Tag Archives: museums

Reflections: Labor History and Public History

8 May

by Jeremy Manczuk-

My primary interest–in the broadest sense possible–in historical studies is labor history. Prior to taking this class I would have said–but only if asked–that I had a reasonably solid grasp of the issues and debate surrounding the field. Unlike the majority of my classmates, I am not a museum studies major and I have never had a class in the program. Before this semester, in fact, I had not stepped foot in a history museum for many years. This course in public history has not only introduced me to unfamiliar ways to view the motives behind museums, the intricate tightrope-walk nature of the relationship between academic historians and public activists as they attempt to create a historical narrative both can live with, and the precarious profession of the historical preservationist but it has also taught me of the many ways–both sophisticated and simplified, short and near-sighted – that labor issues can be presented to the interested public.

Perhaps the most intriguing of these possibilities is the notion first proposed to our class by Cathy Stanton in The Lowell Experiment: Public History in a Postindustrial City and reinforced by Michael Wallace in Mickey Mouse History and Other Essays on American Memory of the trap public historians can fall into by creating the impression of a simple, easy-to-follow linear narrative of rising industrialism, a peak of labor production, and the eventual demise–a retreat into the realm of heritage–of the work a community once invested itself so heavily into. For Stanton and Wallace, and me for that matter, this approach does not satisfy the need for a more developed approach to introducing the cyclical nature of the rise and fall of labor opportunities within a given community based on the larger story of capitalist endeavors and abandonments. The demonstration of this type of continuity, without question, is a difficult task to aspire to. It is certainly much easier and takes less imagination to craft a display of worker’s tools or to hang a photograph of a group of miners but it leaves matters of great importance–matters that should be considered and discussed–unacknowledged.

In my opinion the notion of continuity–and how best to engage it in the multi-faceted province of public history–has been one of the most essential themes of the semester. As we have talked about several times–and as I have repeatedly considered as I prepare to write a blog posting or think about our cooperative efforts with the Lincoln Place Heritage Association–we cannot effectively interpret the past unless we are also willing to contemplate the present.  If we separate the two the result is stale and uninteresting. The same is true, I think, for the analysis and presentation of labor issues. If we disassociate then from now, if we isolate here and there, the effort we put forth and the description we employ are ultimately inept and unhelpful.

Reflections: Between Academic and Public Histories

6 May

by Christina Carlson-

As I reflect on this course on public history, I find that a few main ideas and thoughts stick out from the many things we learned throughout the semester. One of the themes I am continually brought back to is the sometimes conflicting relationship between public and academic history.

Maybe I am most struck by this discussion as my studies at SIUE have continuously revolved around these two sides of the historical discipline. As an MA student in Historical Studies, as well as a student in the Museum Studies program, I have often noticed places where academic and public history seem mutually exclusive. One example would be in a museum collections management class I took, where the attention of the registrar and conservator was given fully to the condition and physical description of the object, with little thought as to the object’s historical significance or the story behind it. At the same time, in my academically focused history classes, objects themselves were not considered at all.

Within this class we have run up against many places where the need to draw in the public has been at odds with a history more focused on raising broader and more difficult historical questions. As we discussed the work we were doing with our community partner, we immediately realized the limitations of our group projects. Even as we recognized both positive and negative aspects to the issues of immigration, race, Americanization, and labor in the small, multi-ethnic community of Lincoln Place, we also realized restrictions in telling these stories in more complex ways. We were forced to ask ourselves how we could appropriately and truthfully represent Lincoln Place in a way that would be beneficial to the community, while also representing a thorough historical account of the neighborhood.

As we toured local historical sites and met with professionals in the field, we witnessed this conflict between academic and public history as well. At the Holocaust Museum, for example, we recognized how difficult it can be to tell all of the relevant pieces of an event such as the Holocaust of World War II, especially in a space as small as that museum.

I am also acutely aware of the relationship between academic and public history as my future career will likely continue to fall somewhere between these two worlds. Even now, I am working on a project for the Saint Louis Science Center about the history of organ transplants. As I complete this small project, I must continually keep in mind how I can engage visitors while telling a story that isn’t just about scientific triumph, but also about many failed transplants and unsuccessful experiments. It may be a different situation than the one in Lincoln Place or the Holocaust Museum, but I think the essential idea remains the same.

Finding a balance between these two worlds sometimes seems difficult, and yet I think this balance is worth striving toward. After thinking through and discussing these ideas repeatedly during this class, I believe both the academic and public sides of history can benefit greatly from the perspective the other side provides.

Corporate History as Public History? Why Public Historians Should Care About Corporate Museums

4 May

by Christina Carlson-

In the past few weeks in class we have talked about several forms of museums and the challenges associated with presenting history at a public museum. However, I believe there is another type of museum that we have not covered, and which actually may not belong in the realm of “public history” at all, but I believe is still important to address: the corporate history museum.

