Publication Date

January 16, 2015


Public History

The roundtable “Interpreting and Representing Women’s History to the Public” from the recent AHA annual meeting will be broadcast on C-SPAN 3 on Monday, January 19 at 10:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. This roundtable featured four presentations on the challenges and opportunities in developing public history exhibits about women’s history, from temporary exhibitions to websites and permanent museums.

Louise Mirrer, director of the New-York Historical Society, described the opportunities presented by having a rich collection of historical materials demonstrating women’s creativity and overall historical agency. She also provided important examples regarding the need for scholarly experts in developing such exhibits, especially when the context of certain objects on exhibit is ambiguous. Finally, Mirrer addressed the importance of having a board that is deeply interested in the subject matter as a way to build museum collections and raise funds for specific exhibits.

Karen Offen, a Stanford-based independent historian who worked on the International Museum of Women (IMOW) during its founding stages, shared her experiences related to this project. While the IMOW did not materialize as a building containing objects, it morphed into a lively virtual museum that has been very successful at reaching diverse audiences across the globe. Importantly, IMOW’s online exhibitions provide content on women’s history for future generations.

AHA President Vicki Ruiz spoke about her experiences with a number of public history projects, some successful and others not, putting the accent on the need to work collaboratively at every step with experts in the field to shape such projects as a guarantee of intellectual integrity.

Finally, Joan Wages, CEO of the National Women’s History Museum project, spoke about the long road from the inception of the idea to the current stage of the project, still in its planning phase but now with a physical site and planning commission approved by Congress. Wages spoke about the need to prioritize goals and make difficult choices when it comes to working with a polarized Congress: her focus has remained on bringing visibility to women’s historical agency and securing bipartisan support for the project. Developing the intellectual vision of this project—from mission to a curatorial plan—remains to be done. A lively discussion about the often contentious relationship between the need for scholarly expertise and the need to fundraise as well as engage the public in appealing ways ensued with the participation of all panelists and a number of people in the audience.

is John V Hill Professor of History at Indiana University, Bloomington, and chair of the AHA’s Committee on Women Historians.

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

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