What Are We Waiting For?

This article is from the Spring 2019 issue of History News, AASLH’s quarterly magazine. Members can access the full issue in the Resource Center.

By Jackie Barton, 2019 Annual Meeting Program Chair

Over the past several years, rapid social changes and an explosive information age have prompted public historians to transform their work, moving beyond their traditional charge of describing, preserving, and making sense of history for the world around us. New platforms for communication, driven by advances in technology and social media, have both served as windows to societal change and provided channels for the general public to share their own stories and to make their own meaning in ways unimaginable just a decade ago. Public historians now seek to support and be relevant to their communities and a fast-evolving citizenry amplifying their own voices. The theme of AASLH’s 2019 Annual Meeting (August 28–31)—What Are We Waiting For?—is your invitation to join us. There, our professional community will seek to become intentional about movement—about when to act quickly and proactively versus when to move more slowly, in thoughtful, thorough, and collaborative ways. Come, contribute, learn, get motivated, and connect around this compelling question.

In many ways, traditional historical pursuits created and therefore still drive public history: evidence-based description and analysis of the past and its impact on the present, plus the conservation and preservation of places, objects, and documents that illustrate history. After all, many museums and historic sites were founded for the purpose of documenting, protecting, and interpreting a particular story or site. In earlier eras, public historians took their charge to mean telling the story in “objective” or neutral terms, sorting issues of authority and engagement based on scholarly expertise. In recent decades, public history, history, sociology, and many other fields have faced increasing challenges to the once-accepted ideas of authority, objectivity, and neutrality, and I suggest to you that this is a beginning of a new way forward.

When I added museum work to my responsibilities over a decade ago, many practitioners knew the field was embarking on a period of change and were considering how best to address it. For one, conversations about diversity and inclusion were expanding. If the world will look different tomorrow than it does today (went the argument), then how can we ensure that we are still serving that world? And, furthermore, will that world want us to serve them if we do not look different as well?  Secondly, shared authority was an edgy topic of the day. Attendees at conference sessions argued gustily over the benefits and risks of allowing comments and online participation, for example, and about moderating such content at various levels. In many cases, the perceived need to share authority in those early days was to attract diverse audience to our websites, locations, and programs. Serving audiences, again, was a key factor, with long-term audience numbers an underlying concern.

Some institutions were in front of this curve, like the Brooklyn Historical Society. With its 2006 Public Perspectives Gallery, the organization sought to signal that the building was co-owned by the people in the community, that the museum “was a place for everyone, that the history that was told [there] was not just a very narrow slice of history.”[i] For others—the unprepared—their agonizing about sharing authority has become largely irrelevant. While we were worrying if and how to best engage and share our own platforms with communities, the masses simply moved their storytelling or their conversations about our work to platforms they liked better—and they have an increasing number of those platforms from which to choose.

The museum conversation about our authority and whether to share it was born of the fact that we had a monopoly. Since the early 2000s, that has been in rapid change. In February 2005, WordPress expanded into a themed, comment-moderated environment for bloggers. Twitter was founded in March 2006; the platform introduced hashtags in August 2007. In 2018, 77% of Americans owned a smartphone: with internet content and social media organized around topical conversations, the power to tell stories is literally in each person’s hands. If museums and historic sites aren’t the controlling authority for how and when citizens experience stories, then what are we?

More recent discussions and changes in the field have been driven as much by external events as by internal soul-searching. Events and discussions on the national and world stage have brought focus to how we fit into our communities, how we serve our audiences, and even who our audiences are or should be.

A sampling of contemporary concerns that demand a new way of working include demographic changes; climate change; immigration and immigration policy; human, civil, and gender rights; challenges and changes to public education; criminal justice expansion and inequalities; and long-term shifts in the economic configuration of the country.

In addition, a more sophisticated civilian understanding of public history institution operations is evidenced by activism regarding programs and exhibits, citizen bloggers and commentary, and even a heist scene tackling colonialism in Black Panther, the third-highest-grossing American movie of all time.

In short, major social and technological changes in the world are demanding major changes of public history organizations. They exist today within a vast, complicated array of expectations, and if they are to be relevant and make real impacts, they must move and change just as the world has.

