Why We Fill Our Museums with Lies

Vancouver - Dec 2010 013I have a tiered collection of soap boxes that I like to scale every once in a while and proselytize about all the things the world is doing wrong and the role that you are playing in its downfall.

The tallest, indicating the need for my loudest sermons, is reserved for my rail against the way America teaches history. Beyond out right lies about discoveries, criminality and immorality, our collective history is taught from a singular view-point. The rich, white male. These men are then carved into marble heroes. We’re taught to idolize and accept without questioning the accuracy of what we are taught.

These heroifications are the reason Oval Office extracurriculars dominate headlines and create a morality backlash. We’ve been taught that people in positions of social or political influence are above human behavior. They should not have a history that includes any poor judgment, miscalculated goals, or indiscretions.

Because lord knows we don’t…

Museums and historical sites have a sordid habit of playing into these historical compartmentalization. The majority of a museums’s space is generally dedicated to history as experienced or viewed through masculine, white eyes. Once they have finished teaching you the “history” they will occasionally include black history or woman’s history or, very infrequently, LGBTQ history.

These separations teach us that their history is not our history. It doesn’t even run parallel, as subconsciously communicated through the size, depth of knowledge, and attention given to these exhibits. These are histories of less significance and their impact is only slightly felt and, even then, only within the segregated groups.

The labels put on these histories are accepted as necessary qualifiers to identify whose history we are learning. Why do we accept these labels, when qualifiers such as white history or man history seem like silly redundancies? It is assumed that when we use the word history without specification we are talking about the rich, white male story.

By teaching singular history, you are teaching an egocentric, singular view of the world. Putting on those labels creates a history for you and him, her over there and me, rather than OUR history. It becomes a fractured story that we then use in our lives as an excuse to continue to live as a segregated global community. We assume that because we have no collective history that it is impossible to understand each other.

I’m not arguing against the individual histories that help identify a group of people. There are certainly experiences that my ancestors as white Europeans do not share with Africans or people of the First Nations. But the museums that present events or social ideas should not limit their points of view to the majority. By doing this the majority becomes the self-appointed authority, even in situations where population shifts have made them racially a minority.

A culture teaches this way to make themselves appear important and to aid in assuming a role of dominance. A national story of moral righteousness and strength in character portrays an indomitable force. The damaging side effect is the delicate façade created. The nation is now forced to cower behind these paper heroes hoping they will hold. Of course, the obvious irony is the strength of character that comes from accepting responsibility and allowing growth in the wake of errors.

The unfortunate reality is that museums are forced to tell false stories and create heroic portrayals. The concealed truths and, often, blatant lies, are a result of thinly veiled demands. Donors with a vested interest in keeping clean historic reputations will only donate with caveats on how the information is presented and what parts of the story must be left out.

Essentially we are selling our history to the highest bidder. If they would like to stay open, museums have little choice but to accept the money or artifacts within the stipulations. The rich have created our history. And will continue to do so, unless we began to demand otherwise.

First, donate time and money, when you can, to museums, historic sites, and other non-profit preservation organizations. It would take a significant amount for most museums to become independent of large donors with agendas, but…I hate to say it…anything helps.

Secondly, don’t accept that the history that you’ve been taught is, in fact, the truth. When you visit historic sites and museums, ask questions. And then see through the well-crafted and rehearsed answers.

Finally, cultivate your own knowledge. Start with James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me and Lies Across America for a more involved conversation on the buying of our history. Then read, research, and explore with a critical eye.

This seemingly out of nowhere post was a result of the incredibly honest, refreshing museums in and around St. Louis. I’m hoping to get a post up soon about the surprising way they presented our history.

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