The Path Ahead

I have a lot on my plate at my new job already. Working at a local history museum on a very small staff, I have several job duties, one of which is managing, researching, and creating exhibits. This is the most challenging, but also the most exciting for me. The museum has two exhibits. The first is a permanent exhibit whose purpose is to orient visitors to the overall history of the greater Phoenix metropolitan area. The second is a space for changing exhibits that examine one aspect of local history in greater depth. Today I wanted to familiarize myself with the information presented in the permanent exhibit.

I took several hours to read every panel, examine every object, scrutinize every caption, and capture the overall themes. Here’s what I learned: Praise be to Jebus that Whitey came to the desert to wrest it from the hands of those savage Indians so that we could get on with the construction of banks, the creation of a fire department and finally, proper civilization, finally delivered via Ta-DAH! the railroad! Which naturally led to the great city we live in today.

Oh, jeez. Lots of issues here.

One. The underlying overt message is that this place was nothing before the arrival of the White Man. White Man came, He built buildings, He created local institutions like schools, and on the 7th day, He brought air conditioning. In actuality, this area has been inhabited for over two thousand years by prehistoric and diverse peoples who created complex societies and managed to thrive in an extremely challenging desert environment. As they now stand, the exhibits promote THE (singular) Local History (That Matters). There’s no room to accommodate multiple cultures and histories. Which is a big problem since the museum wants to grow its brand and audience. First there is no “The” local history. Loads of folks would find nothing they can identify with in these displays. Their predecessors endured discrimination, racism, and exclusion. Everyone took different paths to the present — to suggest otherwise does a disservice to our audiences and to the communities, families, and individuals who experienced things differently. And second, the history told here tells us nothing of how the Phoenix metropolitan area differs from, say, Lincoln, Nebraska or Denver, Colorado. It’s the same old, same old. People came west, they settled, got rid of Indians, and created a lawful society out of nothing. So what makes Phoenix worth knowing anything about? I’m afraid that the museum visitor leaves the exhibits unable to answer that question.

Two. The inevitability of the narrative. That this is just how things happen, Once the White Man arrived, of COURSE we would become a major metropolitan and highly successful city. I mean, how else could it have happened?! Above each section of the exhibits hang banners that reinforce this problem. They are: Orientation, Settlement, Civilizing, Sophistication, Romanticizing, and Modernizing. The narrative is one that reinforces an old school history — that A led to B, which predictably led ultimately to Z, & that’s how it happened — isn’t America great! The problem being that there is no inevitability. Modern historians would instead frame local history in themes, examining the interplay of complex processes like gender, class, ethnicity, American imperialism and hegemony, environmental context and cultural accommodation.

Three. Where’s the 20th century?! The second half of the permanent chronological exhibit spans from the arrival of the railroad to a mural and display that showcase current businesses, sports teams, and attractions. Huh? The valley saw unprecedented 20th century growth and in the span of just 100 years went from a population of 5,554 to about 4 million. Today, the urban land sprawls an area the size of Rhode Island. Since the majority of the metropolitan population here comes here from elsewhere, you would think they’d be interested in the patterns that have drawn so many families just like their own to the valley over the past 100 years. These exhibits don’t even mention any such exponential growth. If anything could be dubbed “the” story of this place, that’s it.

Four. Minorities in a Box. The museum only pays lip service to anyone other than The White Man. The Orientation area is the only one to feature any Native American history and prehistory, but also problematically tosses Mexican Americans in the same spot and collapses prehistoric peoples in with modern-day Native Americans. The city’s multiculturalism isn’t examined again until the Sophistication area, which features a series of five or six small cases that showcase the city’s diversity vis a vis local businesses. A Jewish-owned jewelry store, an African American-owned restaurant. Token cultural diversity lip service at best. News flash: shout outs to ethnic businesses do not make multicultural history. I picture the exhibit developers sat around saying “Now what have we got in our collections that’s, hmmm, y’know, more, uh, exotic? Maybe we can use THAT to talk about, um, black history?” This speaks to a larger problem of collections development. Museums exhibit what they have in their collections, and if the items on display are any indication, this museum’s collections attest to the experiences of only a very small swath of society. In other words, if this is the best of what’s available to display to provide a sense of the diverse peoples and communities that comprised Phoenix’s history, then we’re in trouble.

Five. If I wanted to read, I’d be at a library. The text panels are wordy and try to tell the whole story. By setting up a narrative from “beginning” to “end” you’re reinforcing the narrative’s inevitability and further excluding multiple perspectives. And exhibits are just the tip of the iceberg. You can use a published museum catalog, educational programs, websites, and interactive displays to allow those who are interested to get deeper into the subject material. You don’t have to cover everything in the text. Not to mention that a lot of these stories strike me as unsubstantiated claims and vignettes that are not necessarily representative of any overarching narrative. Again, channeling the exhibit developers: “So, what can we display here? Well, we’ve got a bunch of train lanterns. Let’s do something with that!” And thus, the display of the assemblage of railroad lanterns was born.

Six. What is this stuff? Almost none of the photographs have attributions or captions. And almost none of the objects have labels. I’m wandering around thinking, What the HELL is THAT?! And I work here.

I also used this as an opportunity to spend a little time with my volunteers. After I had taken the time to explore everything on my own, I went through the exhibits with two volunteers to get their point of view. And they just gushed about how “pretty” that lace is and how we could “put more salt cellars up here, we’ve got a bunch of ‘em!” As we wound through the exhibit, we rounded a corner where you’re immediately struck with a display of a real, taxidermied ostrich. I cannot for the life of me figure out why this is here, other than the museum had one and wanted to display it. The volunteers dragged me straight to it. “See! This display just seems so empty now! We used to have [real, taxidermied] baby ostrich chicks around the ostrich and they were all standing in sand. But then sand mites started to attack and destroy the chicks, so we had to get rid of them! PLEASE bring back the chicks!” Um, yeah. Cause that’s exactly the problem. No ostrich chicks.

The long-term plans of the museum include a complete overhaul of the permanent exhibits, which will be my responsibility. I have a ton of ideas rushing through my head about how to transform this place from a yawn-inducing museum of Whitey, but it is going to take a lot of work to get there from here.

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