Building Trust to Build History

My recent visit to the annual National Council on Public History conference was fruitful and though provoking.  My main takeaway is the importance of trust in historical work.  Trust is the foundation the whole historical enterprise is built on.

Asking a person for documents or objects to accession into institutional holdings is a serious request.  An old photo album or a collection of love letters, these are the physical archives of entire human lives.  When historians, archivists, or curators and contact local holders of valuable information, prior relationships must be considered.  Marginalized persons, ignored groups, people whose materials may have been rejected before will not be ready to discuss accession.  They do not need strangers coming to their home to, in their view, dispossess them of familial identity and history.

Many of our institutions are working hard to increase ownership and inclusiveness with their neighbors.  Still, these organizations exist in a reality created by their predecessors’ behavior.  Objects turned away from accession, lack of invitations from museum staff for participation, and disinterest in the perspectives of the minority were all sharp blows.  This is history in action, at the micro level.  Museums must develop long-term plans to begin to construct a foundation that welcomes the lost participants from years gone by.

One suggestion discussed at the conference is engaging in low pressure, relationship building meetings.  Walk the community, and introduce yourself to neighbors.  Bring by some fresh bread or cookies and have a friendly get-together.  In no way say “you are here to help.”  That person has managed a memory of their family without your assistance up until now, don’t insinuate they need assistance.  Just talk, look, and you may be surprised what resources you will find.  Even just knowing what materials are kept where can be a hug boon to local research.  They key it to be open-minded, patient, and diligent in communicating long-term.

This is going to be a long process.  Decades (and even centuries) of neglect must be repaired to bring discussions and communal work to the level it deserves in underserved communities.  By building trust, we can improve the history field, the museum education system, and our homes.


Useful Historical Websites I’ve Stumbled Upon

We are in such a wonderful time for only history resources.  I remember when poorly formatted websites and questionable sources were the norm.  Now most major universities, museums, and professional organizations have online portals filled to the brim with historical treasures.  Here is a quick list of a few I’ve stumbled upon.


The Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest:

What a great resource to begin a research project.  The online portal contains lists filled with links for digital collections, history organizations, museums, state/provincial histories, and special topics of interest.  Many hours can be spent wandering down the rabbit hole, linking from page to page.  A personal favorite of mine is the Asahel Curtis Photo Company Collection.  It contains over 1700 photographs of daily life, industry, and scenic views around the Pacific Northwest.


Civil War Pathways:

A product of producing an exhibit at the Washington State Historical Society Museum, the Civil War Pathways website creates new thoughts and possibilities.  The project (and exhibit) focus on information regarding the land and people in what is now Washington State relating to the American Civil War.  Lorraine McConaghy and a team of volunteers across Washington State combed through archives, libraries, and museums to create a scanned, searchable database of their findings.  I find the best way to work through the database is using the search box, entering appropriate topics and titles.  Entries include scanned images of documents, descriptions, bibliographic information and more.  Their work saves a lot of time and energy, and will be most useful to those looking at this underserved topic.


Public History Commons:

This project by the National Council on Public History is filled with reference information, blog posts, conversations and professional development leads.  The NCPH created the website in 2012 as a place for scholars and others with an interest in the interpretation and showing of history to the public to gather and share ideas.  It is regularly updated with professional development links, interesting articles, and a additions to their growing reference library.  It is a great place to find out about new projects, ideas, and connections.



A development of the American Antiquarian Society, this website provides free scholarly articles on a variety of subjects on American history before 1900.  The goal of the site is provide a less formal location for discussing a very wide portfolio of topics, from literature to politics to architecture to economics.  It seeks also to be more formal than a popular magazine.  Overall, it is an excellent website, filled with interesting articles that are not riddled with the usual history jargon that can put off the casual reader (or exhaust the more serious one).  It has the worthy goal of providing an online presence for a text focus time period that is getting left behind as more websites become multimedia focused.  Common-Place is updated October, January, April, and July.  I recommend it to anyone looking for a good read on early American life.


I hope my readers enjoy these few websites I have found over the last few months.  Please let me know if you have any suggestions.  My aspiration is that these sources of knowledge help to inspire engaging, interesting, and just cool historical work.






Civic Forums and Pulling Back the Curtain

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.


