A color photograph of a dam

Environmental History

A photograph of a landscape
Petroglyph National Monument, New Mexico. Photo credit: Karen-Beth G. Scholthof

Practicing inclusive history requires accumulation of deep knowledge of the landscapes we inhabit and the environments that we influence over time. This knowledge derives from a close examination of features that our senses discern in the places where we live—the landscape—as well as the spaces that we inhabit and that our choices affect—the environment. Places that some may perceive as “natural,” such as Petroglyph National Monument in New Mexico, have physical attributes that confirm human influences over millennia. Inclusive environmental history takes into account the landscapes, the places that we can see and touch, and the effects that we have on these landscapes. This influence may be invisible to our senses. Racism, sexism, political partisanship, economic systems, class, and other forces have shaped—and continue to shape—environments in which we exist. The effects of these forces accrue most devastatingly to frontline (and fence-line) communities, i.e., those who live closest to sources of pollution that result from human decisions. Human-caused (anthropogenic) effects are most evident in the past century with the foremost outcome being climate change.

When did humans begin to leave significant marks on the landscape, and when did their actions accumulate to influence the environment? An increased understanding of both of these—landscapes and environments— can inform our actions as we work toward a more just and equitable future. Environmental history addresses both, as analyses often apply an environmental justice lens to investigations of historical and contemporary land and resource use and consequences of that use. Learning more about the physical location (landscape) and how humans act as agents of change (the anthropogenic environment) over time requires assessment of a combination of tangible and intangible natural and cultural evidence.

The iterative process starts with a geographic focus, i.e., the landscape, associated with a museum or historic site. Historical interpretation at the site might center on 1880s rural life, but an inclusive environmental history needs to start long before 1880, and continue to the present, thus acknowledging the factors affecting the site before and after its perceived period of significance. Sources might include collections of natural objects housed at museums and specialized archives (e. g., minerals and gems, fossils, biological specimens), written records, visual or creative works (e. g., photographs, paintings, books), belongings resulting from extractive industry (e.g., a cast-iron stove or a sewing machine in a mahogany case), and intangible cultural heritage (storytelling, ritual, music, oral history, and other evidence of cultural practice). From this accumulation one can document change in landscapes and communities and include the museum or historic site as an agent of change.

Linking a site focused on the 1880s to current concerns requires high-level thinking, a synthesis of data about the soil, agricultural practices, water availability, power sources and energy use over time, processing industries, transportation networks, waste management, and numerous other examples of human manipulation as precursors to the Great Acceleration—the causes and consequences of the human footprint on the environment—within our era of the Anthropocene. All place-based history informs us about environmental change, be that past or present.

Consider the history of the site under consideration for an environmental history evaluation, the reasons for studying and protecting it, the controversies that swirled around it, and the power and influence wielded by those who preserved it. This viewpoint can illuminate crucial history within a site’s institutional history and help us link events from the past, collected and preserved, to today’s highly charged and politically divisive topics. Addressing embedded narratives is the historian’s duty—to facilitate inquiry and convene conversations that inform future decisions. Practicing inclusive environmental history can tease out evidence of injustice in a place over time, but it can also prompt more self-aware decision-making into the future.

A Sense of Place

Look out of your window—it frames, literally, a landscape, and figuratively, the environment. Do you have a view of a city center, farm, seashore, neighborhood park, or warehouses? How do you frame (or interpret) this view in terms of public history? Consider the window a lens through which we see the present clearly; but what about the past? What do we have to do to discern who and what was included and excluded then? Are there members of the community within this view who can speak to the causes and consequences of environmental and social injustice? Does a diversity of voices exist to convey experiences across lifetimes and across cultures? How has the physical environment changed over time and has this been documented in photographs, diaries, oral histories, and newspapers? Who has told the history of the place to date, and how does a more inclusive environmental history expand our understanding?

The Long Durée: Changing Landscapes

To have a sense of the environment today, it is important to know how the physical landscape changed through time. Geographical and geological features serve to inform why humans would settle in or avoid certain landscapes. What was the landscape like in spans of time: one million years ago, ten thousand years ago, one thousand years ago, five hundred, one hundred, fifty, ten, and today? What do we want it to be in the future? How we humans have changed landscapes also tells a story. When did humans arrive—that is, who first populated and then altered the local environment? How did they conduct their lives? Were they nomadic? Did they hunt or practice agriculture? What were their societies and cultures like? What precipitated change? These large timeframes can be used to learn about the physical environment and how it affected and influenced social changes over the centuries.

For example, Petroglyph National Monument in the Albuquerque suburbs reveals a landscape rich in geological and human history, being close by the Rio Grande River. Volcanoes, visible in the background, erupted as recently as 140,000 years ago. As noted by the National Park Service, some of the 25,000 petroglyphs in this area date to 2000 BCE, reflecting pre-Pueblo cultures. Most of the rock-drawings date from 1300 to 1650 CE, with illustrations depicting people, snakes, mammals, and birds. The Pueblo people settled in this region around 500 CE. Carvings made by the Spanish in the 1500s and 1600s, then other settlers, and graffiti deliberately defacing older petroglyphs represent phases of contact, colonization, annihilation, but also persistence. The casual observer might see the petroglyphs, but it requires attention to discern the evidence of centuries of contested occupation and engagement to develop cultural sensitivity to the magnitude of environmental injustice evident in what some may perceive as a natural landscape.

Landscape as Artifact

The landscape of a historic site can be its largest artifact, though few catalog it as such. The scrutiny of cataloging, requiring measurements and descriptions and statements of significance, can prove invaluable when focusing on the essentials of inclusive environmental history. The two examples that follow affirm how close analysis of elements of landscapes—water or trees—can open our eyes to the multiple meanings of landscapes more generally.

Water: Flowing from physical to social, from inequity to justice
Water is everywhere and because of its familiarity, some may overlook the power of water as an entry point for inclusive interpretation. Water shapes landscapes. It supports travel and trade. It draws livestock and wildlife to drink and people to fish, forage, and swim. It also separates those who have control over it from those who do not. When is water a commodity that people own? Who controls its use and sets its price? Who has clean, safe water to drink, and who does not? Water becomes an entry point into discussions of sewage, pollution in our rivers and oceans, and industrial agriculture with lagoons of animal waste spilling into creeks, rivers, and beaches. Severe storms, hurricanes, and floods destroy homes, neighborhoods, and public transportation. Drought and floods in agricultural areas greatly reduce crop production and increase food costs. Fracking, a process that diverts water to extract oil and natural gas, depletes aquifers. Dams and reservoirs address human-water needs but also destroy indigenous fisheries as well as natural waterways. Water is at once a physical feature of the landscape, stagnant or flowing, and evidence of environmental manipulation through human exploration and exploitation.

A color photograph of a dam
Norris Dam, Tennessee. Photo credit: Karen-Beth G. Scholthof

The view of Norris Dam (Rocky Top, Tennessee) belies the complexity of water. The Tennessee Valley Authority built the Norris Dam in the mid-1930s to reduce flooding and generate electricity. What did locals think about flooding or rural electrification before the dam project began? Who did the dam project displace, and was this temporary or permanent? Were residents of different races and ethnicities all affected in the same way by the project? Who built the dam, both as investors and laborers? Who profited from it? Today, the reservoir, marina, and park attract tourists and recreational boaters. On land, visitors can get a close look at kudzu, the leafy plant in the foreground, touted during the 1930s for its potential to reduce soil erosion, and now identified as an invasive species. Controlling water propelled this public works project, one with multi-faceted consequences. Today, aging dams are being dismantled to restore waterways, fisheries, and outdoor recreation. With this, there is increased interest in learning about historical uses of such waterways and Indigenous rights and beliefs about water systems. All of this reflects that clean water is fundamental to all life systems.

Trees: A Measure of Inequity in Urban Environments
More than 70,000 tree species exist. You can see the trees outside your museum or historic site window, but can you name them? Can you identify a tree like the one that yielded the wood in your house frame, floor, table, or chair? How do you document trees in one place historically in addition to using familiar tools such as maps and plat books, photographs, and weather records? The trees themselves are sources of information. You can measure tree girth to approximate its age. Trees recently cut down provide an “archive of nature,” in the words of Sam White, as tree rings provide a timeline into which you can insert key environmental and anthropocentric events.

Urban trees historically denoted prosperity as Catherine McNeur has shown in Taming Manhattan, a study of neighborhoods and land use in antebellum New York City. Shade trees such as oak, maple, and elm trees can survive for one hundred or more years if they do not succumb to environmental factors (drought, heat, cold, storms, disease, insects). When did tree-lined urban streets give way to treeless expanses of concrete? Answers lead naturally to a discussion of forces associated with global warming and the Anthropocene. Trees and green spaces sequester carbon, but human activities, including land-use practices, leading to increased accumulation of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions, have outpaced Earth’s carbon-capture capacity.

Local effects are evident in treeless urban environments where a lack of shade results in increased solar heat. The result is buildings, sidewalks, and parking lots that are heat-sinks by day, which then radiate that heat into the night. Daytime temperatures in urban neighborhoods (called heat islands) can be up to 7° F warmer than in tree-shaded neighborhoods. Humans do not thrive under conditions of continuous high temperatures. Thus, living in a heat island becomes an environmental justice issue. The resulting heat island inequity has known negative effects on human health, from loss of sleep to heat-related illness or death. Poverty exacerbates the negatives because impoverished people end up paying more for their utility bills because the built environment retains heat through the night. The organization American Forests has assigned a Tree Equity Score to more than 200,000 neighborhoods in the United States. This score shows the overlap between fewer trees and communities experiencing the stress of living in their neighborhoods. Thus, heat island inequity and tree equity can be used to develop compelling narratives of environmental justice in urban settings.

These examples indicate how elements of landscapes—water and trees—can add new dimensions to our understanding of the environment. Both indicate how assessing real experiences of life with or without water or with or without trees can result in more complete environmental history that forms the basis for inclusive interpretation of the environment.

A color photograph of a city showing a rail line
Downtown San Diego, California. Photo credit: Karen-Beth G. Scholthof

Environmental History in Images

You can start a more inclusive interpretation of the environment by looking at the familiar with a new lens. The photograph of downtown San Diego features a public transportation system (light rail) near a convention center and bordered by landscaped walkways. This building-scape contains no evidence of the historic landscape obliterated by urbanization and highways. Nor does it show the people of San Diego: the homeless, migrant workers, undocumented immigrants, navy personnel, and office workers. Without San Diego residents in city views, the issues they face relative to that urban environment remain invisible. One example, the ongoing crisis of hepatitis A virus infection among unhoused people, indicates a lack of access to public toilets and clean water and other resources essential for human health. It’s tempting to simplify peopleless urban landscapes and urban environments teeming with humanity as a simple dichotomy but instead we must investigate the complex human-landscape-environment relationships at the core of both to arrive at inclusive interpretations of the environment.

This human-landscape-environment relationship appears more prominently in the view of Jacob Riis Beach in New York City. The ruins of a tuberculosis hospital from 1915 loom in the background, acting as a shield protecting LGBTQ+ beachgoers from unwanted intrusions, as described by Iezzi and Ronan (2022). Such beach photographs can lay the groundwork for New York histories focused on neighborhoods, ethnic enclaves, public versus private spaces, public health and tuberculosis sanitariums, segregated recreation areas, and alternative land-use by farming and fishing families to name a few.

A color photograph of a beach with a large building in the background
Riis Beach, New York City. Photo credit: David Shankbone. Licensed under CC BY 2.0


You can start inclusive environmental history now. Look closely at the landscape in your neighborhood or at your museum or historic site. Itemize the features you see. Turn to tangible and intangible culture and archives that document the human, biological, and geological evidence of what came before, and explore current work that contributes to the long history of the environment of your site. With this context established, you can start to connect the historic to the present and provoke conversations that can lead beyond understanding to cultural change.

Suggested Readings

Iezzi, Annie and Katie Honan. “Demolition of Long-Abandoned Medical Center Could Leave Queer Beachgoers Exposed.” The City, May 8, 2022. https://www.thecity.nyc/2022/05/08/demolition-abandoned-medical-queer-beach/

Keogh, Luke, Liisi Jääts, Nina Möllers, and Libby Robin. “Environmental History in Museums: Past Practice and Future Opportunities.” In The Routledge Handbook of Environmental History, edited by Emily O’Gorman, William San Martin, Mark Carey and Sandra Swart. 385-398. New York: Routledge, 2024.

McNeur, Catherine. Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014, Chapter 2.

McNeill, J.R. and Peter Engelke. The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016.

Reid, Debra A., and David D. Vail. Interpreting the Environment at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019.

Reid, Debra A., Karen-Beth G. Scholthof, and David D. Vail, eds. Interpreting Science at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2023.

Reid, Debra A., and David D. Vail. Technical Leaflet 289, “Interpreting the Environment at Museums and Historic Sites.” History News, 75, Winter 2020. https://learn.aaslh.org/products/technical-leaflet-289-interpreting-the-environment-at-museums-and-historic-sites

Fitzgerald Michelle, Julia Rose, and Ian Waggoner. “Naturally Beautiful: Finding Environmental Advocacy in a Historic House Museum.” History News 75, no. 4 (Autumn 2020). Pp.13-19.

White, Sam. “Communicating Climate Change with Archives of Nature and Archives of Societies.” In Interpreting Science at Museums and Historic Sites, edited by Debra A. Reid, Karen-Beth G. Scholthof, and David D. Vail, 3-8. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2023. https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781538172742/Interpreting-Science-at-Museums-and-Historic-Sites

Online Resources 

San Diego
Barona Cultural Center and Museum https://www.baronamuseum.com
California Museum https://californiamuseum.org
Old Town San Diego State Historic Park https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=663
San Diego History Center https://sandiegohistory.org/archives/biographysubject/timeline/
New Mexico
Indian Pueblo Cultural Center https://indianpueblo.org
National Hispanic Cultural Center https://www.nhccnm.org 
Museum Hill https://www.museumhill.net
Petroglyph National Monument https://www.nps.gov/petr/index.htm
Manhattan Project, Oakridge https://www.nps.gov/mapr/oak-ridge.htm
Norris Dam State Park https://tnstateparks.com/parks/norris-dam
Tennessee Valley Authority https://www.tva.com/About-TVA/Our-History
New York City
Gateway National Recreation Area http://www.npshistory.com/publications/gate/index.htm
Jacob Riis Park https://www.nps.gov/gate/learn/historyculture/jacob-riis-park.htm
NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project https://www.nyclgbtsites.org/site/beach-at-jacob-riis-park/
Trees and Heat Islands
American Forests Tree Equity Score https://www.americanforests.org/tools-research-reports-and-guides/tree-equity-score/
Urban heat islands https://www.epa.gov/heatislands/learn-about-heat-islands
US Environmental Protection Agency https://www.epa.gov/ground-water-and-drinking-water
Water Alliance https://uswateralliance.org 


~ Karen-Beth G. Scholthof is professor emerita at Texas A&M University, Department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology. As a plant virologist, she researched the molecular biology of host-virus interactions. Her historical research focus is the history of tobacco mosaic virus and the social and scientific influences of plant pathogens on our environment. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Phytopathological Society.

~ Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford and professor emerita at Eastern Illinois University, Department of History. She studied cultural geography at the undergraduate and PhD levels. Her historical research focuses on rural and minority cultures and Black farm owners among other topics. She is a fellow of the Agricultural History Society and recipient of distinguished service awards from the Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums and from the Agricultural History Society.

