Armenian American dancers

U.S. Bicentennial, 1976

Armenian American dancers (Nayiri Dance Group) in New York City, July 1976. Photo credit: Nick DeWolf, Wikimedia Commons.

Throughout the “Bicentennial Era” (1971-1976), Americans commemorated the two-hundredth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and American Revolution in different ways. In Ogden, Utah, the city restored its historic Union Station and opened a railroad museum inside. In Washington, D.C., two brothers formed the Afro-American Bicentennial Corporation and, with grant money from the National Park Service, researched and designated black history landmarks. Bowling Green State University moved a historic one-room schoolhouse onto campus. In Boston, members of the National Organization for Women marched in the parade commemorating the Boston Tea Party, connecting their own struggle for rights with that of the colonists. Boosters in Biloxi, Mississippi created a Seafood Heritage Trail. At the end of the period, the American Revolutionary Bicentennial Administration reported that over 90% of Americans participated in at least one Bicentennial-related activity.

The Bicentennial—as it was celebrated—was ultimately very inclusive: that is, many different groups and individuals found purpose in the commemoration and were able to observe it in ways that were impactful to them. But it certainly did not start this way. Originally, planners conceived of it as a top-down and centralized tribute to American achievement. Thinking critically about the Bicentennial is useful not only because of its place in the origin stories of many public history institutions and initiatives, but also because commemoration is often a key reason for, and part of, local history efforts of all kinds. Moreover, because of its unique juxtaposition of federal and local efforts, the Bicentennial continues to hold important lessons for contemporary planners of national commemorative events. For these reasons, it’s useful to track the way that the Bicentennial was envisioned, planned, and ultimately celebrated, both nationally and in local communities.

Contexts: “The New Nostalgia”

The Bicentennial occurred during an era in which Americans were much more interested in history than they had been in the forward-looking 1950s and ’60s. Many commentators remarked upon “the new nostalgia” that seemed to be permeating American culture—from fashion trends for platform shoes (originally seen as a 1930s throwback) to films such as American Graffiti and television shows like Little House on the Prairie, Happy Days, and The Waltons. While this cultural turn exceeded the Bicentennial, it helped stoke excitement about history. And, in many cases, as with CBS’s nightly Bicentennial Minutes and the landmark miniseries Roots (called by its author, Alex Haley, a “Bicentennial present to America”), which inspired so many, public and popular history efforts were inextricably connected, further evidence of how wide-reaching the Bicentennial was.

Planning for The Bicentennial

From the beginning, government leaders saw the upcoming Bicentennial celebration as a means to encourage patriotic feeling and behavior in Americans. By the mid-1960s, the consensus that had characterized the United States in the period following World War II was rapidly fracturing. Both federal and corporate interests saw the Bicentennial as an opportunity to unite Americans in their support for the larger political project celebrated by the commemoration.

Planning for the commemoration began in 1966, a full ten years before the actual event. President Lyndon B. Johnson created a bipartisan American Revolution Bicentennial Commission (ARBC) made up of a mix of elected officials, business leaders, and public figures. Under Johnson, the ARBC planned a World’s Fair, like the 1876 Centennial that had been held in Philadelphia. In the beginning, the ARBC conceived of the Bicentennial as forward-looking, an extension of Johnson’s Great Society programs; it was an opportunity to take stock and to bring new resources to as many Americans as possible. After the 1968 election of Richard Nixon, the ARBC changed tenor. Nixon made new appointments of political cronies and longtime supporters, and, rather than seize the opportunity to extend socio-economic benefits more broadly, the Nixonian Bicentennial was to be a celebration of American supremacy.

Critiques of Celebration

Throughout the 1970s, Americans questioned the meaning of the Bicentennial and Nixon’s plans for it. These critiques came from a variety of sources, including elected officials, commentators in the media, and activists. Despite the different origins, the concerns voiced by these individuals and groups were similar: Nixon was politicizing the Bicentennial planning by linking it too closely to his presidency and the 1972 campaign; the ARBC was corrupt and unwieldy; the Bicentennial effort was not representative; and—most significantly—an expensive, celebratory international exposition was out-of-step with the troubled contemporary moment.

Other challenges were even more pointed and reflected a critique of not only the shape of the celebration but also its cause. A group called the Bicentennial Without Colonies sought to use the commemoration to point to the disjunction between the ideals and realities of the Revolution, specifically the ongoing inequality, disenfranchisement, and imperialism evidenced by U.S. actions in Puerto Rico. Local and national organizers for the Black Panther Party and American Indian Movement were involved in this latter effort and in interviews, speeches, and publications, also drew attention to the federal Bicentennial’s erasure of both the histories of inequality and the contributions of people of color to the nation, while celebrating the histories and accomplishments of African Americans and Native Americans.

But suspicion of the ARBC and lack of enthusiasm for the World’s Fair model did not dampen excitement for the upcoming commemoration itself. All over the country Americans were finding their own ways to make the Bicentennial meaningful. A group called the People’s Bicentennial Commission emerged as the most sustained critics of the ARBC and Nixon, accusing the President of “stealing” the Bicentennial and seeking to use the commemoration for his own political purposes. Instead of following the “official” celebration, the PBC advised, Americans should find their own ways to celebrate, whether that meant researching local history, planning community events, or using the American Revolution as inspiration for contemporary social movements.

Grassroots History

Various groups, communities, and institutions found their own ways to commemorate the Bicentennial, many of which were historical in scope. AASLH’s Above Ground Archaeology taught people how to do local history. Historians Leticia Woods Brown and Ruth Edmonds Hill inaugurated the Black Women Oral History Project at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Above all, the Bicentennial stoked new excitement in all kinds of histories: family histories, house histories, and community histories. The majority of grassroots Bicentennial projects were hyper-local; they spoke to the experiences and needs of their own immediate communities.

Although the majority of Bicentennial efforts were local in nature, there were a few projects—usually partnerships between federal, state, and commercial interests—that were national in scope. These included OpSail, a parade of sixteen tall ships that sailed into New York Harbor, the Bicentennial Wagon Train, a “history in reverse” yearlong journey by Conestoga wagons from western states to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and the Bicentennial Freedom Train, which displayed artifacts from the National Archives and elsewhere. Notably, even these national projects reflected the local character of the Bicentennial as they planned journeys across communities in the United States.

Likewise, many national institutions used the Bicentennial as an opportunity to plan special exhibits, events, and programs. At the Smithsonian, this included the Festival of American Folklife and the new National Air and Space Museum. The Metropolitan Museum of Art worked with Charles and Ray Eames to plan “The World of Franklin and Jefferson,” an exhibit that traveled to Paris, Warsaw, and beyond.

The Bicentennial Era also saw the creation of many new institutions including the African American Museum in Philadelphia and the Mid-America All-Indian Center in Kansas. Projects like these, which emerged from activist efforts at inclusive histories, were an important part of challenging and changing narrow and non-representative local and regional histories. From the beginning, Bicentennial efforts in states and communities exceeded those on the federal level.

Changing Course

By 1972, the critiques aimed at the ARBC and the Bicentennial effort had grown too loud to be ignored, and the Commission fell under investigation from the House Judiciary Committee and the General Accounting Office. ARBC also accepted that a large, centralized World’s Fair-type commemoration was unrealistic and changed gears. By early 1973, ARBC had settled on a project called “Bicentennial Communities” that would allow the national organization to support, publicize, and record more local Bicentennial programming and initiatives. The decision was a recognition of the community-based and grassroots efforts that were, by this point, characterizing commemorative planning across the nation. Bicentennial Communities would allow the federal body to preside over a decentralized commemoration that was different in shape and scope from any before it. At the end of the commemoration, more than twelve thousand Bicentennial Communities would be recognized by the federal body.

At the end of the Bicentennial, ARBA had disbursed over $20 million in administrative funding and grants-in-aid to each state, territory, and commonwealth—funding raised partly from the sale of commemorative coins, and partly from government appropriations. State legislatures added about $25 million towards projects and initiatives. Finally, the Department of Commerce used Title X funding to create jobs for over a hundred Bicentennial projects, including a transportation project in Vermont and a water and sewer improvement project on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming.

Legacies of the Bicentennial

It is the availability of these resources that is ARBA’s—and perhaps the Bicentennial’s—greatest legacy. It is no coincidence, for example, that so many public history institutions and initiatives were founded in the mid-1970s; this is a result of both the excitement and the opportunities afforded by the commemoration. Projects inaugurated or expanded during the Bicentennial Era include the restoration of the historic utopian community site New Harmony, Indiana and the creation of Liberty State Park in New Jersey and Historic Fort Wayne in Detroit, among many others. For these projects, the commemoration was the impetus for more sustained efforts that extended in impact far beyond the scope of the Bicentennial Era.

By the end of 1976, official planners were congratulating themselves on a pluralistic, diverse celebration; however, the Bicentennial was inclusive because people made it so. Americans—informed and inspired by the black freedom struggle, women’s liberation, and other social movements—made the commemoration matter to their own communities and their own experiences. Ultimately, the way the Bicentennial was envisioned, planned, coordinated, and remembered by official agents was a response to this. In order to be successful, commemorative events and efforts must always be responsive to the needs of their audiences and constituents.

