History Museums Are Vibrant Civic Spaces
What the New York Times Museum Section Got Wrong
In late May the New York Times published its biannual Special Section on Museums, a full-color insert arriving with the Sunday paper: 30 pages, 19 articles, dozens and dozens of museums mentioned by name.
And one—only one—was a history museum.
This isn’t new; art museums have long dominated the Times and media coverage of museums overall, to the extent that “museums” seems to be synonymous with “art museums.” But given the reach, impact, and civic value of history museums, which represent over 50 percent of the museums in the country according to tallies by the American Association of State and Local History, it’s a view that’s so narrow as to be misleading. In a year where history took center stage—whether seeking the roots of systemic inequalities, navigating culture wars, or asking “have we been through anything like this before?”—this omission is all the more glaring.
This isn’t about art museums, whose staff work hard to share timely, meaningful exhibitions and connect with the issues of the day. This isn’t only about the Times, although any publication’s editors should be able to review for balance and representation across regions, subject matter, and institution types. Rather, this is about a pernicious idea, recurring in media and public discourse, that equates museums with art museums, ignores history museums, and therefore limits the landscape of places to engage with civic life and access public education. More than inclusion, what’s at stake here is access: if we don’t pay attention to history museums and historic sites as they lead the charge toward responsive, urgent, civic-oriented work, we miss out on key resources for our lives, our communities, and our nation.
History museums and sites are hubs for civic and community engagement.
As we find ourselves in moments of crisis that demand context and knowledge, history museums and sites are hubs for civic and community engagement. Not quietly, and not without controversy, they’re inviting the conversation, sharing the stage, and tuning in to the needs of their communities. That tends to be especially true for smaller, local sites. The Times’ Jason Farago claims, “the pandemic has reaffirmed that a collection is a museum’s reason for being.” But the opposite is also true: the pandemic drove history museums to show up for their local and digital communities in ways they didn’t when they had been able to rely on in-person visitors peering at artifacts in cases.
Farago goes on to recommend 10 ways museums can reimagine themselves, including: “Think beyond the exhibition,” “Join together and co-produce,” “Partner beyond the art world,” and “Community is more than a marketing term.” Valuable prompts, to be sure; it’s just that the ideas he poses as new are customary in history museums.
Throughout 2020 and 2021, history museums:
- Went beyond the exhibition to serve local communities: Consider the voter registration campaign from the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, or Atlanta History Center’s historic farm yielding produce for those facing food insecurity during a pandemic.
- Joined forces to create more than the sum of their parts: The Election Scenario Planning workshop in October 2020 was organized by history museum leaders including those from Made By Us and Sites of Conscience, bringing together more than 300 museum professionals to prepare collectively for a variety of 2020 election outcomes. Many museums teamed up with others to co-produce live events and serve a larger audience, like Smithsonian Affiliations.
- Provided relevant context to the issues that affect people right now: The Robert Russa Moton Museum connected resilience and perseverance from school closures during desegregation to disruptions facing young people today, the National Museum of American History dove into food justice and insecurity at Thanksgiving, the American Civil War Museum provided context for the storming of the US Capitol, and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute held a live conversation to debrief the Derek Chauvin trial.
- Invited the public to play a role in collecting and documenting COVID-19: Over 500 organizations worldwide are collecting stories and holding space for loss and grief, like History Cambridge, which put a memorial on its front lawn.
- Proactively met incidents of hate with support, action, and timely expertise: Consider the Japanese American National Museum, which created a healing space in Little Tokyo with grassroots organizations in Los Angeles; the Museum of Chinese in America’s PSA and collecting initiative; or the programs scheduled for the evening of January 6, 2021, from Revolutionary Spaces and Massachusetts Historical Society on the transfer of presidential power and contested elections.
There are dozens more examples. For every location in the Times’ round-up of “Museum Shows with Stories to Tell,” there is a counterpart at a local history museum that brings a civic engagement lens, immediate relevance to today, and compelling insights for a post-COVID world. The Made By Us coalition alone unites more than 100 history museums working to engage Millennials and GenZ. This June we’ll launch the first-ever “Civic Season,” a new tradition held from Juneteenth to July 4, connecting Americans to 450 events, programs, and resources from 200 history and civics organizations to explore our complex past and shape the future.
How we think of museums—and what we include in that definition—influences whether or not we will visit or use them. To be clear, the onus is on museums to reach out to the public, serve significant needs, invite people in, and create on-ramps to engaging with content and scholarship. But media coverage of museums as repositories for art does not tell the full story of what’s happening today, and perpetuating this narrow view limits access and use.
But media coverage of museums as repositories for art does not tell the full story of what’s happening today.
I grew up in a print journalism household, where the question of the day was “did you see what was in the paper today?”
I have a refrain of my own now: “Did you see what the history museum is doing?” For reporters and editors looking to capture trends on the ground or get the full story; for young changemakers seeking relevant context and lessons from the past; for people who want to connect with others in their community, access critical resources, or be heard, local history museums, historic sites and historical societies are an excellent place to begin. As doors reopen this summer, you might discover a new go-to hub for the tools and connection you’re seeking.
Caroline Klibanoff is the managing director of Made By Us. She tweets @cklibanoff.
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