Reflecting on “Difficult Histories” and Painful Pasts

As I reflect on my posts for this semester, many of them have attempted to grapple with our connection to the past. More specifically, they seek to interrogate individual connections to painful, violent and/or oppressive pasts while the legacies of this past continue to affect lives in the present. For this reason, I found myself particularly drawn to Ruth Sergel’s chapter on “Difficult Memory.” In this chapter, Sergel writes, “even the most cruel and acute loss can never be passed down whole to the next generation (114).” In thinking about this statement, I found myself asking that if this statement is true: what aspects of loss/trauma are passed down to future generations? Furthermore, in what ways are these memories/histories passed down? While, as Sergel argues, we cannot fully understand “how tragedy resonates with others (118),”  reflecting on the questions I’ve posed will bring us closer toward understanding how trauma affects individual lives. It will also, in my opinion, assist scholars interested in Public Humanities work to determine how they can better connect with broader audiences ( I know personally it has for me). In thinking about the effect of these often painful pasts and our connections to them, I think it’s also important to return to another question that Sergel poses in this chapter. Sergel asks: “What should we have the strength to walk away from? (116)” To expand on this point we must ask-what histories do we have the strength to walk away from? And why?

Interview with Ken Gonzales-Day

Hello Everyone!

So, I wanted to share an interview I did with Ken Gonzales-Day for our short paper writing assignment on “The Past”. While the interview tackles issues surrounding the Western monumental tradition, I think Gonzales-Day acts as a sort of arts activist in his eagerness to bring awareness to ongoing matters concerning race, art, and standards of beauty.  Here is a link to the Profiled exhibition I am interviewing him about:

My questions for Gonzales-Day:

  • In relation to Profiled, how do you believe your work challenges the history of the Western monumental/sculptural tradition?

The Profiled series looked at the development of academic canons of beauty and scientific notions of human difference (from the Art Academy to the Natural History Museum) as well as sculptural depiction of race and human difference. Finding and photographing the historical objects allows the viewer to consider the subjects and treatment of the human figure through time.

  • Do you believe the western traditionalism of monumental/ sculptural art is still an effective or relevant form of remembering and memorializing a people’s past?

The monumental sculptural tradition is in need of critical re-examination, with regard to whether these objects are serving the needs of the communities or institutions they were created to serve. There is also the question of “audience”, and artistic intention, but, as I attempted to demonstrate in my own public art work at Metro Division in LA, I sought to create a new context where historically problematic objects could be re-engaged in new ways (e.g. signage, re-contextualized). That being said, no object should be destroyed because it is a part of the historical record, but, as with many of the objects I have photographed, they have been placed in storage, and in fact today we need to critically engage with these objects, in order to understand human difference as it is constantly being negotiated and “constructed” around us all the time.

  • What take-away message do you want your audiences to grasp from Profiled?

Modern conceptions of race (including whiteness) are historical and ideological constructions that were crafted over hundreds of years (Enlightenment Project, Slavery, Colonialism, Imperialism, Manifest Destiny) and may require many generations to undo. As such, these existing objects require reexamination in order for us all to better understand the power of such non-verbal signifiers ( e.g. bodies, tools, weapons, posture, facial features, economic, and cultural signifiers), to correct the errors of the past and to build a better future.

The Public Humanities and Progress

Through the course of this semester, we have explored questions surrounding public facing institutions and activism or social justice. I have found myself wanting cultural institutions to take greater political stances but also wary of their capacity to do so. If an institution does not have an inherently activist mission, I wonder who internally (or externally) is tasked with that charge. Who takes up this responsibility? And why? What are their qualifications, their positions, their biases?

Like Erin, I too was struck by Ruth Sergal’s chapter on “Difficult Memory”. In this chapter, Sergal states “Public Humanities projects that promote a fantastical notion of perpetual progress mask the central question of our own complicity.” Often within these projects, the idea that we are doing better than before can blind us to the structural flaws that remain built into our work. This week’s readings reminded me of an article I saw posted up and down my timeline recently. It is titled “The Museum Will Not Be Decolonized” and is written by Sumaya Kassim, a writer and researcher who was invited to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG) to help set up an exhibition of works from the permanent collection to bring awareness to the effects of colonialism and imperial oppression.

