Sunday, March 4, 2007

What Stories Should We Tell?

I’m involved in two projects right now that focus, in part, on difficult stories in small communities. In one community, a history of labor strikes resonates down the years—so much so that the companies themselves are gone from the community. The bitter memories remain though, so much so that a 95 year old woman almost spit out the names of those who were scabs in the 1940s. On another project, a historic house, owned by slaveholders, is beginning the process of thinking about how to interpret that difficult history—another history that resonates down to the present day for both European Americans and African Americans. There is some sense—among several groups of people-- that the history might be too painful still to address.

Over lunch with a colleague (guess these kinds of lunches serve as non-virtual blogs) we talked about how much we, as historians and as museum people, want to understand these issues and how much we believe that museums and historical societies can be places to do it. We talked about not-very-serious titles for an exhibit on difficult issues—It’s About Time, or Let’s Talk About It. Larger museums—particularly those museums involved in the International Coalition of Historic Sites of Conscience have done it but it seems a much more difficult thing for small museums to do.

Maybe it’s because we're reluctant to discuss those issues with our neighbors we see everyday. But maybe that’s exactly the place that we should discuss them—and understand that change can happen right in our own backyard. Community museums could, with a good deal of listening and good will, create exhibits and interpretive plans that bring diverse elements of our community together. As Margaret Mead famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

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