Exhibit Review: E. Martin Wunsch and the Decorative Arts at the New York State Museum, Albany, NY

On a recent vacation to my old home of Upstate New York, I was delighted to stumble upon a small exhibit that felt so relevant to the work of museums.  “Building a Collection: E. Martin Wunsch and His Passion for Collecting New York State Decorative Arts” is an exhibit briefly covering the work of one man, while reviewing the importance of the decorative arts, and the techniques used to study them.  The combination of collections history, decorative arts display, and research techniques creates an exhibit that has a greater impact that its size suggests.

I’ve been to the New York State Museum many, many times.  I know the exhibits well enough to catch the new display when it appears.  The exhibit  is nestled along the west corridor of the Museum, hugging the wall with white platforms and multi-colored signs.  It appears to be about 50 feet from start to finish in length.  Furniture rests on the platforms, paintings hang on the wall, and silver resides in plexiglass cases.  My first thought was my mind catching something new to see in a very familiar space.  My next was delight, for I’ve had an interest in the decorative arts for several years now.  My next thought was on the connection between honoring a benefactor, and educating the public on the worth of decorative arts (plus the benefactor’s work) and the knowledge that streams from it.

E. Martin Wunsch was an avid collector of the decorative arts, especially New York related pieces.  He originally collected art for his family business, as part of a corporate collection.  He went on to found the Wunsch Americana Foundation, and started a productive relationship with the NYS Museum in 1969.  The exhibit is made up of the most recent donations from his collection.  Mr. Wunsch passed away in March 2013, his son Peter donated the last pieces from his father’s collection (which were on long-term loan) to the Museum.

The exhibit features two panels explaining Mr. Wunsch’s work and impact.  The panels then shift to the meaning, and importance of that work.  A panel entitled “Representative” illustrates how the collection covers both formal and country styles, and presents unique New York art features.  Individual labels built into the overall panel explain specific details for the objects on display.  Another panel labeled “Provenance” explains the value of knowing where an object came from, who owned it, and how it was passed down.  Through clear, readable text, the core concepts of tracing family history through property wills and tracing the spread of art styles can be extrapolated.  The exhibit seeks to honor Wunsch’s memory by articulating why the public should find worth with what is on display.  Hopefully it will lay the groundwork for future interest and thought.

The exhibit is noteworthy to me as it simultaneously presents the art, discusses its collector, then attempts to give meaning to the work done as the objects were collected and interpreted.  A concern of mine has been public perception of decorative arts collections.  Outside those with a direct interest in the subject (art historians, curators, conservators, researchers, hobbyists), most folks never seem to linger long on furniture/silver/ceramics displays.  Famous paintings, or at least ones easy on the eye, seem to do much better, but can still languish as visitors stroll past rows of portraits.

This is in no way a scientific study, simply a gut feeling from wandering around many a museum.  Large cases filled with silver cream pitchers and plates catch the eye.  Displays of folk stoneware can draw in those interested with the many designs painted on the containers.  Various furniture styles being compared can draw in the style focused crowd.  I can’t help but wonder, though, if most visitors are overwhelmed by the displays, or underwhelmed by the lack of connection to broader topics.  Simple, straightforward exhibits like this one honoring E. Martin Wunsch have the potential to pull back the curtain on historic objects collection, giving purpose and meaning to collecting the art that helps define our world.



My takeaway from this exhibit is the importance and worth of explaining to the public what the objects mean to us, rather than just what they are.





Exhibit Review: “Vikings” at the Royal BC Museum, Victoria, BC


I recently had the pleasure of traveling to the lovely city of Victoria, British Columbia for a business trip.   There was fortunately time to visit a new traveling exhibit at its first stop (Royal BC Museum) on a tour across North America:  Vikings: Lives Beyond the Legends.

The exhibit is co-produced by the Swedish History Museum in Sweden and MuseumsPartner in Austria.  The exhibit space is wide and open, leaving plenty of room for visitors to wander and linger.  Seating is built into some exhibit case pieces, allowing for moments of respite while taking in the vast amount of information on hand.  The exhibit furniture is made up of clean, white, straight lined or curved containers and walls, obviously meant to be easy to pack up and ship.  However, the furniture does an effective job providing ample safe exhibit space for the objects, as well as good space for information text.  Objects are well supported and clearly labeled.