Lessons for Anniversary Commemorations

Several key points about the Bicentennial may be useful for those thinking about how to become involved in commemorations, such as the upcoming 250th anniversary (semiquincentennial) of the American Revolution:

The commemoration became an opportunity to question the relationship between the past and the present. Anniversaries are often an opportunity to take stock, and in the case of the Bicentennial, activists and historians started important conversations about not only the legacies of the American Revolution (most notably, who exactly benefitted from “independence”), but how the story was told—who was included and who was not. These conversations, in turn, informed many Bicentennial efforts.

Resources were used to develop and start initiatives, many of which are flourishing today. Federal and state funding helped kickstart projects, and public interest in history gave these projects their first audiences and supporters. Projects sought to involve as many people as possible in collecting, recording, researching, and interpreting history. Because so many projects were local in scope, they involved community members in oral history efforts and collection and archiving projects. Interactive, inclusive projects invited individuals to connect with the past and make their own meaning. Participating in grassroots local history efforts gave many people a chance to find and engage with histories that were relevant to them.

The culmination of ten years of planning at all levels of government, the final form of the Bicentennial—a pluralistic, grassroots celebration—was a symptom of larger shifts in how Americans used history to build and affirm individual and group identities. But more importantly, it was the result of concerted efforts by individuals and groups across the nation to make it meaningful: to question both the historical narrative and its official observation, to create projects and programs that reflected their own communities, and to take advantage of resources the commemoration made available. Although each commemoration is different—a result of its own social, cultural, and political contexts—it is worth looking to the Bicentennial for perspective on how subsequent commemorations might be successfully designed to maximize inclusivity and social impact.

Suggested Readings

American Revolutionary Bicentennial Administration. American Revolution Bicentennial: A Final Report to the People, (Vols. 1-6). United States Government Printing Office, 1977.

Burns, Andrea. From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.

Capozzola, Christopher. “It Makes You Want to Believe in the Country: Celebrating the Bicentennial in an Age of Limits.” In America in the Seventies, edited by Beth Bailey and David Farber. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2004.

Cook, Robert J. Troubled Commemoration: The American Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007. See, especially, pages 29-49.

Gordon, Tammy S. The Spirit of 1976: Commerce, Community, and the Politics of Commemoration. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.

Jacobson, Matthew Frye. Roots Too: White Ethnic Revival in Post Civil Rights America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006

Lepore, Jill. The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle Over American History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010

Rymsza-Pawlowska, M.J. History Comes Alive: Public History and Popular Culture in the 1970s. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017.

Walker, William S. “Finding National Unity Through Cultural Diversity: The Smithsonian and the Bicentennial,” 153-95. In A Living Exhibition: The Smithsonian and the Transformation of the Universal Museum. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.

Zaretsky, Natasha. “The Spirit of ’76: The Bicentennial and Cold War Revivalism,” 143-82. In No Direction Home: The American Family and the Fear of National Decline, 1968-1980. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

~ M.J. Rymsza-Pawlowska is Assistant Professor of History and Co-Director of the Graduate Program in Public History at American University. She is the author of History Comes Alive: Public History and Popular Culture in the 1970s (2017), and is currently working on a new book about time capsules in the twentieth century. M.J. is also involved in a number of local history initiatives, including the D.C. Humanities Truck and the Washington History Conference. She can be reached at Rymsza at American dot edu.

Outdoor History Museums

Living History Farms Spring 2009. Photo credit: billnwmsu, Creative Commons.

Outdoor history museums are immersive historical environments created by collections of buildings that might be preservations, restorations, or replicas. Thinking about the term broadly, outdoor history museums can refer to living history farms, agricultural museums, pioneer museums, or even “open-air museums.” It is what happens in these environments, however, that makes them a powerful lens through which to explore issues of inclusion, equity, diversity, and service.

As they developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, outdoor history museums were expressions of two sometimes competing impulses. On the one hand, they challenged established museum collections practices by displaying the material culture of ordinary people. On the other, many founders used them to promote a nostalgic version of the past that ignored painful and difficult histories. Starting in the 1970s, outdoor history museum administrators and frontline employees transformed these sites by adding more historically accurate interpretations. Often, historical accuracy meant interpreting painful and traumatic pasts. At the same time, the use of living history, or performing the past, became increasingly popular at outdoor history museums. In some cases, outdoor history museums developed programs that used living history to engage audiences in some of our nation’s most fraught histories. While some of these efforts were lauded, others were met with criticism and concern from both audiences and interpreters. Administrators, frontline employees, and audiences began conversations that continue today about how to interpret diverse and inclusive pasts in an ethical way that serves both the public and employees.

Origins and Early History

A brief discussion of the history of outdoor history museums highlights how the dual and sometimes conflicting goals of educating and entertaining audiences have shaped the outdoor history museum experience. The origins of the outdoor history museum idea can be traced to the mid-nineteenth century. Echoes of the form can be found in historic house museums and the New England kitchen exhibits at Sanitary Fairs. Another form of the outdoor history museum approach can be seen at the 1867 World’s Fair in Paris where participating nations were invited to display their architecture and folk culture. Swedish folklorist Artur Hazelius was in attendance and went on to open what is widely recognized as the first outdoor history museum, Skansen, in 1891. Hazelius hoped to democratize museum collections by displaying the material culture of the wealthy alongside that of ordinary people. He was also driven by a desire to provide a cultural grounding for Swedes as they experienced the transformations of the industrial revolution, which was reflected in his motto: “Know Thyself.” The Skansen model proved quite popular in Sweden, the Netherlands, and Germany, where numerous outdoor history museums were established during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.[i]

The Growth of Outdoor History Museums in the United States

In the United States, the earliest outdoor living history museums were founded by wealthy industrialists. These men sought to solidify their interpretation of the past using the built environment. In 1929, Henry Ford opened Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan, just a short drive from downtown Detroit and adjacent to the Rouge, at the time the largest factory in the world. The Village included over 90 buildings (some preserved, some replicas) all of which predated the automobile. The centerpiece was a re-creation of Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park Laboratory. Ford wanted to celebrate middle-class farmers and inventors whom he believed were left out of written histories. He moved buildings, such as the home and bicycle shop of the Wright Brothers, as well as his own birthplace to the Village. Ford also moved several buildings representing African American history, including two brick slave cabins. Greenfield Village was ahead of its time because it venerated vernacular architecture, but histories of conflict, especially the conflicts between labor and capital, were absent. This kind of forgetting was endemic in the earliest iterations of outdoor history museums.

In the same period, Episcopal priest W.A.R. Goodwin had approached Ford about the possibility of restoring Williamsburg, Virginia to its colonial glory to boost the town’s economy through heritage tourism, but he passed on this invitation and instead focused on Greenfield Village. Goodwin found an interested patron in John D. Rockefeller, Jr. After purchasing Williamsburg from its residents, Rockefeller hired professional architecture firm Perry, Shaw, and Hepburn to preserve, restore, and recreate the town as it was in the eighteenth century. Rockefeller believed that Americans were losing sight of their cultural and political origins and saw the site as a way to shore up democratic patriotism. Unlike Greenfield Village, Colonial Williamsburg recreated a real place and a specific moment in time. When it opened to the public in 1934, the site’s approach to preservation became a model for best practices in preservation work. The Colonial Williamsburg project came at a cost, however, especially to many of Williamsburg’s working-class and black residents who were forced to relocate or leave the town altogether. Despite the fact that in the eighteenth century much of Williamsburg’s population was enslaved, that history was ignored in the interpretation. In fact, the Colonial Williamsburg workforce was segregated and the site essentially denied service to African American tourists by refusing to provide separate accommodations at hotels and restaurants.[ii]

By the end of the 1950s, several outdoor history museums had opened in the United States including The Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, New York (1944), Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts (1947), Old Salem, in North Carolina (1950), Historic Deerfield in Massachusetts (1952), and Plimoth Plantation (1957). Although they continued to be limited in the histories they communicated, many began to experiment with living history interpretation. The model was first used at Pioneer Village in Salem, Massachusetts (1930) when interpreters wore Puritan clothing and demonstrated seventeenth-century crafts. This third-person living history approach was also adopted at Old Sturbridge Village. At Plimoth Plantation, interpreters took it a step further, performing in first-person as famous figures like William Bradford, John and Priscilla Alden, and Miles Standish.

