Reading Response Week 2


  • Cauvin, Public History: A Textbook of Practice Chapter 6: Interpreting and Exhibiting the Past
  • Wallace, Mickey Mouse History:
    • Boat People: Immigrant History at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island
    • Progress Talk: Museums of Science, Technology, and Industry
    • Industrial Museums and the History of Deindustrialization
    • Museums and Controversy
  • Kennedy: At Museums, the Invasion of the Podcasts
  • Cebula, Cell Phone Tours

Much of Wallace’s essays in the book Mickey Mouse History have an overarching theme which becomes obvious as one reads through the book;  for whom museums are built for, what message they tell and for what purpose? This critical approach that he uses is in my opinion very illuminating such as in the Boat People chapter to describe the development of the restorations of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty along with their attendant museum exhibits which had markedly different approaches to depicting immigration. The American Museum of Immigration had a very nationalistic optimistic point of view conceived in the 1950s that claimed that immigrants came from all over to America and “stressed the contributions of great men (with emphasis on “men”), propounded a discredited “melting pot” thesis, focused excessively on European immigrants and had a distinctly martial tone” pp. 60. Wallace points out in contrast that the restoration of Ellis Island took the direction of presenting immigration in a far more complex and comprehensive way utilizing the contributions of many historians in the process.  The result is to “portray and give voice to immigrants themselves” pp.65 while also displaying the station and the process without sentimentally.

Ellis Island, a place of opportunity and despair for new arrivals to the United States.

Wallace goes on to bring this critical approach to the subjects of the next two chapters: museums of science, technology and industry. A very valuable point that he makes about these types of museums in which they typically exhibit machines and industrial processes created by engineers is the implicit or even explicit view of history, that it is one of progress defined by the creation of ever more efficient and capable machines and processes. Of course this vision of history runs into a problem when dealing with subjects outside of this view like the topic of deindustrialization as Wallace points out. Of use is also his description of class relations such as when he describes how the emerging engineer class had to figure out were they stood in the class order which again has consequences on how to frame their contributions which leads to the adoption of a progressive view of history.

I thought that Museums and Controversy was a very interesting chapter. I think the section that provoked most thought was on how to handle taboo topics particularly on how at the time this essay was written in the early 1990s was that “there has not been a single substantial museum exhibition on the causes, course, or consequences of the war in Vietnam” pp. 120. Of course the first thing that springs to mind is how the topic of the Global War on Terror which includes the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are going to be handled by museum exhibits or really any number of controversial topics in our recent past like the Occupy Wall Street movement or the Tea Party. I think a lot of care has to be given in constructing exhibits but they should not be afraid of challenging base assumptions like the claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The Marine Corps Museum is going to construct an expansion that will focus on Iraq and Afghanistan on the War on Terror due to open after 2020 which will be interesting to see when it is finished.

The articles on museums and their use of new avenues to engage with their visitors like using podcasts and cell phones shows how institutions are responding to the rapid development of new social media platforms to stay relevant to their visitors which Cauvin identifies as a key must for museums since that is a common compliant. Chapter 6 of Cavin is also a great insight in how museums are changing in how they design exhibits and promoting visitor interaction to really engage with them. I think that multimedia displays and designed exhibits that promote visitor interaction is the most likely direction that new museum displays are going to go.



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