Thoughts on the National Women’s History Museum, Women’s History Scholars, and Public History

 

Earlier this month on my blog, I commented on an article by historian Sonya Michel in the New Republic entitled “The National Women’s History Museum Apparently Doesn’t Much Care for Women’s Historians.” In the article, Michel writes that in the midst of Women’s History Month, Joan Wages, the president and CEO of the National Women’s History Museum, told Michel and her fellow historians on the museum’s Scholarly Advisory Council:

that our services were no longer needed. For three years, we had been trying to help Wages’ nonprofit organization develop an overall vision for the institution it hopes to build on the National Mall. Oddly, this move came just as the NWHM is about to win the preliminary congressional approval for the project it has been seeking for sixteen years. But the enabling legislation, which will set up an exploratory commission, offers no guarantee that scholars who have built the field of women’s history will have a role in the institution. Both Wages and lawmakers seem to think that a women’s history museum doesn’t need women’s historians. Without them, however, historians fear that the exigencies of congressional politics and day-to-day fundraising will lead to the creation of a museum that seeks to be as non-controversial as possible—whatever the cost to its scholarly reputation.

This dismissal of scholars, says Michel,

followed yet another example of a museum offering that embarrassed those of us who were trying to ensure that the institution was adhering to the highest standards in our field. In mid-March, the museum announced that it had launched a new online exhibit, “Pathways to Equality: The U.S. Women’s Rights Movement Emerges,” in conjunction with the Google Cultural Institute. Never informed that the exhibit was in the works, much less given an opportunity to vet it, we were appalled to discover that it was riddled with historical errors and inaccuracies. To pick just one example: Harriet Beecher Stowe was described as having been “born into a family of abolitionists” when, from the time of her birth through her young adulthood in the 1830s, her family actively opposed the abolitionist movement. “Pathways to Equality,” noted Kathryn Kish Sklar, the nineteenth-century specialist who pointed out the error, “could have been written by a middle-school student.

A few days later, the New Republic published the National Women’s History Museum’s reply to Michel’s article and Michel’s rejoinder. Meanwhile, the Berkshire Conference on Women’s History issued a public statement on the issue, indicating that while the Conference “enthusiastically supports the creation of a National Women’s History Museum . . . The officers and trustees of the Berkshire Conference believe strongly that scholars of the field of U.S. women’s history should be represented on the commission to create a museum of women’s history. We are drafting a letter to the women of the U.S. Senate, asking that they amend S. 398, the bill to establish a Commission to Study the Potential Creation of a National Women’s History Museum Act, to ensure the participation of professional women’s historians.” The Berkshire Conference asked women’s history scholars to please consider signing this petition to the women of the U.S. Senate.

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The American Historical Association also issued a public statement expressing similar concerns about whether women’s historians or museum professionals would be involved in the planning and implementation of the museum. In reply to the AHA’s claim that the museum seemed “insufficiently aware of the importance of including qualified scholars in the field of women’s history in the planning process” of a new museum, Joan Wages sent a letter stating she was “surprised that an organization of AHA’s stature, which was founded to establish professional standards for historical research that include comprehensive review of available evidence, would make such an assertion without contacting the organization represented for verification. Had you contacted NWHM, you would have learned that this organization fully supports the inclusion of qualified scholars in planning a proposed national museum on the subject of American women’s history.”

Wages noted that the museum had “a record of including professional historians and scholars in the development and execution of its public programming,” as indicated on the organization’s website. Wages said that AHA and others had “conflated the recent dissolution of NWHM’s national scholar advisory committees with our support of H.R. Bill 863, which does not explicitly stipulate that scholars would be required Commission members.” H.R. Bill 863 “calls for the formation of a Congressional Commission to produce a feasible plan for a national women’s history museum.” This Commission, which would be funded by NWHM, would produce “recommendations with respect to a plan of action for the establishment and maintenance of a National Women’s History Museum in Washington, D.C.” but it “would not recommend potential exhibits, programs, or a mission.” Wages says this is different from the museum’s prior legislative strategy, which “would have provided an exhibit plan for the proposed museum.” As a result of this change in tactics, “NWHM was advised to discontinue work on a potential museum’s exhibit plan while it awaits the Commission’s recommendations.”

