The National Women's History Museum Apparently Doesn't Much Care for Women's Historians

Historians in the News
tags: womens history



Sonya Michel is a Professor of History, American Studies, and Women’s Studies at University of Maryland, College Park.

Last month, Joan Wages, the president and CEO of the National Women’s History Museum, abruptly informed me and my fellow historians on the museum’s Scholarly Advisory Council that our services were no longer needed. For three years, we had been trying to help Wages’ nonprofit organization develop an overall vision for the institution it hopes to build on the National Mall.

Oddly, this move came just as the NWHM is about to win the preliminary congressional approval for the project it has been seeking for sixteen years. But the enabling legislation, which will set up an exploratory commission, offers no guarantee that scholars who have built the field of women’s history will have a role in the institution. Both Wages and lawmakers seem to think that a women’s history museum doesn’t need women’s historians. Without them, however, historians fear that the exigencies of congressional politics and day-to-day fundraising will lead to the creation of a museum that seeks to be as non-controversial as possible—whatever the cost to its scholarly reputation.

Last month’s dismissal of the scholars followed yet another example of a museum offering that embarrassed those of us who were trying to ensure that the institution was adhering to the highest standards in our field. In mid-March, the museum announced that it had launched a new online exhibit, “Pathways to Equality: The U.S. Women’s Rights Movement Emerges,” in conjunction with the Google Cultural Institute. Never informed that the exhibit was in the works, much less given an opportunity to vet it, we were appalled to discover that it was riddled with historical errors and inaccuracies. To pick just one example: Harriet Beecher Stowe was described as having been “born into a family of abolitionists” when, from the time of her birth through her young adulthood in the 1830s, her family actively opposed the abolitionist movement. “Pathways to Equality,” noted Kathryn Kish Sklar, the nineteenth-century specialist who pointed out the error, “could have been written by a middle-school student.”...




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