Breaking the Way When You Work to Preserve

“Museums are places where people can have difficult discussions and fearlessly address past problems. They can be places of tranquility and joy that celebrate our creativity and innovation and at the same time teach us of the dark conflicts that have defined us.” 

-Authentic Voice/Authentic Experience, 2023 Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums (MAAM) Annual Meeting

          Most museums and historic sights strive to preserve and elucidate some element of the past, whether as material culture, physical structure, or oral histories. But how can those sites charged especially with remembering the past also be part of building a just and equitable future? How can historic institutions charged particularly with recounting histories of abuse and oppression avoid inadvertently reinforcing the biases that perpetuate systemic inequity?

          The Annual Meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums met in Wilmington, Delaware between October 10th and 12th to explore and offer possible answers to exactly these questions. Invited to present alongside the Frick Museum of Pittsburgh and the Newport Mansions of Newport, Rhode Island, the Stowe Center’s Anita Durkin and Brenna Harvey attended a number of inspiring panels, plenaries, and presentations on how to reimagine and remake museums as equitable spaces, rooted in community and commitment to justice. Here is what we learned:

  1. Fun is political. Of course we want folks to enjoy their experiences at our sites, but it is essential for museums to recognize that fun can’t come at the expense of honest narratives of history and oppression. Keynote speaker Cheyney McKnight, an Afro-Futurist artist and public historian, highlighted her work as a living history interpreter both to break white supremacist fantasies of the past and to reclaim histories of Black creativity and joy. McKnight’s Afrointerpretive philosophy is a groundbreaking corrective to living history that romanticizes sites of U.S. enslavement and allows visitors to participate in a fantasy role-play of wealth and privilege in which the lives of enslaved people appear as an aesthetic background detail, if at all. Refusing to be “a prop in someone’s fantasy,” McKnight’s Afroterpretive practice instead invites visitors to see and to imagine the full, relational, and complex lives of past people.

    Visitors can enjoy the vibrant, captivating experience of living history—and a variety of other engaging, “just-for-fun” activities at museums—without obscuring the realities of oppression or diminishing the dignity of historical subjects and present-day museum interpreters.
  2. Tell the truth. Working at the Stowe Center, we have a sense of why telling partial stories—white Western-centric stories—gives a false sense of what the past was. Indeed, as pop, visual, and theater culture, Uncle Tom’s Cabin ironically perpetuated some of the worst historical myths about enslavement cultivated in the post-emancipation era. We can’t tell the story of Stowe’s work as complicit in and generative of racism if we can’t first be honest about it.

    The Northern Slavery Collective, comprised of a number of member organizations, is similarly committed to interrogating historical narratives about enslavement, specifically, the many stories told to hide or diminish the ways in which families, towns, and economies north of the Mason-Dixon line were implicated. At this panel, staff from the Westport Museum for History and Culture and the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum Alliance shared how each site has made enslavement visible in interpretive practice, and, most importantly, engaged with the communities in which they’re rooted as they did. These reinterpretation efforts and partnerships resulted in powerful public art projects, more relevant and vibrant community events, and redesigned museum spaces that made room for deep emotional reflection on the lives of enslaved people who lived and worked there. Collaborative in practice, the Collective works not only to tell the truth, but to do so inclusively and respectfully. Telling honest history entails escaping the vacuum of the historical narratives sites and museums have too long told themselves, and escaping the vacuum created by our own practices as well.
  3. Reconsider and revise collections. The Delaware Historical Society has an extensive-to-overflowing archive, with materials collected over multiple generations—and catalogued with the biases of multiple generations. In their panel, staff members generously shared their ongoing practice of reparative description: remediating or contextualizing existing outdated or harmful language to create accurate, inclusive, person-first, and community-centered descriptions. Literally, these folks are wading through a metaphorical sea of historical materials and revising their labels, one at a time, so as not to preserve harmful language and ideas, implicit or explicit, alongside the object. 

    The idea that objects are not neutral has long been a subject of museum pedagogy, but actually putting that idea into practice—critically examining, deaccessioning, and re-visioning collections—is a necessary part of building an inclusive museum. As Nafisa Isa, Program Manager at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center (APAC), put it during the plenary session, museums need to prioritize “Communities over collections,” never the other way around (no matter how long that vase has been there).
  4. Support staff for real. The front-facing staff members of the Stowe Center unionized with the United Auto Workers, Local 2110 in November of 2019. Seeing a panel on unionization, including our Local siblings from the Tenement Museum, was a welcome addition to the annual meeting. After all, inclusion and equity are principles to uphold both internally and externally; and, too, consideration of how interpretive changes affect the day to day labor of staff members can’t be an afterthought, but must be a substantive and fundamental part of planning. Unions are a crucial way of flattening the often overly hierarchical structure of history institutions, and help to ensure that a broad spectrum of museum workers have a seat, and a voice, at the table.
  5. Break it. Then break it again. But perhaps the most important takeaway from the annual meeting, and a key point of our own presentation, is that building equity and inclusion in museum spaces requires courageous, even radical action. As Kayleigh Bryant-Greenwell put it during the plenary session, “Museums are too good at finding a comfortable middle.” If an institution is starting from a point of injustice and inequity, a middle won’t magically be the presence of justice and equity, but something more like a milder-flavored status quo, injustice lite. That’s why radical change has to be really radical: aiming for a different objective with the same practices won’t yield the objective. It’s not enough to tweak; real change requires a break from the past, hard as that may be for history organizations.

    And six years after the completion of our restoration and reinterpretation of the Stowe House (which was indeed a radical shift away from how the House was once curated and the history once told), one of our most important takeaways has been that we’re not done. Radical change, yes, but also room to grow, to change, to learn, to imagine and re-imagine, and more importantly, to build, truly equitable, truly inclusive museum spaces.

What is radicalism, after all, but the ability to imagine a future, to see it, before it’s there? Museums and historic sites may be focused on the past, but we have a role and a responsibility to build a just and equitable future.


By Anita Durkin and Brenna Harvey, who presented on a panel about the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center’s previous reinterpretation and hopes for the future.