History in the Making

Museums have a great responsibility in attempting to interpret contemporary history. Starting a dialogue about twentieth century events is a daunting task as many of the story’s participants are still alive and well, bringing their memories, insights, and biases to the table. The Museum at Bethel Woods receives visitors from around the country and the world, including plenty of baby boomers and flower children that like to offer their own recollections, and some criticisms, about how the Woodstock Festival is portrayed and remembered by the museum.

Another challenge the museum field faces when recounting recent events is that many times people do not realize history is in the making until after the fact. As a result there may be few objects saved from such events, since they are not identified as “artifacts” until long after the fact.

The Detroit Historical Museum will be tackling this issue head on when they open their exhibit commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Detroit Riot in 2017. Chief Curatorial Officer Tobi Voigt explained that, since there are few material remnants from that week, the museum will be gathering oral histories from current and former Detroit residents. This is a fantastic solution to a tricky problem, and one that will allow the many different perspectives of this story to be told by those people who lived through it.

How would you choose to portray an important historic event without any objects?

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to History in the Making

  1. maolsen13 says:

    I feel the Detroit Historical Museum is absolutely right. If you are lacking objects, but the history is contemporary, oral history is the best way to present the story. Their memories are essential to our understanding of the event and in some ways are even more valuable then objects. That’s not to say that oral histories coupled with objects doesn’t round out an exhibit nicely, but when you are faced with an issue of this type oral histories are a wonderful way to overcome the challenge. Great post Noah, a lot of food for thought here!

  2. emilykp47 says:

    The Detroit exhibit sounds fascinating. I’m really interested to see how it turns out, especially using only oral histories. I admit I’m having a hard time picturing an exhibit solely with oral histories; surely there’s some objects they can use? If not actual artifacts, then reproductions? Or even using newspapers and/or broadcast news reports from the time?

    I’m also interested to see how the Detroit exhibit approaches the issue of interpreting events where many of the participants are still alive. I imagine there’s still a lot of controversy surrounding the riots; how are they going to navigate those issues? I’m curious to see what they do.

  3. meghangewerth says:

    Great question Noah. I think oral histories are an important way to record peoples’ memories of and feelings towards an event. They have been brought up in various courses so far and I’m interested to see how the Detroit Historical Museum uses them. I agree with Emily that incorporating other types of resources (however few there may be) would make it more engaging to the public. As interesting as I (and hopefully others!) find listening to people talk about events they actually lived through, I think that oral histories combined with objects are a good jumping off point for discussion. This is a tricky situation and worth thinking about.

  4. torilee0310 says:

    I agree with everyone that this exhibit sounds fascinating. Oral histories are great for incorporating different and “authentic” voices to a collective historical memory. Although we’ve seen some great examples this semester, designing an exhibition based on oral histories alone is very tricky. In my opinion, an exhibition on the Detroit riots would be an ideal place for a multisensory, immersive experience. This also must be done with care, since I’m sure this event caries deep trauma and gravitas. However, there must be powerful visuals including photographs, news broadcasts, and video footage that could be enhanced with immersive and evocative gallery spaces. Riots are so multisensory and so visceral. There is yelling and screaming, broken glass and car alarms. There is the smell of smoke and gas. So many details could help visitors access some of the fear, and anger, and desperation that many people must have felt. This shouldn’t feel like an adult Disney ride obviously, since many people died and were gravely injured, but a multisensory environment in addition to oral histories might have a stronger effect on visitors.

  5. caitlinmccaffrey11 says:

    Oral histories are an incredible artifact in and of themselves. Hearing from people who went through the Detroit Riots would be an incredibly moving experience for museum visitors. the Detroit Historical Museum has a rare opportunity in that there are still people alive who experienced that history; as a result they may be able to gain multiple perspectives. I wonder if the Detroit History Museum might be able to ask those they interview if they have any artifacts they may be willing to loan the museum, such as photographs or even newspapers covering the even. I know these may not seem like much, but any object concerning the riot may help the viewer gain a bit more context.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s