Poster of the 10 Principles of Disability Justice in a variety of black typefaces. Background features abstract color splotches and paint-like strokes in shades of pink, coral, and red. Principles include: intersectionality, leadership of the most impacted, anti-capitalism, cross-movement organizing, wholeness, sustainability, cross-disability solidarity, interdependence, collective access, and collective liberation.

Disability History

Poster of the 10 Principles of Disability Justice in a variety of black typefaces. Background features abstract color splotches and paint-like strokes in shades of pink, coral, and red. Principles include: intersectionality, leadership of the most impacted, anti-capitalism, cross-movement organizing, wholeness, sustainability, cross-disability solidarity, interdependence, collective access, and collective liberation.
Poster of the 10 Principles of Disability Justice in a variety of typefaces, created by the “disability justice based performance project” Sins Invalid. Public historians often reference the 10 Principles as an important tool for doing work at the intersection of disability history and public history. The Principles were developed over several years by Sins Invalid and other individuals dedicated to disability justice theory and action. These Principles can you help you do sustainable, community-centered public history work that goes beyond accessibility compliance. Plaintext available here. Courtesy of Sins Invalid.

Practitioners of disability history often model community engagement and wide-ranging access practices, and they insist on the value of disabled people and their histories. Interpreting disability history is one way historians and their communities, public or academic, can practice access and inclusion. Accessible and inclusive history must consider the history of everyone, including disabled people, and be accessible for disabled people. Interpreting disability history is linked to advocating for including people with disabilities in public life and therefore combats ableism, or the preference for able-bodied people over disabled people. Moreover, it promotes disability justice today.[i]


Disability history almost always includes a note about language like this one; that is because language is constantly changing. Words disabled people use to talk about disability can vary from person to person. Words historians use to interpret disability change, and many words people used historically and continue to use today to talk about disability, in terms of lived experience or metaphorically, are offensive.

Most historians use contemporary words when interpreting disability history except when they are quoting a historical source. For example, when writing about someone who identified as a “cripple” in the eighteenth century, a historian might use that word if they are quoting a primary source, but they would likely use contemporary words or phrases such as “disabled person” or person with a “physical disability” when they are not quoting historical sources. Historians sometimes limit quoting historical sources because people in the past have used words and phrases like “cripple” or “deaf and dumb” to marginalize or exclude disabled people. Yet some people have reclaimed words like “cripple” and “crip” to assert power over ableist culture. Avoid outdated or offensive language (ex: “handicapped parking” or “handicapable”). People practicing disability history should consult the contemporary disability community or thoughtful language guides. If you are not sure where to start, get in touch with an advocacy organization local to you.

White abstract outline of person using wheelchair to move forward on a blue background.
How can you reimagine access and inclusion in your community? The collaborative Accessible Icon project resulted in a redesign of the person using a wheelchair symbol for access into a symbol that represented disability or ability as a lived, active experience. As the project website explains, the programming surrounding the design were “about disability in public space: editing the cities that we have, and signaling collective action for a more inclusive future.” Accessible Icon Project.

About Me

Similar to providing language notes, historians who interpret disability history sometimes provide information about their relationship to the field. For example, I have experienced temporary disability and have cared for chronically ill family members, but I do not identify as a disabled person. I have studied disabled people in history and have learned from and collaborated with disabled people on a variety of programs and in organizations. I have a lot to learn about disability history and how to assert disability justice. I like to disclose this information to model transparency as well as so people with lived experience or scholarly expertise I do not possess can contribute to the work I am trying to accomplish.[ii]

A History of Disability History in the United States

In the United States, disability history is not a new historical subfield, and it intersects with all historical subfields since disabled people were a part of every historic community. When historians use the phrase “disability history,” they are usually referring to the history of people in the past whose bodies and/or minds were considered atypical and the role ableism played in that history. For those who are new to disability history, one way to explain this definition from a medical perspective is to note that disability history is about people with physical or sensory disabilities and people who would identify today as neurodiverse, mad, or chronically ill.[iii] Interpretative tactics and historiographies vary depending on the nature of disability, historical actors, and contemporary politics. Such work is not confined to the United States. Disability historians and advocates have also been hard at work in, and on, other parts of the world.

Historians typically cite the 1980s as the decade when disability history began to flourish. In the year 2004 the Disability History Association (DHA) was formally established, and, in 2003, historian Catherine Kudlick published a seminal essay in The American Historical Review called “Why We Need Another ‘Other.’” In 2005, historians Susan Burch and Katherine Ott co-edited a special issue on disability history and public history for The Public Historian. According to a DHA newsletter, the American Historical Association (AHA) added “disability history” to its list of subfields in 2006 and featured disability history in its November 2006 issue of Perspectives.[iv] Other recent scholarly landmarks include (but are not limited to) historian Kim E. Nielsen’s 2012 synthesis of disability history in the United States and the 2018 Oxford Handbook of Disability History, edited by Michael Rembis, Catherine Kudlick, and Kim E. Nielsen. Disability studies is a related, interdisciplinary field.[v]

People and historians in and of the United States who are unfamiliar with the vastness of disability history often characterize the field as one that focuses on modern civil rights history, beginning when the United States Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. The act requires independent, physical and programmatic access to private and public spaces and events for disabled people. It marked a moment when the federal government declared that disabled people had civil rights to protect. It helped bring national attention to disabled people and disability rights. The act also helped galvanize the study of disability history itself. But the passage of the ADA did not mark the point in time when historians first identified primary sources for interpreting disability history, when historians started thinking about disability as having a past, or when professionals in public heritage settings started thinking about accessibility for disabled people.

There always were disabled people in the world. Archaeological evidence from before the common era can help us learn more about this long history. As my research and that of my colleagues show, in the context of early British North America, disabled people were well-integrated and visible in everyday life. Many people have not given this fact much thought let alone analyzed its historical meaning or contemporary resonance.

Prior to the 1980s, historians and allied specialists thought about disability as having a past. Historian John Demos, for example, in his book A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony (1970), mentioned that in the early years of colonization, European families often cared for disabled settlers, whether they knew them or not.[vi] In another instance of early interpretation of disabled people in history, anthropologist Jacob Gruber tried for ten years to find a home for an article about a woman who used an artificial leg, but one editor, for example, wrote he was “skeptical” about “her wooden leg and new set of teeth.” Ultimately, Gruber’s published piece focused on other aspects of her story.

Staff and volunteers in museum settings were thinking about what we would call accessibility today long before the ADA was passed. Staff at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, for example, planned field trips for disabled children in the early twentieth century.[vii] Colleagues at other museums in the country did as well.

Disability history—and the fact that people have been slow to recognize that disability has a history—cannot be understood without discussing ableism. Ableism is often perpetuated because public and scholarly understandings of disability history are influenced by both particular histories of disability from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the persistence of ableism today. For example, many people are familiar with—or their perception of disabled people is affected by—some of the following facts: the history of disabled people in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (pre-ADA) often includes histories of people institutionalizing people against their will; people enacting and enforcing laws restricting disabled people in public life; people enacting and enforcing laws restricting immigration of disabled people; and people placing disabled people in education settings that separated them from others.[viii] Despite the fact that, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, people marginalized disabled people in these ways, they were still a part of public life, as the image below suggests. As activist Alice Wong’s Disability Visibility project notes, for all these reasons and more, many of us have not realized the visibility of disabled people historically or today.

1860s tintype of a man in a gold frame. Man is seated, holding two crutches in his right hand. Left hand tucked into coat. Cheeks tinted pink.
This 1860s tintype of a man seated holding crutches is one of dozens in the author’s collection. More can be found in repositories such as the National Museum of American History and in the Bogdan Collection at Yale. Despite the increasing marginalization of disabled people in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many images like these were created during that time. Collection of Nicole Belolan.

Disability History’s Relevance

Disability history is relevant for everyone. It often intersects with histories of war, industry, racism, institutionalization, medicine, public health, civil rights, gender, and design. But it is also about everyday life. Almost any historic site or museum can and should interpret disability history, and everyone’s life involves disability of some form or another. Disability history’s meanings vary depending on context. I encourage you to tell disability histories where you work or volunteer, and if you do, center the voices of disabled people themselves. After all, disability history teaches us the history of access and expands our understanding of what accessibility history and living can look like.

People unfamiliar with disability history often equate it to medical history. Disability history and medical history are not the same fields, but they are related and have spurred important discussions about the nature of that relationship.[ix] Disability history typically emphasizes living with disability rather than diagnosing, curing, or overcoming it, so any discussion of medicine should be carefully considered. For example, gout is a disabling form of arthritis, and its significance in early America cannot be understood without discussing the way doctors and ordinary people tried to cure it. But it is because of this fact that a disability history of gout in early America should emphasize living with and managing it.[x] In public history settings, disability history and medical history often intersect in discussions about the display of human remains.

Disability history in public settings has taken many forms. The Smithsonian National Museum of American history, under Katherine Ott, has produced several disability-related resources including, for example, the 2013 online exhibition EveryBody: An Artifact History of Disability in America. The New York State Museum exhibited suitcases and contents left behind by people who had been incarcerated at the Willard Psychiatric Center. More recently, the National Park Service (NPS) initiated a series of projects aimed to highlight disability history at NPS sites and is working on a disability history handbook. Non-federally affiliated sites and individuals have also delved into disability history. Some groups are advocating for a national museum of disability history. Archivists and oral historians have also centered disability in the work they do as public historians and have written pieces featuring reflections and best practices. Disability history is reaching all areas of public history. What are you doing to highlight it in your work?

Disability Justice-Centered History Work

In addition to interpreting disability history, public historians should make all history content accessible for disabled people. Disability justice should permeate the way historians approach their everyday work and advocacy within work and service settings. In other words, public history work and service settings should be accessible and inclusive regardless of whether they have anything to do with disability history. Many disability advocates believe compliance with the ADA remains inadequate and that compliance with the ADA should not be the goal. In addition, others assert that the disability rights movement marginalized some individuals and groups. Historians can use critiques of the ADA to advance issues in disability justice in their communities in collaboration with disabled individuals and groups, through the interpretation of disability history.

Making public history work accessible and inclusive is, as indicated by the following suggestions, an ongoing process. Start doing what you can and build your practice from there.

Foster the preservation of disability history and interpret disability history in collaboration with disabled people. Include contemporary disabled people in the work of interpreting and making accessible disability history—and be sure to compensate them.

Recruit and hire disabled people and craft recruitment materials in a way that it is inclusive of disabled people.

Create positions in public history that are about disability history or accessibility.

Create an accessibility guide (some examples are here and here) for the place where you live, work, or volunteer. It might include facts such as the number of steps up to your front door; restroom accessibility (including whether they are for families, any gender, etc.); and COVID-19 access information, such as masking and vaccination policies.

Assess places and programming intersectionally and in collaboration with the community to improve access and inclusion. Partner with and consult other historically marginalized groups such as people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals, but also people who promote sustainability and environmental justice. Advocating for accessibility might also involve dismantling other historical injustices.

Insist on basic accessibility measures at conferences and other meetings such as:

  • Providing access copies. Access copies are outlines or full copies of a talk or other interpretive material in accessible word processing formats. They are helpful for people who prefer to process information visually or through reading, including after an event. They are also helpful for people who are blind or who have low vision or who are deaf or hard of hearing. When provided digitally, they can include hyperlinked text to resources not mentioned in the presentation or program itself.
  • Offering specific accommodations in registration materials so disabled people do not have to ask you themselves.
  • Designing programming to expand access to the greatest extent possible through hybrid and remote participation options.
  • Requiring participants to use microphones (in-person) and that organizers arrange for live-captioning (not auto-generated) and/or American Sign Language interpretation.
  • Including disabled people on the planning team from the start.

Build accessibility into classroom settings and re-shape your approach to teaching and accessibility. Learn more about how you can avoid ableism in the academy.

Encourage funders to create opportunities for disabled people; ensure the application process and the award itself is accessible and inclusive of disabled people; and require grantees make their history work accessible and inclusive of disabled people. For example, an accessible research fellowship might allow for remote work. A local granting organization might require its recipients of programming grant money to include an accessibility questionnaire upon registration and/or a budget line for accessibility needs. Or, a funder might encourage applicants to build accessibility research and evaluation into their projects.

In classroom, public program, and office settings, aim for access and inclusion that centers disability justice. When someone asks for what might be considered an accommodation under the ADA, implement the accommodation without requiring someone to go through a bureaucratic and demeaning accommodations process that often does not work.

Many people will fear litigation when you mention the ADA. Advocate for, practice, and talk about access and inclusion for disabled people that minimizes compliance and fear. As Aimi Hamraie and the Critical Design Lab’s Mapping Access project assert, “community-generated versions of accessibility codes . . . can create new standards for accountability” that put “ADA compliance” in the background.

Advocate for the places where you live, work, or volunteer to integrate disabled perspectives into their diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) initiatives. Disability is often inadvertently left out.

Evaluate and reevaluate your access and inclusion practice as much and as often as you can. Much like historians consider the interpretation of history as never being over, disability advocates consider access to be a process that is never complete.

Share these resources with friends, colleagues, and family. Center access and inclusion in your life.


[i] Disability justice could easily be a separate Handbook entry. But to get started on learning more about it, try the following resources: Patty Bern, “Disability Justice – a working draft,” June 10, 2015, https://www.sinsinvalid.org/blog/disability-justice-a-working-draft-by-patty-berne;  Rabia Belt, “Disability, Debility, and Justice,” Harvard Law Review Blog, March 4, 2021, https://harvardlawreview.org/blog/2021/03/disability-debility-and-justice/; Nomy Lamb, “This is Disability Justice,” The Body is Not an Apology, September 2, 2015; Mia Mingus, “Changing the Framework: Disability Justice: How our communities can move beyond access to wholeness,” Leaving Evidence, February 12, 2011, https://leavingevidence.wordpress.com/2011/02/12/changing-the-framework-disability-justice/; Vissa Thompson on The Harriet Tubman Collective, “Disability Solidarity: Completing the ‘Vision for Black Lives,’ Huff Post, September 7, 2016, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/disability-solidarity-completing-the-vision-for-black_b_57d024f7e4b0eb9a57b6dc1f; and Alice Wong, The Disability Visibility Project, https://disabilityvisibilityproject.com/.

[ii] David Serlin, “Making Disability History Public: An Interview with Katherine Ott,” Radical History Review (Winter 2006): 201.

[iii] This list is incomplete and individuals may refer to disability in a variety of ways not represented here.

[iv] “Announcements,” Disability History Association Newsletter 2, no. 2 (Fall 2006), http://dishist.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/DHANewsletter-2006-Fall.pdf and “Forum on Disability in History,” Perspectives 44, no. 8 (November 2006), https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/november-2006-x42670.

[v] The focus here is on disability history in what would become the United States, but historians are doing wonderful work on disability history in the Global South.

[vi] John Demos, A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), 80-81.

[vii] Nicole Belolan, “An ‘effort to bring this little handicapped army in personal touch with beauty’: Democratizing Art for Crippled Children at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1919-1934,” New York History 96, no. 1 (Winter 2015): 38-66.

[viii] Sandra M. Sufian, Familial Fitness: Disability, Adoption, and Family in Modern America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2022), 110-113.

[ix] For more about the relationship between medical history and disability history, see Beth Linker, “On the Borderland of Medical and Disability History: A Survey of the Field,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 87, no. 4 (2013): 499-535, and Catherine Kudlick, “Social History of Medicine and Disability History,” in The Oxford Handbook of Disability History, eds. Michael Rembis, Catherine Kudlick, and Kim E. Nielsen (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 105-124.

[x] “The Material Culture of Gout in Early America,” in Elizabeth Guffey and Bess Williamson, eds., Making Disability Modern: Design Histories (New York: Bloomsbury, 2020), 19-42 and “‘Confined to Crutches’: James Logan and the Material Culture of Disability in Early America,” Pennsylvania Legacies, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Fall 2017): 6-11.