Kassim starts her article quoting Audre Lorde, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” Kassim recounts the difficulties that arose in this “decolonizing” effort within BMAG. She expresses the weight of the emotional labor performed by her and her fellow co-curators invited in for this project (all women of color) as they engaged with racist works of art, their fear of being tokenized in this project, the challenges of working with staff from the BMAG who, while open to Kassim’s groups’ efforts and insights, found themselves clinging to the “neutral” structures of the museum. In the end Kassim recognized the value in the project stating, “Curating #ThePastIsNow was hard – but I recognise in that difficulty something was changing within us all, that there was the possibility we could work through that difficulty together. The co-curators were learning how institutions work and think, and institutional actors were learning about how institutions can better serve their communities.”

I think the tension this article illuminates is very relevant when thinking about the role and political position of public humanists and public institutions. When are public humanity projects that aim to be progressive effective and meaningful, and when do they co-opt the idea of progress but remain complicit in neutrality?

A Tale of Two Museums

Filene’s article made me think about a project initiated by the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and the British Museum in London.

This is a summary of the project from the Pitt Rivers Museum’s website:

In September 2009, twenty one delegates from the Haida First Nation travelled to the United Kingdom to work with museum collections and form an International Research Network with the Pitt Rivers Museum and British Museum. Delegates handled nearly 800 Haida treasures, and also gave carving and weaving demonstrations, public talks, and public dance performances. The Network sought to understand the importance of historic collections for Indigenous communities, to improve their access to collections, and to learn together about the collections. Most importantly, its goal was to build long-term relationships between Haida people and museums in the UK holding Haida treasures.

I’m not about to give the museum a pat on the back for involving an originating community in the story of their own material culture. The Haida delegates may be outsiders in terms of the museum’s traditional methods of curation (though it is important to note that the delegates include museum professionals from the Haida Gwaii Museum as well) but they should not be seen as outsiders to the central narrative of the museum’s collection. I do, however, think this could be an example for other ethnographic museums to follow.

In the museum’s online catalogue, objects from the Haida culture are described in the traditional museum way with additional research notes from the delegation’s visit. The notes make mention of disagreements within the delegation about the objects’ use or origin, stories from the delegates about how similar items have been used in their community and, more intimately,  stories about family history. These accounts are not the “dispassionate” analyses of evidence achieved with the “critical distance” that Filene ascribes to professional historians. And yet, it is crucial that they are included in the narrative around the objects.

The British Museum was also involved in the 2009 research trip but has not included any similar notes in its publicly available information about its collection of items from the Haida culture. This maintains a singular view on these objects and also presents the museum as sole authority. The differences in approach seems to be rather telling.

keeping a finger to the pulse


In his essay, “Passionate Histories,” Benjamin Filene makes the persuasive claim that institutional outsiders often produce the “most creative work” in public history.  A sociologist established the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, for example, and a sculptor launched the City Museum of St. Louis.  

“Can we teach boundary-breaking creativity?,” he asks.  And can we sustain creativity under the demands of school?  I suppose this is something that most of us will grapple with in the coming months and years, feeling the tug of “professionalization” rites while trying to deepen our attunement to the vital collective imaginaries of our communities.  

That tension is real, but it needn’t be a matter of choosing between scholarship and artistic practice.  I agree with Filene that the disconnect has a lot to do with institutional media biases: namely, the academic paper or monograph as the highest, if not the only legitimate, end goal of serious research; and more fundamentally, the precedence of the written word.  I wonder if artists-turned-academics, under these expressive constraints, simply fall out of practice with other media, and fall out of touch with their extra-institutional collaborators.  

This situation seems to be changing quickly, however, as a sense of urgency about the need to communicate and engage more widely presses upon academics concerned with social justice, as well as attracting artists and activists to scholarship.  Still, the structural divides persist, and it seems like we are in a moment when they could either collapse or harden.

Remembering “Difficult Memory” – Whose responsibility, what stakes, when?

Hi everyone! I’m really looking forward to tomorrow’s class – and I can’t believe it’s our last one of the semester. The plan is to spend a good amount of time reflecting on what we’ve read and discussed throughout the semester and how we plan to take some of what we’ve learned forward into our own work, thinking about Sergel’s book and Filene’s article. – Erin

One quote from Sergel’s book that really struck me revolves around the questions, to some extent, of private vs. public memory and the role that remembering plays in this question of public memory. In her chapter called “Difficult Memory,” Sergal asserts,

Public Humanities projects that promote a fantastical notion of perpetual progress mask the central question of our own complicity. We have to be rigorous in challenging ourselves to determine if we are actually moving anything or simply keeping communities very busy “remembering” without ever translating those memories into something of use.

