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?