Suggested Readings

Here are just a few projects, reflections on projects, or suggested methodologies that exhibit some or all the tips above.

Accessible Campus Action Alliance. “Beyond ‘High-Risk’: Statement on Disability and Campus Re-openings.” 2020. https://bit.ly/accesscampusalliance.

Blackie, Daniel, and Alexia Moncriff. “State of the Field: Disability History.” History, July 20, 2022. https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-229X.13315.

Disability and Industrial Society: A Comparative Cultural History of British Coalfields, 1780-1948 (2011-2016).

Belolan, Nicole. “Over-the-hill canes and ideal bodies: teaching disability history as public history.” History@Work. February 7, 2018. https://ncph.org/history-at-work/teaching-disability-history-as-public-history/.

Bucciantini, Alima. “Getting in the Door is the Battle.” AASLH Blog, American Association for State and Local History. January 22, 2019. https://aaslh.org/getting-in-the-door/.

Burch, Susan. Committed: Remembering Native Kinship in and Beyond Institutions. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021. Available as an open-access E-Book.

Clary, Katie Stringer, and Carolyn Dillian. “Technical Leaflet 290: 3-D Technologies for Exhibits and Programming.” American Association of State and Local History. https://learn.aaslh.org/products/technical-leaflet-290-3-d-technologies-for-exhibits-and-programming.

Clare, Eli. Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.

Denial, Catherine. “A Forward to Designing for Care.” August 23, 2022. https://hybridpedagogy.org/a-foreword-to-designing-for-care/.

The Disability History Association

Dolmage, Jay Timothy. Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2017. Available as an open access E-book.

Grigely, Joseph. “Inventory of Apologies.” VoCA Journal. December 7, 2020, https://journal.voca.network/inventory-of-apologies/.

Hamraie, Aimi. “Accessible Teaching in the Time of COVID-19.” Critical Design Lab. March 10, 2020. https://www.mapping-access.com/blog-1/2020/3/10/accessible-teaching-in-the-time-of-covid-19.

_____. “Mapping Access Toolkit,” Critical Design Lab. https://www.mapping-access.com/mapping-access-methodology/

Higgins, Jason A., UMass Oral History Lab and Ashley Woodman, with Catherine Kudlick and Fred Pelka, narrated by Emily T. H. Redman. “Episode 8: Oral History and People with Disabilities.”

Kudlick, Katherine. “Subversive Access: Disability Goes Public in the United States.” Public Disability History. May 24, 2016. https://www.public-disabilityhistory.org/2016/05/subversive-access-disability-history.html.

Lewis, Talila A. “Working Definition of Ableism: January 2022 Update.” Blog. January 1, 2022. https://www.talilalewis.com/blog/working-definition-of-ableism-january-2022-update.

Meldon, Perri. “The NPS Disability History Handbook: Collaboration, process, and community.” History@Work. December 7, 2023. https://ncph.org/history-at-work/the-nps-disability-history-handbook/.

Nair, Aparna, and Kylie M. Smith. “We’re Historians of Disability. What We Just Found on eBay Horrified Us.” Slate. July 21, 2022. https://slate.com/technology/2022/07/vintage-asylum-records-found-on-ebay-history-of-disability.html.

O’Toole, Corbett Joan. Fading Scars: My Queer Disability History. Fort Worth: Autonomous Press, 2015.

Piepzna-Samarasinha, Leah Lakshmi. Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018.

_____. “where do we go from here? a roundtable from some disability justice organizers in this the only moment in time.” Disability Visibility Project blog. May 21, 2023. https://disabilityvisibilityproject.com/2023/05/21/where-do-we-go-from-here-a-roundtable-from-some-disability-justice-organizers-in-this-the-only-moment-in-time/.

Mingus, Mia. “Changing the Framework: Disability Justice: How our communities can move beyond access to wholeness.” Leaving Evidence. February 12, 2011. https://leavingevidence.wordpress.com/2011/02/12/changing-the-framework-disability-justice/.

Ott, Katherine. “Disability Things: Material Culture and American Disability History, 1700–2010.” In Disability Histories, edited by Susan Burch and Michael Rembis, 119-135. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2014.

Samuels, Ellen. “Six Ways of Looking at Crip Time.” Disability Studies Quarterly 37, No. 3 (2017). https://dsq-sds.org/article/view/5824/4684.

Schalk, Sami. Black Disability Politics. Durham: Duke University Press, 2022.

Serlin, David. “Making Disability History Public: An Interview with Katherine Ott.” Radical History Review (Winter 2006): 201.

Sins Invalid. “10 Principles of Disability Justice.” https://www.sinsinvalid.org/blog/10-principles-of-disability-justice.

Valldejuli, Jorge Matos. “The Racialized History of Disability Activism from the ‘Willowbrooks of this World.’” The Activist History Review. November 4, 2019. https://activisthistory.com/2019/11/04/the-racialized-history-of-disability-activism-from-the-willowbrooks-of-this-world1/.

Virdi, Japreet. Hearing Happiness: Deafness Cures in History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020.

Intersection of Race and Disability History Project. Western Pennsylvania Disability History and Action Consortium. https://www.wpdhac.org/intersection-of-race-and-disability-project/.

Wong, Alice, ed., Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the 21st Century. New York: Vintage, 2020.

Note: This essay includes a discussion of legal issues but should not be interpreted as legal advice. The author is grateful to the many disability historians and advocates she has learned from. She has done her best to link to or cite as many as possible and welcomes discussion as access and inclusion evolves.


 ~ Nicole Belolan is a Consulting Public Historian and Independent Scholar. She publishes on disability history and leads workshops on disability history and access and inclusion. She has been on the Board of the Disability History Association since 2019. Belolan would like to thank Susan Burch and Kasey Grier for many conversations that have helped shape her work in this field.

Black and white photo of a group of African American women standing in front of a building

Women’s Suffrage in the United States

Black and white photo of a group of African American women standing in front of a building
Photograph of Virginia Normal and Industrial Institute faculty members (Mary Branch, Anna Lindsay, Edna Colson, Edwina Wright, Johnella Frazer, Nannie Nichols, Eva Conner, Evie Carpenter, and Odelle Green) who registered to vote in 1920. Virginia State University Special Collections and Archives. Wikimedia Commons.

Never monolithic, the U.S. suffrage movement catalyzed a process through which women determined what roles they sought in the polity and strategized ways to obtain them. Examining this process highlights the ways that true change in democracy begins with social justice activists, and seldom with elites. The inadequacies of the U.S. Constitution set into motion a movement that grew over time, drawing allies, confronting and surmounting challenges, and persisting until women’s demands were met. Even today, the Constitution does not guarantee its citizens the right to vote; it only guarantees that the right to vote cannot be denied on the basis of race (the Fifteenth Amendment) or sex (the Nineteenth Amendment). The commitment of women and their male supporters to expanding citizenship for women tells us much about the meanings of equality and citizenship in a democracy. Gender, race, class, and nationality intersect with the women’s suffrage movement in profound ways, and celebratory histories of the movement are complicated by some of its most prominent leaders’ racism and xenophobia and their inability to embrace full inclusivity. Yet the movement remains relevant in a democracy still struggling with the vision of a more perfect union.

From the Founding to the Civil War

The U.S. Founders modeled the U.S. government on the oldest participatory democracy in the world, the Confederacy of the Haudenosaunee, wherein each member nation (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora) has unique powers and responsibilities. They did not, however, embrace the Haudenosaunee principle of women’s political authority. While the Founders adopted aspects of governance from Indigenous nations, western models of exclusivity continued to hold sway and they rejected political roles for women in their model for the United States. In addition, the Founders left the details of voting rights to the states, thereby establishing a model with no clear guarantees of equal citizenship rights.

In the early national period, voting rights differed—sometimes significantly—by state. Examples of state-based voter qualifications included property ownership, class, religion (especially for Jews, Quakers, Catholics, and atheists), race, and gender. Black people and women in New Jersey voted from 1776 until 1807 when male legislators decided their votes affected election results and changed “he or she” to “free, white, male citizens,” disfranchising all women and men of color in the state. New York allowed Black male property owners who paid taxes on property worth at least $250 to vote after 1821; white men did not have property requirements. Women in a few states could vote on local issues.

In the 1830s and 1840s, as the abolition movement gained traction, women who worked for the end of slavery recognized their oppression based on sex. Many of the earliest women’s rights activists came from the anti-slavery ranks. Angelina Grimké, born into a slave-holding family in South Carolina, called for equal rights (including voting rights) in a resolution at a Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society of New York convention in 1837. The call created upheaval in her mostly white audience but clearly linked the end of slavery with the need to expand rights for women. The women’s rights movement also drew on Native American influences. In July 1848, Quaker Lucretia Coffin Mott, inspired by Seneca women exercising authority at the Cattaraugus Community, helped Martha Coffin Wright, Mary Ann M’Clintock, Jane Hunt, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton organize the first Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, NY. From then on, a small, but growing cadre of activist women demanded equal rights through their writing, speeches, petitioning, and conventions.

Button with portrait of Elizabeth Cady Stanton
The Harlem Equal Rights League was organized in the early years of the twentieth century when Harlem—and the group’s membership—was predominantly white. President Maude Malone was a librarian and a militant suffrage activist. Under her leadership, the organization employed the then-radical tactics of outdoor meetings and a woman’s suffrage parade in 1908. Image courtesy of Kenneth Florey.

Setting aside their equal rights goals during the Civil War (1861-1865), white and Black women supported the Union war effort and the demise of enslavement. At war’s end, federal legislators sought to reconstruct the country through three constitutional amendments. The Thirteenth Amendment (ratified in 1865) officially abolished slavery, and the Fourteenth Amendment (ratified in 1868) made former enslaved people citizens, but specifically excluded Native people on reservations. Additionally, in Section 2, it defined a citizen as male, using the word for the first time in the Constitution. The Fifteenth Amendment (ratified in 1870) enfranchised those male citizens. The thousands of Black men who served the Union army strengthened the connection between voting rights and military capability. Instead of universally enfranchising all adult citizens, this process led to conflict between those suffragists advancing Black male voting rights and other proponents of women’s suffrage.

The Potential of Universal Suffrage

The American Equal Rights Association, founded in 1866, challenged the male descriptor of a voter in debates prior to the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Association, comprised of Black and white women’s rights activists and former abolitionists, sought universal suffrage—a term meaning that the right to vote is based on adulthood, regardless of the race or sex of the person. Legislators flatly refused to consider Indigenous people in this debate. In 1866-67, Association members attempted to convince delegates to the 1867 New York State Constitutional Convention to remove the word “male” from voter eligibility, hoping it would influence other states to do the same. When the Association failed in its goal, white suffragists increasingly expressed their frustration in racist and exclusionary terms.

Between 1868 and 1873, suffragists used a “New Departure” strategy to test the premise that the Fourteenth Amendment did not exclude women. Historian Ann Gordon and her team compiled a comprehensive list of hundreds of Black and white women who attempted to vote in this period in the appendix of volume II of The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. In extreme cases, most famously that of Susan B. Anthony, authorities arrested and fined women who attempted to vote. In Minor v. Happersett (1875) the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution did not give women the right to vote, ending the experiment of hundreds of women who attempted to vote in these years. Eventually, a federal court found in John Elk v. Charles Wilkins (1884) that because Native people were not citizens under the Fourteenth Amendment, they also could not vote. Even if Indigenous men lived off the reservation and paid property taxes, the federal government provided no paths for naturalization or citizenship for them.

The American Equal Rights Association had split into two new organizations after states ratified the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870. The National Woman Suffrage Association, led by Stanton and Anthony in New York, now focused on passing a constitutional amendment to enfranchise women. Black women including Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Harriet and Hattie Purvis, and Charlotte E. Ray, who had long worked with the leaders of the National Woman Suffrage Association, joined them. At the same time, African Americans Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Charlotte Forten, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, and others who supported a state-by-state enfranchisement strategy, joined the American Woman Suffrage Association, directed by Lucy Stone and her husband, Henry Blackwell in Massachusetts. Sojourner Truth collaborated with both organizations. Black and white women had long been establishing suffrage clubs in villages, towns, and cities across the nation to influence the electorate. Educator Sarah Smith Garnet, for example, helped found the Equal Suffrage League of Brooklyn in the late 1880s. Twenty-four states allowed women to vote in school elections by the end of the decade. Many activists saw these achievements as hopeful.

By the 1890s, western territories and states inspired suffragists to persist in their campaigns. Wyoming and Utah territories in the West had long supported women’s right to vote, primarily to meet the citizen requirements for statehood. Wyoming kept women’s voting rights when it gained statehood in 1890. Colorado became a state in 1876; although Catholic and Hispanic men opposed a referendum to enfranchise women the following year, they made up a smaller percentage of voters by 1893. With the help of African American leader Elizabeth Piper Ensley and white suffragists in the Non-Partisan Equal Suffrage Association, that year Colorado became the first state to enfranchise women by a popular referendum. Six years after Idaho became a state in 1890, its women won the right to vote. And Utah’s women had suffrage from the beginning of its statehood in 1896. Non-Native women of color in these states do not seem to have been targeted for disfranchisement. Meanwhile, at the federal level, Congress first debated a women’s suffrage amendment in 1878. Tellingly, members of Congress rehashed essentially the same arguments for another forty years.

Yellow and white umbrella with text "Idaho" and "Votes for Women"
To satisfy the demand for parade accoutrements, the National American Woman Suffrage Association in the summer of 1913 began merchandising umbrellas such as that pictured above, selling them for a dollar each with discounts for larger amounts. Image courtesy of Kenneth Florey.

Increasing Conservatism in the Suffrage Movement

To reduce fears of what the women’s rights movement might mean more broadly, activist leaders focused less on more radical demands such as dress reform or a woman’s right to divorce. This narrowing of goals to concentrate on suffrage reflects a period of increasing conservatism. When the National Woman Suffrage Association merged with the American Woman Suffrage Association in 1890 to consolidate their energies, they established the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, which had officially endorsed women’s suffrage in 1881 under the leadership of Frances Willard, also joined the campaign. The Union supported limits on religious freedom (a reaction to increased non-Christian immigration, including Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe) and the more conservative approach demanded by the leadership.

In protest, Matilda Joslyn Gage, then writing Woman, Church, and State, which connected women’s oppression to organized religion, resigned. She formed a separate organization, the Woman’s National Liberal Union, to promote women’s suffrage and the separation of church and state, and she edited The Liberal Thinker. Anti-suffrage women in New York and Massachusetts established their own organizations by 1895; anti-suffragists in other states followed their lead. Anti-suffragists resisted the changes that they feared suffrage would require of women and encouraged all women to remain in the private sphere. When anti-suffragists published their arguments, suffragists found it necessary to refine their own positions in response, revitalizing the movement and broadening its appeal. The public found the suffrage and anti-suffrage debates to be highly entertaining and newspapers and magazines increasingly published suffrage news.

As “new woman” suffragists benefitted from higher education and greater social freedom, they appropriated innovative technologies and media to promote their cause. The material culture of suffrage included wearing the purple, white, and gold suffrage colors and jewelry to all kinds of public events, and distributing stamps, postcards, and letter paper. They called friends on the telephone, used automobiles as speaking platforms, and designed and marketed fashionable clothing, playing cards, games, china, jewelry, ribbons, buttons, toys, and souvenirs. Pro-suffrage activists also found journalism to be compatible with marriage and motherhood, and they frequently provided copy to newspaper and magazine editors. When anti-suffragists claimed that “real women” did not need political power and that suffragists “unsexed” themselves by stepping out of their appropriate sphere, suffragists held beautiful baby contests and demonstrated their cooking abilities. In the process, they simultaneously undermined and reinforced traditional ideas of femininity.

