What History Museums Try to Accomplish in the 21st Century

Roundup: Talking About History

Julia M. Klein, in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Sept. 28, 2004):

What is a museum for?

Most art museums remain pristine repositories of beautiful objects, lovingly displayed. Science museums, by contrast, tend to worship at the altar of interactivity, wowing visitors with technology. History museums fall somewhere in the middle, and they are changing rapidly. The latest are neither mere cabinets of curiosities nor showcases for cutting-edge gadgetry. They are institutions in crisis, although interestingly so. The best of them directly confront challenges to their authority and purpose as they struggle to tell a wider range of stories to increasingly demanding and restless audiences.

These challenges are exemplified by two ambitious new museums, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which opened in August in Cincinnati, and the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian, which made its debut with much fanfare September 21 on Washington's National Mall. In theory, both institutions could have chosen to illuminate and memorialize the most tragic of American stories, slavery and the longtime oppression of Native Americans. But they have opted instead for triumphalist narratives that stress the resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity.

For both museums, transformation is a key motif. The Freedom Center's expressed goal is to convert visitors into the 21st-century equivalent of Underground Railroad conductors -- that is, activists dedicated to advancing the museum's broad conception of freedom. The Indian Museum doesn't seek to foster activism, but rather to transform stereotypical thinking about Native American cultures past and present.

The NMAI embodies another kind of transformation as well, in the collection that is its nucleus. Most of its artifacts were accumulated by the New York banker George Gustav Heye (1874-1957). Heye was once charged with grave-robbing, and though he was acquitted, the Smithsonian acknowledges that his collection, which included human remains and funerary objects, wouldn't pass ethical muster today. At the new museum, about 8,000 of the 800,000 or so artifacts he amassed, including intricately beaded Lakota shirts and Santa Clara Pueblo pottery, have been reclaimed by Native Americans to tell their own stories.

Indeed, the extent of Native American involvement in mapping this new museum is its most revolutionary aspect. In recent years other museums have sought out American Indian voices, but never on such a massive scale.

The Freedom Center's main innovation is its call to action, rooted in its status as a self-declared "museum of conscience." Also noteworthy is the center's eclecticism, which stems from both vision and necessity. Lacking an extensive collection -- it began with an idea, not a set of objects -- the Cincinnati museum employs a tool kit that includes animation, artwork, multimedia, and facilitators who seek to break down the divide between observer and participant.

The National Museum of the American Indian, the 18th in the Smithsonian's galaxy of museums, is a place based, in part, on a neologism.

The word is "survivance," which the museum credits to Gerald Vizenor (Chippewa) and his 1994 book, Manifest Manners: Postindian Warriors of Survivance. The curators of the exhibition, "Our Lives: Contemporary Life and Identities," contextualize that elusive concept as a move from the passive to the active voice. "We are not just survivors, we are the architects of our survivance," a wall label says. The point, following recent trends in historical scholarship, is to remove the taint of victimization and substitute adaptability, resilience, and victory over historical circumstance.

Fifteen years in the planning, and as Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence M. Small says, "long overdue," the construction of the museum constitutes just such a victory. The museum's founding director, W. Richard West Jr., says it represents "a moment of reconciliation and recognition in American history."...

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