Of course, this is not the first time we’ve come across this kind of call to action this semester, but I think it is a fitting point to discuss in our final meeting. There is tremendous value in “remembering” histories – especially ones that have often been “Othered” or existed outside of mainstream narratives. But the question, I think, of why  we remember – closely tied to how we remember – is one that we should continue to interrogate. In my own work, this will potentially take the form of continually working to find ways to connect the history that I study and find important to the lives of real people, living today, ideally in ways that shape their actions and ideas about the world/people around them. But perhaps one of the larger questions here is whether everything must be “remembered” or preserved – and, relatedly, to what extent do individuals versus institutions play integral roles in this preservation?

Protecting Oral History as Outsider History and Outside of Institutions

While reading Filene’s article, I found myself thinking about how oral history has functioned as, in my opinion, an “outsider history”; in some cases as a form of resistance to colonial pressure and therefore activism; and how, at least in my experience, it has only recently become “legitimate,” aka universities and museums are starting to collect and curate these histories. I find this funny because all my life I grew up learning my culture through oral history, a culture that has been contested and even deemed illegal by the United States government until 1993 with the passing of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. I, at one point, even thought it was a less valuable form of history because it wasn’t taught in a textbook or even really available to Google. It took a lot of learning and unlearning for me to realize that this way of teaching was always “legitimate,” and in many ways it validated this “non-standard” way of learning in a system that did not always want it to exist.

Filene makes the case for outsider histories to come into galleries and museums, and I think this is interesting and effective in some cases, however I think there is power when these oral histories are not in these kinds of places. Some of the most exciting moments of learning about my culture were listening to the different versions and understandings of our creation stories and ceremonies, and how they were interpreted by different people and families. The culture and histories of my people are based on many oral histories told by many generations, so I ask, what damage is done when oral histories are written down in books or exhibits? It doesn’t allow them to change and it usually only focuses on one way to tell the story. Keeping oral histories less structured in this way, I believe, allow for more than one narrative, and malleable and ever changing ones.

Ultimately, I think this brings us back to conversations about what is “public” and what isn’t, and what should be accessible to some publics and what shouldn’t to others. My ancestor’s culture has always been political and contested, but it is who we are and in many cases protected — I can’t imagine that the elders and storytellers of my communities would want to tell just anyone about it. I believe there is power in only having something available to one or few “publics” versus “the public” (in theory, everyone). It is a worthy challenge to try to bring this “outsider history” into museums and particularly academia and books, but it must be acknowledged that there are many stories and many ways to tell a story, and even to ask if maybe those stories don’t always fit into traditional public humanities spaces?

Am I an Outsider?

“It seems straightforward: public history should reach the public. Yet museums and historic sites struggle to make history matter to audiences.”

(Filene, 2012, p. 11).

The reading, Passionate Histories: “Outsider” History-Makers and What They Teach Us inspired or reinspired why I choose to work in the field of Public Humanities. Am I considered a professional for going to school to further pursue the field and my education or am a history enthusiast who truly just has a passion for the field of history? Can we be both? Is that possible? Or do we have to pick a side? In my experience working in museums, I have met some passionate individuals who simply love to inspire people. During my time working at the archaeological conservation lab at Historic Jamestowne, I worked alongside volunteers who would drive to the lab sometimes an hour one-way to assist with sorting and labeling artifacts from the collection and previous excavations. These “enthusiasts” as some would label them were the most generous and knowledgeable people who were always willing to answer my tiniest questions. Without their assistance, I honestly do not think that the highly-skilled (equally as friendly) small “professional” team, as they may be considered to others, would have been able to work on these bigger projects. Is it an important component for museums to have a balance of these more identified “academic” voices as well as those “enthusiasts” that are able to connect more with the public?

“Why don’t they share our passion for the past?”

(Filene, 2012, p. 11)

I have always loved history and the storytelling quality it provides. I would consider myself a historian but also an educator and a public historian as well. But are people able to realistically encompass all of these identities for every paper, project, or situation? I think because they makeup qualities of who I am they do tend to appear, perhaps not in equal proportions, but still present. One of the major reasons for wanting to further pursue public history along with other humanities, involves hearing kids from my education background telling me that they, “hate history” or that it is “boring” and “only involves memorizing dates” but history is so much more than just dates and facts, it’s about connections and understanding motives not just the Who, What, Where, but the Why and How. How can I make history relevant? How can I inspire others to feel just a sliver of my love and passion for history? Filene refers to “core values” behind people’s passions for history, which made me start to self-reflect and think about my very own (Filene, 2012, p. 23). Why do I feel this passion? What topics do I feel more passionate about? I personally relate to stories of overcoming obstacles: Justice, Drive, Ambition, but also the characteristics and qualities of people in history I admire: Respect, Integrity, Balance, Boldness. How can I teach students about the American Revolution without creating narratives and discussing race, gender, class, along with the motivations and years of frustrations leading up to the War? I have to be able to connect and use my knowledge as a historian but also my more public-facing individual qualities and my education background to make history feel important rather than sitting in a history class with a textbook.

