Facts or Feelings?

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.

Advertisements

9 comments

  1. historyaf · January 16

    Katie, awesome first blog post! You did a great job of incorporating all the readings together. I thing that you did a good job of making strong claims rather than just repeating what the readings said. Your stance on the issue is very clear and I appreciate that! The only things I would suggest for next time are to add some tags to the post and make the links open to a new tab. Other than that keep up the good work!

    Like

    • Katie Enders · January 16

      Thank you, Alex! Great idea about opening the links to new tabs. I think I just went in and was able to change that. I will look into tags for next time. As I start to get more blog posts up it will definitely be beneficial to have some tags on my posts for easy sorting/organization.
      Katie

      Like

  2. lachku0130 · January 16

    I really enjoyed reading your blog post! You already seem like a pro. I really like how you bring in that it is the job of historians to tell the truth about the past. I completely agree with you about that, although I made some exceptions in my own post after reading the response to Mr. Cebula’s post about the museum. Maybe on your next post play devil’s advocate with yourself and see both side of the argument like the two posts Mr. Cebula made about the museum he visited seemed to do. Great job and I can’t wait to read more! -Lauren K.

    Like

    • Katie Enders · January 17

      Hey, Lauren!
      Thanks for the kind words! I think you make a good point that playing devil’s advocate a little bit acknowledges the other side, and if you refute claims made by them you can even use that method to strengthen your own claims. I ran out of words a little quicker than I would have liked to, but maybe next time I can work that in!
      Katie

      Liked by 1 person

  3. ashleymarie35 · January 17

    Katie,
    Your blog was amazing to read! I would first like to say I thought that your argument was very inquisitive and eye opening. I agree with your theory that…
    ” Historians need to stop trying to protect people by only showing them a rose-tinted past.”
    I also strongly agree with the notion that dispute the feelings and discomfort of the community, everyone is endowed with the right to the ultimate truth, regardless of topic.

    Like

  4. abrunnenkant · January 17

    Hey I really enjoyed reading your blog post! It was really neat how you were able to relate all of the readings together into one main message. I think it’s very important for us historians to address when people are whitewashing history and call them out for it. I think you did a really good job of doing that, and labeling the importance by taking a very firm stance. The one thing I think you could do better would be to give us more of your background in the field to help better convey your message the reader, would add a little bit of spice to the reading. But really amazing blog post!

    Like

  5. deadmantic · January 17

    Very great post on the readings and tying them all together. I would only say that I think a lot of the debates about how to present historical events and sites to include unsavory aspects of those places and subjects have to do about the ownership of the past. Who decides what to include and what to exclude for what purpose? I find it heartening that there has been and continues to be a push to include previously marginalized or ignored subjects to historical exhibits and sites.
    -Will

    Like

  6. oldfossils · January 17

    Katie
    I thought this was a great post with some good insights. The historians allegiance should absolutely be to the facts. I’ve spent some time thinking about it and I came to the conclusion that one of the main problems in presenting history is actually a very human problem. That is, people often have a few things that are very important to them and they let it get in the way of a fair presentation of the facts. I feel like it’s human nature to want to only discuss things that are relatable to the individual.

    Also, you mentioned that some historians are content to not rock the boat, and while that is certainly true, it is my opinion that, in the modern history field, many are far too concerned with rocking the boat. Everyone just wants to leave their mark and see what new overlooked thing they can find. But that’s very well a side effect of far too many years in academia…
    – Jonathan

    Like

  7. historyplz · January 17

    Great/well written post! History definitely is a living entity and we should always treat it as such. Retread old ground and you might find something new or use new findings and compare them to the old ones and whatnot. Though I don’t think that most historians are trying to show a rose tinted eye of the past, its just their own biases conflicting with their work. Great example I remember is of an old 1920’s historian portraying alexander the great as a “virgin crusading knight.”
    -Drew

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s