What is the purpose of museums? Do they exist to make people feel a certain way—inspired, humbled, or reminiscent? Do they exist to give the facts about what has come before, and perhaps a glimpse into the future? The hope is that both of these goals can be attained, but when they are at odds with one another should we sacrifice facts or feelings first? It is the job of a historian to strive to provide the community with the unapologetic truth, not a misplaced sense of nostalgia—when forced to take sides our loyalty should always lie with the facts.
Early museums, such as Ford’s Greenfield Village and Rockefeller’s Colonial Williamsburg, were certainly flawed. In Mickey Mouse History, Mike Wallace points out that these early museums ignored major sections of the population, avoided subjects that made them uncomfortable, and presented an idealistic portrait of the good ol’ days. These historical exhibitions hit a home run when it came to tapping into the community’s sense of nostalgia, but when that nostalgia is based on a warped foundation is it beneficial? For all of the shortcomings of Greenfield Village and Colonial Williamsburg, one can hardly deny that they were extremely influential in piquing the nation’s interest in the past. In that sense, these initial museums were very successful. They engaged their audience, but is merely pleasing visitors good enough? People that want to be entertained have novels, movies, and more at their disposal. History should not be reduced to a sentimental, patriotic form of entertainment. There is only one thing that separates history from fiction, and that is that history actually happened; if we don’t seriously defend that distinction then what is the point of history?
Unfortunately, the practice of ignoring uncomfortable details didn’t end with Ford and Rockefeller. When Dr. Cebula visited the Baron Von Munchausen Historic Home and noticed inaccuracies and a very blatant omission of slavery from the historical site, he contended that “the interpretation… would be richer and more interesting if [the museum] included stories of the slaves rather than omitting them.” The historic home’s curator defended the oversight of slavery by claiming that “bringing up a hateful subject would be cruel to the [students], who would start hating the messenger.” A recently announced plan for the Manhattan Project National Historical Park is bringing a similar discussion to national news outlets like NPR. The National Park Service is confident that it can facilitate an impartial conversation about nuclear weapons, but some groups fear that money will get in the way of an unbiased story. Powerful people and corporations seem to have a knack for getting a positive spin from mainstream history, and some historians are happy to avoid rocking the boat.
Though there are still historians trying to preserve a pristine version of the past, there are many doing their best to circulate new discoveries, correct the extensive misinformation, and most importantly have an open dialogue with the community about the past. For instance, a local article published in the Inlander by Lisa Waananen Jones overviews the life of the “Father of Spokane,” James Glover. In recent years it was discovered that Glover was very cruel to his wife, and these revelations resulted in Spokane City Council members deciding against naming a newly constructed plaza after him. An article on the History@Work blog discusses the relationship between a community and a commemoratory exhibit about Leo Frank, a Jewish factory owner accused of killing one of his young employees, that was lynched by a mob in Atlanta, Georgia in 1915. The museum stated that the exhibit was put together to “provoke dialogue by addressing overlooked issues and by honoring both victims of the tragic events of 1913-1915.” Presenting the public with all of the facts and encouraging dialogue and debate about controversial subjects is one of the crowning achievements of public history. History shouldn’t be viewed as dead facts encased in a glass exhibit, but rather as a living entity that has a very direct impact on our present and future.
Historians need to stop trying to protect people by only showing them a rose-tinted past. The illusion of the good ol’ days does more harm than good, because it encourages people to try to revert to the way things used to be instead of moving forward. Acknowledging both the good and bad in the past is necessary to connect history to the present, and because of that historians should swear their ultimate allegiance to the facts.