Wages says that since the scholarly advisory committees were created to advise the NWHM on the museum’s content, “the purpose for which they were created no longer exists,” and the committees were dissolved. Wages noted, “we are grateful for the time and dedication of the scholars who volunteered to serve on the committees, and we continue to engage individual scholars on projects related to their specific areas of expertise.” Wages said that “in addition to including scholars in planning a new museum, we believe that it is critically important to involve stakeholders such as K-12 educators, history makers, women’s organizations, community groups, and affinity groups among others for whom history can have a deep and meaningful impact. We hope that you would agree.”

On my own blog I described that I read Michel’s article a month after attending an excellent session on “Gender: Just Add Women and Stir?” at the National Council on Public History meeting in Monterey. The session reported on a 2013 study trip to historic sites in and around Boston hosted by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. The participants in the study trip “were struck by the wide variety of ways they saw gender and sexuality interpreted — or in some cases, not interpreted at all.” The session discussed the question of “how do we move beyond the ‘just add women and stir’ model of gender interpretation?”

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I think the same question needs to be raised in discussion of the NWHM. Is having a women’s history museum on the Mall simply going to be a monument-size version of “just add women and stir” history?

After asking Marla Miller, Director of the Public History Program at University of Massachusetts, for more information on the survey results that informed her NCPH session, I have some further thoughts about where to go next in this debate. One of the questions the survey asked was “Where are the places (literal and virtual) where historians based in the academy and those based in historic sites most fruitfully exchange information? What conferences, publications or other venues have been most productive or seem most promising for this conversation?” The answers were not encouraging for those of us in the academy. “H-women got several shout-outs, though in the main, people felt that the conversation between university and college-based historians and public historians in the field had stalled.” One respondent wrote,” I think there is huge potential for all of us interested in women’s history to be leaders in showing the importance of interchange between academic and public historians / historic sites . . . Unfortunately, it seems to me the Berks and other women’s history venues are not as open to thinking about place and interpretation but I hope that is changing.”

A more pessimistic respondent said, “Honestly, I haven’t ‘exchanged information’ with the academy since grad school. I believe that in order for the academy and public historians (especially at small sites like mine) to better open up a conversation the academy needs to come down to our level more.”

This got me wondering, how can women’s historians in the academy open up a constructive discussion with the NWHM? Wages concluded her letter to the AHA by saying “We would be pleased to engage in a dialogue to explore possible, common ground.”

So, I ask my fellow professionals in women’s history and/or public history: If we take Wages up on her offer, what should we say? How far should we “come down to their level” while still maintaining scholarly integrity? Apparently the exhibits at the NWHM website are created by interns. What is their training? How do we harness this enthusiasm for women’s history and impart professional standards for public history?

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the organization promoting the project has disbanded its Scholarly Advisory Council, which was made up of 18 leading historians of women’s history. In addition, the legislation as written does not require that any historians or museum professionals be appointed to the eight-member bipartisan commission it would establish. – See more at: http://blog.historians.org/2014/04/aha-letter-proposed-national-museum-womens-history/#sthash.qM4yG8o6.dpuf
the organization promoting the project has disbanded its Scholarly Advisory Council, which was made up of 18 leading historians of women’s history. In addition, the legislation as written does not require that any historians or museum professionals be appointed to the eight-member bipartisan commission it would establish. – See more at: http://blog.historians.org/2014/04/aha-letter-proposed-national-museum-womens-history/#sthash.qM4yG8o6.dpuf
the organization promoting the project has disbanded its Scholarly Advisory Council, which was made up of 18 leading historians of women’s history. In addition, the legislation as written does not require that any historians or museum professionals be appointed to the eight-member bipartisan commission it would establish. – See more at: http://blog.historians.org/2014/04/aha-letter-proposed-national-museum-womens-history/#sthash.qM4yG8o6.dpufThe NWHM then issued a letter in response to the AHA’s public statement.

2 Comments

Brianna E. Dunlap

Ms. Prescott,

Common ground on which public historians and the ‘stakeholders’ can meet is possible. It is possible for myself, as a director of a small institute, when I actively seek connections with the community. As a new curator with mostly on-the-job training I find that I am compelled to discuss new exhibit ideas with locals so that I can get a better idea of what they want to see represented in a display.

As an example, I found that there is an overwhelming lack of discussion about the women who work tobacco, past and present. By testing the water with a direct email to female tobacco farmer, and by structuring discussions with female visitors who have worked in the fields and sheds, I am know getting positive feedback. Women want to be recognized!

My point is that direct contact with the target ‘audience’ makes for nice results in my case. Who knows, with the conversations that are starting, maybe I can turn unlabeled photos into a comprehensive exhibit fueled by the words and experiences of the women who it inspired.

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