Using the Past as a Tool for the Present

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.

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17 Responses to Using the Past as a Tool for the Present

  1. varljt75 says:

    Good ideas. There’s a lot of intersectionality here, between issues of class, race, and ability.

  2. emerbr84 says:

    I find it compelling that there is still this fear of the other being projected on the “objective” science of medicine.

  3. karissa430 says:

    It’s interesting that these themes of prejudice against groups of people have transcended throughout history. Particularly with immigration, museums could bring these issues with social stigmas and fear to the forefront of national discussion.

    • pnorman02 says:

      I was thinking the same thing. Museums need to start talking about the hard issues and if using the past makes the connection to the present easier, then do it. Immigration history would be a great gateway into discussing the issues immigrants and refugees are facing today.

    • mickcr says:

      It’s so relevant to what we are experiencing right now with the refugee crisis and immigration. Discussion about prejudice could be addressed in a safe place by museums.

    • I agree. Museums could also be a place for self-reflection, where people can confront their views and start to unpack why they feel certain ways. Of course, this has to be done with incredible care so it doesn’t scare people off, but I think the potential is really interesting.

  4. peteglog says:

    If we can put ourselves in the shoes of another person, their perspective would be useful. How should museums introduce topics? Is it even possible to take the approach of having visitors understand topics from another perspective that is not their own? It may depend on the topic at hand.

    • mickcr says:

      I think it is extremely important for museums to use the resources and people around them to find creative ways to talk about and introduce a difficult topic.

  5. at01lang says:

    The idea of the museum as a safe place to discuss current maladies and the controversial views surrounding them again opens us to the perspective of the museum as forum and something of community center, rather than just place of objects and collections. And the ability of exhibits, through collections, to speak to and interpret relevant and often controversial social topics remains quite significant, but museums must further explore their ability to become community gathering places that curate dialogue. So many communities today lack central, physical spaces where diverse interactions and exchanges over important topics can take place; indeed, it seems more and more to be the nature of less and less to have such social interactions in group settings. The museum, as a cultural institution, can become a sort of contemporary village green where people find through community engagement the resources and perspective they need to make sense out of these complex areas. It is a function that very well may exist outside of the content of the museum, but it certainly cements the museum as a place of and for the public.

    • mickcr says:

      Andrew, I completely agree about museums being a forum and their responsibility for becoming a central community gathering space. Hopefully perspective would grow as the museum becomes more involved in the community.

  6. saraumland says:

    I would like to see what museums have done in the past year to address the issue of the Ebola Virus. When mainstream news started covering the virus hysteria soon, followed. Museums should be helping educate the public on these types of issues, so hysteria does not happen. Instead of museums being sources of the past they should be looked at as resources of the present. Museums need to be a place that people can go to access information that they can understand, and that relates to issues of the moment like Ebola.

    • mickcr says:

      I wonder if Ebola is too current of a topic to address well? But I agree, reducing hysteria and educating the public could be an important role for museums.

  7. Leanne says:

    I, like Sara, wonder about how museums have tackled recently crises. I would also be interested in knowing how museums plan for these things when exhibits are decided on a year or two in advance.

    • mickcr says:

      That’s a great point, Leanne! There must be a gap between when museums can tackle issues and how they address them. Maybe events and programming would address current events, not exhibits?

  8. joshdtaylor says:

    Museums can have a difficult time expressing tough issues. IT is interesting how they can make issues relate to the modern day. Though it takes a year or so to plan, creating these exhibits are crucial in education and the general history.

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