Museums hold a place of trust and respect in communities. The behavior of these communities confirms this trust. Visitors give up family heirlooms willingly, with the expectation that those objects, and by extension, their own history, will be presented clearly and accurately. Parents take their children to visit local museums and history sites, encouraging them to read up on what the institution is saying about their community. School groups are taken to these institutions, out of town visitors brought over to see them, and engaged locals wander through from time to time to see what’s new. Communities trust museums with their history, a trust that can foster new connections, discussions, and learning.
I feel this trust should be used to create discussion forums by utilizing the unique environment, information, and respect built up in museums. History institutions already educate; by using their facilities to foster civic discussion, we can hopefully provide a calm space filled with information to provide for all sides of the story. Starting with an education on historical research and curatorial tasks can help invigorate this unique communicative atmosphere. By demonstrating to the interested public (amateur historians, local educators, general visitors, and anyone interested who has a desire to contribute or learn) the fluidity of history, I hope that museums can help prepare their extended local communities for meaningful civic discussion on contentious issues.
Obviously, there are problems right away with using museums as open forums. No one wants to see museums ripped apart by partisan politics. Special emphasis would have to be placed on presenting the museum as a meeting ground for talks, not as an endorsement machine. Museums command a place of trust, balanced on the idea of objectivity. An issue when discussing controversial topics is that objectivity comes into question. Opening up the curatorial/historical process and teaching about its mechanisms would present the influences of staff, objects, research, and surviving materials on exhibits. Showing that objectivity is never perfect would open up public history more to the public eye, demonstrate that museums have to work with interpreting sometimes conflicting topics, and serve as an example of how to be open for discussion. This work can help prepare the local community for seeing other sides of issues that had not been considered before.
Reinforcing open minded discussion can be done through curatorial education, since visitors may be asked to have preconceived notions challenged, or see local stories rewritten based on new evidence. Many visitors may have an historical education the ended in high school, which focused on straight facts with little interpretation. Many may have been taught with information that has since been revised with new research. The reinterpretation of that originally taught information can help open doors to new thoughts of current events. The flowing nature of history, subject to change based on new work, conclusions, and evidence is not well communicated to the public. Educating visitors on this nature can help prepare them for discussions on current issues.
A second post in the near future will examine some current exhibits and thoughts on pulling back the curtain of curating, and any impact they may have on future civic talks in museums.