Changing Interpretive Models

The establishment of the Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums (ALHFAM) in 1970 indicated the popularization and professionalization of interpretation at outdoor history museums. Through annual conferences, bulletins, skills workshops, and other publications, ALFHAM has provided countless resources for professionals who seek to “bring history to life.” According to the organization’s website, “at the heart of ALHFAM’s mission is the responsibility to share practical knowledge and skills among those who make history relevant to contemporary lives.” Consequently, the organization provides invaluable and extensive resources for both their members and the general public who aim to better understand living history and living history farms.[iii]

The 1970s brought the tensions between entertainment and education at outdoor history museums to the fore. The employment of more academically trained historians at outdoor history museums led to challenges and changes to some of the interpretive practices at established sites like Colonial Williamsburg and Greenfield Village. For example, during the 1970s, Dr. Cary Carson led a team of scholars to develop a new interpretive program for Colonial Williamsburg that addressed criticisms that the site offered a sanitized version of the nation’s history. And in 1979, six African Americans were hired to interpret the history of enslavement. Under the leadership of Dr. Harold K. Skramstad, Greenfield Village also overhauled its interpretive plan. Historical research changed the interpretation of several buildings, a new African American Family History and Culture program was established, and a new living history farm opened. The expanded and more historically accurate interpretations of the past created more opportunities for education, but also raised new questions about how to ensure audiences departed with the intended message.[iv]

The decision to recreate a slave auction at Colonial Williamsburg brought these questions into sharp relief. In 1994, Christy Coleman, director of Colonial Williamsburg’s African American interpretation program, organized a performance titled Publick Times. Local African American political and religious groups opposed the event before it even began, arguing that performance trivialized a traumatic and painful history. Members from the Virginia branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) arrived on the day of the performance to protest. After witnessing the auction, NAACP political action director Jack Gravely changed his mind, explaining that the event had made the pain of enslavement real. But SCLC member Reverend Curtis Harris said that it was “a show, not an authentic history.”[v]

Conner Prairie in Fishers, Indiana has also been lauded and criticized for its experimental living history program, “Follow the North Star.” Conner Prairie interprets pioneer life through an 1886 farm and since the 1990s has also focused on the history of indigenous peoples. In 1999, African American staff member Michelle Evans worked with black leaders in Indianapolis to develop a ninety-minute program called “Follow the North Star” for visitors twelve years of age and older. Visitors played the role of fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad and interpreters were either “sympathetic allies” or “racist antagonists.” Four years later, the program won an Excellence in Programming Award from the American Alliance of Museums and in 2012 it received an Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH). But the program also drew criticism. Some white audiences reportedly giggled during the program and there were accusations that the program could be a traumatic experience for children of color. In response to criticisms, Conner Prairie CEO Norman Burns announced that it would “update” the program to “reflect the learning and needs of today and tomorrow’s audiences” in 2019. Burns explained that the new program would be reorganized in partnership with the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. [vi]

Many have noted that these experiments with living history can have complicated effects not only on audiences but also on interpreters. African Americans who interpret enslavement at Colonial Williamsburg often describe their feelings about their work as complex. As James Oliver Horton explained, the “prestige attached” to being an interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg is accompanied by the “somber realization that their workday centers on ‘playing slaves’ for a public audience that is often unsympathetic.” Thus, black and white interpreters frequently discuss the range of feelings that arise. Amy M. Tyson examined the cost of this kind of “emotional labor” in her study of Historic Fort Snelling in St. Paul, Minnesota. In 2008, the Fort began to expand its focus on military history to include histories of enslavement and American colonialism. Tyson explains that some interpreters were reluctant to share these histories because they sought to create a positive, meaningful connection with visitors. When interpreters did share the traumatic and painful histories of the Fort, the emotional cost was high. Further, she asserts, “between demonstrating tasks like blacksmithing or laundry, drawing meaningful connections across time, and monitoring their own and the visitors’ emotional states, interpreters engaged in presenting painful histories might find themselves working . . . on an ever-accelerating assembly line of emotional production.” These increasing demands on frontline employees are rarely, if ever, met with adequate compensation.[vii]

Best Practices and the Visitor Experience

Professionals working at outdoor history museums continue to work toward emphasizing the educational experience by honing living history techniques and developing best practices. In 2009, AASLH, the Institute for Learning Innovation, Conner Prairie Living History Museum, and Old Sturbridge Village engaged in an expansive study of visitors through a leadership grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services titled “The Outdoor Living History Museum Interpretation Research Project.” The goals of the study were to test the best practices used at each site and to understand how the visitor experience at outdoor living history museums changed over time. The study of visitors included not only on-site questionnaires and interviews with audiences and interpreters, but also follow-up telephone interviews with the same visitors at two weeks and three months after their visits. The findings included extensive discussions of the value of various living history methods, an assessment of the best practices used, and an analysis of visitors’ experiences.[viii]

The power of outdoor history museums to connect audiences with the past is undeniable. Due to their form, they offer abundant opportunities to experiment with learning through hands-on, immersive activities. Visitors are transported into the past through interactions with preserved or replicated buildings and by living history interpreters. But what are the consequences for audiences and interpreters immersed in painful pasts? Are these opportunities for consciousness raising or do they trivialize experiences of social injustice? What are the emotional costs for interpreters? How do outdoor history museums balance their natural affinity for entertainment with educational goals? Like many museums, numerous outdoor history museums have struggled financially since the 2000s. As pressures mount for them to stay afloat, these questions will become more pressing.[ix]

Notes

[i] Rodris Roth, “The New England, or ‘Old Tyme,’ Kitchen Exhibit at Nineteenth-Century Fairs,” in The Colonial Revival in America, ed. Alan Axelrod (New York: Norton, 1985), 159-183; Sten Rentzhog, Open Air Museums: The History and Future of a Visionary Idea (Kristianstad, Sweden: Carlssons, 2007), 4-32.

[ii] Anders Greenspan, Creating Colonial Williamsburg (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002), 16-76.

[iii] Greenspan, 142-43; “Our History,” The Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums (2014), https://www.alhfam.org/Our-History#history; “ALHFAM Resources,” The Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums (2014), https://www.alhfam.org/Resources-main.

[iv] Greenspan, 148-177; Cary Carson, “Teaching History at Colonial Williamsburg” (Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1985); “Greenfield Village Didn’t Always Get It Right,” UPI Archives, June 2, 1991, https://www.upi.com/Archives/1991/06/02/Greenfield-Village-didnt-always-get-it-right/1950675835200/; “Firestone Farm—Dedication—Item 30,” The Henry Ford, https://www.thehenryford.org/collections-and-research/digital-collections/artifact/406616/; “America’s Stories Come to Life,” The Henry Ford, https://www.thehenryford.org/history-and-mission/americas-stories-come-to-life/.

[v] James Oliver Horton, “Slavery in American History: An Uncomfortable National Dialogue” in Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory, eds. James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 50; Greenspan, 163-164; “‘Slave Auction’ Divides Crowd in Williamsburg,” The Baltimore Sun, October 11, 1994, https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/bs-xpm-1994-10-11-1994284095-story.html.

[vi] Cherstin M. Lyon, Elizabeth M. Nix, and Rebecca K. Shrum, Introduction to Public History: Interpreting the Past, Engaging Audiences (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield/AASLH, 2017), 141-46; “Good Morning: Conner Prairie to Change Its Follow the North Star Program,” The Herald Bulletin, April 22, 2019 https://www.heraldbulletin.com/news/local_news/briefs/good-morning-conner-prairie-to-change-its-follow-the-north/article_48ecefc8-47f2-50ea-b840-74f2e416fb1a.html; Scott Magelssen, “This is Drama. You Are Characters’: The Tourist as Fugitive Slave in Conner Prairie’s ‘Follow the North Star,” Theatre Topics 16, no. 1 (March 2006): 19-34; Olivia Lewis, “Conner Prairie Slavery Re-Enactment Draws Criticism,” Indianapolis Star, August 7, 2016, https://www.indystar.com/story/news/2016/08/06/conner-prairie-slavery-re-enactment-draws-criticism/82987036/.

[vii] Horton, 52; Amy M. Tyson, The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013), 145-171.

[viii] “The Outdoor Living History Museum Interpretation Research Project,” American Association for State and Local History, March 2009, http://download.aaslh.org/AASLH-Website-Resources/The+Outdoor+Living+History+Museum.pdf.

[ix] Mitchell B. Reiss, “An Open Letter to the Colonial Williamsburg Community,” Making History: Inspiration for the Modern Revolutionary, June 29, 2017, https://www.scribd.com/document/352531032/Open-Letter-to-Colonial-Williamsburg-Community.

Suggested Readings

Allison, David B. Living History: Effective Costumed Interpretation and Enactment at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield/AASLH, 2016.

Greenspan, Anders. Creating Colonial Williamsburg. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002.

Magelssen, Scott. Living History Museums: Undoing History Through Performance. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2007.

Peers, Laura. Playing Ourselves: Interpreting Native Histories at Historic Reconstructions. Lanham, MD: Altamira Press, 2007.

Rentzhog, Sten. Open Air Museums: The History and Future of a Visionary Idea. Kristianstad, Sweden: Carlssons, 2007.

Swigger, Jessie. History is Bunk: Assembling the Past at Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014.

Tyson, Amy M. The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.

~ Jessie Swigger is an Associate Professor in the History Department at Western Carolina University where she also serves as Director of the Public History Program. Her book, “History is Bunk”: Assembling the Past at Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village was published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 2014. She is currently writing a history of the first four children’s museums in the United States.

Public Folklore

Dorothy Sara Lee interviewing emcee Clifford Wolfe, Sr. at the 1983 Omaha Powwow in Macy, Nebraska. American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, Omaha Powwow Project collection. Photo credit: Carl Fleischhauer.

Public folklorists collaborate with communities to enable them to sustain their traditions on their own terms. They engage in activities designed to both safeguard traditions locally and present them to new audiences. Like public historians, public folklorists facilitate self-representation by communities of their own history and culture, engage in collaborative documentation projects, and produce interpretive programming. For history museums and other historical organizations, embracing public folklore opens up remarkable opportunities to combine documentation of living traditions with presentations by traditional practitioners and collection of the material culture of groups underrepresented in the historical record.

