Embracing Public History
The increasing number of Black history museums provides an alternative to the “publish or perish” environment of academia.
If you really want to understand the difference between having a career as a traditional university-based historian and working in a public history setting such as a museum, think abut this,” says Dr. Elizabeth Clark-Lewis. “At some time in their careers, most academic historians reach a point where they stop and worry whether anyone outside of a very small circle of scholars and graduate students will ever really care about their articles or publications. However, when you meet a family who has driven miles to visit a museum exhibit for the third time because it has a photo of their great-uncle, you realize that public history really can touch ordinary people’s lives. And this is particularly true for Black people who are hungry to have their historical experiences publicly acknowledged.”
Lewis is director of the Public History Program at Howard University, which offers master’s and doctorates in history with special emphasis on preparing students to move beyond the narrow confines of the academic world and toward careers in institutions —such as museums, archives and, sometimes, government agencies — that are concerned with a wider audience than simply students and professors.
“In fact,” she adds, “we train our students to work as historians in everywhere else but universities.”
Lewis also says that although working outside a college setting may feel very new to some historians, it’s actually back to the future for African American scholars.
“Think about Carter G. Woodson,” Lewis says. “He had impeccable academic credentials, including a Ph.D. in history from Harvard. However, after a relatively brief stint of teaching at Howard University, he embraced public history and made it his career for the rest of his life, lecturing in grammar schools, churches, libraries and many other places outside of the academic ivory towers.”
Some historians are entering the field of public history and museum studies because they are excited at the prospect of trying to bring their research and ideas to a much wider segment of society. But there are also more practical reasons. Men and women who get civil service jobs at city, state or federal agencies enjoy a lot more job security than untenured junior faculty. Equally important, the number of new jobs in museums and other public history venues is growing.
For example, there have been no private Black universities or colleges opened in the last several decades. And since the 1980s, very few new public colleges have opened in minority communities. At the same time, the number of museums that are in minority communities, or are dedicated to specific people of color, or concerned with important topics in African American or ethnic history have dramatically increased since 1976, when America’s bicentennial triggered a tremendous interest in community history. Here is just a small sample of new institutions being planned.
A Resurgence of Black History
As part of an effort to rebuild and revitalize its waterfront, Cincinnati is building the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. This $45 million complex is scheduled to break ground the summer of 2002. The museum will explore the history of the underground railroad as a great American legacy of interracial cooperation in the cause of freedom. In Louisville, Ky., a public-private partnership is raising funds for a museum to explore the life of the city’s most famous citizen: The Muhammad Ali Center is scheduled to open in 2004.
There are also several museums in earlier planning stages. U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., is continuing Congressman John Lewis’ efforts to build a Black museum on the National Mall in Washington. Former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder is trying to raise funds to build a museum dedicated to slavery in Fredericksburg,Va. Another museum on slavery is being planned in Charleston, S.C.
“All of these museums represent more opportunities for Black scholars and historians,” says Gretchen Sullivan Sorin, director of the Cooperstown Graduate Program in History Museum Studies, a joint program cosponsored by the State University of New York at Oneonta and the New York State Historical Association. “But museum jobs are really just the tip of the iceberg,” she says. “For example, the growing legislative interest in historic preservation means that by law, in many cities historians have to be involved in issues such as land use development. And as many historically minority neighborhoods are being redeveloped, their neighbors are demanding that African American, or Hispanic or Asian historians are at the table to ensure that their history is conserved and preserved.”
But the growth of public history outside of academia also has created opportunities within colleges because of the growing demand for trained professionals who have skills that are very different from the ones that academic historians or museum curators needed in the past. When the Cooperstown program was started in 1964, it was one of the very first in the country. Now Sorin estimates there are more than 125 programs that offer degrees or courses in museum studies.
“Traditionally, most historians only dealt with books or documents, but knew very little about interpreting or preserving objects or what we call ‘material culture,’ ” Sorin says. “On the other hand, unless it is a historic house or building, the most fundamental aspect that defines a museum is its collection of objects, and until the 1980s most curators were object-focused and didn’t know much about storytelling.”
