“History is propaganda. Teaching is propaganda.” I once began an American History class with those statements. A room full of flustered undergraduates stared back at me in disbelief. Was I uttering sacrilege? As historians are all too aware, history is interpretation — interpretation often based on fragmentary evidence. Historians piece together those fragments as best they can to tell a story, but their interpretations of the past can be tinged by their own experiences, viewpoints, and social agenda. Yet history educators — whether in a classroom or in a museum — rarely let the public in on this. Too often, they present history as if it is the gospel truth handed down on stone tablets. I went on to tell my students that it was their responsibility to arm themselves with the best available information so they could cut through the crap and form well-reasoned interpretations of their own.
At the upcoming AAM conference (May 23-26), I’ll be taking part in a panel called “Breathing New Life into History.” While we’ll discuss how history museums can become more interactive and more engaging for visitors, I also intend to throw out there how museums can become more honest.Read more