Exhibitions and Interpretive Programs

Venues of Inquiry into the American City

Frank Jewell, March 1991

Editors' Note: The conference reported on below was particularly significant, for it brought together, for the first time, key urban history museum professionals to discuss their common interests and to begin developing a future cooperative agenda. The discussions reinforced the need to place solid scholarly research at the center of exhibitions and public programming. The academic community is one important research source, but so is the information and material culture generated as these museums develop their own projects. The blending together of these different sources is key to the success of the activities created by these institutions. Discussions also reminded participants of the central role played by urban museums as centers for capturing and preserving the histories of the communities which surround them. How much these institutions should also serve as agencies for social change and to what extent these museums should share their interpretive responsibilities with their audience sparked much debate. As Frank Jewell's article notes, "Venues" was a beginning and the issues raised there are sure to fuel discussions and inform interpretive projects among these museums in the future. We suggest you contact Frank Jewell at the Valentine Museum in Richmond, Virginia, if you have questions or wish to join the debate.

Over the past two years, historians working in urban history museums and the academy separately concluded that a fundamental reexamination of American urban history and its presentation to the public was needed. As a result, two major conferences on American urban history took place back-to-back in October 1990 in Chicago.

The Chicago Historical Society and the Journal of Urban History conceived the first conference, "Modes of Inquiry for American City History," as an opportunity to define an intellectual agenda for urban history for the next two decades. Over two hundred historians attended this meeting, approximately 80 percent from the academy and 20 percent from museums, historical societies, research libraries, and archives.

Sharing intellectual goals rooted in American urban history, representatives of museums, libraries, and archives held a separate and smaller meeting two days later to discuss the implications of the discussions at the "Modes" conference. Approximately 70 participants (roughly half had attended the earlier conference) attended this conference, "Venues of Inquiry into the American City: The Place of Museums, Libraries, and Archives." Seventy percent came from museums, libraries, archives, and historical societies, 20 percent from the academy, and 10 percent from other institutions such as the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The need for a conference such as this was first articulated at a 1987 meeting of the Common Agenda project, funded by the NEH and organized by the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History and the American Association for State and Local History. Determined not to drop the initiative, a group of five urban history museum directors continued the discussion at subsequent meetings at the Valentine Museum in Richmond and in Charlottesville, under the auspices of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy. They recognized immediately, that, in order to advance the discussion, they needed to know more about the state of scholarship in urban history, i.e. to know the content of what is to be interpreted before they could determine how to interpret it. Moreover, they concluded that a sound and informed scholarly approach is as essential in their work as in that of academic historians and the potential impact is dramatically greater—the five institutions represented at that meeting serve metropolitan populations of over thirty million people and have two million visitors annually.

Recognizing the opportunity afforded by the research conference, the Valentine Museum, the Chicago Historical Society, and the Common Agenda project agreed to cosponsor a meeting to address the specific concerns of historical agencies. The goals would be:

  1. to discuss and define the intellectual implications of urban history's research agenda for the collections of historical agencies;
  2. to help museums understand their role as historians; and
  3. to examine the social responsibilities of museums and historical organizations.

The conference planners developed a session on each goal and asked that all papers be distributed prior to the meeting, thus enabling the program to focus on remarks from commentators, authors' replies, and contributions from the floor.

The first session at the conference this past October dealt with museums as sources of information about cities, examining the most efficient ways to document American urban life and the varying and shared responsibilities of museums, libraries, and archives to do so. Of particular concern was the issue of rational collecting policies. What is it that we want to know about cities? What sources will provide the information we want? Who should collect it? Should conceptualization precede collection, i.e. should an institution's collections be defined by a scholarly agenda? In this session, Deborah Gardner, Encyclopedia of New York City, chaired a panel consisting of Richard Cox, Department of Library Sciences, University of Pittsburgh, and Thomas Schlereth, Department of American Studies, University of Notre Dame. They commented on papers written by Barry Dressel, Berkshire Museum; Tim Ericson, Milwaukee Urban Archives, University of Wisconsin; and Emma Lapsansky, Magill Library, Haverford College.

