Public history round-up: Museum Studies edition

As we here in Potterville pull on our boots and get ready for the big rodeo and “western celebration” coming to town, I’m happy to report that a few of you are getting out of your towns to attend conferences and conduct some research.  Here are some interesting museums featured on a few blogs I read regularly:

  • Anxious Black Woman is just back from the National Women’s Studies Association annual meeting in Cincinnati, and gives us a great report on the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, a new museum there.  I’m particularly grateful for her review, because Historiann lived in southwestern Ohio when this museum was being planned a decade ago, and she was a little skeptical of the concept.  (White people in and around Cincinnati are really into the Underground Railroad, and every little town has at least two or three mythological sites or houses that people commemorate as alleged stops on the UGRR.  Historiann was always suspicious that this was a means for white people to re-write the history of slavery and to cast their ancestors in heroic roles as slavery resisters, rather than in the much more likely role of slavery enablers, especially because African Americans were enslaved in southwestern Ohio, contrary to the provisions of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.  I lived in a town near the Ohio-Indiana border I’ll call “Boxford,” which likes to pretend that its proximity to the authentic Quaker town of Richmond, Indiana somehow retroactively turns all nineteenth-century Boxfordians into abolitionists.)  ABW’s verdict on the museum?  Disappointing in its interest more in masters than enslaved people and in its erasure of women, although the introductory movie was good.  (But go read her more thorough treatment yourself!)  The good news is that the NWSA itself was a great experience–I’m envious that I wasn’t there!
  • If your summer travel plans take you to Cincinnati, the Cincinnati area has all kinds of new museums–for example, the Creation Museum of Hebron, Kentucky, just a few exits down the road from the Cincinnati airport, is another museum that was just under construction when Historiann lived nearby.  It’s a creationist extravaganza of imaginary natural history–tell them Bing McGhandi sent you!  Here’s a reality-based review of the CM.
  • Professor Zero is in Lima (Peru, not Ohio!), and went to the Museo de Pedro Osma, which sounds like an interesting palace filled with colonial as well as twentieth-century art.
  • Do any of you have recommendations for interesting fine arts, history, or other museums in your home towns (or that you’ve encountered on your travels) for summer vacationers? 
  • Finally, for those of you in the academy who are public historians, or work with public historians, what’s your sense of public history’s relationship to non-public history (frequently referred to somewhat condescendingly as “academic history,” as though public history is an inferior intellectual pursuit)?  My sense is that there used to be more conflict or resentment among “academic” historians, but that these distinctions (well, snobberies, actually) are fading.  Is Historiann (who is not a public Historiann) overly optimistic?

0 thoughts on “Public history round-up: Museum Studies edition

  1. I feel what you are putting down about Ohio. Latino/as in NM like to feel smugly superior to the rest of the U.S. because they imagine there was no slavery in that territory (among many other reasons for feeling superior). While there was no slavery of people of African descent, this vision of the region’s history conveniently ignores the methodical enslavement of indigenous people for centuries.

    Speaking of which, if you are in the Albuquerque area (perhaps for ASA?), there is the National Hispanic Cultural Center.


  2. Cool–thanks for the tip. I like ABQ, although I won’t be there for ASA. (American Studies these days seems to be all about Twentieth Century U.S. Studies, and not at all about colonial or even pre-Civil War America. When you think of all of the signal contributions of American Studies by early Americanists in the old days, it’s too bad, especially because even “New England” historians and lit people are about more than just the Adams family and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Sigh.)

    It’s interesting the extent to which after 1840 or so, a resistance to slavery was imagined and written into the histories of so many regions and places in America. I hadn’t thought about the American southwest, but it’s very evident in little New England town histories and published colonial records from the nineteenth century that creating an antislavery genealogy and history was very important to antebellum New Englanders. White Cincinnatians are not the only people who prefer an imagined past when it comes to slavery.


  3. As a current student of public history, your last point Historiann comes up frequently in seminars. Many of the public history students, at least in our department, sense a division or tension among the faculty (not necessarily among other students) in regards to public history vs. “academic” history. Although our program is geared more towards p.h. and the majority of our students are p.h. than thesis track, the “academic” faculty greatly outnumbers the p.h. faculty and we are required to take more “academic” seminars than public history classes. I remember one “academic” professor state that if you’re going to get a M.A. in history than you have to take history classes (as if p.h. classes are not history classes). I’ve also noticed that many non-American “academic” faculty get pretty upset that they can’t teach as many grad classes as they would like in our department and complain that the few p.h. faculty get all the grad classes.

    Although I think this tension is still present (maybe not as distinct as a few years ago), I think the real issue that comes up more frequently is elitism of public historians vs. the public. Some have argued that public historians tell the public that their history is wrong and exert too much influence over what the public should believe is history (but it’s okay to let Bill O’Reilly and MTV tell you what to think). It seems public historians have to walk a very fine line as they are professionals but “can’t know more than the public” or tell them what to think. I am curious to know if other public historians feel this pressure beyond the classroom?


