Museums, like other U.S. institutions, will not emerge unscathed from Covid-19. A recent study by the American Alliance of Museums reports that almost a quarter of museum workers have been furloughed in the past year, and one in five of these employees does not expect to return to his or her job—evidence of the financial toll museums have paid as lockdowns and social distancing choked off the stream of visitors critical to their survival.
Yet despite these immense challenges, many museums have spent the pandemic year innovating, producing a rich array of virtual tours, lectures, book clubs, concerts, teacher workshops, and children’s story hours that reached unprecedented levels of audience engagement. Viewers have clearly been hungry to escape from the isolating monotony of their homes. But there is something else to this popularity as well. Studies over the past two decades consistently show that museums enjoy remarkably high levels of public trust as sources of information, even as confidence in other institutions—government, journalism, higher education—continues to erode in our paranoid age.
Given their impressively positive reputation, it is strange that museums are often omitted from conversations on the dysfunctional state of our civic life. As leading museum expert Elaine Heumann Gurian argues, museums are “savings banks for our souls,” preserving tangible remnants of a community’s history and facilitating socially positive “congregant behavior.” This is especially important as the debate over the interpretation of our national history rages on today. The historical academy has yet to resolve its struggle to connect with the public, which is bewildered by the increasingly fragmented state of the field. But by virtue of their public-facing nature, museums act as the bridges we need, offering rare and delicate spaces for those who want to earnestly wrestle with the difficult questions surrounding our nation’s legacy.
The theme of this year’s International Museum Day is “The Future of Museums: Recover and Reimagine.” That is no surprise, since the museum world is wrestling with its own debates about the role museums should play in our culture. But museums should take care not to sacrifice themselves on the altar of political polarization that has consumed much of American society. Delving into how museums have evolved over time by looking at two museums that have successfully navigated challenges of historical interpretation—James Monroe’s Highland and the American Civil War Museum—helps us understand exactly how museums can improve our national conversations on memory, belonging, and the ramifications of our shared inheritance.
A New Concept
Museums were once homes for the gods, the term denoting the classical temples dedicated to the Muses, the nine daughters of Zeus who inspired the arts and sciences. Over time museums came to describe the stockpiles of relics and treasure amassed by the elite in the Middle Ages that adorned noble estates and wealthy churches. As the doors to humanistic study opened during the Renaissance, universities began forging collections of their own for the use of their scholars and students. And when literacy rates expanded across classes during the Enlightenment, some of the first fully public museums emerged in Europe and its colonies across the Atlantic.
However, even 18th- and 19th-century museums were more cabinets of curios, furnished primarily through what one museum scholar has called a kind of human “magpiety,” than the carefully designed exhibitions we are used to today. That began to change in the United States thanks to the intervention of a museum reformer named John Cotton Dana. In a seminal 1917 essay titled, “The Gloom of the Museum,” Dana decried the physical and aesthetic inaccessibility of the art museums of his era, which privileged rare pieces housed in palatial estates located far from city centers. He argued that it was time to democratize museum holdings by preserving and presenting items from everyday life. The “genius and skill which have gone into the adornment and perfecting of familiar household objects,” Dana explained, should “receive the same recognition as do now the genius and skill of the painter in oils.”
This turn toward the vernacular marked a tipping point in the way museums viewed their relationship with the public. Instead of serving as gilded warehouses for valuable antiques, the proper mission of museums was to help their visitors learn about themselves and the society in which they lived. Museums needed, as critic Stephen Weil sharply noted in an article written almost a century after Dana’s, to change from being “about something” to being “for somebody.” And, over the course of the 20th century, museums replaced the imperative to collect with the imperative to educate.
Still, the debate over what museums can do for us did not end there. As we emerge from the pandemic and move through a new century, museum professionals are asking whether education is mission enough. Can museums address social inequity in concretely measurable ways? Should they involve themselves in activism? Does what some call the “post-museum” even need a physical collection of some kind, or is “intangible heritage, along with the emotions of visitors,” more useful for reckoning with our postmodern lives?