“Perhaps, the problem isn’t with “them,” the public, but with “us,” the museums.”

(Filene, 2012, p.12)

My final thoughts are on the future of museums. Looking into the future often looks bleak but I see this as an opportunity, a crossroads perhaps, for museums to be honest with themselves and decide if the institution is the problem with why guests are not visiting. Are you doing everything you can to make the museum feel inviting? A place for non-museum goers to feel inspired and excited to go. I’ve been recently thinking about the hit Broadway show, Hamilton. This show, engulfed in history, is one of the most popular, in my personal opinion, (at least it feels this way) shows. These tickets are often impossible to come by and people who I never knew were interested in either the theatre or history would jump at the opportunity to see and experience the show. Why? What is the show doing that makes people eager to go? Is it the catching tune? The diverse cast? What separates it from museums? Unfortunately, I do not have the answer, I am one of the unlucky few who has not had the opportunity to see the show but I am interested to see others give their feedback. What changes can museums make? Does adding in more “academic” voices change the museums’ reception? Should museums think more outside the box and be inspired by the arts like Hamilton? My answer is yes. The field needs to get creative. I do not mean to alter the content or change how history played out but it is in the past and provides an exciting framework for museums to begin to figure out how best to relay this information to the public.


Filene, Benjamin, “Passionate Histories: ‘Outsider’ History-Makers and What They Teach Us,” (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. The Public Historian, 34 (2012), 11–33.

Symphony for a Broken Orchestra 

When thinking about expert/non-expert, insider/outsider in Filene’s article Passionate Histories: Outsider History-Makers and What They Teach Us brought to mind Symphony for a Broken Orchestra.  This project was started by Temple Contemporary, in partnership with the School District of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Orchestra, The Boyer College of Music & Dance, the Curtis Institute and  “numerous professional/amateur musicians throughout the city.”

A NYTimes article on the concert shows the hundreds of musicians, who range from elementary students to noted members of Philadephia Orchestra surrounding the audience. But, the concert is not the end goal.  The project is to 1) create a symphony based on the unique sounds that each broken instrument makes and 2) get the instruments repaired so they can be in the hands of students learning.  This second goal cancels the first goal out because once the instruments are fixed, they will no longer play the sounds that made while broken.

Filene writes that “The institutions begin with an allegiance to a body of content.” However, this project is far more complex than the content and not about acquiring or commissioning. It values process and community. What I find breathtaking about this project is how it is visible within the mission of Temple Contemporary:

Our mission is to reimagine the social function of art through questions of local relevance and international significance.

This mission is present in the organization from the seat cushions on their chairs to a collaboration with Pepón Osorio —that is for you 

It gives me hope.




How Do We Bring in Outsiders?

“For them [outsiders], the past is not remote and dead but a comfortable companion. Freed from scholarly and professional conventions, they create passionate histories and revel in the past as a living, sustaining resource.” (Filene, 33)

My grandfather has been collecting lead toy soldiers nearly his entire life. To date, he has about 10,000 figures. These figures sit in glass display cases that line the entirety of the basement in my grandparents’ house, as well as the entry hall, several rooms, and many hanging shelves. For the most part, the soldiers are set up in displays that depict a specific battle or procession.

Because of the time and energy my grandfather has put into his collection, I would argue that he knows as much, if not more, about the ins-and-outs of military history than any professional historian. Though he may not “fire the enthusiasm of thousands,” he has certainly made my family care about military history in a way that I do not think we would otherwise.

In his article, Passionate Histories: “Outsider” History-Makers and What They Teach UsFilene suggests that it “if we prioritize passionate engagement with the past in framing our institutional missions, designing our exhibitions, and running our training programs, we can create a vibrant future where museums and sites and public historians are in the thick of popular explorations of the past.” My question now is, how do we engage with and bring in passionate outsiders, like those that collect toy soldiers, while we are doing this work?