I define corporate history museums as museums which are put together, either directly or indirectly, by a for profit corporation in order to promote its history.  Corporate history “museums” may be as small as a display case, or as large as an entire building. All corporate history museums, though, exist for the purpose of presenting their company in a positive light by using artifacts, photographs, and other information from the company’s history.  Examples of this type of museum would be the Louisville Slugger Museum in Louisville, KY, one of the many Wells Fargo Museums, the John Deere Pavilion in Moline, IL, or the Wood River Refinery History Museum.

The chief difference between a corporate history (presented by a corporation) and a traditional museum is mostly related to the way in which historical material is presented. Corporate history museums tend to be almost completely celebratory, with their primary purpose being to present themselves in a positive light in order to gain more business. Many times these exhibits are created by museum professionals who specialize in corporate history.

Why is it important for public historians to address corporate history museums and displays? For one, the trend of using a corporation’s past to promote business or to enhance the image of the company is becoming much more popular. Major corporations are increasingly turning to history to address current controversial issues over labor relations, exploitation, and environmental dangers. The History Factory, one of the largest consulting firms for corporate history displays, clearly reflects this mission on its homepage:

“The History Factory is a heritage management firm that helps today’s leading global corporations, organizations and institutions discover, preserve and leverage their unique history to meet today’s business challenges.”

The general goal of the corporate history museum is evident in this mission statement, and the desire to promote business is at the forefront of nearly every corporate museum.

It is also vital for public historians to address the growing field of corporate history because the themes presented in a corporate museum may run contrary to the ideas public historians want to convey. A corporate museum is not likely to present past labor issues and disputes or controversial environmental issues, while another history museum may wish to emphasize these corporate shortcomings. People who attend both corporate and non-corporate museums may find these contradictions confusing. If the Shell Oil museum tells about all of the great things the company has done for the community, how can another museum’s exhibit successfully question this narrative? After all, shouldn’t Shell know more about it’s own company than some outside museum? It is questions such as these that museum professionals outside of the corporate world will need to answer as corporate museums continue to grow in popularity.

Still, on a practical level, would it really be bad for a public historian to be involved in corporate history? After all, with the job market for historians on the decline, working for a major corporation might be a wise career decision in terms of job security. I suppose my personal response to this is that, had my primary concern in life been wealth building, I would not have pursued history in the first place.

For another look at the growing trend of corporate museums, see the American Association of Museums article “Corporate, Culture? One Part Education. One Part Sales. This is the Corporate Museum.”

Field Trips in a Digital Age

4 Apr

by Dennis Martinez-

During fall semester 2010, I had to do a Junior Achievement assignment that involved me student teaching for a quarter of the year. I was to teach 8th grade economics for 8 class periods and then help the teacher with all different types of tasks. As I was there, we would have a 5-10 minute lecture and then go into groups and have to class play all these different games that would address different economic problems. Once my teaching period was done, I would go in during the teacher’s history class and help her with the students. One day we started to talk about field trips, I asked her if the students had any fun trips to museums in the coming months. She told me that with the budget crisis and everything Illinois schools are going through, field trips are very limited. She also told me something that I couldn’t believe.

When she would bring up possible field trips to museums around the area, she would get responses like “been there” or “boring.”  The students weren’t interested in going to museums. She then went on to find an alternative, cheap, fun way to get the history of events, places, and museums studied in her class. She assigned a short Internet search report on different places around the world and their significance. For example, a student would write a report on Mt. Rushmore, stating; who, what, where, when, and why. This seemed to really spark the kids again, and got them to really explore more than what was in their back yards, but I noticed that kids still didn’t go to museums around the area.

The argument here for me was that if these kids do not want to go to museums, then what can the museums do to create a pull factor to attract the new generation to the museums? How can schools with a budget crisis support museum studies?

Native Americans and Museums

22 Mar

by Becky Johnston-

Where does American history start?  Does it begin with the first European who set foot on the shores of this “New World?”  And who or when would that be?  It could be claimed that in the 1100s or earlier, Vikings came to the North American shores. Does it begin with the first English invader? Or, perhaps when the continent was first inhabited by any person?  Or even farther back,when the continent became separated?  Every event in the span of this region,as far back as we can go, has had some influence on subsequent events. The outdated line that has been drawn can skew history, making it seem as though what happened before Europeans invaded is not as significant as what happened after. That’s why I think it is so important and wonderful that the Labor and Industry Museum in Belleville included the archaeology found underneath the stockyards.

Though Europeans did not encounter these peoples directly, they would have encountered their descendants whose cultures were derived from these peoples’ experiences. Settlement patterns, botanical knowledge, and scientific observations that were taught to the Europeans to help them survive in this world, had a basis in the Mississippians and their ancestors –for everything is connected.