Suffrage and the Quest for Citizenship

Indigenous, Latin American, and Hispanic/Latinx women related women’s suffrage activism to their quest for self-determination and citizenship. American Indian Association member Marie L. Bottineau Baldwin (1863-1952, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa) and her colleague Zitkala Ŝa (1876-1938, Yankton Sioux) worked tirelessly for rights for Indigenous people. Both publicly supported women’s suffrage. Californian Maria Guadalupe Evangelina de Lopez (1881-1977) advocated for suffrage, translating documents into Spanish during the successful 1911 campaign. In New Mexico, Adelina (Nina) Otero-Warren also used Spanish to advocate for women’s suffrage during the debates leading to statehood in 1912. Nevertheless, New Mexican women had to wait until the signing of the Nineteenth Amendment to vote in their state.

In other efforts to broaden support for women’s right to vote, suffragists targeted the burgeoning immigrant and working-class population. Male immigrants who became citizens could vote, and suffragists sought their support. For example, in New York City, suffragists distributed propaganda in the languages of the new immigrants. They published campaign literature and broadsides in Greek, German, Russian, Italian, Irish, and other languages. Suffrage parades featured sections of various immigrant groups or African American women. Over seventeen thousand participants, including Chinese American Mabel Ping-Hau Lee, marched in the huge suffrage parade in New York City in 1912. Although she could not vote because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Lee’s appearance reminded observers of the promise of women’s enfranchisement in connection with the recent revolution in China.

During the first two decades of the twentieth century, women’s suffrage activism dominated political life in the United States and all current events seemed connected to women’s quest for the franchise. It seemed that no one could remain neutral on the issue any longer. Political party leaders found themselves required to take a stand on women’s right to vote, competing against the more radical anarchists and the Socialist party, as well as the labor unions, for membership support.

Printed poster with text
“Mass Meeting!” poster for women’s suffrage meeting in Wakeeney, Kansas June 1894. Kansas Memory, Kansas Historical Society. Wikimedia Commons.

State-by-State Successes

By 1913, women in nine states—Wyoming (1890), Colorado (1893), Utah (1896), Idaho (1896), Washington (1910), California (1911), Oregon (1912), Kansas (1912), and Arizona (1912)—had the power of the franchise. These enfranchised women then could publicly advocate for women’s suffrage in the states where women still had no voting rights. On March 3, 1913, thousands of women and their male supporters marched in another huge parade, organized by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns of the NAWSA’s Congressional Committee on the eve of Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration in Washington, DC. Although warned that whites would oppose African American marchers, Paul followed the official policy of NAWSA and “quietly” accepted twenty-two Delta Sigma Theta Sorority sisters from Howard University, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Mary Church Terrell, and other Black women who joined the parade as marchers. While newspapers printed photographs of white participants, a few artists focused on the participation of Native and Asian American women marchers in their sketches or cartoons. When some of the hostile onlookers became violent toward all the marchers, police looked the other way and officials called on the U.S. Cavalry to restore order.

Picketing the White House

Alice Paul and her supporters began picketing the White House in January 1917. Holding the Democratic Party, with the president at its head, responsible for keeping women disfranchised, picketers, known as “silent sentinels,” held banners quoting the president. Women from all over the country traveled to Washington to take up banners; Mary Church Terrell and her daughter joined them. After the declaration of war against Germany in April, a once sympathetic public and press became increasingly hostile to picketers they perceived as unpatriotic. By June, police began arresting women for minor charges such as obstructing the sidewalk. When they refused to pay the fines, the judges sent them to Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia. Over the eighteen-month period of the picketing, 168 women went to prison; many of them engaged in hunger strikes and suffered forcible feedings.

Because of the picketers, or perhaps despite the controversy they caused, 1917 marked a tipping point in the suffrage movement. New York women won full suffrage by the November 6 referendum. Nebraska, Michigan, Vermont, Arkansas, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Rhode Island approved full or partial suffrage for women that year. By the end of November, public outrage over the treatment of the incarcerated picketers forced their release from Occoquan. A highly experienced and determined cohort of women could then shift their attention from state campaigns into winning a federal amendment.

Although Wilson announced support for women’s suffrage as a “war measure” in 1917, members of Congress procrastinated on amending the Constitution. After several failed attempts beginning in January 1918, the proposed amendment, stating that the right to vote shall not be denied on account of sex, passed the House of Representatives in May 1919 and passed the Senate the following month. Suffragists remained vigilant as across the country state legislatures called special sessions to vote on the amendment and the requisite thirty-six states ratified it. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby certified the Nineteenth Amendment on August 26, 1920, making it officially part of the United States Constitution. Despite decades of women’s activism on behalf of suffrage, none of the political officials bothered to invite any women to observe the signing.

Voting Rights and the Nineteenth Amendment

Infringements on the right to vote affected women in communities that faced oppression and limits on suffrage due to literacy, national origin, and other factors. Native people did not gain citizenship rights until the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. However, the act did not guarantee the right to vote and many states kept Indigenous people disenfranchised until the 1965 Voting Rights Act. African Americans faced Jim Crow restrictions in the South and those who tried to vote risked racist violence, intimidation, and lynching. From the late nineteenth century to the post-World War II era, Asian exclusion legislation, Supreme Court decisions, and federal policies prohibited Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and other Asian immigrants from citizenship and voting. It took until the McCarran-Walter Nationality Act of 1952 to secure the right to vote for naturalized immigrants from Asia. Literacy tests kept some citizens from voting until 1975 revisions to the Voting Rights Act required that ballots be printed with translations for voters who spoke Spanish or Indigenous and Asian languages. The Nineteenth Amendment removed the restriction of sex but did not enfranchise women if they were subjugated on grounds other than gender.

Even in the twenty-first century, several state governments continue to prevent people from exercising their right to cast a ballot. Such restrictions intersect with inequality of gender, race, class, income, and often affect women. After the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which states that key aspects of the 1965 Voting Rights Act were unconstitutional, many states have revised their requirements for voting. Examples of these requirements include accepting only government-issued photographic identification, restricting easy access to the polls by relocating polling places away from communities of color or by closing them entirely, or by limiting voting hours and days. Many of these restrictions on voting have had a disproportionate impact on women, demonstrating that the need to protect voting rights remains imperative.

Suggested Readings

Anderson, Carol. One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018.

Cahill, Cathleen D. Recasting the Vote: How Women of Color Transformed the Suffrage Movement. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020.

Florey, Kenneth. Women’s Suffrage Memorabilia: An Illustrated Historical Study. McFarland & Company, 2013, and American Woman Suffrage Postcards: A Study and Catalog. McFarland & Company, 2015.

Hunter Graham, Sara. Woman Suffrage and the New Democracy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996.

Goodier, Susan. No Votes for Women: The Anti-Suffrage Movement in New York State. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013.

Goodier, Susan, and Karen Pastorello. Women Will Vote: Winning Suffrage in New York State. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2017.

Gordon, Ann D., ed., The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: Against an Aristocracy of Sex, 1866-1873, vol. 2, 6 vols. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000.

Harrington, Page. Interpreting the Legacy of Women’s Suffrage at Museums and Historic Sites. American Association for State and Local History Series. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2021.

Hewett, Nancy, ed. No Permanent Waves: Recasting Histories of U.S. Feminism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010.

Huyck, Heather. Doing Women’s History in Public: A Handbook for Interpretation at Museums and Historic Sites. American Association for State and Local History Series. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2020.

Jones, Martha S. Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All. New York: Basic Books, 2020.

Keyssar, Alexander. The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

Mead, Rebecca. How the Vote Was Won: Woman Suffrage in the Western United States, 1868-1914. New York: New York University Press, 2004.

Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn. African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850 to 1920. Bloomington: Indiana Press, 1998.

Tetrault, Lisa. “Lessons from the Constitution: Thinking Through the Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments,” Social Education 83, no. 6 (November/December 2019): 361-368.

Wagner, Sally Roesch. Sisters in Spirit: Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Influence on Early American Feminists. Summertown, TN: Native Voices, 2001.

Women and Social Movements Database and the Crowdsourcing Project (which collects women’s suffrage biographies). https://documents.alexanderstreet.com/VOTESforWOMEN.

For a general timeline of the US suffrage movement, see https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/People/Women/Nineteenth_Amendment_Vertical_Timeline.htm.


Susan Goodier, PhD, is an assistant professor at SUNY Oneonta where she teaches courses in women’s history and other topics. She authored No Votes for Women: The New York State Anti-Suffrage Movement (University of Illinois, 2013), and co-authored, with Karen Pastorello, Women Will Vote: Winning Suffrage in New York State (Cornell University, 2017). It won an Award of Excellence from the American Association for State and Local History.

Museum visitors looking at objects on the walls


People looking at museum exhibit with statue of Thomas Jefferson at center
“The Paradox of Liberty,” National Museum of African American History and Culture, February 2020. Photo by Rhododendrites, Wikimedia Commons.

Exhibitions are about creative visual storytelling. More than just history put up on the walls, they are metaphors, visual poetry, and imagination that spark curiosity and broaden our understanding rather than limiting it. The juxtaposition of objects, graphics, and photographs and the creative interjection of re-created spaces and interactive devices all contribute to the viewer’s ability to place themselves within a particular place and time or to understand a historical concept. People in the past did not live their lives in isolation, but rather acted in ways that affected the lives of others—not only those in their communities, but others far afield. To understand history—and to understand our communities—the exhibitions we create must explain these complicated relationships, creating more inclusive, and also more accurate, experiences for visitors.

How well you can connect with your audiences—and how well you can hold their attention—depends both on your abilities as a visual storyteller and how effectively you have engaged your community’s stakeholders. How can you involve your community in the exhibition development process? Have you considered asking community members what stories might make good exhibitions? Do you have advisory boards or partners that assist in determining approaches to your exhibition ideas? These questions are particularly important as you foster a community-focused institution that explores the history of people who may have been excluded from your museum or whose stories have not been part of the local written record.

Creative Visual Storytelling

Instead of approaching an exhibition as an essay or a textbook, visual storytelling is about creating drama and enabling the story to unfold as an experience for the eyes as well as the mind. Visual stories often highlight people who witnessed the events being chronicled. A human component is key; contemporary history museums should generally avoid solely object-based exhibitions that lack human narratives. Visual storytelling is about finding the right window into the dense research required when composing a history, a window that can both contextualize the story for the viewer and complicate it in ways that make it authentic. At the same time, visual storytelling must be simple enough to avoid being a book on the wall yet complicated enough to be comprehensive.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture tells the story of the founding of the nation through the lens of slavery. The exhibition highlights the lives of enslaved and free people in different parts of the country and in differing circumstances. Under the heading “The Paradox of Liberty,” it explores the experiences of Black Americans who seized on the Revolution’s rhetoric of liberty and freedom to argue against slavery and probes the contradictions of Thomas Jefferson, an enslaver who authored the Declaration of Independence. Viewed through this lens, the story of American slavery and the founding of the United States has depth and deeper meaning. Slavery was a complex institution and despite being a moral evil was maintained for so long because of its economic rewards for many individuals as well as white enslavers’ sincere belief in their own superiority. Revolutionary ideals nevertheless contributed to growing antislavery and abolitionist movements throughout the Atlantic World.

As historian and curator Fath Davis Ruffins discusses in her foundational essay, “The Exhibition as Form: An Elegant Metaphor,” a good exhibition is a nonlinear form of cultural argument that has physical form and structure. But it is also an interpretation, one visual aspect of the past. It is a metaphor—well researched and visually told.[i] The best exhibitions are inclusive visual stories that help visitors to connect, in some way, with bigger ideas through the materials shown.

Exhibition-based Collecting

It is impossible to talk about exhibitions in museums without discussing how and what they collect. Museums draw their exhibitions from their collections and often base their research on those collections; yet, the artifacts in most history museums are not representative of a broad spectrum of their audiences. Most of the artifacts locked away in storage rooms primarily represent the history of people of great wealth, the history of the white founders of the museum or its community, or the quirky taste of an individual collector. Thus, the objects available for exhibition often reflect a fairly narrow demographic. The factors that limit collecting and research also limit exhibitions. Many museum staff will argue, “we want to do an exhibition on this or that history, but we just don’t have the collections.” This is not an acceptable excuse for choosing not to do more inclusive exhibitions. If museums wish to tell more inclusive stories, they may need to begin the exhibition process with a collecting initiative, actively seeking to add artifacts to the collection that represent different voices.

Museum visitors looking at objects on the walls
Houdini: Art and Magic exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York City, 2011. Photo by The Jewish Museum New York, Wikimedia Commons.

Exhibition-based collecting is one way to enhance the artifacts owned by a museum, making their collections more inclusive and at the same time providing the foundation for exhibitions that explore history more broadly. Launching an exhibition-based collecting project enables institutions to develop focused cross-cultural collections that they know will be used for public display rather than simply filling storage closets. One way to begin identifying ideas for more inclusive exhibitions is to select those topics that cross ethnic, racial, and cultural barriers—the stories and experiences that human beings share, but perhaps in different ways. Cross-cultural projects help to build understanding between and among community groups. Rites of passage, for example—birth, death, marriage/joining, and coming of age stories provide excellent fodder for exhibitions. Topics related to food or drink, clothing and adornment, and race and religion also lend themselves to such inclusive collecting. Exploring abstract ideas, such as home, freedom, faith, democracy, social justice, or mobility, enables museums to dive into core values and ideas in history, and to look at them through the different lenses of their various communities.

Teenage New Jersey, an exhibition and collecting project of the New Jersey Historical Society, is a perfect example of a topic that enabled a museum to create a more inclusive collection in a focused manner.[ii] Two years before the opening of the exhibition, the museum put out a call for collections related to teenage life in the state. They gathered stories about the teenage experience and asked their constituents what was important about being a teenager in New Jersey and what stories should be told. The museum staff specifically targeted certain communities to ensure their ability to tell a diverse story across time. They visited urban and rural communities, beach towns “down the shore,” suburban high schools, and high schools in predominantly black communities. They learned about the importance of beach culture, diners, sports, and music to New Jersey teens. But most importantly, they discovered, whether you loved or hated high school, that the topic of teenage life offered visitors an opportunity to connect across generations, genders, and ethnic and racial groups. Visitors engaged in conversations in the galleries about the things that matter to teenagers and those who care for them. Some teenage visitors realized that their parents had once been in high school and could indeed understand their struggles. The exhibition reminded parents of their own teen experiences. The stories of teenage life in New Jersey became a way to create understanding whether you had grown up after World War II with Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan or in the 1980s with Bruce Springsteen and Queen Latifah. Enhanced visibility proved to be an additional benefit of the Teenage New Jersey collecting and exhibition project. The Chicago History Museum expanded the idea with a Teenage Chicago exhibition that also included an oral history collecting program.

Reinterpreting Collections

Reinterpreting collections in storage can also bring a more inclusive approach to an exhibition program, although it is not a substitute for active collecting to redress the limitations of a museum collection. The Oakland Museum of California took a traditional object owned by just about every history museum—wedding dresses—and created a dynamic exhibition that provided visitors with a deeper understanding of their state and its people. Weddings California Style created vignettes of the wide variety of weddings that have taken place in the state. The exhibition included a few of the traditional white wedding dresses they already owned, supplemented with others that were gathered for the exhibition. The curators included a series of vignettes that documented the way that Californians celebrated their life partners. They included a broom-jumping ceremony, a gay wedding, and a Chinese wedding, among others. Describing a wedding in a Japanese internment camp, for example, provided an opportunity to consider how people survive in the face of tragedy and reminded visitors that understanding history is not simply about celebration. The breadth of their story provided visitors with an understanding of the wide variety of people and traditions in California, as well as more complex stories about the state’s history.

