After reading selections from the book Silent Travelers by Alan M. Kraut it is apparent that populations that came to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries took a majority of the blame for disease and epidemics that struck America. Public health officials, American-born citizens, and even American doctors lacked understanding of their different methods of medicine and culture, further marginalizing immigrants from society’s mainstream. The question is, how should a museum use the experiences of the past to tell the difficult stories that are taking place now?
When presenting information about a previous epidemic like tuberculosis or polio, one can open up a conversation about current issues and events taking place in the United States. The prejudices that Alan Kraut addressed in his book are similar to the issues that new populations face in the United States today. Cultural differences that Americans don’t understand are still feared, leading to stereotypes and blame. This theme runs throughout history, and I believe it is the responsibility of museums to do their best to explain and diffuse these differences through telling the stories of past groups who experienced the same difficulties.
If done correctly, museums have the ability to create a safe space for discussion and understanding of controversial societal issues, whether it’s the Ebola crisis, HIV, AIDs, or the introduction of a refugee population to community. I believe that this will help museums become a forum for difficult topics, allowing for greater understanding of the changes that are happening around us.