Is it for “us” or no?

imageFourteen hours on a shuttle bus and 7 rest stops later… Oh and one Uber ride– I am FINALLY settled in Washington D.C., for a long weekend with colleagues. I have taken note to give my boss a stern talking to over is choice of direct flight but I am PALPABLY excited. The city is excited. My Uber driver talked to me about how he and his wife made sure to get their timed entry tickets for the opening of the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall (NMAAHC). We talked about how crazy a thing it is that in his life he has endured a segregated school in rural Alabama where Jim Crow reigned supreme to having a national museum celebrating what made him second class for so many years of his life. A NATIONAL MUSEUM, PEOPLE!

I am here, blessed in this experience, to be alive post Jim Crow. To be able-bodied and learned. To understand the struggle that comes with my melanin and to be able to live in a time where amongst what seems to be an endless amount of racial tension and disgusting use of stereotyping… reverence is being paid to my main defining characteristic… My blackness. Yes, I am a woman and an American and a hard working tax-paying citizen, but when you look at me I am almost certain you see Black first. And that’s super cool, because I prefer it that way. My dad always told me, “see my difference and you can definitely see what makes us similar”.

But, back to the Museum. This building is A-MAZ-ING. At a pre-function with my organization I was able to meet one of the main architects on the project, the “Starchitect” Phil Freelon. He explained how a young upstart with a grand idea reached out to him and how collaborative the process became. That young architect was David Ajaye. His design was an inverted ziggurat where sixty percent of the building… SIXTY… is underground. Being inside of this construction is a whole other experience.

I randomly ran into a friend from college in the food, fashion, and culture exhibit on the fourth floor. She noted she kind of got turned off by a photo of our very own Atlanta Housewife, Nene Leakes in the “Hand gestures” exhibit with a gesture of dismissal. She couldn’t believe they included her and felt they were noting her as a representation of our culture amongst other things she was entirely uncomfortable about. We talked about representation in front of the 100 year-old collard green pot. She finally arrived at this statement:

“Is this museum really for us? I feel like I know everything they are teaching me about already.”

I honestly understood where she was coming from. When I was younger I went to school in a predominately Black and Latino neighborhood so a lot of our curriculum was structured around exploring our own diverse histories. Instead of the National Anthem we sung Lift Every Voice. Instead of normal instruction on the prowess of the common White American notables, we learned about the Amistad, Mendez v. Westminster, and Nat Turner and other little-known minority historical figures. This I assure you is not a common education. Hell, when I tell people we celebrated Kwanzaa in school they look at me like I’m crazy and then ask me, “What’s that thing all about anyway?”

I say all this to say… I knew this stuff too. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a gift to see this history combined and commemorated in one grand building, on one meaningful patch of land in main view of the White House. I explained, though I’m sure she doesn’t know everything exhibited in this museum, I think a Native American who goes into the American Indian museum might feel the same way. This doesn’t negate the experience but imagine the millions of people who trek through the mall every year and will be able to learn about how beautiful our culture and how rich our history is. How many ugly preconceived notions can be dropped by taking a look at the accomplishments of Black people and how those accomplishments affect their lives. It is for us but it’s for everyone else too. Isn’t that awesome?

If you are looking to visit the NMAAHC, timed-entry tickets are sold out until the end of December but the January – March block will be open online soon.
Get your free tickets here –> https://nmaahc.si.edu/visit/passes

Have you had this type of experience at a museum you’ve been to? Let me know about it!

-Lynn Robinson

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A (Sort Of) Response to Race and Memory

Reading Brundage’s book, I am reminded of a point that is important to note with regard to Southern and national historical memory. With Confederate flags and monuments, as well as other cases of historical tributes to slaveholders and segregationists, facing increased scrutiny since Summer of last year, many white Americans feel that “their” history is under attack. We have all seen the “Heritage, Not Hate” bumper stickers. This sort of rhetoric seems to make heritage a trump card, as though none of of one’s ancestors ever did anything cruel or oppressive. So many places named for slaveholders and segregationists dot the South. One can walk downtown and find the Richard B. Russell Federal Building. If one hikes Stone Mountain, they will see the faces of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. And as Brundage explains, commemoration of the Confederacy has been central to Southern culture since the end of the war. Indeed, he does a great job of explaining the extent to which many white Southern women, politically disempowered though they were, played a crucial role in this type of historical commemoration. In the North, we can observe something similar with Columbus Day. Some Italian Americans in Northern cities, whose ancestors were often subjected to rank xenophobia, take part in parades to commemorate Christopher Columbus. In fact, in doing some research for this blog, I figured out that the largely Italian American Knights of Columbus played a key role in making Columbus Day a national holiday. Columbus, of course, enslaved and slaughtered indigenous people after they welcomed him to the “New World.” Princeton University refuses to rename their Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

