For better or worse, but probably not for the worse, museums are the primary vehicle for conveying history to the public. Did a group of public historians get together one day and decide that museums, as opposed to Obi-Wan Kenobi, were the only hope for an historically enlightened general public? No. But somewhere along the way it got into the minds of people that, should they want to dip their toes in the waters of history, they should take a stroll down to the nearest museum. This, in my opinion, is not a bad thing. Museums supply so many opportunities for the public historian to provide a meaningful, impactful, and well-rounded presentation of history. Which is exactly what we saw in this week’s readings. Mike Wallace, in the selections from Mickey Mouse History, showed how the story of immigration in America is conveyed through museums. Thomas Cauvin, in a selection from Public History a Textbook of Practice, emphasized the benefits and importance of public participation in exhibit creation. And this article and this one articulated the new opportunities, particularly for museum curators that time-traveled from the 90’s, for utilizing technology in museum exhibits.
Despite the fact that there are many options available when deciding how to design and structure a museum, the history presented in the final product can still be lacking. Wallace, in the essay about immigration history in America, discusses a few different museums: two in the base of the Statue of Liberty and the one on Ellis Island. Wallace seemed fairly critical of the American Museum of Immigration, and with good reason. One negative he noted that I took particular interest to was the “nationality-by-nationality approach” the museum took and how it left out certain people groups, “most particularly Asians and South Americans” (Wallace 59). I am under the impression, but certainly correct me if I am wrong, that Asian-Americans are often ignored or neglected in many aspects of history. For example: in political contests it is often discussed what percentage of various demographics a particular candidate or another receives but Asian-Americans are never mentioned. Maybe they are too small a group to have relevance in that situation, but I still feel Asian-Americans are neglected in representation. This may stem from the fact that I have seen, firsthand, discrimination against Asian-Americans. Whoever put that graffiti on my old neighbor’s property, I’m talking about you! Anyway, museums have the potential to discuss and represent many groups, and the ones that do are truly successful.
The selection from Cauvin was all about exhibiting the past and he put a lot of emphasis on utilizing public participation. “In putting visitors at the center of the process, exhibit designers echo the current trend of shared authority in public history.” (Cauvin 142-143). All this talk of public participation reminded me of this post I read last week. It is all about sticky-notes and how they can be a tactile way for visitors to leave thoughts and comments and at the same time contribute to a display. It gets visitors involved just like using podcasts or cell phones for audio tours, but much lower-tech.
As an employee of Spokane County Library District, I have a real-life story about sticky-notes used in much the same way. First of all, libraries are already sort of like museums and the people that work there are like old fossils, so I am well on my way to being a top-notch museum curator. About a year or so ago, we at the library had an exhibit called Human Origins, on loan from the Smithsonian I believe, set up at the North Spokane branch. Honestly, it was kind of in the way, but visitors could walk around and read the little blips of information, look at plastic skulls, and watch videos at various kiosks. At the end of the exhibit there was a display that visitors could cover in sticky-notes. The display asked the question, “What does it mean to be human?” to which the sticky-notes were the thoughts and ideas of the public. I did not see any sticky-notes that said “to be human is to fake your way through life and be a massive failure,” which is good. Mostly, the notes said things like “love” and “friends.” So now you know. There’s a sticky-note of love somewhere with your name on it.