Gordon’s “Private History” and our work

Over the winter break I finally had a chance to read Tammy Gordon’s book, Private History in Public and it caused quite a bit of reflection and perspective on the type of museum and exhibit work I am teaching you in your first year.

Gordon studies sites of history production that are outside of the professional, AAM-ready, museums I am preparing you for. Her “private histories” range from local historical societies to small museums on specific professions (printing, firefighting, etc.) and even displays in bars and restaurants. She notes that most museum studies programs teach the world of “academic” museums—big institutions with professional staffs and major funding—while most people engage historical topics in “the settings of everyday life.” To begin to rectify this, she offers a typology of small museums and identifies their chief characteristics.

Community exhibitions are semi professional efforts in small historical societies. They employ quality exhibit and program design, but are focused on “ethnographic salvage” and “local control of heritage resources.” Entrepreneurial museums “encourage the survival of a craft,” and Vernacular displays in non-museum settings “create ‘atmosphere’” while claiming specific identities for a venue and its patrons. The distinguishing feature of these three types of museums/exhibits is that their subject matter is intimately connected with the curators creating them, and the chief means of interpretation is personal contact between visitors and actual people in exhibit spaces. “Community exhibits are conceived and created by people who have lived the historical subject, who descend from those who live it, or who identify strongly with the place that was shaped by the heritage being presented. Their curatorial choices are informed by experiential knowledge first, followed by more traditional historical methods. The curators are telling ‘their story.’” To that end, community exhibits are not focused on audience analysis, change over time, specific interpretive outcome goals, well-thought-out label copy, exhibit pathways, or dialogic intent. They just throw up some artifacts belongings, slap some identification labels on them (often irreverent), and stand by to talk.

See the difference? Last semester we sweated over copy and matching graphics to feelings, struggled with getting narrative points right, and grappled with identification of potential audience. We dug into Kathy McLean’s take on planning for people in museums, listened to Judy Diamond and John Falk tell us about how to think about visitors, and let Richard Rabinowitz marvel us with a description of an exhibit that moves people. This semester we will be starting out with the AAM’s and Stephen Weil’s advocacy of museums as centers of civic and social engagement and our programming on States of Incarceration will be informed by ideas of dialogic museums, shared authority, and social activism.

Here’s the thing. The exhibits and museums that Gordon studied accomplished social value goals of dialog, connection, authenticity, and democratic conversation without using our fancy methods. What works best? These museums offer visitors an opportunity to connect with people who lived a history. Or, rather that, “the historical subject profoundly informs the identity of its curator” or creator. (38) That quality is magic sauce for visitors’ sense of connection and is a thing that you will not find in exhibits at the Smithsonian. (She’s got a whole argument about the value of these museums in millennial environment of consumer culture and globalization that I’m going to skip for now.)

I think this is important for a number of reasons. First, you need to know that what we are doing right now is but one method of approaching history exhibits. Second, you should always be respectful of the methods of non-professionals, and be wary of rolling into a local history museum with your graduate school academic ideas to set them straight. (Believe me, I’ve done this, and continue to do this. It doesn’t work.) You should be self-aware enough to find a creative balance between the methods you are learning and the methods that frequently work with people.

Third, and most importantly, we should consider how the methods that Gordon describes, can be incorporated into academic exhibits like ours. For instance, we might consider not over-designing some of our programming. Happily, the general idea that utilizing people actually connected to the history we are discussing to author programming and meet face-to-face with visitors works real well with HAL’s intent and the overall point we are trying to make in our module—“what can we learn by listening.”

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