All folklorists today take an expansive approach to the social base of folklore. It is practiced by groups that share a common identity such as ethnicity, occupation, region, and gender. They acquire folklore informally, typically through oral tradition and by example. Practitioners of folklore create innovations within the conventions of their traditions. Folklorists learn their academic discipline of folklore studies in masters and doctoral programs in a number of North American universities. During the late twentieth century, folklore studies shifted focus from concentration upon recorded texts to a view of folklore as contextually shaped and emergent. Public folklore embodies this more dynamic approach through programming that represents the customary contexts of performance and emphasizes folklore as living tradition.

Dialogism and Shared Authority

Public folklore is dialogical in character. Like public history that champions “shared authority,” public folklore embodies ideas that have been closely associated with the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin. He contended that meaning is constructed through a multiplicity of voices. Dialogism is an open, ongoing practice, in sharp contrast to the fixed meanings of monologism.[i] Public folklorists engage in “cultural conversations,” which Nick Spitzer defines as the negotiation of mutual representations between folklorists and the communities represented “in the media, on the festival stage or in the text.”[ii]

In public folklore as in oral history, narratives provide distinctive perspectives about historical experiences and events. They contest, corroborate, or provide alternative evidence about history. The Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston project, for example, countered media representations of survivors of the 2005 hurricanes as victims and criminals. Hurricane survivors relocated to Houston were trained by folklorists to collect each other’s narratives in a field school. The project was presented to the public through an exhibition and website featuring compelling narratives. While folklorists Pat Jasper and Carl Lindahl framed the overall organizational and programmatic structure of the project and provided technical direction for the use of equipment, they took a hands-off approach to interpretation of the experience of the survivors, who were told that they were the experts. Lindahl emphasizes the importance of yielding interpretive authority to community members: “sovereignty over one’s story is a guiding precept.” Folklorists like Lindahl accept the narrative truth of legends that might not have a factual basis for historians but are believed to be true by the narrators. Lindahl contends that Katrina and Rita disaster narratives serve as an “essential vernacular tool for expressing how the tellers feel about the prevailing social order and for helping their communities seek explanations that square with their convictions.”[iii]

Like Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston, the Place Matters project of City Lore provides alternatives to dominant representations of history. On its website, Place Matters documents, advocates for, and presents places in New York City of local vernacular significance, especially those at risk of destruction. Community members nominate places rich in personal and local collective memory for inclusion. They include a beloved luncheonette, Chinese general store, storefront mosque, and neon sign company. City Lore documents some of the sites and curates the Place Matters website. It instructs community members about documentation practices, advocacy, and protection through an online toolkit.

Public folklore projects vary in the extent of curation and interpretive direction by the folklorist. Place Matters includes both user-generated content and curation by City Lore, in contrast to Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston, which put interpretation and program content in the hands of community members. However, both projects were conceived by folklorists, who provided overall framing for project activities.

Public folklorists carry out programs designed to train community members to document and present folklore. The Kentucky Arts Council’s Community Scholars Program, for example, operates a field school that teaches participants the use of documentary equipment, fieldwork ethics, project design, grant writing, and archival methods. Its training has resulted in programs that include Funeral Traditions of the South, a regional traveling exhibition, and the Mountain Mushroom Festival, featuring traditions associated with morel mushrooms.

Geraldine Johnson interviews Ruth Newman while she cooks in her aunt’s home in Galax, Virginia. American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project Collection. Photo credit: Lynn Scott Eiler.

Field Research

As living tradition, folklore is both rooted in the past and re-created each time it is practiced and performed. It maintains collective memories, local knowledge, and traditional aesthetics but often encounters sustainability challenges in the contemporary world. Field research serves as a foundation for programming that includes exhibitions, websites, folklore and education programs, demonstrations of material culture, presentations of narrative, apprenticeships, and festivals incorporating multiple types of presentations.

Folklore field research creates enduring historical records of cultural practices in context. Field researchers observe and participate in the traditions they document in addition to conducting interviews. As they document, folklorists build rapport with community members, paving the way for sharing traditions beyond customary contexts of family, friends, and neighbors. Audio recordings, still photographs, and video footage produced in field research are selectively used in exhibitions, online publications, websites, audio productions, and videos. The American Folklife Center’s (AFC) Folklife and Fieldwork: An Introduction to Cultural Documentation is a guide for community based folklore fieldwork that can also be used for related areas of cultural documentation. The AFC also provides links for additional resources on fieldwork practices, ethics, and intellectual property.

Archives

Folklore archives make folklore documentation publicly available, both online and through their physical archival facility. They are valuable historical resources, containing substantial information about practitioners of traditions and the contexts of cultural practices accompanying audio and video recordings, photographs, and transcribed texts. Folklore archives include materials collected decades ago along with recently collected field research. They contain metadata about the context and circumstances of collection and information about the background of the traditional practitioner as well as images and recordings of performances. Release forms completed at the time of research indicate any restrictions for use of materials deposited in archives. The Folklore Collections Database of the American Folklore Society provides searchable information about folklore archives throughout the United States.

Exhibitions and Public Programs

The South Florida Folklife Center of HistoryMiami, a history museum, engages in documentation of material culture as well as oral traditions. It carries out ongoing documentation of traditions practiced locally that have included Afro-Cuban orisha religious practices, prosforo bread used in Greek Orthodox services, and cigar rolling. Its folklife gallery exhibits objects collected in its ongoing research. HistoryMiami’s Artist-in-Residence series features artists documented by its folklife center. The Flipside Kings, a B-Boy dance crew founded in 1994, have been among HistoryMiami’s artists in residence.

Viewing its entire event as a cultural conversation, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival consists of modes of presentation designed for dialogical engagement among traditional practitioners, audience members, and the “presenter,” a folklorist or knowledgeable community member who frames and facilitates interactions. Workshop participants present their tradition and speak about the place of it in their community, the characteristics of the cultural practices they are presenting, and the sustainability of their traditions, among other topics. Audience members join in the discussion and share their own experiences and cultural knowledge. Narrative stages involve the sharing of stories among participants and the exchange of points of view about issues like environmental threats and language revitalization. Crafts demonstrations and performances of music and dance are presented in close proximity to audience members, facilitating dialogue. They are participatory in character, with audience members trying their hand at crafts and responding to music with dance steps demonstrated by performers.

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival generates much critical discussion, both from outside scholars and by folklorists working on the festival. Reflections on the Folklife Festival: An Ethnography of Participant Experience critically considers the concerns of participants at the 1987 Festival and “Michigan on the Mall” contains responses by folklorists involved in the festival that year. Curatorial Conversations: Cultural Representation and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival includes essays by festival curators that illustrate the dialogical negotiation occurring throughout the development of the festival. Olivia Cadaval, one of the editors of the volume, discusses how she deferred to participants as part of the “reordering of curatorial authority” and “reimagining [of] power relationships.” She describes participants appropriating interpretive frameworks and taking over spaces for impromptu performances.[iv] Other critical discussions of the festival published previously noted unsuccessful presentations due to presentational frames inhibiting interaction and ineffective mediation by Smithsonian presenters. Presenting live human beings in such a self-styled “living museum” is challenging. When successful, it provides dynamic and frank intercultural dialogue. But it can also negatively objectify participants in the eyes of audience members and fail to facilitate intercultural communication.

Through folklore and education programs, children document traditions of their own families and communities, including children’s folklore. Their exploration of local heritage elevates the status of aspects of history and culture overlooked in curricula. Folklore and education programs relate to many different subjects, even including math through relating quilts to geometry. Louisiana Voices is a comprehensive folklore curriculum that touches multiple subjects. Its Oral Traditions: Swapping Stories unit has particular resonance for public historians. It includes both legends and other narratives recorded generations ago as well as stories that children can discover in their own community. Local Learning: The National Network for Folk Arts in Education provides folklore and education resources of particular value to educators.

Apprenticeships strengthen chains of transmission for traditions no longer widely practiced. Many statewide folk arts programs provide support for the pairing of a master folk artist with another member of their own community with appropriate skills as an apprentice. Apprenticeships are carried out in a series of lessons through time-tested ways centered on side-by-side learning to make a craft or perform music or dance through example and oral tradition. The apprentice may be provided with opportunities to perform publicly with the master artist. On its website, the folk arts program of the Massachusetts Cultural Council includes highly detailed information about the apprenticeships it has supported and its master folk artists.

Support at the State, Federal, and International Levels

State folk arts programs are pillars of a national infrastructure of programs devoted to ongoing documentation, presentation, and services to individual artists. Over 40 of these programs are supported by the Folk and Traditional Arts Program of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). They are mainly situated in state arts councils. Others are in state humanities councils or universities, and a few state programs are operated by non-profit folklore organizations. The programs in Mississippi, New York, Virginia, California, and Missouri represent the institutional and programmatic variety of state programs. The state programs work closely with local non-profit organizations involved with folklore, providing support through funding and carrying out collaborative programming in multiple venues. In addition to the NEA’s program, national folklore programs and organizations include the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, and the National Council for the Traditional Arts (NCTA). The American Folklore Society (AFS), founded in 1888, serves public folklore as well as academic folklore, with an abundance of information about the field of folklore and other resources on its website.

