Thoughts on History Museums

I like to keep my work life — my museum life — separate from my personal life when it comes to Facebook. I love talking to colleagues on Twitter and Instagram, but Facebook has always been a personal platform for me, and so very rarely will I “friend” people that I do not know well enough. However, I will admit that after listening to Museopunks’ episode 15, “Professional Identity”, I went out on a limb and added Nina Simon as a friend on Facebook — only because she said she accepts everyone’s friend requests. (Listen to the Museopunks podcast here) Has Nina ever commented on anything I post? Nope. And I’m ok with that. I really added her because I assumed, if she was open to accepting anyone as a Facebook friend, she probably posted some interesting stuff about the world of museums — which I don’t always get on Facebook, as you might imagine.

Last week, Nina posted about nostalgia. Her comment was, “Spending the weekend in DC reminds me that nostalgia is not just for elders. Even little kids look back and wonder: how and why did this change? If history museums tapped into our nostalgia more deeply, I think they could engage us more powerfully with how and why we can change the future.”

As you might expect, the comments on this post were all well thought out and engaging. It really got me thinking, about how nostalgia could work when a history museum took advantage of it. My thoughts are still abstractions that I have been unable to really get down into coherent paragraphs, but so many questions began running through my head:

– How can nostalgia function as both community engagement and a way to welcome visitors to your town or area?
– How can a history museum use nostalgia based on its community, while remaining inclusive of those from outside your community?
– Can you get specific about your historic house or history museum while still remaining relevant?
– What aspects of your community do you focus on? Could this be a way to engage and invite participation of multiple generations of your local community?
– Do you create exhibits? Do you create special tours? Do you have monthly events that focus on different periods of time?

One comment stands out to me, from Lin Nelson-Mayson, the director of theĀ Goldstein Museum of Design at University of Minnesota Twin Cities, College of Design. She wrote, “Whose nostalgia, though ? I wonder. If nostalgia is a starting point for seeing your experience in the larger context of constellation of experiences, it could be a useful point of departure in empathy. Otherwise it’s become reinforcement for “Take our country back”-ness” (my emphasis is added in bold) As someone who has always loved the feeling of nostalgia, and as someone who has a background in history, using nostalgia as a starting point for wider empathy is a perfect example of utilizing the powerful effects history and nostalgia can have on us as human beings. I also agree that, if we use nostalgia to make history museums more effective, we need to be mindful of how we use that nostalgia; we need to remain inclusive of all visitors.

Funny enough, the following day I had the pleasure of attending a talk at Harvard given by Leah Dickerman from the Museum of Modern Art, and Tom Rockwell of the Exploratorium. Both curators talked about the process of developing a new exhibit they had just launched at their respective institutions, and while Rockwell’s was fascinating (I cannot wait to check out the Exploratorium while I’m in California for Christmas!), it was Dickerman’s that really struck a chord with me. Dickerman recently curated MoMA’s new exhibit, “One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Works”, and her talk went into how she developed the exhibit; this included working with the history of the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the North that began in the early 1900s. It fascinated me that Dickerman was so conscious of the history behind Lawrence’s art (though I would expect this, since she is a curator).

Listening to her talk raised some questions; my biggest one being, why is there so much history in art museums? Think about it. The last time you visited an art museum, did you walk away learning a new historical fact? Every time I visit the Museum of Fine Arts or the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, I learn more about history than I do about the art. And this intrigues me. How can we get visitors to engage in history AT history museums, in the same way they do at art museums? What are art museums doing that history museums should learn from? How can history museums attract the same level of donor-based funding that art museums do? Where do we draw the line between what is history and what is art?

These are all questions that I think we should be asking in history museums and art museums. Perhaps the two need to start working together for mutual benefit. The Peabody Essex Museum has a historic house INSIDE THE MUSEUM. I realize that’s not something many art museums are outfitted for, but it’s a thought, to pair art museums with history museums. I can imagine the benefits many of the history and historic house museums in Boston would reap if they were affiliated with the Museum of Fine Arts.

I’d love to hear thoughts on this. Please leave comments!


Thoughts on History Museums