This is the second in our “How I Got Here” blog series. If you are in the museum world and would like to write about this topic, e-mail me at email@example.com. -Ashley
Last week, Ashley wrote about how she got into the museum biz and now it’s my turn.
This is a really difficult post for me to write because I have spent a little too much time thinking about why I’ve chosen to work in museums, not least because I had to write a grad school personal statement about it and then spout off variations on the theme in any number of job interviews.
Like many of my colleagues, I have pretty much always been interested in history. I read miles of historical fiction as a kid and I fantasized about living in different time periods. I’ve already written about the “aura” that seems to surround places of historical significance (completely contrived, but no less real for it) and I think a large part of why I was drawn to museums and historic sites as a kid was a search for that aura. Seeing Abe Lincoln’s hat at the Smithsonian travelling exhibition sent shivers down my spine and dressing up in costume at Colonial Williamsburg brought to life all my childhood fantasies derived from American Girl books.
As an undergraduate, I was fascinated by the idea that history is socially constructed and that our understanding of a particular historical moment is reliant on the sources we choose to use as well as those we choose to ignore. History is never “what happened” but rather the narratives that historians, politicians, communities have decided to tell about what happened. All of this might be pretty obvious to those reading this blog, but it blew my 18-year-old mind.
Somewhere along the line, I started to think about museums and historic sites as spaces where some of the most powerful historical and identity narratives have been created – think national museums, World’s Fair exhibitions – but also as spaces uniquely equipped to debunk a lot of those same narratives. I came face to face with this phenomenon while studying abroad in Prague, Czech Republic: many countries in the former Soviet bloc are attempting to reinterpret Soviet history as a way of both reclaiming national identities and dealing with the unpopular Soviet past. Museums are often at the forefront of this reinterpretation, just as national museums and national monuments were spaces where Soviet identity narratives were constructed in the last century.
This is where things get a bit convoluted and academic in my head, but basically I get excited by seeing how people’s relationship with the past manifests itself, particularly with regards to physical artifacts or historic sites. Plus, since museums and historic sites are very public spaces – far more accessible than academia – they can be used not only to discuss actual historical events but also to involve the public in the interpretation of those events. If done well, museums can be key players in the public domain, encouraging critical thinking by reinterpreting well-known national myths and giving voice to those groups traditionally silenced in the historical record.
This is obviously a utopian view of museums. I learned pretty quickly that vocal sponsors, public pressure, lack of funds, and fear of controversy make it difficult for many museums to use their public platforms to ask tough questions or suggest new historical narratives. But a girl (or an Emerging Museum Professional) can dream, right?
Blogging today is Molly Brookfield, one of my favorite museum gals. Molly and I met while working at a certain living history museum in the Twin Cities, but then she jetted off to London to get her Masters in Cultural Heritage Studies at University College London. She now works at the Wiener Library, watches Cricket on the telly and generally lives a more glamorous, European life than all of us stateside. – Ashley
When Ashley asked me to think about posts for this blog, I knew almost immediately that I would have to write about England’s Blue Plaque scheme. Blue Plaques are a kind of memorial plaque: round blue metal circles that are stuck on buildings, mostly in London, letting passers-by know what famous person once lived there. Some are instantly recognizable: “JOHN LENNON 1940-1980 Musician and Songwriter lived here in 1968.” Others not so much: “JAMES ROBINSON 1813-1862 Pioneer of Anaesthesia and Dentistry lived and worked here.” Continue reading