What I mean by historians doing historian things reflects a conversation I had with my students this week wherein they articulated different approaches to history they’re seeing between my museum studies class and their graduate seminar in American history. Students noticed that the point of the academic book is to foreground an interpretive point—the thesis—and an historical argument is often made in a necessarily impenetrable fashion. In reading for my class, they find that historical theses of the academic type have been broken into narrative, deprioritized, and exist as one element in the larger relationship between audience and learning environment.
The NCPH’s History@Work blog recently posted a piece by an excellent Civil War historian, Ashley Luskey, that contemplates the implications of removing the Tiffany stained glass windows that commemorate Confederate leaders at St. Paul’s Church in Richmond, Virginia. Luskey says that St. Paul’s is “whitewashing…the past” by (potentially) decontextualizing the windows from their “original spatial context.” Instead, she advocates adding “contextualizing panels to the windows themselves…that better explain the history and complicated, contested symbolism of the windows.” In these prescriptions Luskey reflects the consensus that developed over the summer on the Civil War Internet—that the memorial landscape needs additional interpretation that interrogates the construction of racism in America.
Indeed, this is a dialog that needs to happen and museums should be at the center of it.
Yet this consensus by historians—that additional interpretation, usually via new labels or other direct, textual, material needs to be added—is astoundingly ill-informed by the literature on visitors and learning in museums produced by museum professionals and museum studies scholars. Without reference to this literature, advocates of interpretive interventions overlook fundamental tenets of current public history practice and ensure that these efforts will have no effect.
They lean on the notion, defunct for two generations now, that institutional authority delivering content knowledge is the key to museum learning. We know now that anticipated outcomes are just not based on the transfer of interpretive themes, but are conveyed through experience, physical knowing, and satisfaction of identity markers. My class has just finished reading John Falk’s Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience and he makes a critical point: museums’ actual content—exhibits, artifacts—is of such low priority on the visitor’s decision-making process that visitors tend to possess only a vague idea of what they are going to see, if at all. Content barely matters because visitors go to museums to satisfy the urge to have an experience, spend quality time with friends and family, to get away from the world, or the need to scratch an itch to explore. Visitors rarely go to acquire discrete knowledge about specific topics on display. (I certainly understand how we historians can project our own desires on visitors.) The implication is that you can add new interpretive panels to an old monument, but no one will notice because seeking out that information is not the point.
Falk’s observations point up another fundamental oversight in the current consensus—the audience is not present in our conversations. We do not, as far as I know, have any quantitative or qualitative data on audiences we hope to reach, strategies—developed using evaluation instruments—on how to reach them, and ways to anticipate potential outcomes and propel visitors toward them. This oversight is particularly mystifying since museology for a generation has been driven by concepts like the Constructivist Museum and Contextual Models of Learning, and currently promulgates the expectation that our museums and sites will become collaborative and participatory as strategies to ensure sustainability in a time of “public curation.” Having this discussion without knowing the audience will ensure that we have this discussion without the audience.
(One buzzword often invoked in describing sustainable strategies is “shared authority.” Unfortunately, Luskey, like most folks, misuses the phrase and compounds the error by violating the term’s current, larger, spirit. St. Paul’s in an unusual (maybe not!) place—it has an interpreted memorial landscape, but is not a museum. If I understand correctly, it is a congregation first and as such, it has every right to determine the environment it wishes to worship in. If the congregation wants to signal its identity as a post-Confederate place by removing these windows, then it should. In the dynamic of the “shared authority” ideal—we historians are the authorities that need to share—and that means that we have to know when to let go of the interpretive imperative to the social needs of our communities. Instead, Luskey condemns the congregants as taking the wrong side in a “morality play.”)
Mine is an admittedly limited view as it is informed by what we know about free choice learning in conventional history exhibits, whereas the public debate about CS things over the summer took place “out of doors.” (Indeed, museums in North Carolina went out of their way to remove themselves from the discussion.) Programmatic options like facilitated dialogues, public forums, non-free choice guided tours in memorial landscapes, or the things listed here (or here in the classroom) might be better ways to introduce a more direct, complex, thematic interpretation.
I am certain that the public dialog about Confederate things will die down, if it hasn’t done so already. That leaves us with our exhibits and memorial landscapes. (I hope I am wrong about this.) Calling for more content and interpretation is fine and we all agree, but this discussion needs to move beyond this point and begin offering concrete suggestions, rooted in the literature of audience research and museum learning, about how to define and effect desired outcomes.
UPDATE: Hi. If you are here via the Civil Discourse blog, welcome! The conversation continues here.