The truth, however, is that our society can celebrate aspects of its heritage without commemorating slavery and racism. There is a long tradition in America of people of all races working together for freedom and equality. Tributes to slaveholders and segregationists could be replaced with tributes to these individuals. In my opinion, one of the reasons that this has not happened is that historically, those in power have had a vested interest in a historical narrative that emphasizes figures like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Jefferson Davis, and Woodrow Wilson over figures like William Cooper Nell, Lydia Maria Child, Wendell Phillips, Mary Ovington, and Conrad Lynn. In the pre-civil rights era, of course, it made sense for many political leaders to downplay anti-racist radicals. If people saw too many monuments to abolitionists, they might try to challenge the racial status quo, as evidenced by the affection many early NAACP leaders expressed for abolitionists. (In many cases, early NAACP leaders were also the literal children and grandchildren of abolitionists.) Nowadays, all too many people in power still either do not want to see the status quo challenged or are afraid that monuments to anti-racist radicals will make their preferred historical figures look regressive by comparison. When monuments to anti-racist historical figures are created, they are often made as noncontroversial as possible, partly to placate these concerns (and partly for other, more understandable reasons.) Many people balked at the idea of a scowling Martin Luther King, Jr. statue at the National Mall, for example, even though anyone who watches enough of King’s speeches knows that he felt a great deal of anger at American racism. While not a historian, author Tim Wise offered a quote that I would like to conclude this blog with: “For every John Calhoun, defending the system of enslavement, there’s a John Fee, challenging it, refusing to even provide communion to parishioners in his church so long as they owned other human beings, and willing to be defrocked for his insolence. For every Bull Connor there’s a Virginia Durr; for every George Wallace a Bob or Dottie Zellner. And yes, I know that for most of you, these names I mention in praise, and in contrast to the others, won’t even be recognizable. And I also know that there’s a reason for that; and it’s one you ought to ask yourself about from time to time.”

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Interacting with Historical Photos Using the Newly Launched OldNYC App

Sharing this review I wrote for ARLIS’s Multimedia & Technology Reviews of a new app that allows users to discover historical photos of New York City in their travels around the city. The developers hope to add a feature where users can take and upload their own photographs of the buildings and sites to compare to the historical images. Thought it might be of interest as it’s allowing users to engage with historical items in a unique way and will (hopefully soon!) allow them to actively participate in documenting NYC’s history.

OldNYC is a free app created by Orian Breaux and Christina Leuci designed for the iOS operating system. The app developers built upon the previous work of fellow developer Dan Vanderkam, who created the OldNYC website as well as the OldSF website. Breaux and Leuci both work in New York’s tech industry and became involved after Vanderkam solicited volunteers interested in creating a mobile app for the OldNYC website.

Launched in May of this year, this app displays New York City’s grid with location markers for images from the Photographic Views of New York City, 1870s-1970s Collection owned by The Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy of the New York Public Library. The OldNYC website mentions receiving assistance from the New York Public Library, but no formal partnership is evident between the NYPL and the OldNYC app’s developers.

Joining the ranks of other location-based resources such as HistoryPin and Phillyhistory.org, the OldNYC app’s representation of NYPL’s Photographic Views of New York City, 1870s-1970s Collection allows the images to be more easily accessible while traveling around the city and encourages users to participate in discovering history around them. The developers used geocoding (associating latitudes and longitudes with images) to place the photographs at specific locations on the map. By overlaying the images onto the map, users are given a unique experience in browsing and viewing the historical photographs.

When launched, the app opens to a map with many red location markers. Users can simply tap a location marker to view the associated photograph (or photographs), then tap the photograph to view metadata, such as the date and a further description of the location. Any known history of the building, location, or scene featured in the image may also be included in the description. As with many historical collections, the amount of metadata per item varies, with some having a thorough description and others not having much information at all. The images are historical, so they are of varying quality. Users are only able to manipulate the images by zooming in. Users can also enter their location, so that they can discover historical images of buildings and sites around their present locations.

