Can we bring Historical Thinking to Museum Exhibits?: An Internship Update

My internship at the National Museum of African American History and Culture has provided me with firsthand experience with creating historical exhibits, specifically with the “In Slavery’s Wake” (ISW) exhibit. However, as I reflect on my experiences and compare them to my coursework in the GMU Digital Public Humanities certificate program, I realize that the principles of teaching historical thinking, outlined by scholars like Stéphane Lévesque and Sam Wineburg, haven’t been part of the exhibit’s creation. Perhaps opportunities to teach historical thinking in museum settings have been overlooked in favor of delivering facts and narratives, and exhibits could be improved by incorporating examples of historical thinking.

Lévesque and Wineburg both emphasize the importance of developing historical thinking skills to help students and audiences engage critically with the past. They each stress that historical thinking involves not only the acquisition of factual knowledge but also the ability to analyze evidence, interpret sources, construct historical narratives, understand continuity and change, and develop historical empathy. Wineburg, in particular, argues for a shift away from rote memorization and towards inquiry-based learning in schools, where students learn to evaluate sources, corroborate evidence, and construct reasoned arguments. This approach encourages students to question assumptions, consider multiple perspectives, and recognize the complexities of historical processes, and it could be translated into museum spaces by demonstrating how sources inform interpretations or by having visitors engage in historical interpretation.

However, I haven’t seen these principles of historical thinking inform the development of ISW. While the exhibit aims to educate visitors about the history and legacy of slavery, it’s not focused on fostering critical engagement with the past. ISW presents an innovative and expansive understanding of slavery’s aftermaths, linking slavery to later colonialism and economic underdevelopment and resistance to slavery to a wide range of anticolonial and civil rights movements. However, how and why those conclusions are presented is obscured by the exhibit’s relatively linear narrative. Rather than encouraging visitors to question assumptions or consider alternative interpretations, the exhibit presents a predetermined, though novel, narrative that leaves little room for critical inquiry. This approach isn’t concerned with visitors’ ability to engage with the complexities of history or with teaching them analytical skills necessary for historical thinking.

Furthermore, the exhibit’s use of artifacts and images sometimes overshadows the importance of historical context and interpretation. While these pieces provide valuable insights into the lived experiences of enslaved and free Black individuals and make them relatable, they are often presented as part of the exhibit’s narrative without disclosing the analysis behind their inclusion.

The limitations of presenting ISW as a narrative with a set interpretation is particularly clear with the design of many of the interactives being created for it. Rather than allow users to explore historic materials in a flexible way that allows them to create their own narratives, interactive displays will only provide additional detail on a handful of events or movements and visually connect them with similar (but anonymously rendered) movements. Indeed, the virtual “gifts” (see the header image) I’ve helped develop that visitors will be able to earn by interacting with the exhibit only restate elements of the physical exhibit.

By incorporating principles of historical thinking into museum interpretation, we can create exhibits that not only educate but also empower visitors to engage with the past critically and constructively.