The “Difficult” Is Relevant

By Special Contributor posted 08-04-2016 17:05


By Elissa Frankle

Take a minute to look at your institution’s mission statement. Does it say something about making history relevant, making the past matter, or connecting the public with your subject? Did you also notice a reference to human beings in that mission statement? “Making history relevant” is directional: we want to make it relevant to people—to inform how our audiences understand and respond to the world.

In thinking about relevance, institutions often find themselves facing the challenge of helping their visitors grapple not only with difficult past events but also with tough, politically charged present-day realities. If we’re serious about our mission statements, we need to be as focused on our audiences as we are on our historical content. The best way to discuss difficult subjects with visitors is to trust them. Trust them enough to be honest, not obscuring or omitting harsh truths, and trust them to be able to handle multiple sides of a controversial topic.

The Significance of “Difficult” History

What do we mean by “difficult” history? Jennifer Bonnell and Roger I. Simon discuss a number of definitions for difficult exhibits: ones without a clear or definitive endpoint; ones that elicit shame, anger, grief, or horror; or ones that may re-traumatize people who have experienced violence or pain, whether personally or as part of a group. When we classify a history as difficult, we are considering the emotional toll that shining a light on it might take.

But not presenting a subject in your institution doesn’t make that subject any less painful. In fact, a historic site’s reluctance to discuss a difficult topic—the fact that the owners of a historic home were slaveholders; the misogyny, racism, or homophobia of a well-known or well-regarded person; a violent tragedy the perpetrators do not acknowledge—may cause more pain to the groups affected. By addressing a difficult topic, we can acknowledge its effects and signal to visitors that their experiences merit interpretation. At the Octagon Museum here in Washington, D.C., manager Teresa Martinez has been working to call out the experiences of enslaved people working for the Tayloe family by making straw-filled beds on which visitors can lie. These beds become an entry point for a discussion of slavery and its legacy, which we see in the ongoing injustices perpetrated against people of color.

 Credit: Teresa Martinez, The Octagon Museum

Even your institution’s founding may also be a difficult—but vital—subject to discuss with your visitors. In his Ignite talk at the Museum Computer Network, Nikhil Trivedi called on museum staff to commit to regular conversations about “how [our] institution[s] [have] benefitted from slavery, genocide, colonialism, and war.” Consider the people who built or first owned a historic home. Did they rely on the labor of enslaved people? Did they make their money from industries that rely on exploitative labor practices or exploitation of the environment?

Many sites are reluctant to open their spaces to difficult conversations, choosing instead to either leave a topic out of interpretation or present it without the opportunity for discussion. While it is easier to place a statement on a wall than to lead a painful conversation, it leaves visitors without a way to process and move through their pain. Staff and leaders of historical institutions can ensure that these conversations happen by incorporating facilitation, listening, and a focus on visitors into our core competencies.

A Difficult Present

In addition to difficult pasts, historic institutions must also decide how and when to wade into politically charged conversations about current events. When controversy comes to our communities, our country, or our world, choosing to be silent is itself taking a position. Again, we must look to our mission statements. In order to make the past matter in a real way, we have to provide a home for difficult ideas and discussions. If we shut the door, we risk shutting ourselves in the past.

The Joint Statement from Museum Bloggers and Colleagues on Ferguson and Related Events suggests strong, meaningful steps that historic institutions can take to move through difficult times with their communities. The Missouri History Museum, for instance, hosted a town meeting weeks after Michael Brown’s murder in nearby Ferguson. Melanie Adams, the museum’s managing director for community education and events, suggests two strategies for being responsive, rather than reactionary: (1) talking with and listening to the community and engaging them throughout the year and (2) working with groups that have expertise in facilitating difficult dialogue.

If we are committed to looking honestly at all aspects of history and making them relevant today, we need to start now—not wait until we are mired in controversy or tragedy—by reaching out to our communities. We cannot change the past, but we can choose to share painful aspects of our history openly and honestly. We can work toward making our sites more than brick and mortar and objects—toward making them touchstones for expressions of our visitors’ humanity.

For further reading on dealing with difficult histories and presents, visit Museum Hue, International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, The Incluseum, and The Empathetic Museum.

Elissa Frankle is the digital projects coordinator for the Levine Institute for Holocaust Education at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

#Diversity #HistoricSites #Interpretation