OldNYC app’s user interface is clean and simple. The app allows users to scroll across the map and to select location points throughout the city’s five boroughs. It would be greatly improved by some sort of searching or narrowing feature. The ability to search for a specific address or cross streets and to narrow by borough or neighborhood would benefit users interested in particular locations. Additionally, the images span a century (1870s to 1970s) so a timeline feature could also prove useful for users to see the change that occurred at a location. Some sort of marking or saving feature, so that users could easily revisit chosen photographs or locations, could also be useful. Users are able to provide feedback within the app to help the developers in prioritizing future improvements and features.

Although the user interface and features of the OldNYC app are quite simple, the scope and amount of material made available is quite remarkable, thanks to the collecting and digitizing of historical photographs completed by the NYPL. With the possibility of added features and functionality, the app has the potential to become an even more robust and useful resource.

 

 

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Anticipated NMAAHC Opening Sparks Media Reviews

On September 24, 2016, the Smithsonian’s long-awaited National Museum of African American History and Culture opens thanks to a 2003 Act of Congress. The dedication of the 400,000 square-foot museum features a series of events, including the Freedom Sounds Festival, and has already generated a flood of reviews (including reviews of the reviews).

According to its website, the newest museum in the 19-member Smithsonian Institution holds over 36,000 artifacts and includes 100,000 participants as “charter members of the museum” (a key statement that dovetails conversations of stakeholders and inclusion in Richard Kohn’s “History and the Culture Wars: The Case of the Smithsonian Institution’s Enola Gay Exhibit” and Gary Nash’s “For Whom Will the Liberty Bell Toll? From Controversy to Cooperation”).1

While there is a wealth of potential discussions surrounding the opening of the NMAAHC, the formats, timing, and focus of the museum reviews are especially helpful for us as we engage in our own local exhibition reviews. As we read through previews by the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Seattle Times, and The Washington Post, key points consistently come up: audience, tone, exhibition layout, architecture, and, of course, content. While broadly affirming and supportive, these reviewers’ criticisms are also illuminating, with notes of concern ranging from the NMAAHC’s mission being “too close to […] a piece of feel-good Smithsonian-Speak” to the imbalanced presentation of artifacts amidst a highly multimedia framework, causing some “objects [to] compete with the visual distraction, and [making it] easy to pass them by, in favor of large screens.”2

Attendees of the American Alliance of Museums’ latest annual conference, hosted in Washington, D.C. in May 2016, eagerly anticipated the opening with official preview tours and receptions. These panel prompts, informal dinner conversations, and sneak peeks assisted in the formulation of expectations and questions even before the doors opened to the public, leading us to wonder how much preconceived perceptions influence our evaluation of a new museum or exhibition. In the case of media reviews, how much do (or do not, depending on readership!) they influence visitors’ experience? Could it be argued that in reviewing an exhibition, we should also be sure to include other media reviews alongside our conversations of tone, content, and architecture?

1. National Museum of African American History and Culture. “About.” Accessed September 19, 2016. https://nmaahc.si.edu/about/museum;  Richard Kohn, “History and the Culture Wars: The Case of the Smithsonian Institution’s Enola Gay Exhibit,” Journal of American History 82:3 (December 1995): 1036-1063; Gary Nash, “For Whom Will the Liberty Bell Toll? From Controversy to Cooperation,” in Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory, ed. James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton (The New Press, 2006), 75-101.

2. Holland Cotter, “Review: The Smithsonian African American Museum uplifts, upsets.” Seattle Times. September 16, 2016. Accessed September 18, 2016. http://www.seattletimes.com/nation-world/review-the-smithsonian-african-american-museum-uplifts-upsets/; Philip Kennicott, “The African American Museum tells powerful stories — but not as powerfully as it could.” The Washington Post. September 14, 2016. Accessed September 19, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/museums/the-african-american-museum-tells-powerful-stories–but-in-a-disjointed-way/2016/09/14/b7ba7e4c-7849-11e6-bd86-b7bbd53d2b5d_story.html.

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The Tourist Gaze

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Extracting Oil From Argan Nuts

The evolution of exhibitions is an interesting topic that toes the line between great success and exploitative actions within “old school” anthropology. Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett’s, “Destination Museum,” in my opinion, introduces the idea of the tourist gaze. The tourist gaze is the gaze of pleasure and travel, and is believed to be a gaze that is constructed socially. The tourist gaze creates a learned view, a way of seeing.