Being a student of Native American Studies, I find this barrier outdated and more than racist. It was in the 1800s that the theory of “prehistory” became a mainstream concept. A French historian was looking for a way to denote the time before a written record in France, but “prehistory” has much worse connotations. In the scheme of world history, it wasn’t long ago that history and story were synonymous. The history of something IS its story. To say “prehistory” would mean before the story. So now, Native Americans prior to European invasion are before the story and not deemed suitable for historical study.

Another misconception within museums is relegating Native Americans to natural history. The idea that Native Americans were “one with nature” has been labeled the “Pristine Myth” by anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians. Cultures and societies prior to European arrival had a large impact on the environment. Because these peoples understood that it was nature that provided for them, their religious views included more of a symbiotic relation with the world around them, but they no more belong in Natural History than the Spaniards who arrived in 1492 and wiped out an entire civilization and are commemorated for it every year.

More museums should take the initiative that the Labor and Industry Museum in Belleville has taken by including Native American Studies into their exhibits. European arrival does mark a permanent shift in the direction of this country -creating a global leader. But without the existence of the first populations that migrated to this region thousands of years ago, Europeans might not have gained the foot hold they did on the backs of the Indigenous populations.

Belleville Saloon Museum

21 Mar

According to Riverfront Times, a group in Belleville is planning to create a Belleville Saloon Museum. The proposed museum will honor Belleville’s saloon heritage and Stag beer.

As local experts in museums and public history, do you have any ideas for the proposed museum?

The Oriental Institute

17 Feb
image from Oriental Institute

The Oriental Institute

-by Diana Yost

On the University of Chicago campus there is a museum called the Oriental Institute. The museum houses an impressive collection of ancient Middle Eastern artifacts, including copies of Hammurabi’s Code, the Rosetta Stone, and items from King Tut’s tomb. I was fortunate enough to live in Hyde Park (where the University of Chicago is located) for a while and quickly became familiar with the Oriental Institute. I loved that the University provided public access to its extensive collection for free and I took full advantage of it.

At the time I was living there and frequenting the museum, I never gave much thought to the title of the institute. To me, the “Oriental” was simply a reference to a geographical region. After all, the collection held artifacts from areas of Nubia, Egypt, the Levant and other areas of ancient Mesopotamia, so I saw the title fitting to its substance. Plus, the University of Chicago is a prominent university, so surely the name was accurate in the representation of the collection.

Recently, however, I read a book written by Edward Said, titled Orientalism. Essentially, Said discusses how the term “oriental” came into use and what it stands for. Said brings up the argument that the orient as we know it is actually a Western construct of the East. The word is just a reference to the “other,” the “inferior,”  something opposite of the West. Basically, it is the Western perception of the unfamiliar East. It is the reason Westerners traveled to the East, excavated the land, and brought back to Europe and America the exotic artifacts that we now get to enjoy in museums.

While reading this book, I couldn’t help but think about the Oriental Institute. I suddenly found the name of the museum questionable, thinking it is along the same lines as calling a museum about Native Americans an “Indian” museum. The Oriental Institute was created in the 1920s, and its collection was brought to the University from professors and students of the University who traveled to these places. At the time, the name purely indicated the location of where the artifacts originated. Today, I think the name brings on a whole new meaning. It is a reminder of the past, when Westerns, including Americans, justified their power over others.

City Museum: A Museum of the City?

8 Feb

by Christina Carlson-

Last week we talked about museums and their role in public history. Most museums are easy to categorize.  They might present the history of a local area or a specific group of people, a history of the natural world, art from throughout the ages, or a famous historical site such as the site of the Battle of Little Bighorn.

And then there’s City Museum.

City Museum in downtown St. Louis does not easily fit into the common stereotype of a museum. Are its tangled wires, hollowed aircraft, and old conveyor belts art? Can it be a history museum if it has no interpretative labels? It is really preserving a city’s past if it encourages visitors to scrambled over and climb on its “artifacts?”

All of these questions are legitimate when dealing with City Museum, and none of them have been definitively answered. Although many question the validity of calling City Museum a museum in the traditional sense, I would argue that it does many things a museum should.

Monstrocity

Monstrocity at the City Museum

For one, City Museum preserves pieces of its city’s past. Nearly all of the industrial materials that make up City Museum are from within the St. Louis region (the one exception I know of is some of the architectural ornament in Architecture Hall which actually came from a school house in Indiana). The building which houses City Museum was once the home of International Shoe Company, one of the largest shoe producers in the world in the first half of the 20th century. The so-called ten story slide was once actually used in the shoe factory to send shoes to different floors. The two planes in the outdoor Monstrocity, both Sabreliner jets, were manufactured just south of the city of St. Louis. The stairs in the main hall came from the old St. Louis County hospital. Architectural ornament in Architecture Hall was salvaged from throughout the St. Louis area, much of it designed by famous architect Louis Sullivan. This list could go one, as there are countless other pieces to City Museum and each of those holds of a story of its own.