The second session, on the museum as historian, revolved around the fact that museums and historical agencies create and disseminate history to a wide public. National Endowment for the Humanities Chair Lynn Cheney pointed out that they have a far larger share of the history market than academic historians, and as historians they must ground their work in scholarship that is as sound as that of the academy. The critical issues in this session revolved around the role of scholarship in the public products of museums (exhibitions, films, publications, and public programs), various ways in which museums obtain access to scholarship, the relationship between scholars in the academy and museums, and the uses of various media at the disposal of museums to disseminate their work. Ellsworth Brown, Chicago Historical Society, chaired the session with comment from John Alviti, Atwater-Kent Museum; Barbara Charles, Staples and Charles, Ltd.; and David Goldfield, University of North Carolina, Charlotte. Papers for this session were written by Cary Carson, research vice president, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, and by Frank Jewell, director, Valentine Museum.

The final session dealt with city museums as social instruments, recognizing that American history museums have been both expressions of their society and shapers of it since the first of such institutions were established early in the nineteenth century. The session considered the responsibility of museums to their communities, the appropriate role of the community in the workings of the museum, and the relationship between traditional or mainstream city history museums and new institutions rooted in ethnicity or other special interests. Susan Page Tillet, Chicago Historical Society, chaired this session. Rick Beard, Museum of the City of New York; John Herbst, Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania; and John Kuo Wei Tehen, Asian American Center, Queens College, commented on papers by Amina Dickerson, Chicago Historical Society, and David Kahn, Brooklyn Historical Society.

According to conference evaluator Neil Harris, University of Chicago, "The papers as a group capture an important moment in the history of American urban history museums." Professor Harris pointed to areas of consensus among the fifty-one participating institutions—"a necessary new inclusiveness in exhibiting and collecting, greater and more self-conscious audience involvement, more aggressive marketing, more critical interpretive stances toward contemporary power and past history, more deliberative collecting patterns which interact with a sense of institutional mission, a broad questioning of political and economic authority, a desire for institutional collaboration, both within the city and with other city history museums elsewhere, an interest in offering greater comparative perspective, and a concern with celebrating urban diversity and social advocacy."

Harold Skramstad, Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, summarized and concluded the conference. He pointed out that we now have a sustained critical mass of institutions doing work in interpreting urban history to the public. Despite differences in audiences and in the political nature of museums, historians in museums and in the academy have developed a new peer relationship.

The conference did not end with agreement on all issues, nor was it the intent of the organizers that that should happen. It was organized to begin a much-needed assessment and discussion that will continue.

The first of a series of follow-up meetings occurred in New York in December 1990 during the meetings of the AHA and the Urban History Association. Discussion focused on how to sustain collaboration and maintain the flow of information and discussion of ideas begun at the conference. All agreed that this can best be accomplished through the publication of the proceedings of the conference, additional meetings like the one in New York, communication through the meetings and publications of professional associations, and specific mailings.

A collaborative project that already has evolved from the "Venues" conference is a project on Reconstruction, for which Eric Foner will serve as historian and curator, that will result in a major traveling exhibition, publication, public programs, and video. Opening at the Valentine Museum in Richmond, the show will travel to six sites in both the South and North. Each of the sites will develop site-specific exhibitions and programs of their own, exploring the varying effects of Reconstruction in different parts of the nation. Other collaborative projects will emerge as a result of shared information and ideas.

Phillip Scranton, Rutgers University, wrote after the conference "At 'Venues'...there was a palpable vitality, and 'intense concern' to talk with the American public about the urban experience. This energy meshed with the format generatively. My sense is that 'Venues' will yield a productive legacy."

—Frank Jewell is director of the Valentine Museum, Richmond, Virginia.