The importance of good storytelling represents the widest philosophical difference between academic history and public history. Some university-based scholars have charged that an emphasis on telling the audience a good story inevitably leads to the “Disneyfication” of history, rather than struggling with the often cruel realities reflected in the academic research. This risk can become even larger as museums, libraries, cultural centers and other venues become more dependent on corporate sponsorship or donations, and as they struggle to create expensive, technically sophisticated exhibits at a time of shrinking tax support for cultural and educational programs. In recent months, the new secretary of the Smithsonian Institution Lawrence Small has come under a storm of criticism for allowing wealthy donors to determine the content and directions of exhibits.
“The answer is to always to be able to do two important things at once,” says Dr. John Fleming, a historian who was the founding executive director of the National Museum of African American History in Wilberforce, Ohio, and now heads the Cincinnati Museum Center. “Of course you have to be able to tell stories in a compelling way that makes them significant to people’s lives. Unlike students, the public is not a captive audience. But public historians must always base their work on sound historical research. This is where I differ with some museums’ programs that put too much of an emphasis on management or preservation skills. I believe that you also need a graduate degree in a content area if you intend to become a curator or work in museum education.”
Fleming says the most important difference between a Disney movie and an excellent exhibit is not that exhibits shouldn’t be exciting or have a happy ending, but that museum exhibits involve real objects and real research.
“Objects allow the museum visitor to evoke memories from their own experiences that can then be carried far beyond the limits of the exhibit,” Fleming says. “When President George Bush Sr. came to visit the museum in Wilberforce and saw our exhibit on Black life between World War II and the end of the civil rights movement, one of the things that stuck out in his mind was the fact that his mother owned a lamp just like the one we had on display.”
Making a Career
One Black historian who has had great success in incorporating objects into the story of Black history is Dr. Spencer Crew. Crew received a doctorate in American history from Rutgers and started out on the traditional career path of teaching as a junior professor at an urban campus of a state university system, the University of Maryland Baltimore County. However, in 1981, Crew took the unusual step of leaving academia for a position at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH) in Washington, and became assistant to the director of the Division of Science and Technology.
Crew was not the first African American doctorate to make a make a career at the NMAH. It was already home to Dr. Bernice Reagon, an ethnomusicologist and former civil rights activist who is the lead singer for Sweet Honey in the Rock. Reagon also forged an alternative career path for herself by helping to organize the Smithsonian’s yearly Folklife Festival and running the museum’s program in Black American Culture, which was part of its educational division.
Crew, however, faced the challenge of creating a significant exhibit for the Division of Science and Technology, whose collection included antique farm equipment, historic industrial machinery, and early computers, a collection that wasn’t seen as having any particular relevance to African Americans. He solved this problem by using the collection to create one of the museum’s most significant exhibits called “Field to Factory.” The exhibit opened in 1987, and told the story of the Great African American Migration out of a Southern agricultural society into the industrialized areas of the North and Midwest before World War II. Crew went on to become the director of the NMAH in 1994. In 2001, Crew resigned to head Cincinnati’s National Underground Railroad Freedom Center as its executive director and CEO.
“It’s important to realize that museum collections are not static,” Crew says. “In Field to Factory, we didn’t just use objects to tell a Black story, we also went out and asked the Black community to donate objects to help re-create an important part of American history. That in itself draws people into the institution because they feel honored when the dress that their grandmother wore when she moved up North goes into the same Smithsonian museum that has preserved George Washington’s false teeth.”
Crew says the reason working in museums or historic houses offer such an important option for African Americans who love history is because there are more ways to get ahead than in most universities, where the tenure fight is always a matter of “publish or perish.”
“In museums you can still do traditional writing and research,” he says. “But you can also make a career by improving collections or doing great exhibits. When I was an undergraduate, it seemed that if you didn’t want to become a professor, a history degree was only good for teaching high school or applying to law school. Public history gives you a lot more choices.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com