Multiculturalism Needs to Work: Public Historians of Color

During my oral exam (the final step in completing my Masters program), my adviser/program director asked me: “Do you think it matters that you’re an African-American public historian?” Before he could barely ask the question I knew where he was going and it had been something in the back of my mind for nearly a year by that time. In an explosion of anticipation, I quickly and loudly said “Yes!” I had a lot to say on the subject. Well that already seems like it was long ago and now I’m officially done with my Masters degree in public history.

Today, public history tends to be sensitive to those it serves and their diversity. Attempts to be inclusive seem to increase every year. During my studies, I learned about indigenous curation which applies the source culture’s reverence and attitude to their objects in museums. In other words: Hidatsa ritual objects might be conserved and interpreted in a way that allows for Hidatsa tribal members to provide their input and cultural tradition. It’s all part of the process of sharing authority and it is a thoughtful idea. Yet, I wonder what is the next step in indigenous curation? How about curators who are indigenous?

I’ll use the term “people of color” here because it best represents the communities I’m talking about; whether they be Asian, Latino, black or identify otherwise. The shift in the 1960s and 1970s towards social history, cultural history, and public history are praiseworthy but there is still a relatively small number of historians of color. The number of and dialogue about professional public historians of color is, by all appearances, miniscule. Historian Miguel Juarez in his article The Invisible Careers for Latinos: Public History and Museum Studies remarks on the subject: “Scholarship of our communities shouldn’t necessarily come from academe. We must not wait for institutions to affirm our history as important and worth collecting, processing, preserving, and presenting.”

No doubt, people of color are involved in public history whether it be as a museum visitor, docents or historic interpreters (NCPH’s recent issue of Public Historian about slavery and public history highlights this) or as non-professional operators of small ethnic historical societies. Public historians of color are needed for their varied perspectives, voices, experiences, and concerns. Furthermore, this does not mean public historians of color should only “represent” their race, ethnicity, or tribal affiliation. In my oral exam, my adviser asked me about this issue as well. Since I began my college career, one my interests is Latino immigration in American history. Should I, as a black person, feel out of place working at a museum focused the Latino experience in the US? Absolutely not! While my opinions and historical interpretation likely would differentiate from someone from a Latino community, my professional input stands.

In fact, I interned last year at the National Hellenic Museum working to promote knowledge of Greek and Greek American history. It was an enjoyable learning experience for me (some visitors asked if I was Greek which threw me off at first). Nonetheless, having a black person tell you about the significance of Greek history is representative of the goals of multiculturalism in the museum. If “their” history can be important to me then it can signal to museum visitors that it might be important to them, even if they aren’t Greek. It works both ways and every other way. We should explore what it means to have a Mexican American public historian creating interpretive labels for an exhibit on the Harlem Renaissance or a Korean American curator over a collection of Native American traditional art. Is it any different than the current situation: mostly white public historians interpreting, conserving, curating, and presenting the histories and artifacts of cultures they aren’t part of?

The obstacles and possible solutions to encourage the increase in public historians of color deserves its own discussion. Hopefully, I and others can address it in the near future.

#PublicHistory

When I first heard of Twitter it didn’t make sense to me. What was the purpose? Turns out there is purposeful use of Twitter. That’s not my personal (read: nonsense) Twitter is full of short tweets about my favorite television shows and insignificant ramblings. The rest of Twitter isn’t much better. Yet, there is a professional side of Twitter and, to my surprise, a growing world of public history related tweets. There are a large number of museums, historic preservation agencies, and public historians on Twitter. Some are useful and others are simply marketing tweets. Here are some of my Twitter public history favorites, where they get it right.:

1) @GetMuseumsJobs
@GetMuseumJobs is a Twitter account that has a running feed of public history related jobs. As a soon to be graduate you could see why this could be of use to my peers and I. Each of the tweets feature a job opening located somewhere in the US along with a link to website where you can apply.

2) @ITweetMuseums
This Twitter account was organized to encourage dialogue between museum professionals on Twitter. It is a helpful part of public history on Twitter because sometimes it can be difficult to find public history related conversations simply through hashtags. Plus, periodically you can find engaging questions related to the field or people live tweeting (tweeting during an event about the event) conferences and lectures. It encourages museum visitors to also tweet about their experiences so it’s it own form of the museum participation. If you’re wondering @ITweetMuseums is not affiliated with any specific museum or other institution.

3) @ninaksimon
Nina Simon (not the soulful singer) is well known to public historians for contributions to museum studies. She is exhibit designer, museum consultant, self-confessed “rabble-rouser for community-driven museums”, and she has her own blog. Her Twitter account can be helpful for finding out about appearances she is making or her new posts on her blog Museum 2.0. She is all about the “participatory museum” which is something many museums need today.

4) #drinkingaboutmuseums
Yes, “drinking”. “Drinking About Museums” was conceptualized when a group of public historians felt the desire to continue the informal conversations they had about their field. The hashtag is used by various people on Twitter to promote the local gatherings. The hashtag is also related to a Google+ account that provides information about the informal gatherings that include alcohol, if that’s what you’re into.

5) @MiningthePublic
Of course, you should check out my Twitter page.

#freeMichaelFrisch