appear to be less about answers and more about who decides the basic questions that are being asked. Rather than calling in community members to review a final product, it is more important to involve the public as either audience or "passionate insider" in the early stages of a project's conceptualization. Let me offer a recent example.

The Minnesota Historical Society opened a new history center in 1992 with exhibits that were consciously aimed at involving visitors in active participation with history as a process of inquiry and exploration. The philosophy that guided the overall development of exhibits was informed by a planning symposium and preliminary audience research. Scholars and museum professionals at the symposium suggested choosing broad organizing principles for the exhibits that would start with people and the basic questions that they face over time. Audience research about public expectations and attitudes toward history taught us that while historians and curators see time as a continuum, the general public makes sharp distinctions between historical time (what you have read or heard about) and contemporary time (what you have experienced). So rather than the traditional scholarly structures of timelines and periodization by decades, centuries, or technological progress, the exhibits at the history center seek to connect people's current experiences with the past through the common human experiences of family, work, community, and sense of place.

The exhibit A Common Ground: Minnesota Communities evolved as an ongoing program to link community history and contemporary issues. An initial series of case studies was selected to represent the varying forces that bring people together to form community and to offer visitors a chance to compare different kinds of communities. The planning for the exhibit developed along three parallel paths – scholarly discourse about the nature and definition of community, audience research about public perceptions of community, and active involvement of community members in the themes and content of the exhibit. As the exhibit developed, these three paths came to represent three competing voices – the expert voice, a dialogue with the visitor, and the voice of the community members.

The team assigned to the project drafted a working definition of community for the exhibit that served as the expert viewpoint and informed the overall message of the exhibition. The work of historian Thomas Bender in Community and Social Change in America (1978) and sociologist Harry Boyte in Community Is Possible (1984) helped the team pose questions about the distinguishing characteristics of a community and the tension between insider and outsider perceptions. In planning the case studies, the team adopted challenging goals for the exhibit: to attempt to transform inner dialogue, normally shared by intimates, into a form of public discourse, and to encourage visitors to consider an expanded meaning of community that went beyond geographical boundaries and included shared experiences and memory.

From audience research we learned that the public was relatively open- minded about the nature of community. Although most people readily agreed that locality often determined community, 90 percent of the participants could identify nongeographic communities to which they belonged. The most important characteristics defining community were identified as a feeling of belonging and living in the same area. For most people community was associated with fellowship and social relatedness rather than a group of people coming together to get things done. People were most likely to recognize small towns or neighborhoods related by geography as a community, but most participants accepted that shared experiences, not simply shared geography, determined community.

The third research path for the exhibition was direct engagement with specific communities. The Winnebago Indians were chosen to represent a community based on shared experiences and traditions. Long overshadowed in Minnesota by the two dominant Indian groups, the Ojibway and the Dakota, the history of the Winnebago in Minnesota is marked by upheavals and relocations to several other Midwestern states. Following World War II, several Winnebago Indian families migrated back to Minnesota and settled in the Twin Cities.

Organizing the Winnebago part of the exhibition proved how difficult it is for "outsiders" on an exhibit team to approach a community and to tell the "insider's" story within the confines of an exhibit development timetable. A Winnebago section in the exhibit was suggested by the historical society's Indian Advisory Committee, and a Winnebago member of that committee took the lead in identifying people who could help as advisers to the exhibit. In order to accurately portray an insider's perspective, the exhibition team proceeded from the assumption that community members would be integral partners in the exhibit process. An advisory board from the community met frequently and played an important role in the entire exhibition development process from identifying themes; recruiting community members; helping to secure artifacts, photos, and archival material; suggesting oral history questions; and identifying public program possibilities.

Initially, the exhibit team's curators wanted to examine the history of the Winnebago in Minnesota as a case study that focused on their recent history as an urban Indian community without a reservation land base in the state. The Winnebago board, however, was more interested in connecting the current Winnebago community to traditional Winnebago life and in educating outsiders about the early history of the Winnebago and their long connection to Minnesota. The board members were interested in using the historical record to document their community and explain it to others. Most contemporary issues of urban living were off limits during exhibition development. Because the Winnebago advisory board members were still in the process of formulating a coherent insider message among them selves, team members became involved in community deliberations as mentors who could provide important background information and research skills. Involvement with the dynamics of the community allowed the exhibit team to gain the trust of the community so that Winnebago individuals and families were willing to share photographs, precious keepsakes, and personal stories. Working closely with community members also made it more difficult for the exhibit team to continue to represent the outsider view of disinterested expert and audience advocate. As Celeste Brosenne, curator for the exhibit, put it, "It was difficult for team members to wear two hats as trusted outreach workers and critically analytical historians. There were two sets of ethics operating in this exhibit development process—people ethics and historian ethics."

The Winnebago case study became a contemporary, urban Indian community's efforts to reconstruct its history by filling in gaps and correcting misinformation resulting from many moves and disruptions. Because the exhibit is designed as an ongoing program, time and money were set aside to continue to work with the communities after the opening. Having satisfied its initial questions, the advisory board has become more open to enlarging the exhibit's focus and looking more critically at contemporary issues affecting the Winnebago as an urban community.

Although the exhibition included communities like the Winnebago that have dealt with conflict, the exhibition itself has not been controversial. It has been well received by both public audiences and community members. Evaluation of Minnesota Communities showed that it prompted most visitors to think about their own communities in relation to community membership and about change over time. Similarly, the exhibition inspired visitors to compare and contrast their communities with other communities and to think about the idea of community in general.

Controversy is not about to depart from the practice of history in museums in the near future. Rather than avoiding controversy, museum historians have to become more adept at channeling public discourse into productive and respectful explorations that can challenge scholars to address questions that are meaningful to the public while exposing public meanings to the rigors of historical analysis. Museum historians have to understand that members of the public expect different things from museums—everything from enshrining memories and validating communities to cutting-edge scholarship. Establishing mutual trust and sharing with the public the authority to shape historical questions can lead to exhibitions that respect the importance of meaning yet engage audiences in critical analysis of the facts.

—, formerly assistant director for museums at the Minnesota Historical Society, is now executive director of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.


1. Ronald Smothers, “Issue behind King Memorial: Who Owns History?” New York Times, 16 January 1995.

2. Joe Soucheray, “Museums Should Stick to the Facts,” St. Paul Pioneer Press, 1 February 1995.

3. Marianne Means, “Smithsonian Deserved the Flak It Caught over Tilting History,” St. Paul Pioneer Press, 1 March 1995.

4. Louis Menand, “The Trashing of Professionalism,” New York Times Magazine, 5 March 1995.

5. Gaynor Kavanaugh, History Curatorship (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Inst. Press, 1990).

6. Adrienne D. Hood, “The Practice of [American] History: A Canadian Curator’s Perspective,” Journal of American History (December 1994): 1013.

7. Henry Glassie, “The Practice and Purpose of History,” Journal of American History (December 1994): 964.

8. John Kuo Wei Tchen, “Creating a Dialogic Museum: Chinese Americans, Tourists, and the New York Chinatown History Project Experiment” (unpublished paper for the New York Chinatown History Project, 1990.)

9. John Kuo Wei Tchen, “Back to Basics: Who Is Researching and Interpreting for Whom?” Journal of American History (December 1994): 1008.

10. Thomas Bender, “Venturesome and Cautious: American History in the 1990s,” Journal of American History (December 1994): 999.

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