Globally, an upsurge in folklore inventorying, recognition of significant traditions, and sustainability initiatives have resulted from UNESCO’s 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. The convention has been signed by over 175 nations, but not by the United States. Activities set in motion by the convention and resources provided by UNESCO eschew the terms “folklore,” “folklife,” and “folk arts,” which have negative resonances for some countries associated with their experience of extremist, nationalist, and totalitarian regimes that utilized folklore to further their political agendas. The principal Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) activities undertaken in association with UNESCO include the inventorying of traditions, at times undertaken through substantive field research, and two global lists: the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity and the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Urgent Need of Safeguarding. ICH safeguarding measures are now being developed and disseminated, utilizing approaches like those that American public folklore has employed for the past four decades.

Conclusion – Public Folklore, Public History and New Horizons for Heritage Collaborations

In many nations the heritage field now encompasses multiple disciplines working together within academic and government programs. In contrast, heritage disciplines in the United States are compartmentalized, limiting the advancement of shared interests and the development of more comprehensive approaches to heritage preservation and sustainability. Public folklorists and public historians can point the way to fruitful collaboration among heritage disciplines. They share common goals of enabling community cultural self-determination. Both have developed a variety of methods for collaborative documentation and programming. Public historians and public folklorists engage in critical reflection about their practice and relationships to the communities they serve. While there have been all too few joint projects or dialogue about their approaches, greater mutual engagement could be readily accomplished and bring rich rewards. Public folklorists are adept at producing presentations of material culture and performance traditions that provide compelling expressions of community heritage for public history programming. The performance of legends, narratives of historical experience, and traditional folk songs about historical events can add vivid dimensions in the voices of community members expressing their historical legacies. For their part, public folklore programs can benefit from deeper historical perspectives provided by public historians. And, both fields can benefit from the exchange of ideas about methods for presenting history and culture, sharing authority with communities, and equipping communities to represent their histories and cultures on their own terms.

Notes

[i] See Mikhail M. Bakhtin, The Dialogical Imagination (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981); and, Mikhail M. Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoyevsky’s Poetics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).

[ii] Nick Spitzer, “Cultural Conversations: Metaphors and Methods in Public Folklore,” in Public Folklore, eds. Robert Baron and Nick Spitzer (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi Press, 2007), 77-103, quotation on 99. Originally published by Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.

[iii] Carl Lindahl, “Legends of Hurricane Katrina: The Right to be Wrong, Survivor-to-Survivor Storytelling, and Healing,” Journal of American Folklore 125, No. 496 (Spring 2012): 139-176, quotations on 153, 143.

[iv] Olivia Cadaval, “Imagining a Collaborative Curatorial Relationship: A Reordering of Authority over Representation,” in Curatorial Conversations: Cultural Representation and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, eds. Olivia Cadaval, Sojin Kim, and Diana Baird N’Diaye (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2016), 155-175, quotation on 174.

Suggested Readings

Baron, Robert. “Public Folklore Dialogism and Critical Heritage Studies.” International Journal of Heritage Studies 22 (2016): 588-606.

______.  “Sins of Objectification? – Agency, Mediation and Community Cultural Self-Determination in Public Folklore and Cultural Tourism Programming.” Journal of American Folklore 123 (2010): 63-91.

Baron, Robert, and Nick Spitzer, eds. Public Folklore. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi Press, 2007. Originally published by Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.

Bauman, Richard, Patricia Sawin, and Inta Gale Carpenter. Reflections on the Folklife Festival: An Ethnography of Participant Experience. Special Publications of the Folklore Institute no. 2. Blooming­ton: Indiana University Folklore Institute, 1992.

Cadaval, Olivia, Sojin Kim and Diana Baird N’Diaye, eds. Curatorial Conversations: Cultural Representation and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2016.

Cantwell, Robert S. Ethnomimesis: Folklife and the Representation of Culture. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993.  

Cooley, Timothy J., editor. Cultural Sustainabilities: Music, Media, Language, Advocacy. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2019.

Dewhurst, Kurt, Patricia Hall and Charlie Seemann, eds. Folklife and Museums: Twenty-First Century Perspectives. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield/AASLH, 2017   

Feintuch, Burt, editor. The Conservation of Culture: Folklorists and the Public Sector. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1988.

Graves, James Bau. Cultural Democracy: The Arts, Community and the Public Purpose. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2005.

Hufford, Mary, ed. Conserving Culture: A New Discourse on Heritage. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1994.

Sommers, Laurie Kay, ed.  “Michigan on the Mall.” Special issue, Folklore in Use 2 (2): 1994.

Titon, Jeff Todd. “Sustainability, Resilience and Adaptive Management.” In The Oxford Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology, Svanibor Petton and Jeff Todd Titon, eds., 157-198. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Toelken, Barre. The Dynamics of Folklore. Logan: Utah State University Press, 1996.

~ Robert Baron directs the Folk Arts Program of the New York State Council on the Arts and teaches in the Master of Arts Program in Cultural Sustainability at Goucher College. He has been a Fulbright Senior Specialist in Finland, the Philippines and Slovenia, a Smithsonian Museum Practice Fellow, and Non-Resident Fellow of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African-American Research at Harvard University. Baron is a Fellow of the American Folklore Society and received its Benjamin A. Botkin award for significant lifetime achievement in public folklore. His research interests include public folklore, cultural policy, heritage studies, creolization and museum studies. His publications include Public Folklore, edited with Nick Spitzer; Creolization as Cultural Creativity, edited with Ana Cara; and articles in Curator, International Journal of Heritage Studies, Journal of American Folklore, Western Folklore and the Journal of Folklore Research. Baron holds a Ph.D. in Folklore and Folklife from the University of Pennsylvania.

Humanities Councils

This walking tour of the Greater Rosemont neighborhood in Baltimore was funded by the Maryland Humanities Council in 2010. The tour was led by Dr. Ed Orser, professor emeritus at UMBC, and included as speakers members of the Evergreen Protective Association, including Kirin Smith, featured here. Photo credit: Baltimore Heritage, Wikimedia Commons.

A network of fifty-six nonprofit organizations located in every state and U.S. territory, humanities councils have been a significant supporter of public history since their creation in 1971. An offshoot of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), their founding purpose was to democratize humanistic knowledge and methods by bridging the gap between scholars and the public.

Humanities councils encourage humanities activities everywhere—through museums, libraries, archives, historical societies, cultural organizations, and colleges and universities in rural communities, urban neighborhoods, and suburban towns. Their grant programs, which are locally-focused, are more accessible to many public historians than NEH grants, which are geared towards national projects. Public historians also work with councils as project scholars, grant reviewers, and board members.

Humanities Relevance

Since their creation, humanities councils have struggled with how to make their programs relevant to contemporary issues and appeal to a wide variety of audiences. This essay explores humanities councils’ current efforts to foster diversity and inclusion. It also analyzes how the definition of diversity and inclusion changed over time for the councils, showing how they responded to societal concerns at three critical junctures by creating particular kinds of programs. It concludes with thoughts about the future of diversity and inclusion for humanities councils.

In the early twenty-first century, declining funding and support for the humanities led to a wave of articles and reports on the crisis in the humanities. Councils responded by forcefully asserting the role of the humanities in helping people deal with issues of contemporary relevance. As the nation debates immigration policy and Black Lives Matter, for example, councils are offering programs to help contextualize these complex issues. In 2016, Oregon Humanities offered a program called “Why Aren’t There More Black People in Oregon?: A Hidden History,” that examined how Oregon became one of the whitest states in the nation. Alabama Humanities Foundation gave workshops to law enforcement officers on the history of the Scottsboro Boys, a 1931 case in which nine African American teenagers were wrongfully convicted of rape by all-white juries. This historical context is used to answer the question of “how we got where we are today in terms of persistent social, economic, cultural, and racial issues often dividing communities and presenting challenges in terms of police/community relations.”[i] In 2016, the NEH created an initiative called “Humanities and the Legacy of Race and Ethnicity in the United States,” which supported a range of programming. Some councils created their own grant programs with the funding, supporting projects developed by local organizations. The Arizona Humanities Council offered a series of programs utilizing many public humanities methodologies, including writing workshops, film screenings, a history immersion tour, and panel discussions. Ohio Humanities offered speakers on topics including African American history, immigration history, and nativism to spur discussions about U.S. society today.

Key Questions

While the names of these programs are new, the questions they raise are old ones. What makes the humanities meaningful to the general public? What do we mean by the general public anyway? For decades, humanities councils grappled with issues of diversity and inclusion as they struggled to come up with answers to these questions. From 1971 to the early 1980s, diversity was defined as reaching non-academic audiences with humanities content delivered by credentialed scholars. One way this objective was accomplished was by connecting humanities scholars with public policymakers, with the hope that the scholars would shape policies being created. These policies would, in turn, affect everyday Americans. In the 1980s, multiculturalism defined diversity. Council programs delved into the pluralism of communities, celebrating heritage and culture. In response to the move to multiculturalism, conservative politicians waged the culture wars in the 1990s against the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), as well as the NEH and humanities councils. In the 1990s and 2000s, seeing the hardening of partisan political lines between conservatives and liberals nationwide, councils moved towards civic dialogue and community conversation as a noncontroversial way to find common ground. Today, councils talk about diversity and inclusion in a variety of ways. They want to attract audiences that are diverse in terms of race, class, gender, sexuality, and age. Councils are experimenting with new kinds of programming created by nontraditional humanities organizations that takes place in community spaces and that involve people as participants, not passive audiences. The keywords today are action and collaboration—humanists are working with communities to address what’s happening around us. Councils are also looking at their own executive leadership, staffs, and boards and asking why there are comparatively few people of color, women, and LGBTQ people in these important positions.