  4. My favorite museum find is the National Museum of Health and Medicine on the campus of Walter Reed Army Medical Center. It has a bit of the curiosity cabinet about it–amputated limbs, a hairball the size of a stomach, an arsenic-preserved corpse, and the bullet that killed Lincoln–plus some of his skull fragments. There was hardly anyone there when I visited–and the temporary exhibit about scoliosis (complete with scolitic spines and rib cages) mixed art and science in a delightful, if kind of creepy, way. Highly recommended!

    Also an excellent museum, albeit on the art side of things: The Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, California.


  5. Along the same lines as Leslie, I’d recommend the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia:
    “Disturbingly informative” is their motto — an understatement if you’ve visited seen their late curator on the Letterman show.

    In the Nutmeg state, I recommend the Wadsworth Atheneum, the Hillstead Museum, and the Mark Twain House. The latter is in serious financial trouble, so do support it if you can.

    As to the question about public history vs. academic history — our public history M.A. is going gang-busters. It’s really raised our profile both in the state and out of state — we’re now getting out of state students which was very rare in the past.


  6. The Mutter in Philly is, um, interesting, if you like anatomical curiosities, etc. Philadelphia has its share of mainstream and big museums, but… Art lovers might want to check out the idiosyncratic Barnes Foundation in its original suburban location, where under the will of the offbeat Dr. Barnes, it insists that it’s an art school rather than a museum. It’s about to be hijacked into town where it will become a big tourist draw. Bibliophiles and scholars of African-Americana should head to the Library Company of Philadelphia. It insists, rightly, that it’s a library, and in fact it was one of Benjamin Franklin’s major projects. But it also has 2-3 small but exquisite exhibitions a year from its own print and pictorial collections in its tiny exhibit space that are great to see. It is also starting a new “Program in African American History,” and they give great fellowship, too. Free to all scholars and visitors. Finally, there’s the Rosenbach Museum, on 2000 block of DeLancey Street, which commemorates two quirky book dealers and brothers whose townhouse holds the residue of their life’s work. Anyone working at the Huntington Library in San Marino should seek out Henry E. Huntington’s angry letter to Philip Rosenbach, berating him for robbing him blind on a carload of books that Rosenbach acquired for HEH. They used to have a copy of it displayed in their vestibule. A riot…


  7. Rachel–good questions. I wonder if this tension for public historians is related to the fact that women dominate the field (at least from what I’ve seen.) On the one hand, public historians are put down by other historians for not being intellectual enough, while on the other they’re warned away from pretending to have expertise or an understanding of a topic that’s better than “the public” has. Sounds like a classic double-bind to me!

    And Leslie, KC, and Indyanna–great suggestions. I’ve actually posted on the Mutter Museum and the AFIP (just click here.) I like the disgusting artifacts–but for those who have tastes superior to mine, Indyanna’s recommendations should please any art lover and/or bibliophile. (I have to get back to Philadelphia one of these days to hit the Rosenbach–I managed never to get there, in all of my 7 years in the Philadelphia area!)


  8. And KC–thanks for the intel on the Mark Twain House. I may be in that neighborhood this summer, and so may get there finally. (I spent months in Hartford researching my dissertation, but being a pretty broke grad student, didn’t feel like I could spend the time or the money touring his house or the Harriet Beecher Stowe house, which is right next-door. False economies! How much more memorable would have been an afternoon in the Twain and Stowe houses, than the 6 or 7 crummy seventeenth-century wills and inventories I copied down instead at the Connecticut State Library!)


  9. Historiann,

    I live (part time) about four blocks down the street from the Rosenbach, and hadn’t been in there for twenty years until a colleague visited on Spring Break and we took the tour on a rainy Saturday. (And I STILL haven’t gotten back to actually see the one or two items they apparently have that are relevant to things that I do!) It’s one of those locational paradoxes of using or not using close-by resources; always another time.

    I spent a couple of weeks, not months, in Hartford, doing research for what became my diss., and I very fondly recall the productive archival situation up there, the CSL and the CHS, and walking repeatedly past the Twain House on the way between the two, and NOT going in! If you go to Hartford this summer, swing by Philly on the way out or back. Practically just down the street from there!


  10. Re: ASA. I was on the program committee last year, and we had numerous good early history/lit/culture panels. The president, the historian Vicki Ruiz, and I put together panels from earlier centuries, and the committee was very supportive. This year I will be presenting on an early 19th cent panel. Also, the John Hope Franklin Prize for best book has gone to historians regularly the last few years. (e.g. Rebecca Scott). So, you should have joined us in Albq. What has happened at ASA is that there is no dominant group, and the conf tends to draw people working in and moving into many different areas.


  11. i would suggest the lyles consolidated school at lyles station, indiana–see

    this is the last remaining african-american settlement in indiana that pre-dates the civil war…there were 20 or more rural communities like this one that eventually vanished, thanks in part to industrialization and the anti-negro sentiment of 1920’s indiana

    this is a rare jewel of american history, located in southwest indiana between princeton and east mount carmel (gibson county)


  12. Chris–thanks for stopping by and commenting. Your recommendation looks great–I only wish I had known of it when I lived near the Southern OH-IN border! I’ll post again if I hear any more news about the Dearfield colony site, which sounds similar to Lyles Station, although not nearly as old.


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