Interpreting Difficult Histories, and a jumbled mission statement of sorts

If I could have my way, I would definitely radicalize the children. There are many opportunities to do this at NMAJH: discussions about creating communities, mutual support in the face of discrimination, activism, and stories about people like Clara Lemlich, Abraham Cahan, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Rabbi Sally Priesand. Ways to encourage my students that they don’t need to live within the limits that society places on them, that through knowledge and effort and teamwork, they can make the world a better place.

Except… I don’t. Granted, my position has shifted to more back-end work so I don’t lead tours as often as I used to, but I always shy away from really engaging topics that some might consider controversial, such as the labor movement. I’ll interpret them in an enthusiastically affirming way, but then stop short of necessarily bringing it to the present, or in ways that relate to students’ lives. “Something to think about,” but only on particularly brave or daring days.

Why can’t I take that last step? Maybe not of actually radicalizing children (a joking accusation about one of my interpretive plans for Dr. Bruggeman’s class) but of engaging in these topics in immediately relevant ways. Fear plays a large part. Of trying to persuade students and risk not holding my ground, of angry teachers or parents, of offended visitors, of misrepresenting the Museum. While NMAJH’s Mission Statement centers education on a personal level, we still have a policy of nonpartisanship, and I have certainly heard stories from docents about intense political discussions with visitors that they weren’t able to de-escalate.

Discomfort, too. I saw a lot of my own practices paralleled in Cathy Stanton’s descriptions of the Acre tour in Lowell. While I always try to be conscious of how I emplot topics, there is always the temptation to take the easy path that Stanton’s tour guides often did, of simplifying stories with the purpose of displaying multiculturalism and positivity. There is a discomfort of addressing my whiteness in relation to my students of color, of my being a third-generation American talking about immigration to students who are themselves immigrants or first-generation. An uncertainty about which is better: trying to talk about students’ experiences with the risk of getting it wrong, or letting students tell their own stories with the risk of losing my historical (or general) authority. (The second one is always better, no question, but it’s hard!)

Jill Ogline’s description of NPS’s priorities also resonated with me: I want the students on my tour to have an enjoyable and comfortable time, possibly similar to the “good vibes” described by Handler and Gable, in the hopes that a positive experience will encourage them to visit museums in their free time. (Especially given that many of the students I guide are from demographics that tend to be excluded from these kinds of institutions.)

A main component of Stanton’s conclusions is that, to create effective and relevant interpretive experiences, we must embrace these discomforts and fears through a critical questioning of traditional narratives, systems of power, and our emotions and assumptions. As I further my career, study both the field of public history and the content, improve my interpretation techniques and even develop my confidence and comfort, I intend to follow Stanton’s advice.

Not just because of my own politics, but especially after the recent election. It’s barely been three days and the number of stories about hate crimes, threats, and violence is terrifying. While I have not yet experienced any direct harm and probably will not for a while, museums must take a hard stance to promote messages of unity and calls for mutual support while warning against the mistakes of the past. Morris J. Vogel, the president of the Tenement Museum, released a statement explaining,

We explain to visitors that Americans in the past sometimes lost confidence in their national future and lashed out against immigrants in reaction. We try to help visitors appreciate that immigrants often had to build new lives in the face of hostility. Generations of newcomers prevailed even in these circumstances; it is our strong hope that today’s immigrants will prevail as well. […] Renewing our shared commitment to tell stories of the American past can help us comfort and strengthen one another—and shape America’s future.

This is what I hope to achieve in my tours, when I give them – acknowledgment of the pains and triumphs of the past while asserting a hope that can only be achieved if we actively strive towards it. When developing tours, I hope to leave space for docents to have these tough conversations, supported by trainings that address topics like cultural sensitivity and skills like facilitated dialog and I ASK. I also hope to improve in these skills myself. I hope to use the museum as a space both to educate and validate. While I may not radicalize the children, I want them to leave my tours inspired to make the world better than it is right now.

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