Gimblett discusses the use of museums as tourist attractions and the evolution of cultural exhibits. In tourist based economies the destination must conform or meet the desires of potential visitors. Gimblett explained that this would lead to the creation of the “hereness,” or real exhibits or events. An example of a cultural exhibit or event would be the Suq Festival (boasts cultural exchange) in Genoa, Italy or Culture Day in Sapelo Island, Georgia. Both of these events entice visitors to come explore a culture that is unknown to them. They are typically encouraged to see the hardships the featured culture endures, while being offered an exotic experience.

In the case of exhibitions such as ethnological fairs, or human zoos, that showcased humans as exhibits, this would be the beginning of displays or museums. The purpose of museums and exhibitions were based on the demands of the visitors, just as it is today, people like to feel a part of an exhibition or to feel that they are viewing something unusual. (another example would be the success of Ripley’s Believe It or Not)

How do we import visitors?

If a destination wants to gain visitors they must cater to them, all the while avoiding similarities to other destinations or “sameness,” basically creating or focusing on their own unique features. An example of highlighting the uniqueness of a destination would be Istanbul’s “Blue Mosque,” which has been a part of Turkey for centuries, and is one of the first places tourists plan to visit while on vacation there.

Though tourists help to shape the industry, the industry has its own players, which can be identified in any tourist destination. While on a trip to Morocco I noticed that many travelers already had an idea of what “touristy,” things they would engage in once they touched down in the country. 1. Ride a camel 2. Belly Dancing 3. Eat couscous 4. Stay in a Riad. I will not deny that I did have many of the same items on my checklist, but I did question why we felt it was necessary to follow the images we were shown in the glossy visitor’s guides. Why did the Moroccan tourist industry only highlight a Disney World Showcase version of their country?

*John Urry, “The Tourist Gaze”

*  Example of a Cultural event or Pseudo-event; Chems Ayour:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B024qATI7cM

*Photo of my little sister, Mhara (Mara) pressing Argan nuts for their oil. (Agadir, Morocco)

 

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Historians Engaging the Public

What is public history? Is it a museum exhibition? Is it National Park Sites, such as the one in Atlanta which gives guided tours of Martin Luther King, jr.’s birth home? What about less institutional forms? Is public history found in scrap books and family trees? What about a movie, like Saving Private Ryan? Does Drunk History, the series on Comedy Central where inebriated writers and actors discuss their favorite slices of the past count? The answer, of course, to all of these questions is ‘yes.’ But it is just as important to ask, ‘who is the public?’

At its broadest, the ‘public’ of public history describes anyone who seeks, at any level, a way of relating to and ordering the past. Such a generalization, of course, encompasses a very diverse range of people and groups.

Here’s one example. A friend of mine once taught a class on imperialism at the University of Florida. For the final paper, her students had to devise an argument as to whether or not the United States of America could be defined as an empire. One student came to her office hours and, clearly annoyed by the very question, insisted that the U.S. was not an empire. When she asked what sources he was going to use for his paper, he shrugged and said, “It’s just stuff everyone already knows, like Pearl Harbor and D-Day.” It was all very clear to this young man. The U.S. is the opposite of an empire. A drive to spread the values of freedom and democracy formed an essential cornerstone of his understanding of American history.

David Glassberg points out that scholars have likened this kind of narrative to a national civil religion, an overarching narrative that can “hold diverse groups in political society together.” Such narratives have their benefits, in that they create an “imagined community” and foster shared values and reference points. The problem is, as Glassberg observes, “a civil religion approach that emphasizes history’s role in holding political society together tends to overlook conflicts over the creation and dissemination of public history.” The same approach also tends to “overwhelm the ability of minorities to express their unique historical visions.”

Would Native or African Americans automatically share the aforementioned young man’s certainty that America is a beacon of freedom throughout the world? Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen have found that this is not necessarily the case. In their research, they found that these groups tend to be less trusting of mainstream historical authority. African Americans, more specifically, “trust historical information from schoolteachers and books less than white European Americans do.”

This issue strikes at the central challenge that James B. Gardner identifies for public historians. The public at large cannot be engaged without including different people’s own role in shaping and interpreting the past. “Rather than try to concoct a simple story of shared experiences,” Gardner argues, “we should share many stories, from multiple points of view, exploring the complexity and richness of the American past.”

