Museums and the Academy

Spencer Crew and Lonnie G. Bunch, November 1990

A steady convergence has occurred over the past two decades between the concerns of historians working in the academic sphere and museum professionals working in the public arena. Social history and a desire to highlight the economic, cultural, and racial diversity of the nation has become more important to each group. This desire to better understand the complexities of the society in which we live, rather than trying to simplify them, has resulted in new areas and techniques of research in the academy and among public historians. Both groups are interested in better understanding the contributions of women, African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, and other groups largely ignored in earlier historical research and exhibitions.

These increasingly similar interests have begun to lessen the gap between museum professionals and their colleagues in the academy. Exhibitions are relying more and more on the research done by academic historians. Social history research offers new ways of looking at the value systems of different groups and interpreting them from their own perspective rather from an outside and oftentimes hostile point of view. It also provides research guidelines as museums seek to collect material culture which is representative of specific experiences or groups of people. Social history concerns also have stimulated museums to rethink the manner in which they interpret artifacts already in their possession. In many cases this has resulted in increasingly imaginative uses of these objects.

In turn, the willingness of museums to use the latest historical research has encouraged more academic historians to view the medium of exhibition differently. It always had offered the chance to expose their findings to larger and more diverse audiences beyond the classroom. But, when museums in the eyes of academic historians had failed to fully utilize the historical information available to them, academic historians remained skeptical of their usefulness and accuracy. They rightly were concerned about the type of history offered to the public in these presentations. They wondered why certain issues were overlooked and why curators chose one thematic approach over another.

When voiced, these concerns often evoked a counter-response from museum professionals who argued their academic colleagues did not understand the medium. Exhibitions were not books on walls and called for a very different relationship to the visitor. Objects, not words, were the centerpiece of this medium. Without the objects there could not be an exhibition. Their availability dictated the topics and the themes explored in exhibitions. In addition, museum professionals rightly argued that their academic colleagues, for the most part, did not recognize the information which material culture provided. As much as written records, objects offered another means of allowing understudied groups to speak about their existence which academicians had not fully explored. For a long time this was a vast chasm of misunderstanding between the two camps which was nearly impossible to bridge.

A growing desire to present more social history oriented exhibitions helped to lessen this chasm. Ideas and themes acquired an importance comparable to artifacts in social history oriented exhibitions and allowed them to explore a wider variety of issues. At the same time, more academic historians became intrigued with exhibitions and expressed a willingness to actively participate in their creation. Many of them had served as consultants on previous exhibitions and were ready to accept the bigger commitment of serving as an active central member of the exhibition team throughout the entire process. This meant not only identifying themes and historical issues central to the exhibition, but struggling with how to present these concepts to the visitor through a visual medium. Objects, documents, and images are not as nearly as precise as words in their ability to present an idea. Full partnership in the process meant a commitment to struggle with this side of the equation, too.

Allowing historians from the academy to play a larger role in the development of exhibitions called for some sacrifices on the part of museum staff and curators in particular. It meant relinquishing some of their control over the intellectual content of the exhibition as well as the determination of which objects to use and how to interpret them. These are important prerogatives which were not surrendered lightly. Agreeing to work collaboratively with academic historians represented a significant step on the part of museum exhibition teams. The potential for unresolvable conflicts or for bold new initiatives were equally possible.

Our interest in the next few exhibit columns will be to look more closely at this collaborative process between museums and the academy. We are interested in how the collaboration is working out and how those individuals involved in the process feel about it. Has the process produced better history exhibitions? Or, has it produced long complex labels which historians will appreciate for their comprehensiveness, but which the general public will largely ignore and consequently will miss some of the more important points. We hope it is the former. Our exhibition reviewers will examine these public presentations from both an educational and a historical point of view to determine their successes as well as their failures.

As the guinea pigs we will look at three new exhibitions which opened in the course of the past twelve months. They are: "House Divided," at the Chicago Historical Society; "Finding Philadelphia's Past: Visions and Revisions," located at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania; and "Trail of Time," presently on display at the Oklahoma Historical Society. Each of these exhibitions made a commitment in their very early stages to involve academic historians in the development process. They gave them significant power to influence and shape the final product. The themes emphasized, the objects presented to the public, and the interpretations applied to these artifacts all were developed by an exhibition team which included academic historians.

In later columns we also plan to examine the stresses and rewards for the members of the exhibition team. We are interested in what sacrifices were made on each side, what insights were gained as a consequence, and how the participants felt about their exhibitions. Were there things they would have done better in retrospect? Would they participate in a similar experience in the future? How do academics feel about having their theses influenced by artifacts? How do museum professionals feel about having their artifact choices influenced by themes which may or may not relate directly to the objects they have available? These were major hurdles for both sides to overcome.

These exhibitions attempted to forge new relationships. In the process they hoped to produce better public presentations which combined good exhibition techniques with a solid historical base. All the participants are to be applauded for their willingness to participate. There is a great deal we can all learn from their experiences. We plan to share these lessons with you over the next few months.

—Spencer Crew is the chair of the Department of Social and Cultural History, National Museum of American History. Lonnie G. Bunch is the supervisor of the Division of Community Life, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.