The flexibility and creative potential of museums naturally generate these progressive questions. But the good intentions expanding the scope of what museums should accomplish can threaten their sustainability, blinding us to the challenges museums face and the value they already provide as public educators and communal spaces, particularly during periods of racial and social tension. Moreover, as the following examples illustrate, collections will always be at the heart of the museum: It’s how they are used that counts.
The Homeless President
I remember watching in curiosity during a summer internship at James Monroe’s Highland, the Charlottesville, Virginia, plantation of America’s fifth president, as Highland’s director and a PhD student poked and prodded in the July heat around a tiny, unused space at the top of the small house that was supposed to be Monroe’s presidential mansion. I say “supposed” because they were searching for evidence very much to the contrary.
They found it. Using wood dating, primary source research, and some astonishing archeology, Highland director Sara Bon-Harper and her team proved that the structure previously billed as Monroe’s “cabbin-castle” had in fact burned down two centuries before, leaving behind it a detached 19th-century guesthouse that for decades had been traveling under a false identity.
Bon-Harper had been at her post for barely a year before she began seriously mobilizing Highland’s resources to uncover the truth behind its star attraction. It was a gutsy move. Paralleling the lives of the owners themselves, Highland lived in the shadow of its close neighbor, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, receiving just a fraction of the latter’s tourist revenue. In the 1970s, ownership of Highland passed from private hands to the College of William and Mary, which appointed a director who tried to increase the appeal of the four-room house by stuffing it with an impressive array of Monroe’s furniture and personal belongings, establishing a local opera company to host performances on the property, and (somewhat inexplicably) strewing live peacocks throughout the gardens. Both the peacocks and the opera company eventually left Highland; stripping the extant structure of its “Monroe slept here” mystique seemed like a particularly crushing blow.
But Bon-Harper’s dedication to discovering the truth turned up new opportunities in the rubble. Highland achieved national prominence through reporting on the digs that revealed its long-buried foundations, which visitors could view during their tours. The estate also pushed the boundaries of museum technology by offering guests augmented reality glasses through which they could “see,” superimposed on the ruins of the existing house, conjectural images of what it originally looked like.
Most important, a team of tour guides located descendants of some of the dozens of individuals who had been enslaved at the plantation, many of whom lived just miles away from the site. They thus expanded the population of those who were entitled to call Highland “home.” Several of those descendants are now members of an advisory committee that works with Highland’s leadership to study and interpret the history of slavery at the estate, ensuring that Highland tells a fuller picture of Monroe’s life and world.
The public has a complicated relationship with “historical revisionism,” which has often been mobilized for partisan purposes. But by inviting audiences to come along on a project to—quite literally—uncover the past, a museum like Highland offers an important lesson about what appropriate revisionism looks like and why it is so important to the historical field. Moreover, the growing emphasis on “sharing authority” with local communities that have intimate but marginalized relationships with historic sites points to a way in which museums can most meaningfully contribute to conversations about modern problems. As George Monroe, Jr., a member of Highland’s Council of Descendant Advisors, explained in a recent webinar, “There’s a responsibility we have now to tackle the hard truths [of history] with integrity, and then say okay, with these things that we’ve identified, what do we now need to do to … [realize] all men being created equal.”
Reconciliation in Richmond
In 2013, as the nation was marking the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, two local museums in Richmond, Virginia, decided that they could tell the story of this cataclysmic period better together than they could apart. The American Civil War Center and the Museum of the Confederacy became the American Civil War Museum, an institution dedicated to exploring “the American Civil War and its legacies from multiple perspectives: Union and Confederate, enslaved and free African Americans, soldiers and civilians.”
