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History vs. Heritage – What stories are museums sharing?

by Kristin L. Gallas, Consultant, The Tracing Center on Histories and Legacies of Slavery on

Margaret Biser’s recent Vox.com article, “I used to lead tours at a plantation. You won’t believe the questions I got about slavery,” outlines some of the challenges to interpreting slavery. She shares her interactions with visitors – frustrating though they may be – in a way that preserves the dignity of the visitor and her integrity as an interpreter. Ms. Biser is not the first in the public history community to express her frustrations with visitors’ ignorance about the history of slavery … and unfortunately she won’t be the last.

Over the last five years, I and my co-editor James DeWolf Perry had a front row seat to how historic sites tackle the comprehensive and conscientious interpretation of slavery, along with its underlying psycho/social theory, as we wrote our book “Interpreting Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites” (Rowman and Littlefield, 2015).

America’s distorted public memory of slavery contributes to making this a challenging history to interpret, as does the fact that the history invokes painful episodes of trauma, violence, and oppression.[1] Americans tend to cling to positive narratives that reinforce their personal beliefs and identity. These narratives aren’t just personal stories, but also grand historical narratives that are widely shared, such as narratives about how the United States came to be, how families have prospered here, and about the nation’s defining values.[2] People hold multiple identities at once, and thus they possess narratives about their families, their region, their racial or ethnic groups, their social class, and their nation, among others.[3] This is where heritage and history collide and part ways.

Heritage: something that comes or belongs to one by reason of birth; an inherited lot or portion[4]

History: a continuous, systematic narrative of past events as relating to a particular people, country, period, person, etc., usually written as a chronological account[5]

Our personal and collective narratives tend to be handed to us as part of our birth right, our heritage. These narratives, comprised of how one’s ancestors fit into heroic stories of perseverance and bravery, are told at the knee of a relative or as part of a community heritage group. And unfortunately our history is often conveyed in lackadaisical school courses or by face-saving history museums – this leaves us wanting a more complete story of our individual and collective past, and wondering whom we should trust. Public history professionals need to share narratives that includes personal and group stories of agency and humanity, balanced with suffering and trauma. Are museums and historic sites in the business of sharing balanced history or upholding naive heritage?

Our narratives cut to the core of our identity – of who we are. We hold our identities close and our emotional integrity is wrapped up in our identity. No one wants to be “blamed” for the sins of our ancestors (southern or not – they were all complicit in the economic base that slavery laid for our country). Many white visitors think that historic sites are trying to make them feel guilty by telling the stories of slavery, while many black visitors fear that their ancestor’s stories of agency and suffering will be (pardon the expression) white washed with the deeds of great white men. Interpreting slavery is not just an intellectual pursuit, but a deeply emotional one as well.

  •  As public history professionals we have to prepare, practice and train to handle difficult visitor encounters – staff need to know when and how to engage these difficult visitors, and when to let the visitor go because they are caught in a learning crisis.
  • Museums/historic sites need to find a way to counter prevailing narratives, such as “Weren’t they nice masters” and “Wasn’t working in the house better,” in a way that doesn’t belittle visitors but offers them a counterpoint to consider.
  • Interpreters/tour guides need to examine their use of the “second person” or “historical present tense” voice (we, you) and how it sets an unrealistic tone for visitors.
  • The field needs to understand that some visitors come with innocent ignorance (asking questions or making statements because they are unsure of the real history) and others with willful ignorance (purposefully challenging a tour guide’s knowledge), and how to handle those situations.
  • Museums and historic sites should set the stage for their visitors by defining African chattel slavery in America and how it differed from other types of slavery in the ancient world. They also need to communicate that conditions of enslavement in the US differed from plantation to plantation and region to region (north and south), but underlying it all was the philosophy that black people were not equal or human, therefore kept in horrible conditions of bondage, or treated inhumanely even if they happen to be free.

Museums and historic sites need to take the lead on telling the true and complex story of slavery and its legacies in the US. Let’s take our position as trusted keepers of the past to engage our communities in healthy dialogues on where we’ve come from, where we are, and where we are going. For more information on creating comprehensive and conscientious interpretation of slavery, consult Interpreting Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites or www.interpretingslavery.com.

[1] See Julia Rose, “Three Building Blocks for Developing Ethnical Representations of Difficult Histories,” AASLH Technical Leaflet #264 (2013).

[2] Abbas Barzegar, “The Persistence of Heresy: Paul of Tarsus, Ibn Saba’, and Historical Narrative in Sunni Identity Formation,” Numen 58 (2011), pp. 209, 212; Heinrich Best, “History Matters: Dimensions and Determinants of National Identities Among European Populations and Elites,” Europe-Asia Studies 61:6 (August 2009); Alexander M. Danzer, “Battlefields of Ethnic Symbols. Public Space and Post-Soviet Identity Formation from a Minority Perspective,” Europe-Asia Studies 61:9 (November 2009), p. 1559.

[3] Jens Rydgren, “The Power of the Past: A Contribution to a Cognitive Sociology of Ethnic Conflict,” Sociological Theory 25:3 (September 2007), pp. 226-27; Alistair Ross, “Multiple Identities and Education for Active Citizenship,” British Journal of Educational Studies 55:3 (September 2007), p. 287; Somers, p. 619.

[4] Dictionary.com – accessed July 3, 2015.

[5] Ibid

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One Response to “History vs. Heritage – What stories are museums sharing?”

  1. December 31, 2015 at 8:34 pm, Best of the Year: Our Most-Read Posts of 2015 | AASLH Blogs said:

    […] History vs. Heritage – What stories are museums sharing? by Kristin L. Gallas […]

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