It is into this moment that the theme for 2019 is born: What Are We Waiting For? The need to act is at its root, as a number of our colleagues have reflected on how long some of our most important issues and ideals take to achieve. Why are we asking the same questions year after year—sometimes over decades? What are we waiting for when the potential impact of history organizations is so profound? After all, during this time of “fake news” and alternative facts, history museums are trusted and are viewed as a highly credible source of information.[ii] In the sessions you will see in Philadelphia, the impact history organizations can and do make are represented, with a wide array of inspiring and exciting topics to answer the theme.

Diversity and Inclusion

Current events and longstanding challenges in the field have placed questions of race, ethnicity, diversity, and inclusion at the center of public life and, thus, this year’s Annual Meeting. The complicated and often racially unjust nature of America’s criminal justice system has been drawn into the light through scholars like Michelle Alexander (author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness) and publicized cases of police violence and wrongful imprisonment. Communities around the country have demanded the removal of Confederate monuments and other symbols of leaders and movements accused of racist or oppressive activities. These developments are coupled with an increase in hate speech and hate crimes, with the latter up 30 percent over three years from 2015-2017.[iii]

This year’s Annual Meeting reflects urgency in addressing these developments. More than twenty sessions this year suggest improvements to inclusive storytelling, partnership, collections work, exhibit development, evaluation, and other areas. Our opening plenary will focus on mass incarceration. Sean Kelley, Senior Vice President and Director of Interpretation at Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, will moderate a discussion between historian Talitha LeFlouria, Ph.D., author of Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South and Susan Burton of A New Way of Life Reentry Project and author of Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women. This discussion will connect history with current social justice work.

The city of Philadelphia itself is a perfect classroom for learning about African American history. “On the Road to Freedom: Enslavement and the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia” will bring guests through some of the city’s major sites of slavery and freedom. One such site was investigated in depth by our other featured speaker, Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Ph.D. Dunbar is the Charles and Mary Beard Professor of History at Rutgers University and authored Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, among other works.

The session “Imagining a Reparations Movement for Racial Justice in Museums and Historic Sites” will challenge us to conceive of a movement for reparations that could redress long histories of oppression. This might include the stories we tell at our sites as well as accountabilities we might demand from powerful and privileged institutions who have heretofore benefited from inequity. It’s also important to note that, in some cases, institutions may welcome the opportunity to redress the past. These are a small selection of the sessions and tours addressing issues of racial and ethnic diversity and inclusion in various ways.

Gender and Sexuality

Discussions of gender equity and sexuality are central components of public discourse in 2019. Against the rise of the #MeToo movement and advances in LGBTQ rights are juxtaposed public setbacks for high profile sexual assault victims and a retraction of U.S. military policy allowing protections for transgender soldiers, for example. Likewise, women’s leadership, sexual harassment and discrimination, LGBTQ interpretation, educating girls in the museum, bringing women’s stories to life in costumed interpretation, and a host of related topics are part of the 2019 program. Whether participants wish to improve their management and administrative practice or their interpretation and visitor interactions—or both—they will find workshops and sessions to inform and inspire them in this category.

In one example, “Queer Possibility” promises a simple strategy for avoiding the erasure of queer history when we don’t have definitive proof of a historical figure’s sexuality or gender identity. Even the reading of this session proposal challenged biases and excited the Program Committee about the changes it might ignite for site managers. The half-day workshop, “Women Leading with Power and Authenticity,” promises to build women’s ability to recognize their inherent leadership strengths and embrace them. It also seeks to create an advocacy platform to inform the field of gender inequalities in leadership and how to address them. Several other sessions on this topic are planned, and additional formats (such as pop-ups) are under discussion.

New Perspectives and Other Disciplines

As we continue to seek greater relevance as a field, an outlook that values and understands new perspectives and contributions from other disciplines and knows how to incorporate them into the work of historic sites and museums will be invaluable. Events outside our traditional areas of focus continue to come to bear on our work. Annual Meeting sessions will touch on these issues as well.

In “Helping Your Community to Decide Which Historic Places to Protect From the Impact of Climate Change (and Which to Let Go),” experts will discuss how to make difficult decisions about preservation amid increasing environmental challenges. Another session, “Exploring Historic Themes and Contemporary Issues Through Modern Art,” will explore how organizations can address issues like poverty, climate change, and diversity through modern art installations.

“Managing a Public History Career with Chronic and Invisible Illness” generated considerable personal and meaningful conversation among Program Committee members, some of whom shared their own chronic, less-apparent illnesses and how their career has been affected. This topic is likely to have wide-reaching application, and with illnesses ranging from auto-immune disorders to mental health and beyond, there are myriad ways in which people can be impacted and may need aid. In addition to representatives from the field, a professional with knowledge of the human resources issues will be present on the panel.

