Difficult and Different Histories

Difficult and Different Histories

[Here’s the short talk I gave at Wesleyan University’s Center for the Study of Guns and Society workshop on Theories, Practices, and Pedagogies of Telling Difficult Histories in Museum Exhibits. A wonderful group! ]

There have been a few surveys that are useful for understanding what visitors think about museums as places for difficult histories. The best known is The Presence of the Past, a survey by Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen in 1998. They found that most people believed that museums were the most trustworthy sources of information about the past. But why? As Spencer Crew pointed out in a roundtable discussion of the book, it’s because the public believes that museums just present facts, not interpretations; that they are not voices of authority but just places to make up your own mind, or, more likely, to find reinforcement for what you already believe.

2021 report from Wilkening Consulting revisited the issue. Museums are still high on the scale of trust, at 6.4; scientists are 6.1, news organizations are 4.8, and the US government at 4.5. Only group higher than museums: “friends and family,” at 6.6. There’s not much difference in the trust accorded different kinds of museums: 6.8 for nature centers, 6.5 for historic sites.

But again, why do they trust museums? Five of the top six reasons are about neutrality, lack of interpretation. The top reasons are “museums are fact-based,”  and “museums present real objects.” Number four is “objective information.” Number five, is “they allow people to draw their own conclusions.” In short, people trust museums because they don’t make interpretations, don’t tell you what to think; that they are neutral. There are other reasons that make museums trustworthy: they do research, they employ or consult with experts. That might just mean that they get their “facts” right. 

So, visitors trust museums because they don’t have a political agenda, because they are neutral, and that’s apparently what they want, what they like about museums. And people who think museums are neutral are much more likely to find them credible sources of information. 

(There’s an exception is for museums that have a clear mission or purpose; they can have an opinion on that topic. For example, the Equal Justice Initiative museums in Montgomery can have an opinion, a strong point of view; visitors go knowing what to expect.)

What does this mean for museums who want to present difficult histories? It suggests to me that museums should be cautious about taking on topics where there’s a strong ideological divide and dug-in positions, topics like gun rights, reproductive rights or geopolitical conflicts all have two sides dug into their position. The museum’s expertise, according to the public, is in its artifacts and facts, not its persuasive ability. It’s unlikely that an exhibit will change anyone’s mind.

What about a different kind of difficult history, what we might call “different histories.” These are topics that aren’t necessarily controversial—there’s no clear political divide, they’re not topics in the newspaper today—but which have what me might call traditional answers, settled opinion. Good history is revisionist history; how should we think about revisionist history in museums? How to present material that runs counter to perceived narratives, upends traditional stories, or just doesn’t seem to be “common sense.” Some examples include westward expansion and climate change, as well as many local history narratives.

I’ll quickly suggest a few possibilities. 

First, meet people where they are; start with what they know. Acknowledge that you’re doing something different. “Many people believe,” you might say. Or “In our last exhibit on this topic, in 1980, we said…” Take advantage of “museums are about facts” and “artifacts tell the truth” beliefs, and show the facts and artifacts in a new light. 

This is a new way of including many voices in an exhibition, not current voices but historical voices. One of the key messages of doing this is that ideas change, that notions of history are revised. Maybe show changing beliefs on a timeline? This meta-interpretation might be a way to open up the idea that interpretations change.

Next: Be upfront with new interpretations. Historians have discovered new information, we’ve learned new things, and so can you. Explain how and why you know, how you’ve moved from the artifacts and facts to the story you’re telling. Focus, a bit, on process. It’s not, “here’s what you need to know” but rather “here’s how we know this.” “Scientists or historians have done their work, and here’s one very small example.” Here’s why this new answer better fits the facts, or acknowledges new facts, or tells a more complete story. 

Finally, present material in layers. Many traditional museum presentations of history or science aren’t wrong so much as oversimplified. Indeed, that’s what museums are good at, simplifying. Those forty-word labels. But can we keep the nuance while at the same time being accessible? Can we figure out ways to tell a story as a helix, circling deeper into it? 

Adding historical layers, adding nuance, won’t be easy. There are lots of interesting design challenges here. How to show changing ideas? How to show ideas in various levels of nuance? How to show several explanations and show why one is better? And how, most importantly, to build on the trust people have in museums to allow museums to do better and more impactful work?

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