All posts by Sandra A Arnold

My public history works are created to foster an appreciation for the men and women who lived and survived historical slavery. I’m also interested in the public history of the overlooked and the misrepresented in history. My creative interests are writing, photography, and filmmaking. My creative interests are writing, photography, and filmmaking. I currently serve as a Religious Life Affiliate with Brown University’s Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life.

An Imagined History

Photo: NASA Rocket Girls. The women “computers” pose for a group photo in 1953. (Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech) Read more: www.smithsonianmag.com

The way history is remembered is often shaped by how we desire to remember history. Myth and nostalgia can “produce” a history that makes us feel comfortable about ourselves and our actions – while shaping the “image” we want to project to the world.  This way of embracing history creates a safe distance from the truth that fuels denial and promotes miseducation.

 

Selective Memory & History

 

Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson Above: Actors – Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe and Octavia Spencer – Photo: AKM-GSI

In considering how power and difference shape an historical narrative – I believe selective memory plays a large role in how the two factors influence the documentation of history.
In Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, Michel-Rolph Trouillot speaks of a “story within a story”- which I view as a “dominate” narrative (usually controlled by a majority) that dictates what is written and taught as history.  This narrative is selective, in my opinion, because it is formed of partial truths documenting an incomplete history.

I recently saw the film Hidden Figures[1] about the African-American “computers” for NASA.  I walked away from the film wondering how such a story was not included in my early education of NASA and the U.S. space program.  Without these brilliant women, John Glen would not have successfully orbited the earth or safely returned home.  Yet, the contributions of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson (and others) were basically “unremembered” in American history. I felt the same about the lesser-known story of a group of heroic enslaved Americans escaping to freedom from Cape Florida to the Bahamas in the 1820’s.[2]  In a mass flight, using 27 sloops and canoes, Bahamian natives helped 300 enslaved people escape enslavement and  settle on the island of Andros.

If I had been aware of the NASA “computers” and the Florida escape, these bold stories would have broadened my understanding of our early space program and American slave resistance.  However, works like Trouillot remind me that many “stories” (such as those noted) form a narrative – and all must be documented if I want to understand a complete history.

The Public as Participant or Decision Maker?

 

PHOTOGRAPH BY PATRICK WITTY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Regardless of the discipline or sector (humanities, science, art, etc.), connecting “the public” to cultural content is determined by how “the public” is perceived or acknowledged.  Are they participants or decision-makers in relation to cultural institutions?

I believe cultural institutions can better engage communities with their content and programs, if they embrace “the public” as both decision-maker and participant. By doing so, “the public” has a voice and connection with the institution that recognizes them as a “partner” – rather than a “visitor” or “patron”.  This is certainly the case when the content is related to the experiences and heritage of a community – such as the Civil Rights Movement, American Slavery, the Jewish Holocaust or Native American history. As decision-makers, communities within “the public” can dictate how their culture, contributions to society, and experiences should be expressed in museums and cultural organizations.  In this role, “the public” contributes to the shaping of the content within these organizations.  On the other hand, “the public” as participant, is an audience member, who gives the cultural institution full authority to shape the content and its interpretation.  A great example of this public “dual role” is the founding of the National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington D. C.

According to Dr. Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s director, including the American public in the founding of the museum, involved more than just seeking financial donations.  In a recent CBS News interview, he stated that “80 percent of the museum’s artifacts were donated by ordinary people who pulled them out of their basements, their attics or their churches.” [1] Dr. Bunch and others also traveled throughout the country during the planning stages of the museum and held community meetings listening to the interests of the people. [2] This type of participation, I believe, creates a sense of ownership for “the public” because they were, in some regard, included in the decision-making process for establishing the museum.

I recently visited the NMAAHC – and it is an amazing accomplishment!  The museum was filled to capacity with people beaming with pride, and many being turned away at the entrance.  In fact, I was unable to see the entire museum during my visit, due to overwhelming lines at the various galleries and exhibits.  One of particular interest to me, The Slavery and Freedom gallery, had the longest line and a 45-minute wait to enter.  To say that the American public is engaged with the NMAAHC is an understatement.  It was obvious to me that the participants had a connection to the space that can only be attributed to the fact that they were involved as decision-makers in creating its content.

Engaging communities as participant and decision-maker creates a better experience for both the public and our cultural institutions – because in many cases they are one and the same.

 

 

[1] http://www.cbsnews.com/news/a-dream-come-true/

[2] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/09/03/AR2009090303511.html