“The Warm-Minded Museum” promises to develop a purposeful focus on connecting knowledge and compassion.  Linking emotional content and skill with traditional academic knowledge has not always been a comfortable space for this field. However, as more history museums and sites expand efforts to welcome diverse audiences with varying needs and characteristics, to tell stories that engage past and ongoing traumas, to address social justice issues, to serve audiences with special needs, and to create safe spaces to explore personal stories, this higher development of emotional skill and warmth will be essential to success.

In a different yet still essential direction, “What Lurks in the Basement: Finding the Silver Lining in HVAC Projects” reminds participants that exciting questions of institutional vision, fundraising, and preservation policy can come into play as part of mechanical systems projects. The session promises to help move toward integrating facilities planning with interpretation and use planning rather than avoiding examining facilities needs until doom is impending. Pitting facilities against perceived “mission” needs is ill-advised, and the connecting of the two in proactive ways with advice from professionals who have experience in doing so will be invaluable to participants who have aging mechanical systems.

There are many more great sessions than I could highlight here, but these unique sessions reflect a sense of urgency. The theme is not, however, simply a call for action.

In reflecting upon the theme, there can be a great answer to the question, What Are We Waiting For? In 2012, for example, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, commissioned contemporary artist Sam Durant for one of sixteen sculptures in an outdoor installation. His sculpture Scaffold was a statement regarding capital punishment and included reference to the 1862 public hanging of thirty-eight Dakota Indians in Mankato, Minnesota. Neither the artist nor the museum consulted with Dakota tribal members in Minnesota before the piece was installed, and it sparked protests as those individuals felt traumatized and exploited by the imagery. Resolution required a mediated dialogue, and the piece was ultimately dismantled and buried by the Native community. The Walker is now hosting an open call for American Indian art to be displayed at the museum by 2020, and Durant has reflected publicly upon his own learning from the experience.

Around the same time, in fall 2013, History Colorado closed an exhibit on the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre amid criticism by tribes that consultation had not been part of the process. Consultation began, and a new exhibit and location was pending announcement as of this writing. On April 1, 2019, the Chicago Tribune announced that the Art Institute of Chicago was postponing a major exhibition of ancient pottery just weeks before its opening because of insufficient Indigenous perspective and scholarship.

These examples are but three of many across the field that illustrate the need for a slower process that engages community well at the beginning.

The organizations involved received public attention for missteps, but I challenge each of you to reflect upon your own institutions for less visible accounts wherein a poor process undercut great intentions at some point. Undertakings that involve historical trauma, partnership programs where relationships aren’t yet strong, or the telling of minority stories at mainstream organizations are but a few examples where proceeding thoughtfully and carefully is recommended.

One session in particular directly addresses these questions. I am honored that we have participation from tribal representatives, who will convene for “A Discussion of Tribally Driven Research and Programs.” This interview-based conversation will lay out how we can shift away from call-and-response engagement wherein museums or universities drive the need and ask for tribal input or blessing. They will delve into how sustainability, collaboration, audience impact, and learning changes when tribes engage in projects that benefit and seat power with tribal communities.

Thus, as we approach AASLH 2019 in Philadelphia this August, we understand we should have a rapid response system for today’s environment, yet that system must have thoughtful intentionality built into it. The program for the Annual Meeting offers key categories of learning and aspiration through workshops, sessions, and tours for participants to determine how best to become both more responsive and deliberate.

We hope to see you in Philadelphia. Bring a creative and experimental mindset, ready to rethink your own practice, and be prepared to have a great time!

Register now

Jackie Barton is the Principal of Birch Wood Planning, where she helps service-minded organizations leverage the places and stories they love through the infusion of strategy, story, and structure. She is also the Program Manager of the ARCUS Leadership Program for the cultural heritage and historic preservation movement.


[i] Deborah Schwarz and Bill Adair, “Community as Curator: A Case Study at the Brooklyn Historical Society,” in Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski, eds., Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World (Philadelphia: The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, 2011), 112-123.

[ii] Colleen Dilenschneider, “In Museums We Trust. Here’s How Much,” March 6, 2019, www.colleendilen.com/2019/03/06/in-museums-we-trust-heres-how-much-data-update.

[iii] Southern Poverty Law Center, “Hate groups reach record high,” February 19, 2019, www.splcenter.org/news/2019/02/19/hate-groups-reach-record-high.