Yet, there is more to City Museum than just its preservation of these “artifacts” from a city’s past. City Museum also does something most museums would not dare–it reshapes and reuses the artifacts it houses and makes them into something new and exciting. Children and adults alike thrill at the idea of climbing several stories in the air in Monstrocity, running around “skateless park,” or running through the dark tunnels of the Enchanted Forest. Perhaps some would see this type of artifact “exhibition” as too gimmicky or too close to a theme park. Others would argue that it is nothing more than a tourist trap or a way for City Museum’s founder to make money. However, if this were the case, why is such care spent on using only objects from St. Louis? In a rare interview, City Museum’s founder did stress that, “the point is not to learn every fact, but to say, ‘Wow, that’s wonderful.’ And if it’s wonderful, it’s worth preserving.”[1] Is City Museum really more than a giant playground? By reusing refuse from the industrial heyday of St. Louis, is City Museum actually doing more than a traditional museum? Is it possible that by allowing visitors to interact with the city’s past in an unorthodox way, City Museum is bringing about greater change in a desolate downtown than a traditional history museum? Can any historic value be found in City Museum’s methods?

City Museum Interior

Exploring inside City Museum

I am not sure of the answer to these questions myself. I do know that I hope anyone who visits City Museum will let their “imagination run wild.” Because maybe that spark of imagination is what this city really needs.

[1] “Got Rollers?” Material Handling Management Vol. 62, no. 8 (August 2007), 4.

Thoughts on Museums

4 Feb

by Tony Washington-

What validates a museum? Is it because of the quality of its artifacts? Its very relevancy? These question are brought up mostly by people looking for ways to take away some or all of its funding. We live in an age when people are looking for any excuse to cut funding for the arts, all in the name of  “less spending.” They are looking for for ways to cut back on the arts or anything looking like something that is”easy to cut.”

Refreshingly consistent in proving that hate is irrelevant is the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, located in Skokie, Illinois. This April, during their annual dinner that features former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the Holocaust Museum will attempt to teach young people why it is important to be “upstanders” against bullying and predjudice in all of its forms. Those hateful, hurtful practices have forced some youngsters to go so far as committing suicide rather than face another day of indignity. The Holocaust Museum knows about such indignities. Its halls are full of grim reminders of the men, women, and children who were senselessly murdered because of a bullying fueled by its own sick prejudice.

Just think: which one of those poor souls could have found a cure for cancer, peace in the Middle East, or even world peace? Their loss remains a reminder to each of us that hate of any kind, bullying, or prejudice is just plain senseless.

This museum was built from its foundation by the surviving men and women who were charged with the mandate of “never again!” That very mandate continues again on April 12th when the Holocaust Museum–joined by a former Secretary of State who, by the way, was born in the segregated south–will demonstrate why a living, vital museum like the one in Skokie continues to keep teaching and  reaching out to others, finding ways to  stamp out hate in all of its brutal shapes, sizes, and forms.

History Through Public Eyes

26 Jan

by Christina Carlson-

This summer, I had the wonderful opportunity to learn about public history first hand when I took part in creating the Ubjects III exhibit at the Schmidt Art Center. The Ubjects III exhibit was part of a four year project known as CUSP that was undertaken by SIUE, Southwestern Illinois College, and University of Missouri-St. Louis. CUSP stands for Conjunctions, Ubjects (a made up word meaning unique objects), Stories, and People. The main purpose of the CUSP project is to understand the history of southwestern Illinois through individual participants from local communities.

Ubjects III began when people from Lebanon, Highland, Fairmont City, and Mascoutah answered the question, “What object in your home best defines your generation?” Participants from these communities met with students and gave short interviews to explain why their particular objects defined their generations. Many of the participants then lent their objects to create a community history exhibit at the Schmidt Art Center. During the summer, I created an exhibit using these objects and the stories behind them.

photograph of albums

Many people viewed music as a defining factor of their generation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A "hippie" outfit from the 1960s, once worn by Linda Whyte of Mascoutah, Illinois

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Old camera

An 8mm motion picture camera-one of the first home movie cameras

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo of exhibit space

The Ubjects III exhibition space

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The project was both incredibly fun and incredibly enlightening for me. I realized how important it is to involve a community with a museum exhibit about their local area. Everyone has a different view of their community’s past and their own place in it. By combining so many of these views into something based on personal stories, the Ubjects III exhibit was able to present pieces of a community’s past which might not have been considered in a traditional exhibition setting. The exhibit was truly directed by those in the community who participated.

Should people in a community be involved in the creation of museums or their exhibits? Do you think there are stories or histories which are commonly ignored in traditional museums?