Final Internship Reflections: Bridging the Gap Between Museum Practice and Historical Learning

As I look back on my internship at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, I am deeply appreciative for the invaluable insights and experiences it has provided me. Because of my internship, I am much more aware of how museums operate behind the scenes, from the meticulous planning of exhibits to the collaborative efforts of various teams in bringing historical narratives to life. Despite this new appreciation for museum practice, I am struck by a lingering concern: the need to bridge the gap between museum exhibitions and historical learning, particularly in fostering understanding of historical thinking and engagement.

During my internship, I witnessed the intricate process of exhibit creation, from attending proofing meetings to contributing to research for interactive elements. I gained a deep understanding of the dedication and expertise required to curate engaging and informative museum displays. Yet, as I’ve written about before, the exhibit I’ve predominantly worked on, “In Slavery’s Wake,” doesn’t attempt to convey the principles of historical thinking to its audience. And in following common museum citation practices where the owners of the objects on display are cited rather than the objects themselves or even the origins of the interpretations displayed, the exhibit hinders visitors’ abilities to follow leads and dig deeper on their own.

My scholarly historical training highlighted the importance of critical engagement with historical narratives, including the ability to analyze sources, interpret evidence, and construct reasoned arguments. However, I have observed a notable gap in how these principles are incorporated into museum exhibits. While exhibits like “In Slavery’s Wake” aim to educate visitors about the history and legacy of slavery, there is often a lack of emphasis on fostering critical inquiry or encouraging visitors to question assumptions. As a result, visitors may leave the museum with a wealth of information but without understanding where it came from and without the necessary tools to engage with history in an analytical manner.

Because of my internship, I am inspired to advocate for greater integration of historical thinking principles into museum interpretation. Museums have a unique opportunity to not only educate but also empower visitors to engage with the past critically and constructively. By incorporating features such as interactive displays that prompt visitors to analyze sources, consider multiple perspectives, and evaluate historical narratives, museums can enhance the educational value of their exhibits by fostering a deeper appreciation for historical inquiry.

Because of my internship, I am committed to championing the importance of historical thinking and learning in museum practice. Whether through advocating for the inclusion of citations and sources in exhibits or collaborating with museum educators to develop interactive learning experiences, I am determined to bridge the gap between museum exhibitions and historical scholarship. Because of my internship, I am not only equipped with a deeper understanding of museum operations but also driven to effect positive change in how history is presented and interpreted in museum settings.