That exquisite mahogany chair in the collection, long used to represent the lifestyle of the wealthiest family in town, can also be reinterpreted to assist visitors in looking more critically at objects. That chair takes on new meaning in a story about conspicuous consumption, about the destruction of trees in the Caribbean, about the slave trade, or about dangerous occupations.[iii] Such topics also can make contemporary connections for visitors that an artifact displayed  simply as a beautiful antique chair cannot. Similarly, the accoutrements of tobacco, chocolate, coffee, and tea so common in museum collections can be interpreted in ways that complicate their stories and create more inclusive narratives.

Rapid Response and Contemporary History

Developing a plan for rapid-response collecting provides a way for museums to document significant community events as they are happening—or soon after they happen—and provides fodder for exhibitions on contemporary issues. Although every opportunity for rapid response collecting may not support more inclusive storytelling, the practice is designed to ensure that the artifacts needed to tell a community’s stories are available when needed for exhibitions in the future. Does the museum have a plan to collect the political paraphernalia from candidates following a local election so that it will not be lost? Are there local communities whose history should be documented? Is there a process for identifying, collecting, and exhibiting the stories of local tragedies as well as triumphs? What are the contemporary local stories that the institution anticipates might be important to tell in the future? The Victoria and Albert Museum’s well-developed rapid response collection program identifies artifacts for exhibition that represent “major moments in history that touch the world of design and manufacturing.” Tied closely to their mission, this new initiative includes objects like the Tampax cup, a pussy hat from the 2017 Women’s March, and a personal DNA test kit. Florida’s Orange County Regional History Center created a rapid-response collection and exhibition following the Pulse Night Club shooting in 2016, which was the United States’ deadliest mass shooting to that date. The goal of the project was to gather objects left at memorials or donated to the museum and to “assist our community in both its grieving and healing,” the curators noted.[iv] Like the museum in Orange County, museums can provide space for their visitors to grapple with difficult issues that affect their lives or have affected their communities in the past—mass shootings, fracking, the removal of Indigenous people, segregated schools and neighborhoods, homelessness, food insecurity, urban renewal, housing, global warming, or police violence.


We can use exhibitions as a way to initiate dialogues between the museum and our visitors as well as conversations among the different people who live in our communities. The best exhibitions include multiple voices with images that represent different points of view. Sharing curatorial control with community stakeholders can often provide new ways of looking at objects and telling stories. Exhibitions can thus become the catalysts for facilitated museum conversation programs that address ideas or problems that matter in people’s lives and demonstrate the museum’s essential role. Perhaps more than any other action, engaging the perspectives and input of the community makes for a more inclusive approach to exhibitions.


Twenty-first century museums cannot just continue to tell the stories found in the old histories of their towns. Visitors want more. They want to see things that relate to their lives and they want to see their histories told in the museum. Museums must demonstrate that they are relevant and that there is a reason that they deserve their tax-exempt status—in other words, that they perform a useful service for all of the people who live within their borders, not just an elite few. To do this requires hard work, research into new sources, and talking with the people whose stories have been left out—engaging those people in the storytelling. There are no longer Indigenous people or African Americans in your town, you say. What can you do to find out why? Can the historians at the local or regional university help you to find people nearby who can help you identify sources and people who know the stories? Historian Craig Wilder notes that “Americans like to celebrate their history, but we don’t like to look at it very closely.”[v] We tend to ignore the stories of pain and focus on the stories of triumph. But the stories that demonstrate how we have failed to live up to our values can often be the most valuable and instructive, and they can make us better citizens.


[i] Fath Davis Ruffins, “The Exhibition as Form: An Elegant Metaphor,” Museum News 64, no. 1 (October, 1985): 54-59.

[ii] For a review of the exhibition, see Michael Birkner, “Remembrance of Good Times: Teenage New Jersey,” Winterthur Portfolio 34, no. 2/3 (Summer-Autumn, 1999), https://www.jstor.org/stable/1215346.

[iii] See, for example, Jennifer Anderson, Mahogany: The Cost of Luxury in Early America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012).

[iv] Pam Schwartz, Whitney Broadaway, Emilie S. Arnold, Adam M. Ware, Jessica Domingo, “Rapid-Response Collecting after the Pulse Nightclub Massacre,” The Public Historian 40, no. 1 (February 2018): 106. See also, “LGBTQ Public History: Reports from the Field,” digital publication, National Council on Public History, October 2019, https://ncph.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/LGBTQePubOct212019FINAL.pdf; and, Melissa Barthelemy, “Documenting Resilience and Community Healing in Orlando,” History@Work, August 28, 2017, https://ncph.org/history-at-work/documenting-resilience-and-community-healing-in-orlando/.

[v] Quoted from Driving While Black, a Documentary Film by Gretchen Sorin and Ric Burns, October, 2020.

Suggested Readings

Bedford, Leslie. The Art of Museum Exhibitions: How Story and Imagination Create Aesthetic Experiences. New York: Routledge, 2014.

Corrin, Lisa G. “Mining the Museum, An Installation Confronting History.” Curator 36, no. 4 (1993). PDF available for download.

Exhibition, formerly The Exhibitionist, offers years of insightful articles on exhibition development that range from how to’s to exhibition theory, from big ideas to installation. It is an invaluable resource for anyone developing exhibitions.

Hart, Carol Ghiorsi. “With Rapid Response Collecting, Who Are We Responding To?” American Alliance of Museums blog, November 23, 2020. https://www.aam-us.org/2020/11/23/with-rapid-response-collecting-who-are-we-responding-to/.

Ruffins, Fath Davis. “The Exhibition as Form: An Elegant Metaphor.” Museum News 64, no. 1 (October, 1985): 54-59.


~ Gretchen Sullivan Sorin is Director and Distinguished Service Professor at the Cooperstown Graduate Program of SUNY Oneonta. She has been an historian working in museums for more than thirty years and has served as curator for exhibitions at such institutions as the Jewish Museum in New York City, the Adirondack Experience, the New York State Museum, and the New York State Historical Association. Her most recent book is Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights.

A large group of young people hold a climate justice banner

Civics Education

Two students interact while looking at a screen at a desk. A teacher and other students are behind them.
Be Washington employs perspective taking and source analysis for students onsite at Mount Vernon and online. Image credit: Dan Chung Photography.

The work that historians do is pivotal to the success of an inclusive civics education centered on debate, perspective taking, civil discourse, and knowledge of the rule of law. Sharing how evidence is gathered and analyzed to make arguments about the past prepares students for civic work in which they are asked why they think the way they do, instead of being told what to think. These skills are not merely important in a classroom setting but are lifelong skills students take into the real world when determining bias in media, understanding viewpoints different from their own, and contributing to civil discourse and compromise.

Current trends in civics instruction and curricula go beyond teaching students about the structure of participatory government. While understanding the rule of law at the national, state, and local levels is critical for young people to contribute to democracy, it is also essential for educational institutions to teach civic dispositions, such as an appreciation and understanding of free speech and willingness to engage with those whose perspectives are different from their own. Classrooms, museums, historic sites, and other educational spaces provide opportunities to practice and develop these skills and build confidence in civic behaviors, such as voting, volunteering, and voicing informed opinions at public meetings.[i]

Elevating historical examples that connect the past with the present—examples that link to issues students encounter in their daily lives—can have profound resonance and empower meaningful engagement.[ii]

Historical Background

Instructing Americans on the “principles of virtue and of liberty; and inspir[ing] them with just and liberal ideas of government”[iii] was a key issue in the public discourse of the eighteenth century around the creation of a new national identity distinct from the rest of the world. Ensuring the nation’s civic life beyond the generation that formed the new government hinged on informed civic participation for those deemed eligible to participate in the process. Leading education philosophers—including Noah Webster in the 1700s, Horace Mann in the 1800s, and John and Evelyn Dewey in the 1900s—contributed to the educational foundation of civics knowledge and its practical application to activate citizens for a participatory democracy.

The work continues today; and in order to ensure all students are prepared to be full participants in a democracy, civics must be taught through an inclusive lens in contemporary classrooms and other educational spaces. This approach resonates with a younger generation whose learning landscape has been defined by heightened participatory experiences throughout their lives. The alternative approach, which prioritizes only civic knowledge without civic dispositions, limits students’ voices and hinders preparedness for civic life. The development of the skills needed to engage in political discourse and contribute to society in meaningful and productive ways are more critical than ever before within a “universe of unregulated information at our fingertips.”[iv]

US Capitol Building, with statue in front
Civic Knowledge, like knowing the three branches of government, must be taught alongside Civic Dispositions, learning how to have civil conversations with people who may disagree with you. Photo Credit: Sandy Torchon from Pexels.

The Role of History in the Civics Classroom

Civics teachers value the joy that comes from their students making connections with the broader world, a world in which they are able to advocate to support or change existing policies. This objective can be achieved through lessons grounded in historical context and sources. When done right, teaching civics is difficult; the challenge of this work starts with harnessing student interest and focus. Some want to move directly to action without the historical context to inform their perspectives; while others bring indifference and need to be inspired to be participatory actors in their communities. This work is even harder when a community is held hostage by partisanship that deters teachers from creating healthy discussions around civics topics.

Teaching civics through the arc of U.S. history provides students untold examples of debates large and small, which show dialogue and discussion by everyday actors in real-life situations and shape the world in which we now operate. Historical content and sources make visible the bumps, cracks, and turns in what can be otherwise disguised as a smooth road and which may wrongly suggest a simple progressive narrative of political history. Historians activate the work of people in the past and help combat the perception that individuals are passive recipients of legislation, laws, and policies. This work can also make visible the individuals and groups that were excluded from civic participation and the world made by the marginalization of their voices. Using historical case studies provides the connection between the ideals of the more perfect union and how those ideals (through policies and institutions) have been created and sustained.[v] This gives the impassioned students historical context through which to align or challenge their thinking. It also can empower the apathetic students who can study a place and time when someone with whom they identify had a voice that impacted history. Allowing students access to the sources, context, and the thinking process of this type of research builds on their capacity to see, contribute, and transform policies and institutions today and in the future.

Practicing historical thinking skills allows for civics classrooms to explore historical debates from multiple perspectives—with a critical eye on sourcing—while benefiting from the time-telescoped view of the context in which these debates occurred. Having students study the past through historical sources and events also provides valuable tools to see the continuity and changes between then and now. For each level of government—whether local, state, or national, or more importantly, the interplay between them in a federalist system—the challenges and limitations built into the infrastructure can be made visible by looking at them over time. In a world where social media democratizes and polarizes information sharing, students armed with these skills are better prepared to analyze, discern, and contribute to political dialogues and decision-making that shapes their lives.

Providing Historical Examples

Historians provide the rich historical narrative upon which civic instruction is built. Inclusive civics educators value contributions from historians and historical institutions that provide vetted sources, historical context, and voices on multiple sides of the debates or issues illustrated. Ideal primary source sets suited for civics classroom adoption should illustrate the successes of constructive government as well as visible failures to achieve compromise or enact positive legislation. Dedicated civics instructors sometimes find themselves (late at night) scouring the internet and doing the vetting to create a document set that shows more than one perspective for their students. Being able to work from research that historians have already done—and that is positioned to support civics lessons in dialogue with current events—creates a richer and more scholarly-sound learning environment.

Examples of this type of teaching resource are offered on a number of history and archival sites, including the website of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP). Using the sources from their collection and the expertise they bring in interpreting them, HSP has provided ideal building blocks for educators and students. The primary sources illustrate different perspectives organized by topic and are supported by historical context, essential questions, and background material. Their unit “Economics through the Long History of America’s First Bank,” designed for an economics or history classroom, can be transferred to a civics classroom because it explores the relationship between capitalism and government. Going beyond the high standard of providing vetted source sets digitally, HSP also provides transparency regarding the author and the funder of the curriculum. As a result, the perspective of the institution that selected the sources and framed the questions is also open for student analysis.

Another example that reflects a more focused scope is the Colored Conventions Project, which provides documentary records and expert-curated document collections related to a series of civic meetings held in Black communities between 1830 and 1890 in the United States and Canada. The variety of sources and the historical inquiry approach model how students can see civic engagement in diverse ways. Newspaper archives combined with data visualizations sit alongside expert interpretation and inquiry prompts. Although men are most prominent in the newspaper accounts of these events, the site also brings to light the civic work women did in these communities to ensure the success of the conventions. The site includes named scholars who can speak further about the project so students have deeper access to experts beyond what is authored on the site.

Resources for Young Civics Learners

Learning about our nation’s history and government also means learning about the history of race in the United States. While integral to all civics coursework, race-based slavery and its continued legacy should be a part of young learners’ knowledge of how our past informs the present. The history of race is too often left out of elementary classrooms or limited to instruction about the achievements of leading figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Harriet Tubman. Teaching students in these grades about all who participated in history is foundational; leaving out a group is the equivalent of excising part of the American story. Children’s historical literature, with context provided by historians and paired with primary sources, gives educators multiple platforms for young learners to have guided and foundational conversations about race and their world.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture provides a series of collections stories that bring context, quotes, and historic artifacts and documents together. Lives in Pieces addresses the four young Black girls killed at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 15, 1963. The central object in the collection are shards of broken stained glass from the church window.  Paired with We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March by Cynthia Levinson (non-fiction) and The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis (fiction), these objects can provide essential civics instruction through historical inquiry and sources.

At the elementary level, civics is intertwined with community lessons, U.S. history lessons, and classroom social and emotional learning standards. Ensuring that historical sources and research can be connected to civics for younger students will prepare them for more complex debates and arguments later in their scholastic study. The National Constitution Center partnered with the Rendell Center for Citizenship and Civics at Arcadia University to create eight elementary lessons that connect fourth-grade state-based civics instruction to student-led classroom responsibilities. We the Civics Kids includes a young readers civics literature list, organized by month to align with state and national holidays and commemorations. Each lesson provides historical context for civics topics that elementary students confront in their classrooms today.

Local History’s Value to Civics Education

For students, discussions about government policies and structures at the national level may sometimes seem most pressing, but in reality, most state civics standards focus as much, if not more, on the unique features of state and local governments. Student engagement with state and local policies creates a more immediate impact on, and connection to, their communities. Historical research often provides a detailed look at a specific time and place, and the work historians do to illustrate the voices engaged in local governance and debate can translate powerfully to a classroom in the same community or state. Seeing the workings of government in which the local community has a more direct impact can inspire student participation in the civics process.

From 2009 to 2018 the Minnesota Department of Education and seven other state-wide organizations worked together on the Minnesota Center for Social Studies Education (CSSE). Focusing on a state-wide approach to social studies education enabled civics instructional materials to apply directly to state standards and the unique challenges facing students in preparing to contribute to their own governance. The sources and interpretation for the exhibition Why Treaties Matter: Self-Government in the Dakota and Ojibwe Nations, created by the Minnesota Humanities Center and Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, directly address the state’s high school civics standard: “Explain how tribal sovereignty establishes a unique relationship between American Indian Nations and the United States Government.” One of the educator guides takes a question framed about the U.S. federal government and tribal nations and localizes the content for the state in which the students live.

The fact that state learning standards include state history and government in their social studies curricula provides a great opportunity to pair civics learning and history learning with a regional focus. Indiana University’s Center on Representative Government, for example, provides a state-based civics instruction tool for Indiana high school students entitled CitizIN.

