Why Aren’t History Museums Discussing SCOTUS Rulings?

Yesterday, the Supreme Court of the United States made history.

No matter where you stand on the issue, June 26, 2013 will be marked as a seminal moment for gay rights in this country. While there were both cheers and jeers, the rulings that were handed down reflect the changing shift in American attitudes regarding marriage and equality. All of this, only one day after a very disappointing, but equally important ruling on the historic (and arguably still necessary) Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court has been at the head of political and emotional roller coaster this term and has offered opinions whose impacts will be felt for years to come.

And where are museums in the conversation? From what I can tell, mostly non-existent.

I’ve seen endless online opinion pieces and corporate brands participating in equality celebrations – but not much from my museum community.

It is a fact that most museums are non-profits (though not all), and often find it necessary to tow a very thin line on political stances. Most museums are not in a position to “endorse,” however, we should all be in a postion to be a safe space for discussion. And in regards to the particular Supreme Court rulings this week – I want to see museums,and history museums in particular, leading many of these discussions.

At #AAM2013 I attended an excellent pop-up session on “Creating National Brand for History.” This session posed a lot of questions (facilitated by the great Conny Graft and John Durel), inspiring lively (and sometimes challenging) conversations.  A few of the key take-aways for me were:

  • History museums offer insight in citizenship, critical thinking skills, and self-realization (agreed)
  • Elissa Frankle (@museums365) said, “History museums are either looking too far back or too far forward.” (agreed)
  • Is history making a difference in people’s lives? YES. (agreed)
  • Follow up question: Is it making a difference in A LOT of people’s lives? (hmm)

And the big one that gets kicked around:

  • How do we make history relevant?

I think the answer is right in front of our eyes. History is relevant when we connect the past to the present; i.e. when we address CURRENT issues through historical context.

So I challenge my museum colleagues and their institutions: Let’s talk about yesterday’s rulings and the one from the day before. The Voting Rights Act was monumental legislation when it was passed in 1965. Why aren’t history museums talking about the Act then versus the Act now? These rulings provide an excellent opportunity for museums to be visible and relevant in their communities. Again, while we don’t need to take sides – we are the perfect venues to offer context, ask important questions and foster dialogue and discussion. What if the conversation gets out of control? Reasonable question, although in response, I would ask you if you’ve considered “what if it doesn’t?” Give your communities some credit. And while issues may be polarizing, you cannot argue with the fact that everything that is national is local. No matter where you are in the U.S., this week’s rulings have (and will continue to) impact your community. Why not be a relevant part of that action? The time for dialog is now.

Have you seen museums discussing these issues? I saw a number of tweets from the National LGBT Museum (@lgbtmuseum) yesterday, but that’s about it. Have concerns about what that conversation might look like? Let’s talk about them!  Have some ideas for how a local museum might effectively engage or foster these kinds of conversations? Share them!

6 thoughts on “Why Aren’t History Museums Discussing SCOTUS Rulings?

  1. Even if museums are reluctant to discuss the Supreme Court rulings, they certainly could be the place to invite citizens to hold community discussions and dialogue. One such discussion could be about whether Congress will, indeed, attempt to write updated legislation combatting new state legislation that effectively suppresses voting. Museums should be safe houses for thought and expression, and if citizens ever want to regain influence in the national discussion of critical issues, they should avail themselves of the cultural insitutions in their midst as a place to start.

  2. Great post. I am not certain if this really addresses the issues you raise, but I have been thinking about the inclusivity of LGBT issues in museums a good bit in the past couple of years. What seems to be the prevailing approach is to have LGBT shows (e.g., Eitiljorg’s Out West) and separate LGBT museums, but we are less ready to actually incorporate LGBT voices into museums in a way that truly confronts heteronormativity. For example, at the small museum where I am the director, we have one exhibit case on gender roles in Native American cultures. Regardless of the stereotypical and outdated content that the case currently presents (man the hunter, woman the gatherer/farmer) we have struggled with how to include a discussion of berdache or two-spirit traditions in the exhibit, without much success. And to the point, our lack of success is largely based in a concern over the anticipated reaction by the vast majority of our visitor base that includes school groups. We most likely will move to website discussion linked via QR codes. (Lest anyone feel horribly superior or holier-than-thou on this point, I will note that a tour of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. will not turn up any information on the subject either – at least based on my review of the exhibits a couple of years ago.)