Historical Background of the National Endowment for the Humanities

To understand the role of the humanities councils in public history, it is necessary to give a brief overview of the creation of the NEH in 1965. The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union convinced the federal government to pump money into science, engineering, and technology. National reputation hinged on whether the Soviets or the Americans would land a man on the moon, for example. Humanities scholars and professional associations looked on enviously as their colleagues in science and technology benefitted from this funding. The National Commission on the Humanities, made up of the American Council of Learned Societies, the Council of Graduate Schools in America, and the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa—all scholarly organizations—released a “Report of the Commission on the Humanities” in 1964 that argued that the humanities were as important to national identity and international prestige as science and technology.[ii] It described a future without the humanities: technology without ethics, humans turned into automatons. The Cold War was being fought for nothing if the United States did not nurture its humanists, which it defined as scholars, artists, and teachers in disciplines including history, literature, philosophy, the arts, and others that were qualitative rather than quantitative. Their suggestion was to create a federal agency modeled on the National Science Foundation that would spend federal money on supporting the work of these scholars, artists, and teachers while also replenishing their ranks through graduate fellowships. The wider public would learn from these people, but the agency itself would not be in the business of reaching the public directly. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the National Arts and Humanities Act into law, creating two federal agencies, the NEH and NEA.[iii] In this legislation, the public humanities were envisioned as the foundation of democracy: “Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens,” which could not be gained through science alone. Instead, individuals needed to “recognize and appreciate the aesthetic dimensions of our lives, the diversity of excellence that comprises our cultural heritage, and artistic and scholarly expression.”[iv] The achievements of the past must be remembered to provide citizens with a common history and sense of pride. But, as public historians know, the devil is in the details. What do we mean by “our cultural heritage”? In articulating these goals, the legislation, which borrowed language from the ACLS report, created the public humanities that we know today.

Through the efforts of the National Commission on the Humanities and its first Chairman, Barnaby C. Keeney, the President of Brown University, the NEH was deeply tied to higher education and the needs of university-based academics. Its central activity was grant making, conducted by panels of academically-credentialed scholars, for research fellowships, publications, education, and public programs. The first funded NEH grant was to the American Society of Papyrologists to conduct a six-week training workshop for scholars who studied ancient writings on papyrus. Such a project suggests who the NEH saw as its main audience: academic scholars. The agency was not, however, entirely divorced from contemporary concerns. Other early grants supported public television programs on African American arts, Alaskan material culture, and the urban crisis. Interestingly, a substantial number of public program grants in the first five years of the NEH funded internship programs at museums.

Creating Humanities Councils

After just a few years of NEH grantmaking, Rhode Island Senator Claiborne Pell, who had helped write the legislation creating the agency (as well as the college loan program that bears his name), was dissatisfied with its impact. Rather than reaching local communities at the grassroots level, funding was supporting universities and scholarly research. If the humanities were really essential to democracy, then there needed to be a method of reaching non-academics with the insights of humanities scholars. The state humanities councils, which could work with local communities, were the solution. If the 1960s were a moment of expansion of federal power that made the NEH possible, Nixon’s New Federalism, which shifted power from the federal government to state governments, ironically created the conditions for the councils. Based on the state arts council model, the humanities councils (originally called committees on the humanities) were statewide outposts of the NEH that would offer grants and programs to smaller organizations who would be able to reach people everywhere. In 1971, the Federal/State Partnership was created as the liaison between the NEH and the network of state councils.

The mission of the humanities councils was to democratize knowledge. They wanted to connect humanities scholars with local communities in order to give people access to the research being done in universities. Over the next several decades certain trends in the public humanities emerged from these partnerships, each of which had implications for issues of diversity and inclusion. In the 1970s, when the NEH created the state councils, it mandated that they bring scholars into conversation with citizens about topics of public policy. Councils responded in two ways. First, councils created programs that gave citizens more information that would help them address the complex issues facing the nation, such as a 1977 symposium on “The Free Flow of Information: Government, Media and the Individual,” which brought 300 people, including journalists and scholars, together in Texas. In New Jersey, the council coordinated a series of talks on “The Juvenile Justice System: Who is Responsible?” Secondly, councils and the NEH paired historians, ethicists, philosophers, and literature scholars with policymakers to see if the result was better policy. In 1979, for example, the US Conference of Mayors received funding from the NEH to develop a humanities program for mayors, publishing two reports on its findings. The policy mandate felt limiting to some scholars, who didn’t see connections between their research and policy issues.

Multiculturalism and the Culture Wars

By the 1980s, the NEH and Congress had loosened the rules on what the councils could fund at the same moment that multiculturalism was bubbling up in universities. Diversity at this moment was defined through pluralism: the nation was made up of various groups with their own histories and cultural practices. Rather than melting together into something new, these groups coexisted like vegetables in a salad bowl, an oft-used metaphor. Moving away from an assimilationist model in which the humanities were defined as a canonical set of texts written by white men opened up avenues for different communities to engage and claim public space. In 1981, for example, the Illinois Humanities Council funded “Bridging the Gap.” The project videotaped a Baltic theater production and showed it to Eastern European immigrant organizations to discuss their heritage and values.[v] But multiculturalism as practiced in many public heritage programs flattened racial, ethnic, and religious difference into cultural symbols. The cultural heritage festival was emblematic of the problems with this model. Did eating a new food or watching a folk dance teach festival-goers about another race, ethnicity, or religion, or did it simply turn them into pleasurable experiences disconnected from real questions about history and power? While the acknowledgement of common humanity was valuable, the focus on heritage, folk culture, and aesthetic display seemed to argue that all groups had equal access to resources, which was simply untrue.

As inoffensive as the discourse of multiculturalism seems now, conservative government officials responded to what they perceived as an attack on American or Western values. NEH Chairman William Bennett (1981-1985) argued that multiculturalism had overtaken the canon of Western civilization. Without the shared values that the humanities, which Bennett and others defined through texts like the Bible and the plays of William Shakespeare, provided, what would hold our society together? Known as the “culture wars,” these debates escalated in the mid-1990s with the controversy over the Smithsonian’s exhibit on the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped an atomic bomb in Japan during World War II. Museum labels included the Japanese point of view, suggesting that the American narrative of the “good war” was one-sided. Politicians and commentators condemned the use of tax dollars being used to support these kinds of projects. Congress, led by Republicans, resoundingly said no, and cut funding to the NEA, as well as the NEH and state councils. Federal funding for the NEH plummeted in the mid-1990s and has never entirely recovered, though the NEH has maintained a steady level of support for the councils.[vi] Councils, however, have had to find other sources of funding through their state governments, foundations, and individual donors to deal with growing costs.

Civic Dialogue

The hardening of partisan lines during the culture wars suggested that there was little common ground for civic discussion. Congress made it clear it would use its power of appropriation to limit even slightly controversial perspectives. Councils responded by adopting civic dialogue as a major programming initiative in the late 1990s and 2000s. These community-based conversations convened people for discussion by trained facilitators. While earlier council programs like lectures or film programs encouraged mostly passive audiences, dialogue necessitated participation. Council practice paralleled discussions happening in museum circles around the dialogic or participatory museum which sought to shift authority from humanities scholars towards the audience allowing for more inclusive programs that valued the knowledge of community members as well as those with academic credentials.[vii] Community conversations centered on common issues and often utilized a shared text as a starting point. They happened in public library branches, churches, and hospitals, expanding where the public humanities took place. One long-running dialogue program is “Literature and Medicine: Humanities at the Heart of Healthcare,” which uses literature as the basis for conversations between healthcare professionals to help them manage burnout and develop better cultural sensitivity when interacting with patients from backgrounds different from theirs. Created by the Maine Humanities Council, it is offered by a number of councils across the country. Both Oregon Humanities and Humanities New York not only offer conversation-based programs, but train facilitators in how to lead these discussions.[viii] Showing how councils are bringing humanities programs into nontraditional spaces designed to appeal to different audiences, Think and Drink programs are held at bars. Humanities Washington’s Think & Drink offers hosted conversations on topics like feminism and protest since 1968.[ix]

Broadening Audiences

This chronology does not mean that one type of program was superseded by another. Instead, councils use all of the techniques discussed in this essay to this day. But just like decades ago, they are still trying to broaden the audience. One new audience that humanities councils and the NEH have identified are veterans. Recognizing that thousands of American military personnel were returning to civilian life after being involved in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the NEH and councils have made a concerted effort to reach this group and help their transition back to home life. Literature, history, facilitated conversation, and creative writing are some of the ways that councils have served this community.