Local history resources can also connect the civics of the students’ own communities with national stories covered in their history curriculum. The Tsongas Industrial History Center connects local students to the broader story of the Industrial Revolution through the Lowell Mills in nineteenth-century Massachusetts. They use digitized primary sources to show all the components of the Industrial Revolution in a local community thereby connecting individual lives to larger historical themes.

Activating People who Lived in the Past through Games

Race to Ratify game homepage
iCivics games’ suite includes “Race to Ratify,” which situates game play in the past. Image credit: iCivics.

For some students, a lack of interest in history and historical actors can be attributed to the passive nature in which those people who lived in the past are often portrayed. Historical contributions to civics education can be as simple as providing narratives and sources that demonstrate people in the past had an impact on the world in which they lived. The past is filled with people who are not given the agency in traditional textbooks that they possessed in life. A powerful way to shift this is through interactive games.

The interactive Be Washington Experience, created by George Washington’s Mount Vernon, activates George Washington’s role in history and provides the context and perspectives of others who shaped his decisions. Although a powerfully influential decision-maker in his time, students can still speak of his contributions in a passive way, “he was president” being the most common paraphrase of his contributions. The game asks students to make a decision Washington had to make, but before they do, they listen to eight other people and perspectives from the time. Sources Washington would have had access to inform students on different perspectives relating to the controversies like the Whiskey Rebellion that pitted federal tax policy against states’ interests early in U.S. history. After making their choices, student answers are put in dialogue with the historical record and they can compare and contrast their perspective on the issue and how it differed or aligned with Washington’s. Applied in a civics context, the topic of states’ rights and federal authority that Washington wrestled with can be connected to the same debates happening at the national level today.[vi]

The game site iCivics is known for its immersive and addictive games that teach government and the rule of law. In 2019 they launched their first historical game, designed to illustrate the origins of our governing documents. Race to Ratify sets players up to decide if they support or oppose the ratification of the U.S. Constitution while taking a position of a federalist (advocating for the Constitution) or anti-federalist (advocating against the Constitution, or the Constitution adopted with the Bill of Rights). They meet with diverse individuals from all 13 states. Their work is to understand the perspectives and interests of others and make arguments to persuade others of their opinions. What was once a lesson framed by faceless “states” approving foundational documents becomes a way to see the eighteenth century as one filled with diverse people who held differing and dynamic views. The game-based and personality-driven platform gives students a chance to not only learn about these historic events, but also practice the skills needed for participatory government.

Historical Thinking Skills = Media Literacy Skills

DocsTeach, the online tool for teaching with primary sources from the National Archives and Records Administration, illustrates how effectively moving beyond simply providing digital collections online impacts the effectiveness of applying those sources to civics instruction. With thousands of documents carefully selected for the platform, teachers use built-in tools to ensure that students do not merely learn from the sources but use those sources in improving their ability to apply their own analysis to larger ideas. The digital tools parallel the media literacy skills students need to participate effectively in, and advocate for, their ideas in public dialogue today. The site supports teachers in creating document sets that help students make connections, contextualize both time and place, weigh evidence based on validity and perspective, and interpret data to make meaning from statistics.

Stanford University created the Reading Like a Historian curriculum to support teachers in integrating historical thinking skills into their classrooms. As research has shown the positive impact of this type of teaching, they recently expanded their contributions to include the “Civic Online Reasoning” curriculum. Finally, Engaging Congress is a strong interactive tool that combines gaming elements with historic primary sources to develop media literacy skills. It uses inquiry and drag-and-drop tools laid over source materials to teach the basic structures of government and the challenges they bring in the world today.

History Provides Students with the Knowledge and Tools for Civic Participation

A large group of young people hold a climate justice banner
The generation studying civics in school has been empowered to advocate for their own perspective. Photo credit: Vincent M. A. Janssen from Pexels

Civics is sometimes the first class students take in school where they learn that their opinions matter and they have a voice that will contribute to the world we all live in. The unique skills and talents that historical thinking develops play a critical role in sharpening students’ respect for others’ perspectives and the ability to articulate their own.[vii] By providing sources, contextualization, and viewpoints from a wide array of actors in history, historians contribute to a more inclusive civics classroom education. When history and civics are intertwined, students are better prepared for participation in government and have the skills to contribute to and shape institutions.


[i] Rebecca Winthrop, “The Need for Civic Education in 21st-Century Schools,” Brookings (Brookings, June 4, 2020), https://www.brookings.edu/policy2020/bigideas/the-need-for-civic-education-in-21st-century-schools/.

[ii] Comments ascribed to “teachers” and “classrooms” in this article are based on interviews with nine civics teachers teaching in FL, GA, MD, MO, OH, NY, KY, and PA. Interviews were conducted by the author over phone and email.

[iii] Noah Webster, “On the Necessity of Fostering American Identity after Independence, 1783 & 1787, excerpts,” National Humanities Center (NHC, 2010/2013) https://americainclass.org/sources/makingrevolution/independence/text3/websteramericanidentity.pdf.

[iv] Samuel S. Wineburg, Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone) (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2018), 8.

[v] Stephen Sawchuk, “A ‘Roadmap’ for Teaching Civics and History Is Coming. Will It Restart an Old Curriculum War?,” Education Week, November 8, 2019, https://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/teaching_now/2019/11/roadmap_history_civics_neh_ed.html.

[vi] Kathleen Munn and K. Allison Wickens, “Public History Institutions: Leaders in Civics Through the Power of the Past,” Journal of Museum Education 43, no. 2 (March 2018): 91-103, https://doi.org/10.1080/10598650.2018.1453598.

[vii] Wineburg, 100.

Suggested Readings

Gould, Jonathan, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Peter Levine, Ted McConnell, and David B. Smith, eds. Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools. The Leonore Annenberg Institute for Civics of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, 2011. PDF available for download.

Levinson, Meira. No Citizen Left Behind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.

National Council for the Social Studies. The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards: Guidance for Enhancing the Rigor of K-12 Civics, Economics, Geography and History. Silver Spring, MD: National Council for the Social Studies, 2013. Revised PDF version (2017) available for download.

Nokes, Jeffery D. Teaching History, Learning Citizenship: Tools for Civic Engagement. New York: Teachers College Press, 2019.

Pennay, Anthony. The Civic Mission of Museums. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2020.

Wineburg, Samuel S. Why Learn History (When it’s Already on Your Phone). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2018.

Non-partisan and non-profit organizations that collect and share history and civics resources for communities and schools:


K Allison Wickens is the Vice President for Education at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

Multiversity Galleries, display cases

View from the Field: Equity-oriented and Anti-racist Curatorial Practice

Portrait of a Female Soldier from Michoacán
Agustín V. Casasola, Retrato de una soldadera de Michoacán (Portrait of a Female Soldier from Michoacán), 1910, sepia-toned enlarged print from original photo negative, 51 1/4″ x 40 1/8″ (paper size), National Museum of Mexican Art Permanent Collection, 1991.148, Gift of Pilsen Neighbors. Photo credit: Michael Tropea.

Inclusive curatorial practice requires the input and voices of stakeholders. It must be accessible to all visitors, honor the cultural context of objects (even when that means not putting objects on display or repatriating them), and respond to the moral mandate for equity by using exhibitions and other programs and projects to undo colonialism and systemic racism. Furthermore, curatorial work lies within an institutional matrix. Inclusive curation can only go as far as the hosting organization. Ideally, it will work along with all of the departments of an organization to ensure that all visitors and stakeholders feel welcome and included. Diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion are paramount for curatorial work because they are lenses through which curators may inspect their work to ensure that it is representative of all relevant subjects, available to all who wish to experience it, and resonant for and respectful of all stakeholders.

Museums have, for centuries, supported and participated in power structures that have elevated the powerful and further limited the resources of marginalized people. This is why it is important for curators to work inclusively from the inception of a project through evaluation. Following a brief history, this essay will explore some practices and parameters that can inspire and inform inclusive curatorial work.

Historical Background

Since at least the mid-nineteenth century, people of color have used curatorial work for social justice in the United States. Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) offer an excellent institutional starting point for a history of anti-racist curatorial work. General Samuel Chapman Armstrong founded the museum at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University) in 1868, making it the oldest museum at an African American institution. It continues in operation today, with a collection of 9,000 objects. Initially, the museum’s collections were not centered on African people, but rather began with Hawaiian and Polynesian objects, reflecting Armstrong’s history as a missionary in Hawai’i. The current mission is to

illustrate the cultures, heritages and histories of African, Native American, Oceanic and Asian peoples, as well as the works of contemporary African American, African and American Indian artists and three-dimensional objects which relate to the history and significance of Hampton University.[i]

The museum’s collection of African American fine art, the first in the nation, began in 1894.[ii] The museum provided an educational resource for the university and elevated its capacity and status, thereby also supporting the development of its Black students. The existence of the university and museum and the support of Black students were anti-racist moves on their own merit, providing Black communities with some insulation from the white supremacist culture in which they lived (and live today). By the 1890s, the exhibitions of the museum, like the broader university itself, were working for social justice simply by asserting and demonstrating that, for example, African Americans made fine art worthy of national and international attention.

A generation later, W.E.B. Du Bois’s curatorial effort of the American Negro Exhibit for the 1900 world’s fair in Paris—the Paris Exposition—became an example of an individual curator working in an anti-racist manner within a racist system. Shawn Michelle Smith tells the story of the exhibit in her fascinating book Photography on the Color Line.[iii] Although African Americans had been denied official participation in the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, Thomas Junius Calloway invited Du Bois to create an exhibition of Black American life for the exposition. Du Bois contradicted white supremacists’ ideas and assertions with an exhibition of 363 photographs that, along with statistical charts, portrayed an elite African American patriarchy. His curatorial work was not without contemporary challenges. He marginalized African American women and constructed his own racial hierarchy of Black folks. But his statement was nevertheless crucially significant in its own time and context on the world’s stage.

In the United States in the 1960s, Black, Indigenous, Asian, and Latinx Americans adapted and adopted social structures such as schools and museums to support communal autonomy and development.[iv] Many culturally specific institutions, such as the DuSable Museum of African American History (1961), the Anacostia Community Museum and the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience (1967), and el Museo del Barrio (1969), hail from this community museum movement.[v]

The movement saw museums as community centers and providers of necessary services. The National Museum of Mexican Art (NMMA) in Chicago used to be called the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum. That name is an artifact of its founding in the early 1980s, when it was struggling to communicate the intentional elision of museum and community center. But the museum’s legacy as a community center and museum informs the experience of visitors to this day: free admission and programming, warm and welcoming in winter, cool and refreshing in summer, and a blood drive around the Día de los Muertos exhibition all speak to this history.

Amy Lonetree’s essential book Decolonizing Museums (2012) nicely contextualizes the work of Native activists within and around this movement. As Native Americans worked for sovereignty, self-determination, and justice in many areas during the 1960s and ’70s, they also began to participate in planning and developing exhibitions about their cultures and advising museums that held their belongings on how to manage collections and, ultimately, the need to repatriate them. Likewise, Native Americans began to become museum professionals with an eye toward making change from within institutions and founding their own institutions. There were tribal museums before this period—Lonetree cites the Osage Tribal Museum (1938)—however, “the first significant wave of tribal museum development occurred in the 1960s and 1970s as part of a broader movement of economic development,” writes Lonetree.[vi] As of 2019, there were roughly 200 tribal museums in North America.

Community museums, culturally specific museums, and Native museums feature First Voice curation, stories told by, of, and for their own communities.[vii] Displaying these narratives was (and is) not only a matter of pride, education, and community maintenance; it was also a crucial step in moving histories of color into the mainstream. When Lonnie Bunch became the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), he was adamant that the African American story was an American story that concerned all Americans.[viii] Bunch’s work itself, from the Chicago History Museum to NMAAHC, grew out of the community museum movement.

In the thick of the debates on multiculturalism of the 1990s, the American Alliance of Museums (then the American Association of Museums; AAM) produced the landmark report Excellence and Equity (1992). Though education was an important part of the missions of many museums prior to this time, the report made it clear that working for equity—in this case through education—was a primary institutional mandate for accredited museums.[ix] It redefined excellence as requiring equity, stating that museums must “embrace cultural diversity in all facets of their programs, staff and audiences, in order to have any hope of sustaining vitality and relevance.”

Across the world, museum professionals sought a diversity of voices in exhibitions. Michael Ames, director of the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) at University of Vancouver from 1974-1997 and 2002-2004, wrote prolifically about changing the role of the curator.[x] In Ames’s view, the curator was not the only individual with expertise. Rather, she could facilitate storytelling and elevate diverse stories inside and outside the museum. Ames sought to further engage visitors by making museum work more transparent. Under his direction, MOA pioneered the concept of visible storage, now known as the Multiversity Galleries. Though visible storage does not automatically lead toward inclusive practices, Ames meant it to unveil the agency behind curatorial work and include visitors in the exploration of collections that curators undertake.

Multiversity Galleries, display cases
Multiversity Galleries in the Museum of Anthropology, University of British Columbia – Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. By Daderot, CC0 2015

Ames’s quest for transparency is still ramifying in the curatorial world through #MuseumsAreNotNeutral, the movement of La Tanya Autry and Mike Murawski, and other efforts to expose the agency behind curatorial work. A visitor confronted with the expansive Multiversity Galleries or another robust example of a collection in storage can begin to see that a curator must bring her own voice to bear on the subject matter in order to select the best objects for an exhibition. That is why, of course, the inclusive curator would do best not to act alone. Stakeholders—such as members of communities that are the subjects of exhibitions, neighbors of institutions, and other relevant groups—can help the curator to literally see the collections with new eyes and find the objects that speak to and include additional visitors.

In the early 1990s museums moved further toward more inclusive, and therefore more relevant, curatorial work. Fred Wilson curated Mining the Museum (1992-1993) for the Maryland Historical Society (MHS). (Like many museums working with artists and other contributors from outside, the MHS had to stretch from its comfort zone to eventually come to terms with Wilson’s work.) Wilson revealed how museums that truly wish to explore long histories of racism and systemic prejudice can use collections to do so. Indeed, artists can be powerful voices within museums that are not focused on the arts, shining a light on collections, as Wilson did, or exposing the challenges in an outdated and offensive exhibition, as Chris Pappan did at the Field Museum in Chicago. In these and many other cases, artists can challenge the museum’s institutional mindset and create friction. That friction can be productive in the long term by demonstrating that the museum can be relevant to groups it had previously not been serving. In short, artists can help museums with inclusive curation.

Art installation with large buffalo in glass case
Installation view of Drawing on Tradition: Kanza Artist Chris Pappan at The Field Museum. Photo by Allison Meier, 2019. Courtesy of Allison Meier.

When we think of repatriation in the United States, we think of NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which Congress signed in 1990. However, this legislation was the result of decades of indigenous activism. Native Americans argued for repatriation in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s as they renewed their resistance to American colonialism. Meanwhile, First Nations and indigenous activists around the world, in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa, for example, lobbied for similar versions of state repatriations and other forms of respect for their sovereignty.

Though imperfect, NAGPRA changed curatorial work in the United States by codifying some of the preceding intention around inclusivity into law. NAGPRA offered one example of a group that could legally no longer be ignored: Native Americans. Legal protection for indigenous peoples is often not worth the paper it’s written on. Nevertheless, NAGPRA provided a mandate for museums to collaborate with indigenous people. In some instances, museums have taken this opportunity to repair the harm they have inflicted through practices of collecting, storage, and exhibition.