I visited the Museum of the Confederacy as a high schooler, which I recall was a strangely disjointing experience. Founded in 1894, it quickly became known as the “Shrine of the South,” thanks to the Confederate veterans and their families who swelled the museum’s holdings by using it as a depository for wartime “relics.” Although the museum had worked for many years to shed its Lost Cause origins by the time I visited, it was hard to ignore the Confederate flag waving proudly in front of its entrance and the oddly reverential displays of tattered battle flags, locks of hair from Confederate dead, and Robert E. Lee’s uniform glowing under sickly, flickering lights. Despite the best efforts of its leadership, one could not help but feel that isolating the Confederacy only facilitated its perverse romanticization. Talk about the “gloom of the museum.”
All that changed under Christy Coleman, who became president of the American Civil War Museum in 2008 after deftly managing the merger with the Museum of the Confederacy’s executive director. Coleman was a seasoned but provocative museum educator who had made headlines for organizing the first reenacted slave auction at Colonial Williamsburg (where she played a slave about to be sold). Despite the threats she received from museum donors and locals who accused her of “Stealing Our Heritage,” Coleman was determined to use the American Civil War Museum to challenge the distortions that continued to infect the memory of this nation-defining conflict.
The American Civil War Museum is proof of what collections can accomplish when accompanied by imaginative design and a clear-eyed interpretive vision. The main exhibition hall is studded with enlarged, colorized portraits of figures from every corner of the conflict: Frederick Douglass, Jefferson Davis, an orphaned girl in black clutching a portrait of a soldier, an Asian man clad in Union blue. Instead of neatly separating North and South, it weaves a complex but comprehensive story out of the many disparate experiences of those who experienced the Civil War and its aftermath. The museum touches on the war’s myriad military, social, political, religious, and economic dimensions through exhibits on subjects ranging from black Virginians in the post-Emancipation era, to the role of banking in the Civil War, to the Confederacy’s global ambitions. Its collection of thousands of objects brings to life the war’s origins in slavery and the enormous human stakes that were at play. It is hard to romanticize anything when examining the delicate fingers of a soldier’s prosthetic arm encased next to a rusted bone saw or the steely gazes in a photograph of the first black elected members to Congress hung across the room from a faded Klu Klux Klan robe.
Many historians argue, often persuasively, that all history is fundamentally political. But recent polling suggests that a main reason why the public trusts museums is that they are seen as fundamentally impartial guides to the past. This doesn’t mean that museums can’t have a point of view—after all, what a museum chooses to highlight from its collection is always intentional. But it does mean that museums should tend carefully to their reputation for objectivity. The National Museum of African American History and Culture’s (NMAAHC) ill-advised graphic on “white culture,” which listed “self-reliance,” “linear thinking,” and “hard work” as characteristics unique to “whiteness,” is a cautionary tale in this regard. By promoting a contested academic theory, the NMAAHC drained attention from the assets that most effectively serve its mission to explore African-American history and “what it means to be an American:” the stunning narrative design of its exhibits and its wealth of brilliant research.
When academics are too busy arguing with each other to speak to the public, museums fill a special niche. Highland and the American Civil War Museum are exemplars of their field because their work is grounded in relationships: not only between themselves and their visitors but between the historical figures at the heart of their collections and the communities they have left behind. They are proof of museums’ unique capacity to translate cutting-edge academic work in ways that meet audiences where they are, while contextualizing the most important issues and debates shaping their modern lives.
This is a monumental task, and yet there are calls for museums to do much more. But the reality is that many museums, already achieving small miracles on shoestring budgets, don’t have the resources to manage such expansions of their missions. Moreover, in trying to do so, they would abandon the role in which they best serve us. As with the temples of yore, there is immeasurable good that comes from sitting in the thin spaces that museums create, where the line between past and present is blurred, and questions are both raised and answered.
So, as the world reopens this summer, consider visiting your local museum and investing in your community’s spiritual savings bank. Books are easy to ignore; but the lands tilled and trinkets held by long-dead hands are insistent ambassadors, reminding us that our world is irrevocably bound up in the worlds of the long-departed and that they have a story to tell.
Nicole Penn, a member of the editorial board of American Purpose, is program manager for social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
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