Heritage orphans are your audience

[This blog, like all good blogs, represents me working through some ideas and not me making settled pronouncements. So please be aware that nothing here is said with any pretense of authority and that much of it will be only half-thought through. Would love your feedback–or pushback.]

I read this essay (.pdf) on the Textile Heritage Center in Cooleemee, North Carolina and the author Tamasin Wedgwood invoked a striking phrase—heritage orphans. Wedgwood borrowed it in turn from novelist Sharyn McCrumb who describes a people—poor white southerners—who, in Wedgwood’s words, may “enter the wider society, or cling to ‘heritage,’ but not both.” Millennial neo-Confederates, indeed, find little succor from the cultural-historical orthodoxy today that finds the Civil War to be about slavery, that seeks to prioritize the African American experience, and understands Confederate iconography as complicated, at best. (I borrow the term “orthodoxy” from Thomas Brown.)

This idea that neo-Confederate shrillness arises from a sense of embattled cultural identity may be contemptible to many of you—and it is not without complications—but I am not thinking about sympathy or disdain for them, but about the ways museums understand themselves as heritage institutions in relation to this audience.

As I catch up on my readings in museum studies, a number of books and essays have intersected over this idea. Tammy Gordon’s Private History in Public offers analysis and typologies for small community museums that are largely overlooked by academics that admire academic museums. They are successful, Gordon claims, because of very personal (and frequently irreverent) connections between the curators who are closely related to the subject matter, and the audience. This connection is cultivated not through sophisticated exhibitry, but through face-to-face dialog. But more importantly, small community museums where the subject matter is personally connected to the curators are not intended to be cosmopolitan, dialogic, or civically engaged. They exist to claim localized identities in a homogenized, globalized, socio-economic regime that understands people as market-segmented consumers.

Manuel Castells notes this as well, “As the archived tradition, for instance the museological tradition, becomes increasingly cosmopolitan, particular identities are forced to become standardized in order to circulate globally as commodities. But these specific identities do not recognize themselves in the global culture. Hence museum culture is divided between the culture of a global elite and, on the other hand, the affirmation of specific signs of identity.” No one likes to think they identify with the homogenized global culture, but our neo-Confederate audiences emphatically do not identify with it.

The museological literature I have plunged into this semester has, indeed, emphasized the former (the “culture of a global elite”), and things of interest to academics and other self-conscious pluralists—change over time, asking difficult questions, serving the needs of underrepresented communities, and so on. Those efforts not only have a communal-dialogic purpose (do you hate my jargon as much as I do?) but signify a community’s aspirations to global cosmopolitanism. But as Gordon points out, community, or what Castell calls, “identity” museums, are terribly effective at being the types of cultural connectors that academic museums try, and often fail, to be. Their provincial methodologies and purposes should not be ignored.

Let’s face it. Most professionally trained museum people will identify with the current historical orthodoxy. We may shrink from the cultural outlook of neo-Confederates because of their poor approach to the history discipline or their occasionally off-putting commentary on modern cultural politics, but they are an audience, a cultural node, that museums—if I adopt the current rhetoric of museums—have a responsibility to effect dialog with.

I know my contention that neo-Confederates are embattled outsiders of the cultural-historical mainstream is disputable. Look no further than the momentum of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. More importantly, see the state and local governments in red states that host most Civil War museums—state and local governments that harbor real resentment toward the orthodoxy and wield real policy power against it. This strange braid of cultural and political power is weird because no one holds universal positions of power. In my state, we have a state agency admirably devoted to the orthodox historical view of the Civil War, but at least two state historic sites that are financially supported by neo-Confederate friends groups. Because they raise the money for exhibits and programs (the state rarely pays for those things anymore) and sometimes staff, they harbor a great deal of interpretive control over these sites. Both sites that I’m thinking of are squarely in urban/blue parts of the state (rare as those are). Cultural engagement between museum and community in those places is a dim prospect and that will have implications for future sustainability.

So what’s a museum to do?

First of all, stop poking at, arguing with, or ignoring potential (or actual) audience that need to see a voice in your institution (I’m thinking of #Blacklivesmatter activists as well as neo-Confederates.) Then be self-aware about, and acknowledge, the power (or the lack thereof) you hold as an institution to represent ascendant or declining cultural norms. Drop the pretense of objectivity and neutrality, because no one is buying it, and, besides, the academic aesthetic of objectivity is not actually appealing to visitors (if it is, there’s the sign that you are part of the hegemony!) That doesn’t mean doing bad history, or abandoning legitimacy. Doing so will position you as an institution that can actually be host to people who represent different points of view, and bring them together in useful dialog.

I know these are vague and under-developed points. What I really don’t know is how they might actually take form in a variety of exhibits and programming. That’s because I don’t work in a museum and am not tuned-in to the political-cultural economy of a particular place, and because each instance would be defined by unique circumstances and contingencies of specific institutions and communities.

But I do know that we should take our responsibilities as cultural connectors seriously, drop the maddening pretense of objectivity, and stop putting off neo-Confederates* and treat them as your museum’s audience.

*Same goes for anti-Confederate audiences, but this post is about the former.

 

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