Since their inception, councils have used media, especially radio, television, and documentary film, to spread the humanities to broad audiences. While the reach of such programs can be huge, it is impossible to know how much impact they have on viewers or who, exactly, is viewing them. For California Humanities the goal is creating more diverse media content. Grants from the California Documentary Project support media projects that tell lesser-known stories about diverse communities and are relevant to contemporary issues.[x] Digital humanities are a new focus for councils. For some, digital humanities extends their media programs in new directions. In the War Ink project, which California Humanities funded, veterans told stories through their tattoos, which was accompanied by an online interpretive exhibit. For other councils, online state encyclopedias or digital exhibitions increase accessibility of humanities resources. Councils also use social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, to communicate with their constituencies. But councils are not at the forefront of the digital humanities, perhaps because other funders, like the NEH, have more resources to support large-scale digital humanities projects. Certainly digital efforts will grow but councils, like museums, also see themselves as offering something increasingly rare in our networked world: real-life interaction.

Re-defining the Humanities Scholar

Today, diversity and inclusion is more than simply who attends programs. Humanities councils, like museums, libraries and archives, and other public history institutions, need to examine why their staff and boards of directors are often dominated by white middle-class educated professionals. One positive change is in the definition of “humanities scholar.” A humanities scholar is required to be part of every grant-funded project. Historically, humanities scholars had PhDs in humanities disciplines and university affiliations. Many councils have changed this requirement to include people like tradition bearers or community scholars who have deep knowledge, but no academic qualifications. This shift is critical because it signals to community members that their knowledge is valued and helps to counter the elitism that was present at the creation of the NEH and has dogged the public humanities since.

Conclusion

As this essay has argued, councils are part of a larger public humanities infrastructure. Like museums, libraries, and universities, they must critique themselves as part of debates around diversity and inclusion. Do they support neutral spaces for public dialogue or can they lift up the perspectives of economically and socially marginalized communities? Is the elitism that marked the development of the public humanities surmountable or do we need to create a new term to describe this work? What does it mean to serve all the residents of a state who have very different interests, needs, and political perspectives? Should councils take stands on public questions? These are the questions that state humanities councils must answer in the twenty-first century to become truly inclusive organizations.

Notes

[i] The Scottsboro Case and the Legacy of Law and Justice in Alabama, Alabama Humanities Foundation, http://www.alabamahumanities.org/programs/humanitiesandlaw/.

[ii] “Report of the Commission on the Humanities,” American Council of Learned Societies, http://www.acls.org/about/historical_documents/.

[iii] “National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965,” National Endowment for the Humanities, https://www.neh.gov/about/history/national-foundation-arts-and-humanities-act-1965-pl-89-209.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] “Straumanis backs cuts,” Southern Illinoisian, May 10, 1981.

[vi] “National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Funding Levels,” Humanities Indicators, https://www.humanitiesindicators.org/content/indicatordoc.aspx?i=75.

[vii] Linda Shopes, “The Museum of Chinese in America: Continuity and Change,” Cross Ties, https://march.rutgers.edu/the-museum-of-chinese-in-america-continuity-and-change/.

[viii] “What is the Conversation Project?” Oregon Humanities, https://oregonhumanities.org/programs/conversation-project/. “Community Conversations,” Humanities New York, http://humanitiesny.org/our-work/programs/community-conversations/.

[ix] Think & Drink, Humanities Washington, https://www.humanities.org/program/think-and-drink/.

[x] “California Documentary Project,” California Humanities, http://calhum.org/programs-initiatives/programs/california-documentary-project/.

Suggested Readings

Greenfield, Briann. “Making the Humanities Public: The Example of Connecticut’s Humanities Council.” The Public Historian 35, no. 1 (2013): 51-66.

Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. The Humanities and the Dream of America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences For a Vibrant, Competitive and Secure Nation. Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts & Sciences, 2013. https://www.amacad.org/content/publications/publication.aspx?d=21724.

Lynn, Elizabeth. An Ongoing Experiment: State Councils, the Humanities and the American Public. Kettering Foundation, 2013. https://www.kettering.org/catalog/product/ongoing-experiment-state-councils-humanities-and-american-public.

Rizzo, Mary. “Finding the Roots of Civic Engagement in the Public Humanities,” History@Work, National Council on Public History, July 21, 2014. http://ncph.org/history-at-work/finding-the-roots-of-civic-engagement/.

Zainaldin, Jamil. “Public Works: NEH, Congress, and the State Humanities Councils.” The Public Historian 35, no. 1 (2013): 28-50.

~ Mary Rizzo is an Assistant Professor in History and Associate Director of Public and Digital Humanities Initiatives for the Graduate Program in American Studies at Rutgers University-Newark. She worked for several years at the New Jersey Council for the Humanities. Currently, she is completing a book on how Baltimore has been represented in popular culture from the 1950s to the early twenty-first century. She tweets as @rizzo_pubhist and can be reached at mrizzonj@gmail.com.

Historic House Museums

Paul Revere House, ca. 1900, showing local children and Filippo Goduti, the proprietor of the cigar company that rented space in the building from 1898-1901. Photo credit: Paul Revere House.

History museums of all types are facing the reality of a society where the meanings of inclusion, diversity, access, and equity are changing; the fact is, audiences are changing, too. The challenge of attracting and welcoming increasingly diverse audiences has proven particularly difficult for historic house museums, which have long been criticized—often with good reason—for having outdated, narrow, and static interpretation. According to an influential critic, the primary reasons people dislike house museums are that they present interpretation that lacks a connection to the present and feature stories of people who have nothing in common with most contemporary visitors.

Public historians and museum professionals have long known that historic sites need to be willing to change their structure, programs, and services in response to the changing needs of their communities. Yet, many have struggled to make these necessary institutional transformations. Encouragingly, solutions to these challenges lie within the very nature of house museums. Rather than focus on what is wrong with historic house museums, this essay explores the potential that house museums hold for telling new stories while making older, familiar stories more inclusive and relevant.

Opportunities for New Interpretations

Historic houses offer a broad canvas for the consideration of a variety of themes and for experimentation with new interpretive techniques. They provide the unique opportunity to share compelling stories in the most intimate of spaces, the home. They can, if allowed, reflect the lives of the many rather than just the privileged few.

While most historic house museums have become known for the tenure of a famous person or prominent family, or as examples of the work of a particular architect or representation of an important style or period, they possess much greater interpretive potential. These structures were built by people (native born, enslaved, or immigrant); they served as workspaces for owners and workers (enslaved or domestic); and, they provided a safe place where closeted lives were lived openly. They were the stage for many of life’s most poignant moments and relatable themes: birth, death, illness, education, foodways, and celebrations. Within the familiar context of living spaces, inhabitants from a wide range of economic situations and backgrounds moved in and out over many years. Although it is easy to fall into the trap of allowing interpretation to be held hostage to the legacy of one person or architectural feature, it is important to explore interpretive options that go beyond the expected. The prospect of doing so is intrinsically exciting and motivating for many public historians and museum professionals. However, if the promise of access to more compelling stories is not incentive enough, or the challenges seem too great, perhaps a more self-serving argument will make the case: interpretation and programming that resonate with a wider audience are simply good for business. Many museums have experienced improved attendance as well as buy-in from the community as a result of efforts to make interpretation and programming more inclusive.

Models of Inclusive Interpretation

There is no question that this sort of change, whether modest or dramatic, takes initiative and commitment. The good news is that more and more house museums are making the effort to reimagine and expand their interpretations; they are striving to find more inclusive stories to share the stage with “the elephant in the room” of the famous family or the institutional tradition of “the way things have always been done.” What follows are some examples of how organizations have changed the dynamic.

From its inception, President Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, D.C., focused on making the past relevant to visitors. Its mission to “reveal the true Lincoln and continue the fight for freedom” is carried out in its interpretation, programs, and exhibitions, all of which seek “to inspire visitors to take their own path to greatness, and preserve this place as an authentic, tangible connection to the past and a beacon of hope for all who take up Lincoln’s unfinished work.” In this way Lincoln, the person, is transformed from a distant, romanticized hero into a call to action. Programs are offered that explore themes of injustice, division, and the importance of leadership. For example, an exhibition titled “American by Belief” introduces the public to the little-known fact that Lincoln championed policies that offered immigrants a chance to succeed based on the promise of the country’s founding principles.

For some time, the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, Connecticut, has been using its historic house to present and consider themes related to social justice. Its mission — “to preserve and interpret Stowe’s Hartford home and the center’s historic collections, promote vibrant discussion of her life and work, and inspire commitment to social justice and positive change”— makes the structure a container of ideas and thoughts rather than just a receptacle for interesting objects and famous figures. Through a significant reinterpretation effort and a reimagined tour that is described as “a conversational interactive tour where you can participate along with your guide,” all the house has to offer—stories, personalities, artifacts, and Victorian Gothic architecture—is used to promote discussion among visitors about social issues that resonate today. In this way, Harriet Beecher Stowe and her famous novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, have been transformed into even more effective tools for exploring the connections between past and present.

Another example of a dramatic shift in interpretive focus is the former Royall House Museum in Medford, Massachusetts. This high-style Georgian mansion was known as one of the finest colonial-era buildings in New England and it was precisely for this reason that the few hundred people who visited the house each year came. The interpretation was centered on the architecture of the home and the lives of the Royall family, loyalists who amassed great wealth in the triangular trade. The most compelling part of the story was the discussion of the lives of loyalists in New England where patriot stories generally rule.

