By Avi Decter and Ken Yellis

Historic house museums, historic sites, and history museums constitute the largest class of museums in a nation rich in such institutions. These places constitute the fabric of our national tapestry. Stitched into that textile are the people and places, episodes and ideas that give our country some of its most important stories. For this reason, history museums enjoy a special status in the minds of most Americans. In a 2018 broader population sampling conducted by Wilkening Consulting for AASLH, 1,000 people were asked about the trustworthiness of four history sources and museums. “81% of respondents ranked history museums and historic sites as ‘absolutely’ or somewhat trustworthy—making them more trustworthy than history textbooks and nonfiction, high school history teachers, and the internet as sources of history information.” Another study done by Reach Advisors | Museums R+D reported that “The American public considers museums the most trustworthy source of information in America, rated higher than local papers, nonprofit researchers, the U.S. government, and academic researchers.”

This, of course, raises the question―why do folks repose so much confidence in history museums and historic sites and the stories they tell? One answer is that many of these places anchor their narratives in authentic structures and the landscape itself―they are where things actually happened. Another could be that history organizations ground their narratives in careful research in primary sources, so their interpretations of the past are accurate as well as authentic.

But a quite different explanation may also apply. For many individuals and their communities, historic houses and historic sites are valued because their narratives offer comfort, not challenge. As Erin Carlson Mast, Director of Lincoln’s Cottage, observed at the Combating Antisemitism conference in Washington, D.C. (June 19, 2019), history museums are endowed with high public confidence because they conform to and confirm the ideas and beliefs of their constituents and communities.

The notion is not new, of course. Back in 1999, Zahava Doering (in an article titled “Strangers, Guests, or Clients?” in the journal Curator) argued that “people tend to frequent the museums and exhibitions they think will be congruent with their own attitudes, with whose point of view they expect to agree.” Seen as a function of user expectations and worldview, history museums and historic sites are more mirror than microscope.

The story may be even more complicated than that. History museums and historic sites are not just places to recall the past, but also places to put it to rest.

Amnesia is often a prominent feature of our history sites―and for good reason: history museums are not only sites of memory, but where we go to make peace with the distressing past.

For many, making peace with the past cuts close to the bone. Life is unbearable when the past will not be still. Putting it to rest so one can get on with life is an emotional imperative, perhaps even an existential one. The past is filled with horrors, violence, guilt, suffering, loss, failure, sacrifice, destruction, and anguish. Why go there? As a result, in many local history sites, the past is static and unchanging, fixed, timeless, inert.

The tendency to avoid conflict and controversy in many local history museums, historic houses, and historic sites is reinforced by their mode of operation. Many of these local organizations are community-based, often—in the smaller ones—volunteer-staffed, or else run by people who have very little training and see their role as largely custodial, and dependent for their funding and overall direction on a board of locals who don’t want to make waves. We can see how powerful the pull towards conformity and amnesia is when, as sometimes happens, a history museum tries to break the mold and tell more unvarnished truths about aspects of the past represented by that organization. This often causes visitors to become upset, or at the very least, puzzled by what they’re now seeing in their formerly placid historic house museum or site.

In contrast, for public history professionals, historical places are sites, not sources, of authority; their narratives are not timeless, but contingent; the stories history museums tell are constructed through a dynamic process of shifting relationships among sites, their staffs, and the communities that use them, conditioned by changing social, intellectual, and political currents. For those who interpret the past for a living, making sense of the past is no less imperative than coming to terms with it. Understanding the past certainly has an emotional dimension, but it comes out of a different kind of need. To accomplish it requires establishing psychic distance and acquiring control of the past’s cruelty, disorder, and havoc.

This disconnect helps explain the intense conflicts that periodically erupt over how museums present history.

There is often a dramatic difference between what visitors are hoping to experience and what museums are trying to accomplish―between making peace with the past and making sense of it.

Because these two processes originate from very different emotional places, they have very different destinations.

The result is a tension one can often detect in history museum visitors, as they look for a way to get interested, to become engaged. When they pose questions that have no answers, or they show puzzlement, frustration, even anger. At least we could try to become more adept at ferreting out what is the real question behind the questions they pose, to―as librarians do―conduct reference interviews to get at the riddle behind the spoken query. At living history sites, interpreters learn how to do this. In more traditional settings, the record is spottier. We often don’t probe for, much less answer, visitors’ real questions.

Dealing with visitors’ emotional discomfort is not always covered in the training manual, but it needs to be. Two things tend to happen: visitors get upset about things that were not expected to be upsetting; and visitors don’t get emotionally engaged with things intended to engage them. Other kinds of interpretation and visitor engagement are needed and available: dialogue, text study, interpretation as provocation (à la Freeman Tilden), and site as forum. We probably need them all.

While many people continue to cite historic places and history museums as sources of authenticity and authority, we in the field need to be more skeptical of our standing in this respect. This dialectic suggests that history museums and historic sites have special opportunities and responsibilities for engaging users in a continuous dialogue about the meaning, significance, and salience of the past as it presents itself at any particular site or venue.

To be sure, we need to make more and better efforts to unsettle, but we have to find ways to make certain visitors are equipped to hang in there; the experience will be more rewarding for them if they do. Opening up new perspectives might actually make historic houses and sites more exciting to visit, even stimulate repeat visits. In this moment of national debate over public memory, what was satisfactory before is unacceptable now. The stakes for the history biz have been raised: we have to up our game.

Special thanks to Carl Siracusa for his editorial comments.

Avi Decter ([email protected]), principal of History Now, has worked in public history for over forty years, and is the author of Interpreting American Jewish History at Museums and Historic Sites. His many projects include the Boott Cotton Mill at Lowell National Historical Park; the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum; Louisville Slugger Museum and Visitor Center; and the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Ken Yellis ([email protected]), principal of Project Development Services, is a historian with four decades in the museum field. Yellis has worked extensively with the Museum Education Roundtable, Roundtable Reports and its successor, the Journal of Museum Education. He has been involved in over a hundred history, science, and art exhibitions.

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