The focus for this week’s readings is on Exhibiting History, and I think it fits well with last week’s readings as well. While Andrea Burns’s From Storefront to Monument focuses predominantly on the rise of African American History Museums, particularly how they started in communities as community museums and, amidst the activism of the 1960s and beyond, grew into ever larger institutions. This book also deals, however, in how African American History museums present their history and maintain an audience. It is at this juncture where From Storefronts to Monuments, Edward Linenthal’s “Anatomy of a Controversy,” and Ken Yellis’s “Fred Wilson, PTSD, and Me,” overlap.
In discussing these African American History Museums Andrea Burns’s primary subject of study was the phenomena of increasing numbers of smaller African American History museums within communities beginning in the 1960s, “[b]roadening the chronology and definition of black power … to better understand the black museum movement that began in the early 1960s.” In short, she analyzed what she called the “Black Museum Movement,” in the larger context of the Black Power Movement of the 1960s. Later in the text, however, she considers what “community” museums must do to maintain their visitors and gain new ones even as they grow into larger institutions. This is a similar question to one we have tackled before, and one with which all museums must at one point grapple: what must we do to maintain visiting populations and increase it? According to Burns, the answer is some delicate balance between sticking to its original mission and reinventing itself now and again, all while taking care to positively affect the lives of the marginalized and disenfranchised. Part of making that positive impact on those lives comes from figuring out how best to reach out to them as an institution. To do this she ties back to the question of maintaining and increasing visitor presence, and one of the best answers, one which has been presented before and again here, is bringing the museum to the community.
But then how do we bring this to them, and more importantly how do we present history to them? Burns wrote of how African-American political activism in the 1960s gave rise to ever more Black museums, but politics does not tend to lend itself well to museum exhibitions. Or does it? Linenthal’s article on the proposed Enola Gay exhibit for the National Air and Space Museum would certainly suggest not. Although the exhibit intended to commemorate the United States’ use of the atomic bomb in ending the conflict with Japan in World War II, countless parties found fault with both the material selected and how it was to be exhibited. In Linenthal’s words, he and those working on the project were caught between a commemorative and a historical voice. There were those who desired a narrative that celebrated the accomplishments of the United States military in the Second World War, and these tended to disagree with those who wanted to include the portion of the narrative dedicated to remembering the bombs’ impact on the Japanese. At the time, those opposed to that subject treated it as though this were some new left-wing or politically correct take on the issue, but Linenthal asserted that whether to drop the bomb or not was hotly contested before that plane left the hangar. Ultimately, the outrage against this “politically correct” history from the National Air and Space Museum killed the project outright. This then raises the ever popular question, how do we present history to the public, particularly if it is one that challenges and angers them? This is the question that Ken Yellis took up in writing “Fred Wilson, PTSD, and Me.”
In this article, Yellis begins by discussing how, like the former Soviet Union, the United States has become uncomfortable with what he called the “fragmentation” of our society. By this he meant the new and varied interpretations that could be taken on American History. In the museum field, however, he asserted that there are three main reasons to create an exhibit: 1) there is a new story to tell, 2) there is a new way to tell a story, and 3) our culture has changed so dramatically or become corrupted that the memory of the story is forgotten. He asserted that the second is the most important traditionally, but in present, “amnesiac” times, the third becomes a complicating, though no less important, factor. And so the question he sought to answer the aforementioned question: how do we present history to the public, particularly if it is one that challenges and angers them? Yellis cited the Enola Gay debacle as the museum worker’s cautionary tale of what can go wrong, but to show an example of an exhibit that challenged visitors, more or less, for the best he cited Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum Exhibit. This was a controversial exhibit because Wilson, an artist, juxtaposed various historical artifacts that one would not typically associate with one another. One example of this was of a Ku Klux Klan mask in a baby carriage. The point of this exhibit was to have visitors think of the history of these objects in a different way, and many did.
But how does any of this help future museum worker’s and public historians who are trying to craft an exhibit for the public? What I take from each of these three readings this week is a different message, the combination of which might better lead exhibit creators to a better understanding of how to do this. Storefront to Monument impresses the importance of an institution remaining true to its mission while remaining open to new and different ways of attracting audiences, whether through outreach or new and creative exhibits. “Anatomy of a Controversy” explicates the potential pitfalls of trying to present familiar stories in new and historically well-founded stories to an unwilling audience. And “Fred Wilson, PTSD, and Me,” expresses that taking chances, like the Enola Gay or Mining the Museum exhibits, is worth the risk if there is a possibility of altering the public’s perhaps corrupted perceptions of the past for the better. We have discussed in class before that most museum-goers do so as a social event and to have a good time. This week’s readings leave me wondering at what point museums should choose to take a stand and correct public misconceptions of the past, while also risking moderate to severe public displeasure.
 Andrea Burns, From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement. (Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013): p. 6.
 Ibid, p. 181.
 Ibid, p. 182.
 Ibid, p. 184.
 Edward T. Linenthal, “Anatomy of a Controversy,” in Linenthal and Tom Engelhardt, eds., History Wars: the Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past. (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996): p. 9.
 Ibid, p. 10-11.
 Ken Yellis, “Fred Wilson, PTSD, and Me: Reflections on the History Wars,” in Curator: The Museum Journal 52 (October, 1999): p. 333.
 Ibid, p. 334.
 Ibid, 335.
 Ibid, 337.