Monday, November 24, 2014

Museum Monday - Interpreting Slavery and African American History and Culture

Last week I took particular note of two blog posts in my daily reading list. Both related to the challenges and opportunities of interpreting slavery at museums and historic sites. First, at the Engaging Places Blog, Max van Balgooy previewed his upcoming book, Interpreting African American History and Culture at Museums and Historic Sites. The book is a collection of essays published as part of the American Association for State and Local History's new "Interpreting" series. It's one that I've added to my wish list. I've also added the Engaging Places blog to my roll at the right, it's a great read if you are interested in interpretation at museums and historic sites.

Next, I noticed another great post from public historian Nick Sacco of the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis. In it, he discusses the challenge of interpreting Northern views toward slavery, and highlights the importance of encouraging guests to recognize that the historical legacies of slavery and racism are not unique to the South. I think this is an important point, and that it underscores a larger issue within historical interpretation. History is complex. We tend to want to make historical narratives fit within a nice, neat framework with good guys and bad guys, and we want our guests to leave with all their questions answered. Unfortunately, historical reality is not always that simple.

When it comes to the Civil War, we can recognize that slavery was at the heart of the conflict; that the war began over a conflict over slavery's expansion. Southerners wanted slavery to expand, Northerners wanted to contain the institution. Eventually, the war became a struggle for the very existence of slavery in the United States. Underneath this fairly straight forward surface, however, the actual beliefs and opinions of Northerners and Southerners toward slavery and toward African Americans, are complex, and cannot be effectively understood through two generalized camps of pro and anti-slavery. 

Good food for thought to start the week.

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