To achieve this end, Gardner asserts that public historians must not only be advocates for both history and visitors,” but must “also make space in our museums and exhibits for our visitors to share their experiences and memories.” In a similar vein, Rosenzweig and Thelen believe that the “task of the historian . . . may be more to create safe spaces for local dialogue about history and for the collection of memories, and to ensure that various voices are heard in those spaces, than to provide an original interpretation of the past or to translate the latest professional scholarship to a popular audience.”

Presenting the history as a series of contested pasts is a fine idea. Eric Foner does just that with his study of America’s most animating idea, The Story of American Freedom. But this kind of history raises an important question: should all interpretations of the past be included, much less treated as equal? In short, I answer ‘no.’ It is easy to agree that Holocaust deniers shouldn’t get to curate the material at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

The public utility of history that further marginalizes people who have been persecuted is questionable at best. Plenty of forms of history, however, do just that and it is not always easy to dislodge them. Confederate apologists, for example, have shaped the history of the Civil War for a long time, and have diminished the role of slavery in our history, and helped blind a lot of Americans to the horrors of Jim Crow. Serious scholars don’t take this whitewashed interpretation seriously, but it is persistent enough in the general public to be regarded as mainstream. It is thus no small wonder that African Americans are less trusting of traditional historical authority, and thus enough to urge public historians not to be a afraid of showing a little bias.

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Analyze, Analyze, Analyze

One of the most interesting issues to me that came up in our readings is the issue of whether historians should stick to stating the facts or actually analyze them. I was somewhat taken aback to read the quote from Dianne Feinstein in which she expressed misgivings about historical analysis. As James B. Gardner indicates, there is something jarring about a mainstream liberal Democrat who majored in History being so unenthusiastic about historical analysis. And her apparent recollection of a bygone era in which historians offered only facts without interpretations is oversimplified. In 1948, a few years before Feinstein started college, Richard Hofstadter wrote The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It. This book was very much centered about interpretations of the actions and beliefs of historical figures–often in ways that challenged the more hagiographic narratives. Decades earlier, Charles Beard had written historical texts devoted to the interpretation that covert economic motivations drove the course of American history. Beard was sometimes right and sometimes wrong, but his writings were hardly “a recitation of fact.” But all of that aside, the issue of historical interpretations is a worthwhile one to debate.

Certainly, one can identify perils of historians interpreting facts. Everyone has their own biases, and it takes a mature person indeed not to let those biases cloud their interpretations. People’s race, gender, sexual orientation, economic class/background, political views, and all manner of other traits can influence how they analyze history. For example, The American Political Tradition itself provides an 1836 quote from a youthful Abraham Lincoln supporting race and class-based restrictions on voting rights, mixed with repealing restrictions for women. Hofstadter, perhaps because he was more interested in race and class issues than gender issues, offers no commentary on Lincoln’s rather remarkable gender views to the point that if a reader blinks, they can miss that part of the quote. And when it comes to publicly-funded historical exhibits, the issue becomes far more acute. If an exhibit offers an interpretation that some taxpayers find incorrect or even offensive, can they be forced to pay taxes for that exhibit?

Despite these concerns, however, I believe that a stronger case can be made in favor of historians interpreting facts rather than just presenting them. Firstly, it is not just interpretations that can be clouded by bias. To paraphrase an old saying about statistics, facts do not lie, but liars use facts. A biased historian can easily leave out facts that they do not like or present facts in a misleading way. Fact-based narratives about George Washington, for instance, have frequently left out unpleasant truths about him pursuing a fugitive slave in the last years of his life or signing proslavery legislation as president. Secondly, sticking only to facts can make history less interesting. While some people will be enthralled with just facts, many people find it far more engaging to examine issues of why historical events and trends happened, why historical figures believed and did what they did, and what the broader impacts of these events, trends, beliefs, and actions were. Thus, a strict fact-based presentation of history runs the risk of making history less engaging for students and the general public. It strips history of its immense relevance to the present. It almost seems to validate the frustrating, wrong, but frequent refrain that, “It happened a long time ago, who cares about it now?” Thirdly, sticking to facts robs us of two of the great benefits of history: drawing historical parallels to current events and understanding how the past shaped the present. If a nation cannot analyze the past, that nation will indeed repeat it.

 

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