Labels featured information in the following format: Name of object, description, place it was found, and catalog number.  I found this to provide sufficient information, however, I would have liked to have read the estimated time period of the object.  Since most of the objects on display were inorganic, I know it would be difficult to place specific pieces of jewelry, tools, etc. in specific time frames.  I do feel however it would help those interested in continuing research to have a rough  starting date (i.e. 900-1000 AD) when observing a particular object.

The exhibit is divided up into theme areas, such as everyday life, religion, death practices, craftsmanship, and trade.  I am not an expert on Viking history or that of the Peoples belonging to Scandinavia.  This information was both detailed, and a summary for me.  I felt like a visitor could go through sections quickly and get the gist of the history being shown, but someone more curious could sit down and really take it in.  This was a success.  Being able to catch the public moving through quickly on their way to the next exhibit space, and satisfying those deeply interested in the subject is a challenge.  I walked away with some new thoughts on Vikings, and an appreciation for the cultures shown.

Sprinkled throughout the theme areas were interactive equipment.  One space featured a bench with localized speakers where a listener could hear mythological stories being told.  Another invited visitors via touch screen computer to help dress an everyday person from Viking times .  A quiz via touch screen at the end of the exhibit featured a single player mode and one to compete against a partner on what was learned during the visit.  There were also several plaques spaced around other exhibits in the Royal BC Museum that asked questions relating objects in other galleries to the Vikings exhibit.  This was a neat feature that I believe will get visitors interested in the Vikings exhibit even as they explore the rest of the facility.  These interactive spaces broke up the repetition of case and text that can make museums a drag for some visitors, and helped relate information in different, interesting ways.

In general I find that some interactive spaces are hardly ever used, or no funding exists to repair them if broken.  When that happens valuable space or money is absorbed or wasted.  Here, the interactive spaces were being used respectfully by visitors, who seemed to be enjoying the stories or seeing what clothing people may have worn in 1000 AD.  The equipment was in good repair, which speaks well for those watching over it day-to-day, and those transporting it to new stops for the duration of the trip.  Everything looked well maintained.  Interactive spaces, when used well, can help the mind change gears and provide a welcome respite from endless text.

Overall, I found Vikings:  Lives Beyond the Legends to be satisfying, engaging and rewarding.  Visitors were engrossed in looking at objects, reading, interacting, and talking about what they found.  My two criticisms would be the lack of dates on the objects and the gift shop.  I feel that even a rough time frame would help to place the objects in one’s mind.  The store at the end of the exhibit seemed a bit over the top, being filled with plastic swords, horned helmets and toys.  I understand many children might want a souvenir after hearing about Vikings, but it seemed to go against the message of humanizing their story.  I do understand that money from these does support the Royal BC Museum.  Yet, these are minor issues.  The charm of the storytelling of myths, the wonder of the objects (from swords to cookware), and the relaxing flow of information made for a delightful visit.  I greatly encourage you to visit this exhibit at the Royal BC Museum, or anywhere you may find it in the future.


My favorite takeaway from the exhibit:  That Norse peoples incorporated their old mythological religious symbols into their new Christian art as the faith spread.


Vikings:  Lives Beyond the Legends runs from May 16 to November 11, 2014 at the Royal BC Museum.






The Past and its Remembrance

The study of the past fascinates me.  Imagining the lives of those who came before; their struggles, hopes, failures and dreams is a constant source of wonder to my life.  The interpretation of those past events, those millions upon millions of lives is equally captivating.  Museums are my favorite place to reawaken those times gone past.  A book can bring a soul back to life.  A painting can at a stroke capture a long forgotten dance, or the energy of a terrific battle.  A simple set of cookware can capture the continuity of human life over centuries. Museums serve as the repositories of these talismans, and so much more.  These writings will cover museum work, the history topics connected to them, and the techniques/people/equipment/purposes at their heart.

My goal with this blog is to examine museum/history culture locally in the Pacific Northwest and nationally when possible.  Little known historical facts, new resources, exhibit reviews, and commentary are all possible topic avenues.  I hope this blog helps a forgotten moment to be found again.  I hope it helps a new exhibit to gain a few new visitors.  I hope it develops, even if by the smallest margin, the rich culture and universe of public history.

The Past burns bright; let our eyes be set on its wisdom.