Using Shared Authority to Create More Powerful Exhibits and Tackle Civic Engagement

Danielle Dulken is a guest blogger for the American Historical Association. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Public History at American University and interns for the National Coalition for History.

During “Co-Creating Narratives in Public Spaces,” a two-day symposium presented by the National Park Service (NPS) and George Washington University, National Museum of African American History and Culture curator Paul Gardullo invoked a poignant thought from James Baldwin: “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” This perfectly captures the challenges that historians face in narrating our nation’s complex history to the public.

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Panels of NPS administrators and interpreters, academics, museum professionals, and public historians contributed to the conversation by illuminating current practices that explicate less-known cultural links between different publics or publics and historical sites, especially like those captured at the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California. This historical site, the only WWII home front monument in the country, has traced the depth of the area’s beauty and terribleness by layering diverse narratives: one, of the female workforce supporting the war effort, and the other, of nearby Japanese flower growers who were subject to internment.

The potential cultural and physical interconnectedness of public spaces allows visitors to find relevance between history and their own stories, pointed out Claudine Brown, assistant secretary for education and access at the Smithsonian Institution. Brown has seen the positive impact of sharing authority with the public through the Smithsonian’s traveling oral history project, Museums on Main Street. With over 5,000 stories from local communities representing different genders, ethnicities, races, and cultures, Museums on Main Street is an example of allowing the public to contribute untold histories or provide more depth to those already known. Brown notes that after reviewing submissions it is clear that Americans have more in common than not.

Similarly, historical sites like the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center host discussions to encourage participants to take a historical perspective on current affairs. Conversations on topics such as, “Is prison the new slavery?” give people the opportunity to identify the ways in which their experience relates to that of Americans in the past.

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To navigate the practice of public history towards a future that is inclusive of America’s breadth, beauty, and terribleness, we need to home in on these similarities. In weaving them together, Americans can recreate the intricacies of their history, spurring more dynamic and interactive practices of public history. Therefore, public history’s greatest resource to forging a more relevant, more holistic narrative is none other than the target of its practice: the publics.

One of the contributing panel webinar discussions, “Relevancy, Diversity, & Inclusion: Expanding National Park Service Narratives,” is available below. Please note the video begins at 6:00.

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