What wasn’t discussed was the fact that the property included the only remaining slave quarters in the northern United States or that the Royalls were the largest slaveholding family in Massachusetts. The museum is now the “Royall House and Slave Quarters.” This name change alone alerts visitors that the story now gives equal weight to both the wealthy loyalist family and the enslaved Africans who made the Royalls’ lifestyle possible. The shift in perspective has transformed interpretation at the site and, along with programming relating the past to current issues, has helped the museum become more relevant and inclusive and has widened its audience considerably. In some ways, confronting the realities of slavery and the slave economy is more surprising in the North than it is in the South. Yet it is a crucial topic to explore and share with visitors.

Strategies for Implementation

Sound simple? Not in the least! When an organization like the Royall House Museum and Slave Quarters embraces the “what if we look into these other stories” epiphany, the true work has only begun. After much debate the museum’s board undertook a strategic planning process that resulted in a new mission and a new name. Careful consideration was given to how to make the case to board and staff, accomplish the necessary research, involve community stakeholders, and finally, how to prepare staff and volunteers to deliver these new stories to a surprised, or even resistant, audience.

What strategies should you employ to begin the process of making your historic sites more meaningful to all people?

Consider all the residents and consider the issues.

An initial step is to begin to give equal value to all the knowable moments in the long history of the home you run: How many families have lived or worked there? Who built the house or worked on the grounds? How might their stories be added to the current interpretation? What are the topics that meet your mission and are relevant to and can benefit your community? It was not a hard stretch for the Paul Revere House to begin shifting its interpretation by re-imagining one room as a reflection of the first owner of the house, a wealthy merchant in seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century Boston who had at least one enslaved person supporting his lifestyle. Moreover, in the over 100 years after Revere’s departure from the residence, the house served as home to owners, workers, and tenants, many of whom reflected the change in the neighborhood as immigrant populations came into Boston’s North End and rented or acquired property. The stories that unfolded at the site during the mid nineteenth century included those of a single woman named Lydia Loring who supported herself through real estate deals and taking in boarders, and later, the Wilkies, an Irish couple, who ran the Revere House as a boarding house for sailors and had a saloon on the first floor.

In addition, for each resident it is important to consider what was going on in the neighborhood, the country, and the world at the time. How might themes, such as economic fluctuations, war, political or ethnic conflict, slavery, women’s rights and roles, LGBTQ rights, religion, and education, allow you to seamlessly expand your story and relate to how we view the same topics today? These avenues provide additional hooks to engage visitors in ways that go beyond the story of one house, person, collection, or architectural style. This type of analysis also offers different lenses through which to consider the life of even a well-known resident. 

Involve your stakeholders and community.

If you are thinking of making a bold change or just a small one, it is imperative to work with your community. Arrange for opportunities to invite community members and key stakeholders to engage in open discussions about your ideas and to solicit their input before any plans are set. You may find you are overlooking some local sources of information, you may have inadvertently and unnecessarily stepped on some toes, or you may discover that rumors about what you are considering may be spreading and causing unwarranted concerns. Early buy-in from informed constituents may help you make the changes you seek. Or, if there are serious concerns or challenges ahead, it is far better to be prepared to address these issues than to be blindsided later in the process.

The Haymarket Project features photographs of the market, vendors (pushcarts and shops), workers, and customers collected over the course of an entire year to document the market. Oral histories reflect the stories of longtime vendors and more recent immigrants who have created a wide-ranging cross-section of cultures at Haymarket. Alyssa “Sina” Chhim came from Battambang, Cambodia, in 1982. She began working at stands and later a shop in the market. Sina got her own stand in October 2014. Photo credit: Courtesy Historic New England

Cultivate meaningful partnerships.

Partnerships, if mutually beneficial, can show that your historic house is sincere about being more open to new ideas and welcoming to new audiences. Since one-time deals rarely produce deep and sustainable institutional change, working with other organizations in the community is essential. Historic New England regularly engages with diverse groups through its Everyone’s History program. One such effort, the Haymarket Project, involved a series of short films, an exhibition, and a publication, which documented the outdoor market’s rich immigrant history. Interviews with longtime Italian vendors, newer vendors from more recent immigrant groups, and customers, along with photographs—all collected over the course of a year—revealed the daily life at the market, changes over time, and the challenges of encroaching development. Through walking tours, which include many of the vendors telling their own stories, this partnership has endured beyond the initial programs.

Research, research, research.

Once you know what story or group you want to explore, you will need to do the necessary research. You may find that suddenly you are seeing things that you missed. A cone of sugar displayed innocently on a table in a kitchen is, of course, evidence of the owner’s sweet tooth but is also evidence of the impact of the slave economy in Paul Revere’s Boston.

Artifacts have multiple layers of meaning depending on what questions you ask. Collections, photographs, and archives have, in some cases, been subject to bias in how they were cataloged, so every effort should be made to look for information in unexpected places.

Jennifer Pustz, author of Voices from the Back Stairs, suggests including the stories of people who are underrepresented in written sources. She advises starting with what little is known and documented about the person in question and being honest about what is not known and why that might be (privacy, social class, etc.). Research about an individual or individuals can, with care, be supplemented with generic information that is appropriate to the period and area.

At Historic New England’s Beauport, the Sleeper-McCann House in Gloucester, Massachusetts, researchers used other sources, such as oral histories, to interpret LBGTQ history when pertinent records did not survive. Where possible, reach out to the descendants of the people, including servants and workers, who called your property home. You will most likely see them surprised and then thrilled that you care about their family story. The Revere House reached out successfully to the family of F.A. Goduti, who ran a cigar store in the house, after one of his relatives recognized him in a photograph in a display.

Archeological collections and reports along with newly initiated investigations provide important information. Excavations at the Royall House Museum and Slave Quarters proved a treasure trove for reinterpretation, while similar investigations at the Paul Revere House provided insight into the lives of the immigrants who called the property home during the nineteenth century. Find ways to include interns in new research. Over the years the Paul Revere House has not only encouraged interns to do research on the various immigrant groups that lived in the neighborhood, but also published their work as articles in its newsletter.

Seek assistance.

If the topics that emerge take you into unfamiliar territory, seek the assistance of trusted scholars or museum colleagues. Be mindful to include Native American scholars or specialists if you are researching your site for connections to indigenous peoples. The same holds true for research pertaining to racial, ethnic, sexual, and class identities as well as religious groups.

If board members, staff, or volunteers don’t understand the value of fleshing out the stories connected to either your famous moment or lesser-known episodes, include them in the process. Use strategic planning to explore the opportunity to reach new audiences with a new vision. Reach out to other house museums that have had success in making changes and ask for advice.

Build staff and board buy-in.

It is important to ensure that your board and staff reflect the community you serve. This kind of change requires institutional will. To involve people with your historic site, you may need to first show good faith by taking some programmatic risks in order to convince your community that your organization is truly embracing change. We are not saying this is easy and it does take time. In addition to including different racial and ethnic groups, welcoming new voices to the board or staff also means being more cognizant of age, gender, sexual orientation, and/or people with differing abilities. There are resources out there to help; MASS Action, is a central point for resources, learning, and communication between institutions engaging in promoting diversity, inclusion, equity, and accessibility. Its toolkit offers resources for use in creating greater equity within the museum field.

Visitors respond to seeing diversity in staffing. This shows that the organization reflects multiple perspectives and is open to a range of ideas. Historic New England advertises staff positions and internships in both traditional outlets and non-traditional sources. The organization offers paid diversity internships to students of color to encourage them to pursue careers in the field by promoting the program to schools and universities with substantial populations of historically under-represented and underserved students.

Conclusion

If historic house museums want to be relevant, inclusive, and diverse, they need to diversify their boards and staffs and work closely with their communities. House museums need to step back and look at the stories they are telling and the ones that remain unexplored. Whether at the Paul Revere House, where many of the changes have been real but subtle; or the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, where a change in interpretive techniques now invites discussion; to the major change at the Royall House and Slave Quarters, which now gives equal weight to the interpretation of the enslaved population and the wealthy loyalist family: all have produced richer, more compelling stories. These varied tales of human experience offer visitors from all walks of life, ethnic backgrounds, educational levels, and lifestyles a way to see themselves in both the lives of the famous and of the less well known. 

Suggested Readings

van Balgooy, Max A., ed. Interpreting African American History and Culture at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield/AASLH, 2015.

Bench, Raney. Interpreting Native American History and Culture. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield/AASLH, 2014.

Ferentinos, Susan. Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield/AASLH, 2015.

Forum on Historic Site Stewardship in the 21st Century. National Trust for Historic Preservation. 2007. https://forum.savingplaces.org/viewdocument/introduction-the-call-for-a-nation.

Gallas, Kristin L., and James DeWolf Perry, eds. Interpreting Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield/AASLH, 2014.

LGBTQ Heritage Theme Study. National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/subjects/tellingallamericansstories/lgbtqthemestudy.htm.

Pustz, Jennifer. Voices from the Back Stairs Interpreting Servants’ Lives at Historic House Museums. Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2009.

Rose, Julia. Interpreting Difficult History at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield/AASLH, 2016.

Turino, Kenneth C., and Max van Balgooy, eds. Reinventing the Historic House Museum, New Approaches and Proven Solutions. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield/AASLH, 2019.

~ Kenneth C. Turino is Manager of Community Engagement and Exhibitions at Historic New England and Nina Zannieri is Executive Director of the Paul Revere Memorial Association.