At AASLH’s 2013 Annual Meeting, three of us will conduct a panel discussion on two uncomfortable (for some) topics: the histories of African-Africans and of American Indians.
My colleagues and I will focus on why it’s important for museum staff and visitors to address these topics. Some historians insist that these subjects have been researched sufficiently, that it’s time to move on. Many Americans also seem weary – and wary – about the history of this country’s treatment of these people.
We can see this desire to “leave the past in the past” in decades-long efforts to dismantle Affirmative Action and, most recently, in the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down “preclearance”: that is, protecting citizens’ rights by monitoring voting practices in certain jurisdictions. Chief Justice Roberts declared that, while the 1965 Voting Rights Act has been “immensely successful at redressing racial discrimination and integrating the voting process,” such precautions, in his opinion, are no longer necessary.
Justice Ginsburg countered that Congress wanted preclearance to “catch discrimination before it causes harm, and to guard against returning to old ways.” She added that preclearance has clearly been successful, that eliminating it “is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you’re not getting wet.”
Unfortunately, Americans often want to gain historical perspective and discuss these legacies after a crisis erupts. If our nation can’t honestly acknowledge the complex reality of its past, fear and resentment will always simmer under the surface, only to break out, sometimes with tragic consequences.
What can we, as museum professionals, do? One thing is to identify those social, legal and economic perspectives that divide our communities and ourselves. We can also create programs that encourage frank discussions about our own histories.
Nicole Moore, Megan Byrnes, and I hope you’ll join us in discussing practical ways for museums – large and small – and their communities to acknowledge the past, incorporate it into our presentations, and move forward together.
See you in Birmingham!
Regina Faden is the Executive Director of Historic St. Mary’s City (HSMC) museum at the site of Maryland’s seventeenth century capital. Before joining HSMC, she was the Executive Director of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum in Hannibal, Missouri on the banks of the Mississippi River.