Diversity Equity Accessibility Inclusion (DEAI): The Framework for Inclusive Curation

With due respect to the acronym above, this essay addresses these terms in a meaningful order for inclusive curatorial work. Inclusion and equity go hand in hand. Here is a brief overview of these categories as I see them:

Equity: Curators and institutions must demonstrate a commitment to the equitable distribution of risks and rewards in society before marginalized communities can trust those institutions.

Inclusion: Provide a true and generous, respectful welcome to all different types of visitors and those who have yet to visit.

Diversity: Represent as broad a range of stakeholders as possible. Avoid thinking in terms of checking multicultural boxes.

Museums with boards, staff leadership, and front of house staffs dominated by people of privilege (white, wealthy, male, cisgender or some intersection of these categories) must make changes before people in marginalized communities can realistically believe that the institution will respect them. A multidimensional power dynamic exists along lines of race, class, gender, ability, immigration status, and more, and it does inflect relationships between museum professionals and their visiting publics. It places a rift between leaders, and by extension, their institutions and their stakeholders. Leaders must confront this power imbalance.

Though this must happen in every department of a museum, one important way to confront fraught relationships between institutions and stakeholders is to seek funders that support inclusive institutional goals. If efforts for equity or inclusion must fly under the radar, their power and creativity will be diminished. Fundraising is a lynchpin of this effort, since general operating support has become rare and project-based support has become the norm.

Accessible curatorial work is about all visitors being able to gain access to exhibitions and collections.

This may mean physical, emotional, or intellectual access, or some combination of all three. Whether accessibility means enabling touch in exhibitions, offering spaces to decompress, or using universal design, more often than not interventions that make exhibitions and collections more accessible to visitors with disabilities also make them more accessible to able-bodied visitors. One example of this is a social narrative that helps neurodivergent visitors manage expectations about their visit. This same narrative supports the visits of many others as well. Accessibility is another opportunity for museums to involve stakeholder communities in their curatorial work. A collaborator from a Deaf or Hard of Hearing community will be able to illuminate concerns about an exhibition that is taking shape or new ideas about planning a project in a different way, for example, than a partner who uses a wheelchair.

Practicing Inclusive Curation

Inclusion can manifest itself in many different ways, from low-income visitors who feel included because admission is free to queer visitors who feel included by a rainbow sticker on the front door, from English language learners who feel included by multilingual texts to visitors who are welcomed even when they have just stepped in out of the heat or cold or to use the restroom or a bench. True welcome is not conditional.

It is important for curators to consider who the stakeholders are for the stories they are telling. They could be local neighbors or culturally specific groups. In any case, involving stakeholders at the outset of a project is a sign of respect and can also provide excellent support in research and development. Once stakeholders are involved, they must be included in meaningful ways. Setting the agenda for a meeting, for example, is a kind of power; so, too, is selecting the subject matter and organization for an exhibition. The curatorial team can review its efforts to be inclusive at key intervals along the way.

Choosing the curatorial team should be purposeful. The goals of each project will help to determine whether it would benefit from a guest curator—perhaps an artist, an advisory group, community curation, visitor panels, a steering committee, or an in-house curator in conversation with others.

If a collecting institution is hosting the exhibition, mining the collections for unexpected material on the topic may be fruitful. During work on The African Presence in México at the NMMA, my colleagues and I found significant material that had always been used in other contexts, but spoke eloquently to our subject. For example, Portrait of a Female Soldier from Michoacán / Retrato de una soldadera de Michoacán by Agustín Casasola (see above), a photograph from 1910, shows a woman who is clearly of African descent. The famous, large-scale, imposing photograph became one of the signal images for the exhibition.

Once writing begins, ensure that the language is transparent about the agency of the curator and institution. Every exhibition expresses some subjectivity, and naming it will help curators to continue earning the trust of visitors and community members. As many scholars, organizers, and museum professionals have rightly pointed out, museums are not neutral. Portraying a false sense of objectivity can obscure support of the status quo. The trust museums build through transparency may encourage people to participate with the institution, thus making it more inclusive. A Declaration of Immigration is one example of an exhibition that did this at the NMMA. In 2007, the museum called for proposals from artists, asking them to “put a human face” on immigration and allow the audience to better understand the relationship between the United States and its Latin American neighbors. The resultant responses from artists shaped the tenor of the exhibition. In this instance, the unusually diverse group of artists (for this particular museum) were stakeholders.

Consider encouraging visitors to take action, especially when it will build empathy or include those who have been marginalized. In order to foster further inclusive curation, examine how visitors are using exhibits and collections and whether or not staff can adjust exhibitions during their run to make them more effective. Record who comes to an exhibition, and evaluate calls to action.

After an exhibition closes, maintain relationships with collaborators and plan for new projects. If one project is successful at including a community that previously did not visit, the work does not stop there. Check back with visitors, if possible. For example, at the end of the visit to Eastern State Penitentiary’s Prisons Today, visitors can answer a few short questions and the site will send them digital postcards at intervals after the visit, continuing the engagement into the future well beyond the visit. Involvement with partners and visitors may offer new insights into the collection or other institutional knowledge that can be carried forward. For example, after the exhibition Out in Chicago at the Chicago History Museum (CHM), which was inspired by the series of public programs “Out at CHM,” CHM began collecting on queer Chicago. The collecting initiative was one of the suggestions of queer partners in creating the exhibition. This demonstrates how creating an inclusive process for curating Out in Chicago, where there were queer curators and a queer visitor panel, can inspire exciting new directions that fit within the mission for the institution.

The global landscape of museums was an enormous resource of 80,000 museums before COVID-19.[xi] This body of institutions is diverse and consists of many museums emerging from Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) and other marginalized communities, as well as predominantly white institutions, or PWIs, in every discipline. Museums from BIPOC and queer communities have long histories developing practices that can inform PWIs as they develop or begin their work toward social justice. In many nations and fields of study, museum workers at PWIs are refusing the elitist, colonial histories of their institutions and creating change from within.[xii] Anti-racist and other inclusive work is becoming central to their institutions’ practices.[xiii] Curators from PWIs and BIPOC museums alike are mining their collections with fresh eyes, telling the histories of faces—and bodies—that might once have hidden in the shadows. Inclusive and especially anti-racist curatorial work is of particular urgency now. The history above demonstrates that inclusive museum work is largely about doing what we have long agreed needs to be done.


[i] Hampton University Museum, “About Us,” http://wp.hamptonu.edu/msm/about-us/.

[ii] I usually avoid the term “fine art” because it draws an unnecessary and exclusionary distinction between the so-called fine arts and other art such as traditional, folk art, self-taught artists, and outsider artists. However, in this context it helps to highlight the way in which the Hampton University Museum sought to highlight the legitimacy of Black art.

[iii] Shawn Michelle Smith, Photography on the Color Line: W. E. B. Du Bois, Race, and Visual Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press), 2004.

[iv] Steven Conn, Do Museums Still Need Objects? (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009).

[v] For more on the community museum movement, see Fath Davis Ruffins, “Culture Wars Won and Lost: Ethnic Museums on the Mall, Part I: The National Holocaust Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian,” Radical History Review 68 (1997): 79-100, and “Culture Wars Won and Lost, Part II: The National African-American Museum Project,” Radical History Review 1998, no. 70 (1998): 78-101. https://doi.org/10.1215/01636545-1998-70-78.

[vi] Amy Lonetree, Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 17-19.

[vii] The history of the term, “first voice,” is difficult to trace. It originated around commemorations of the quincentennial of the encounter between Europeans and Indigenous people of the Americas. And there is an association between the term and terms such as “First Nations” and “First Peoples.” In “The First Voice in Heritage Conservation,” International Journal of Intangible Heritage 3 (2008), Amareswar Galla cites the workshops in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, during the International Year of Worlds Indigenous Peoples (1994). In 2018 Nina Simon, the museum guru and former director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, formed an organization called OF/BY/FOR All that directly builds on this history and attempts to spread it to mainstream organizations and predominantly white institutions (PWIs).

[viii] Though this is a subject he explored in his book, A Fool’s Errand, Bunch had been sharing this idea for many years prior to its publication.

[ix] Ellen Hirzy, Excellence and Equity: Education and the Public Dimension of Museums (Washington, DC: American Association of Museums, 1992).

[x] Michael Ames, Cannibal Tours and Glass Boxes: The Anthropology of Museums (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1992).

[xi] Richard Florida in Gail Dexter Lord and Ngaire Blankenberg, Cities, Museums and Soft Power (Washington, D.C: American Alliance of Museums, 2015), 2. Forbes estimated that a third of the roughly 35,000 museums in the US will close or merge because of the pandemic. For more on the state of museums in the pandemic, see the National Survey of COVID-19 Impact on US Museums.

[xii] See the free Toolkit by MASS Action (Museums as a Site for Social Action) as well as their initiative to keep museums accountable for statements of anti-racism or solidarity made in Spring 2020. Complete their survey here.

[xiii] This report card from Museums and Race can be useful in starting conversations about race in your institution.

Suggested Readings

Ames, Michael. Cannibal Tours and Glass Boxes: The Anthropology of Museums. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1992.

Bunch, Lonnie G., III. A Fool’s Errand: Creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the Age of Bush, Obama, and Trump. Illustrated edition. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2019.

Conn, Steven. Do Museums Still Need Objects? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009.

Diamond, Anna. “Fifty Years Ago, the Idea of a Museum for the People Came of Age.” Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/fifty-years-ago-idea-museum-people-came-age-180973828/.

Galla, Amareswar. “The First Voice in Heritage Conservation.” International Journal of Intangible Heritage 3 (2008).

Hirzy, Ellen. Excellence and Equity: Education and the Public Dimension of Museums. Washington, DC: American Association of Museums, 1992.

Lonetree, Amy. Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012.

Lord, Gail Dexter, and Ngaire Blankenberg. Cities, Museums and Soft Power. Washington, D.C: American Alliance of Museums, 2015.

Ruffins, Fath Davis. “Culture Wars Won and Lost: Ethnic Museums on the Mall, Part I: The National Holocaust Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian.” Radical History Review 68 (1997): 79-100.

_____. “Culture Wars Won and Lost, Part II: The National African-American Museum Project.” Radical History Review 70 (1998): 78-101. https://doi.org/10.1215/01636545-1998-70-78.

Smith, Shawn Michelle. Photography on the Color Line: W. E. B. Du Bois, Race, and Visual Culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.


~ Elena Gonzales is an independent scholar focusing on curatorial work for social justice and the author of Exhibitions for Social Justice (Routledge 2019) and co-editor of Museums and Civic Discourse: History, Current Practice, and Future Prospects (Greenhouse Studios, forthcoming). She received her doctorate in American Studies (2015) and her Master’s in Public Humanities (2010) from Brown University. She has curated exhibitions since 2006 and has taught curatorial studies since 2010. Contact: www.elenagonzales.org, [email protected], @curatoriologist.

Photo of Jefferson Davis memorial in Richmond, Virginia with "racist" written in spray paint

Lost Cause Myth

Photo of Jefferson Davis memorial in Richmond, Virginia with "racist" written in spray paint
Jefferson Davis Memorial, Richmond, VA, 2017. Photo courtesy of David Streever.

The Lost Cause was a historical ideology and a social movement created by ex-Confederates that characterized the Confederate experience and defined its value for new generations. By the twentieth century, the Lost Cause became enshrined as part of the national story of slavery and the American Civil War era, and it evolved through that century’s most important revolutions. It was never just about the Civil War, but about slavery, Reconstruction, southern race relations, the place of the South in national life, and Americans’ self-identity. Today, the Lost Cause’s historical and cultural claims have been rejected by historians and museum professionals as a narrow distortion of history at best and a lie at worst, but many of its cultural tropes and political assumptions occasionally thrive, not only in the American South, but across the country.

Historical Claims

The Lost Cause began to emerge from “Ladies Memorial Associations” and men’s veterans groups in the late 1860s, and initially concerned itself with vindicating the Confederacy against ridicule and accusations of treason that ex-Confederates considered dishonorable. The term itself originated with Virginian Edward Pollard’s 1866 book, The Lost Cause. It matured in the late nineteenth century through historical writing, fiction, speeches, museums and shrines, reunions, monument building, funerals, magazines, and fundraising initiatives. The United Daughters of the Confederacy (founded in 1894) eventually became the chief propagators of the Lost Cause, but Confederate veterans, authors, academic historians, politicians, public historians, business leaders, and cultural producers all contributed to its life.

As a social and cultural movement, the Lost Cause was not monolithic. Some enlisted it to support Populist agrarianism in the 1890s, while others used it to promote the industrialization of the “New South.” Further, while it maintained a hostility to Unionist versions of Civil War history, it accommodated fraternal cooperation with United States veterans and support of patriotic adherence to the contemporary United States. In short, the Lost Cause could simultaneously revere an allegedly idyllic plantation life, condemn Abraham Lincoln, and rally southerners in contemporary American patriotism.

The Lost Cause maintained several basic historical claims that are now roundly disputed:

  • That cultural and constitutional differences—not a singular interest in preserving slavery—forced the slaveholding states to secede. While denying the centrality of slavery to secession, Lost Cause authors consistently described slavery as a benevolent institution in which white and black southerners engaged in a reciprocal relationship that secured a domestic peace that abolitionists threatened.
  • That Confederate armies—composed uniformly of gallant men and brilliant leaders—succumbed not because of poor leadership, sub-par military performance, or battlefield losses, but to overwhelming United States resources. In fact, a veritable religious cult developed around the Confederate pantheon of President Jefferson Davis and Generals Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Robert E. Lee.
  • It regarded Confederate women as sanctified by wartime sacrifice and identified, in them, perfect examples of gender conformity.
  • Though ex-Confederates accepted the end of slavery, the Lost Cause maintained that because slavery had been beneficial to black and white people alike, emancipation had been a grave mistake. Further, it maintained that Reconstruction had been driven by a vindictive desire to impose a dangerous racial equality on a prostrate white South, and that the “redemption” of the South by Klan violence and electoral fraud had been a heroic moment in southern history.

By the early twentieth century, the Lost Cause had attained a status as the “official history” in the former Confederate states, as its promoters created a memorial and intellectual landscape that dominated public life. Veterans, the UDC, and countless municipalities erected monuments at a pace only outdone by the simultaneous erection of Union monuments in northern states. The UDC policed public school textbooks to ensure a history of the Confederacy that was “just,” censoring lessons that might be too admiring of Abraham Lincoln and too disparaging of Jefferson Davis, or which suggested that white southerners had been cruel slave masters determined to preserve slavery. Politicians and business leaders paid fealty to Confederate memory through designation of holidays and support for monuments, while civic boosters promoted tourism that venerated elite white historic sites, such as plantations and churches, and notable locations of wartime events like battlefields or the death sites of Stonewall Jackson, General J.E.B. Stuart, and Sam Davis. (Many of these sites still form the backbone of the modern tourism industry in several states.) Aside from the UDC, significant sources of the Lost Cause included the Southern Historical Society (1869), Confederate Memorial Hall (1891) in New Orleans, Confederate Veteran magazine (1893), and the Confederate Museum (1896) in Richmond, Virginia.

Illustration of a white family with an older African American man
Illustration from Sallie May Dooley, Dem Good Ole Times, first published in 1906.


The Lost Cause was not just about the past. Among the white ruling class in the former Confederate States, it set expectations for the present and the future. It supported the white southern worldview that revered the past, deferred to elite rule, enforced conservative social values, exalted rural life, and marginalized black people.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Lost Cause offered guidance for people who were anxious about unchecked capitalism, mass immigration, and urban life. It defined slave plantations as pastoral idylls uncorrupted by the hurried pursuit of wealth. It looked to the courage of Confederate soldiers to steel the nerves of desk-bound corporate bureaucrats. In the wartime sacrifice of mothers and wives, the Lost Cause identified an admirable gender fulfillment against the growing suffrage movement.