    In the past, I will assume that museums in many portions of the United States did not represent different races in the same thematic exhibit, and the same is true today for LGBT. Perhaps a good case in point is my growing up in Cincinnati. It was not until the National Underground Railroad Museum came to town in recent years that the African American experience during that period was told. Yet today, museums go out of their way to be certain to represent all relevant ethnic constituents in a thematic exhibit. Think of something like The Way We Worked traveling exhibit from the Smithsonian that is very racially inclusive – but very heteronormative. Today Conner Prairie has their North Star program as an edutainment “experience” of slavery. Perhaps in 10 years they will offer similar programs to “experience” gay bashing.

    In sum, despite fantastic leaps forward, our museums still reflect the heteronormative world that we live in. Consider that TV shows such as Modern Family and Glee with LGBT roles are exceptional and not integrated into the very fabric of the culture. When a Happy Days type family unit has a gay son or lesbian daughter, that will probably be the time heteronormativity in museums is also seriously challenged.

    The volume Where is Queer published in about 2009 as a thematic issue of the Museums and Social Issues journal is a great resource for this discussion.

  3. I’m actually not convinced this is a good idea – not for the museums themselves to comment. It’s pretty rare for the really big questions to be unequivocal, history-making, and obvious. For an institution with a general history mission to comment seems to indicate that there’s a right and a wrong side to history. I may myself personally think that, but I’m uncomfortable representing my institution in that way.

    Hosting community discussions? Connecting current events to history? Yes. Directly commenting? No.

    How, too, do museums step in without stepping on toes? It’s a rare museum that doesn’t coexist in a community with a dozen other nonprofit organizations at least, many of which are more relevant to a particular issue and more experienced in discussing it. The kinds of partnerships to effectively host a discussion about a current event take time, unless you have the kind of flexibility that 99.9% of museums can’t boast. So do you partner with every possible organization so you have a go-to when something in any area might happen? How time-consuming is that?

  4. What an interesting call to arms… Thanks for posting it. I’m in general agreement with several of the comments above, and here’s my perspective on it:

    Not every museum is up for every challenge; nor should it be. However, looking for dynamic opportunities to be a safe place where these kinds of discussions can occur, and creating an infrastructure that supports the ability to manage these opportunities when appropriate seems like a powerful way for many museums to be relevant players in the civic discourse of their community. To take the SCOTUS rulings this week as an example: while nobody knew the exact day the ruling(s) would be made, it was public knowledge for months that they’d be coming during a certain period in June. Proactive organizations with the right infrastructure could have (and maybe many did) set up panel discussions for after the rulings, promote connections to relevant exhibits or collections and provide spaces for public reaction (even through the ever handy post-it note or note card method), and certainly have press releases ready that could lay out connections between the supreme court rulings and relevant topics that the museum is responsible for.

    (As a side note, I just came across this example of a 1960’s-era literacy test from Louisiana. Think of the sorts of conversations an archival object like this could engender for a museum who held such a document in its collection and was prepared to display it in this context!)

  5. Hi, Jaimie, a great post, and really good comments. The last two in particular are relevant to the discussions on The Empathetic Museums we’ve been having on Museum Commons because they comment on the need for museums to be proactive and to think ahead – every year at this time SCOTUS sends out its decisions. Good history museum programmers could be thinking of this months ahead. It also relates to the issue of “timeliness,” – i.e. our institutions do move very slowly, but with planning there are ways to overcome this and respond the issues that are important and relevant to many museum communities.

  6. Pingback: Top Story – Why Is It Important To Know Our History? | The Dangerous Lee News & Entertainment Network

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