Most importantly, the Lost Cause perpetuated the narrative of racial difference that had begun in slavery, describing competent white people well-practiced in self-control and incompetent African Americans simultaneously unserious and dangerous, preferring loyal deference to actual participation in public and political life. The Lost Cause reliance on a history of white competency fit well with—and supported—the late-nineteenth-century white supremacist theorists who looked to a larger history of Anglo-Saxon self-governance combined with an evolutionary framework to determine that black people lacked the temperament and training necessary for democracy. In politics, these racist assumptions justified the entrenchment of Jim Crow segregation in turn-of-the-century southern state constitutions.

The Lost Cause celebrated and promoted black men and women who acted the parts of loyal and submissive servants. When white people leaned on that historical imagination of paternalism, some Lost Cause adherents—like Richmond, Virginia’s Mary-Cooke Munford and Rev. W. Russell Bowie—made anti-Klan and anti-lynching statements and joined in relatively liberal interracial cooperation initiatives. But, in its veneration of the Reconstruction-era Klan and rhetorical reliance on the fiction of black sexual rapacity, the Lost Cause made space for racial violence and lynching. For example, the favorite novelist of the Lost Cause—Thomas Nelson Page, who wove romantic tales of gallant young Confederates and loyal slaves—accepted lynching as a necessary evil to stem the alleged tide of black assaults on white women. In a self-fulfilling prophecy, when polemicist Thomas Dixon’s novel, The Clansman (1905), was turned into an early Hollywood blockbuster, The Birth of a Nation (1915), the movie sparked the creation of the “Second Klan” in the year of its release.

The Lost Cause became part of the national historical narrative of southern and Civil War history. It also attained academic sanction by historians such as Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, who called plantations a “school” for “civilization” for enslaved people, and William A. Dunning, who described Reconstruction as a period of carpetbagger corruption. These interpretations were never uncontested, particularly in popular settings. In the 1870s and 1880s, United States Army veterans and northern politicians regularly denounced the veneration of rebel leaders. Black journalists like Richmond’s John Mitchell, Jr., similarly condemned it, claiming in 1890 that white southern memorialization of the Confederacy “serves to retard [the South’s] progress in the country and forges heavier chains with which to be bound.” In the early twentieth century, W.E.B. Du Bois regularly critiqued the white southern fetish for Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee as indicative of larger social pathologies. Many more African Americans contended with the conservative social ethos that the Lost Cause undergirded. For instance, in 1904, Mary Church Terrell directly challenged Thomas Nelson Page’s theories of race, rape, and lynching. Later, scholars like Du Bois, Rayford Logan, and Carter G. Woodson wrote searching histories of black life before and after slavery that exposed the falsity of the Lost Cause view of race. Yet, the power of white supremacist cultural regimes ensured that these voices remained submerged.

Young girl in uniform standing next to a cannon
Girl and cannon, 1951. Image courtesy of the American Civil War Museum.


The Lost Cause gave rise to cultural tropes that shaped dominant public understandings of the Civil War and southern history—namely, the idea of plantations (and the American South at large) as sites of hospitality featuring white women “belles” as hostesses and black men and women as servants. These characterizations blended into mass culture as characters like Aunt Jemima sold pancake flour and beer companies compared their convivial brand promise to antebellum plantation barbecues. The 1939 film Gone With the Wind codified this imagery and made possibly the largest impact on public understanding of the Civil War in the twentieth century, creating a historical aesthetic replicated by hundreds of plantation tourist sites.

Similarly, the popular conception of the actual war came to be dominated by an almost exclusive focus on the Confederate and United States armies, their leaders, strategies, and tactics. The Lost Cause ideal of plantations and battlefield courage coexisted with a larger national paradigm about the Civil War that began during the Spanish American War and was nurtured in the Great Depression and World War II. It celebrated the national union that produced modern American power. The outcome was a focus on military tactics at public history sites that obscured the larger causes of the Civil War and muted any recognition that the Confederacy had fundamental differences from the United States in its outlook on race and cultural politics. The Lost Cause fixation on Lee and Jackson flourished in this environment. This military history, combined with conventional political histories that equivocated on slavery, dominated the Civil War Centennial celebrations between 1961 and 1965, and it thrived in mass produced toys like Marx playsets and in television series like The Gray Ghost (1957-1958) and The Rebel (1959-1961).

In the mass culture of the twentieth century that celebrated national stories, some threads of Lost Cause history—like the alleged Reconstruction-era oppression of white people by corrupt carpetbaggers—became universal in the dominant American story, regardless of region. These tropes settled firmly into the interpretation of post-World War II museums and historic sites. The Civil War became a story of a military contest among white men against a backdrop of southern belles and silly, but loyal, slaves. Even as segregation laws began to erode in the 1960s, this common interpretation at public history sites made for an exclusionary setting.


After World War II, the Lost Cause continued to evolve in American life, even in the face of challenges to its dominance. In the academic world, historians such as Kenneth Stampp, John Hope Franklin, and John Blassingame undermined its basic historical assumptions. This generation wrote compellingly about the horrors of slavery and the resistance of black men and women to their oppressors. They portrayed enslaved people as human beings and agents in their own lives. At the same time, opponents of the emergent Civil Rights Movement harnessed Lost Cause racial tropes and Confederate iconography in an aggressively political fashion. Whereas the elite female protectors of Confederate history in the early twentieth century had done so through genteel ceremonies, ice-cream socials, fundraising, wreath-laying, and essay-writing contests, the new generation—growing ever-more blue collar and male—relied on that same history to fuel violent confrontations, the brandishing of Confederate flags at civil rights protestors, and the embrace of a militant Confederate cultural identity.

By the 1980s, mainstream museums and historic sites had begun to reflect the interests of social historians, and took African American history and interpretation seriously; while Civil War battlefields, both at National Park Service sites and state and local sites, continued to cater to the interests of military history aficionados. At the same time, Ken Burns’ The Civil War (1990), though flawed in some ways, was a landmark in introducing the general public to contemporary interpretations of Civil War history that elevated social history and centered slavery and African Americans in the story.

The June 2015 murders of black worshippers in Charleston, South Carolina by a young white man who had expressed racial sentiments that would not have been unfamiliar to Thomas Nelson Page forced the most widespread reckoning with Confederate iconography in American public life to date. South Carolina removed the Army of Northern Virginia Battle Flag that had flown on its statehouse and grounds since 1961. New Orleans, Baltimore, and a few smaller cities and towns took down statues and monuments to Confederate leaders and soldiers. However, most monuments that were erected in the heyday of the Lost Cause remain in place.


Outside of partisan heritage organizations like the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and a few private and state funded historic sites, the Lost Cause in its fullest expression has no credibility. Some institutions born of the Lost Cause have adapted and evolved to reflect this ideology. For instance, Richmond’s Confederate Museum became the Museum of the Confederacy in 1976, with the intention of rooting its interpretation in modern scholarship and the new social history. It merged with another Richmond institution in 2014 to become the American Civil War Museum. In 2001, the National Park Service responded to audience needs, pressure from Congress, and the calls of academic historians to move its battlefield interpretation beyond just military tactics and topics to include consideration of the larger issues at stake in the war in its Rally on the High Ground initiative. Other institutions—most notably private plantation historic sites—continue to appeal to the alleged romance of southern agricultural life and avoid fully explaining slavery.

Yet outside of historic sites, museums, and academic history, popular conversations on social media and other informal arenas reveal that plenty of Americans continue to discount the cruelty of slavery, deny the role of the institution in secession, revere Robert E. Lee, and disregard the promise and tragedy of Reconstruction. A new, and false, historical claim that black men served in an integrated Confederate army is both an updated version of the loyal slave trope and a completely modern attempt to make the Confederate States acceptable to the world of diversity and inclusion. Lost Cause tropes rarely appear in credible historical publications or museums, but they continue to surface in popular expressions of white racial identity politics where resentment over African American history and a sense of beleaguered whiteness continues to permeate discussions.

Image of a museum interpreter speaking with visitors
Historic Stagville, Durham, NC. Photo courtesy of Kenan Hairston/Discover Durham.


The Lost Cause did near-irrevocable damage to the long term inclusivity of museum and historic site audiences. In its original iteration, it directly supported white supremacy and racial exclusion. It fostered many racist assumptions and a very narrow narrative story of romantic plantations and courageous military actions. Therefore, museums and historic sites that approach southern and Civil War history need to be particularly careful not only to avoid perpetuating Lost Cause tropes, but also to develop interpretive and methodological approaches that actively refute its assumptions.

While a proven solution to the alienation of non-white audiences from Civil War era historic sites has yet to be discovered, some reconsiderations of interpretive and methodological approaches may be useful. For instance, do not use the word “yankee” when referring to United States soldiers, avoid calling northerners in the Reconstruction South “carpetbaggers,” and do not refer to the perpetrators of violence in Reconstruction as “Redeemers.”

Museum scholar Gretchen Jennings describes “institutional body language” as “messages that come through loud and clear even when the mission statement, website, and marketing materials say something different.” Intentionally inclusive voices in marketing and social media can be belied by interpretive programming that centers picturesque columned plantation houses, or that prevaricates about the Confederate cause and handles the experience of Confederate and Union soldiers as being without difference. This institutional body language includes the physical appearance of a museum or site. Many Civil War battlefields and sites continue to fly reproduction Confederate banners on flagpoles adjacent to national and state flags in front of visitor centers, and to sell Confederate themed memorabilia with no interpretive context in gift shops. This practice gives the impression that contemporary hateful practices are tolerated and possibly endorsed by the institution, or at least that the historical experience inside will be distorted in the name of “balance.” This practice should end.

Interpretive approaches should shift. For instance, the history of the Reconstruction era remains the most misunderstood aspect of the Civil War era (because it was written by Lost Cause authors). It should be relentlessly interpreted as part of any Civil War museum or site. The creation of the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park in Beaufort, South Carolina, will raise the postbellum period’s profile nationally and yield useful interpretive practices for other sites to adopt.

The Confederate experience should continue to be discussed. After all, the Confederacy was not an exceptional element in American history, but rather, it represents particularly American impulses regarding politics, culture, and race. Interpretation should intentionally avoid romanticizing the very real pain, trauma, and loss that southern people endured, but also fully cover moments of dissent, coercion, and disaffection in the South during the antebellum period, the Confederate years, and Reconstruction.

Similarly, interpretation at plantation historic sites should not romanticize the landscape, but clarify for visitors the core economic reason for plantations. It should also foreground (or at least equalize) the lives of enslaved people that lived on them. Stagville State Historic Site in North Carolina has done so for a generation, and others, like McLeod Plantation Historic Site in South Carolina, and the Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters in Savannah, Georgia have recently set new interpretive bars for centering the African American experience in Old South settings.

The usual academic grounding of good contemporary interpretation of slavery may often leave unacknowledged visitors’ need to process historical trauma in a safe and reflective way. Sites like Whitney Plantation in Louisiana and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama effectively incorporate artistic expressions of suffering and moments for memorialization that are usually lacking at museums and sites.

Finally, support front line staff with appropriate training. Many visitors may have a negative emotional reaction when encountering historical interpretation that conflicts with personally held beliefs. Useful is Julia Rose’s “loss-in-learning” methods wherein interpreters assist visitors through their process of grieving the loss of old knowledge and help them learn to accept new information.

Historians and museum professionals have rejected the Lost Cause for a generation, if not more, but much work remains. Any attempt to expand the meaning of southern history and the American Civil War era that continues to center slavery in the story and humanize the enslaved goes a long way toward eroding the Lost Cause.

Suggested Readings

Brown, Thomas J. Civil War Canon: Sites of Confederate Memory in South Carolina. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2015.

Cox, Karen L. Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture.  Gainesville, FL.: University Press of Florida; with a new preface edition, 2019.

Foster, Gaines. Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause and the Emergence of the New South, 1865-1913. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Foster, Gaines. “Today’s battle over the Confederate flag has nothing to do with the Civil War.” Zocalo Public Square, October 23, 2018. https://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2018/10/23/todays-battle-confederate-flag-nothing-civil-war/ideas/essay/

Hillyer, Reiko. “Relics of Reconciliation: The Confederate Museum and Civil War Memory in the New South.” The Public Historian 33, no. 4 (November 2011): 35-62.

Kytle, Ethan J., and Blain Roberts. Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy. New York: The New Press, reprint edition, 2019.

Levin, Kevin M. Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2019.

Palmer, Brian, and Seth Freed Wessler. “The Costs of the Confederacy.” Smithsonian Magazine (December 2018). https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/costs-confederacy-special-report-180970731/

“Reconsideration of Memorials and Monuments” issue. AASLH History News, Vol. 71, No. 4 (Autumn 2016).

Rose, Julia. Interpreting Difficult History at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.


~ Christopher A. Graham is the Curator of Exhibitions at the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, Virginia.

Leadership Principles

Advisory Board member for the President’s Economic Recovery Laura Tyson, Director in the Strategic Client Group of Morgan Stanley Carla A. Harris, and Citi Personal Wealth Management CEO Deborah McWhinney at the Women in Finance Symposium at Treasury on March 29, 2010. Photo credit: US Department of the Treasury.

“We need leadership!” is a cry heard from within the ranks of many organizations, but what does that mean, exactly? Often it is a longing for a clearer sense of direction or an explanation of an organization’s decision-making process. It may be the frustration caused by a lack of communication or employee inclusion in matters that affect them. It may even be a manifestation of outright contempt because of diminishing levels of trust and respect. Pleas for leadership are often as fundamental as the desire for a clear articulation of the core values of the organization—what it most values, as well as how it envisions its role and fulfills its mission. It may be about answering key questions: What kind of organization are we? What exactly are we doing? How, why, and for whom are we doing it?

It is the leader’s responsibility to guide these discussions, but first the nature and meaning of leadership must be fully understood. Like articulating what makes for good music and art, defining the nature of good leadership is challenging. It is largely a reflection of individual perspective and circumstances—what works for one leader may not work for another and what works in one situation may not work in another. There is no magic formula for effective leadership; it is far more art than science. The world is growing increasingly complex, and technology is changing the way we communicate and conduct business. The business environment (both for-profit and not-for-profit) is more competitive, and audiences are more sophisticated and demand more services. At the same time, political winds have shifted and financial resources are shrinking. The efficient use of time, money, people, and other resources is imperative. In her book Leading Museums Today, Martha Morris enumerates key leadership challenges that today’s museum leaders face, including issues related to environmental sustainability, security, repatriation, physical expansion (often with disastrous financial repercussions), and low wages. Lack of employee inclusion in decision-making is a serious concern, as is the need for new skills and flexibility in the workplace and meaningful recognition of diversity.[i]

What, Then, Is Leadership?

There are countless definitions of leadership, but they are often incomplete. While most definitions include similar elements—such as setting direction, aligning resources, and communicating with, motivating, and inspiring people—they often confuse leadership with management and do not recognize the true essence of leadership. Author and entrepreneur Kevin Kruse offers an excellent and concise definition, writing that leadership “is a process of social influence which maximizes the efforts of others toward the achievement of a goal.”[ii] It is social because it is largely about relationships with people and less about technical expertise or power. It is about influence because its primary goals are to align resources and communicate with and inspire people.[iii] It is about recognizing and maximizing the efforts of others because it acknowledges that people are our key resources. And, it is about achievement of a goal because there must be a clear and common mission with intended outcomes. Kruse’s definition might be enhanced by noting that effective leadership is not bestowed but instead earned and must be exercised in a way that motivates people to want to move in desirable directions.

Inclusion and Diversity

In 1965, only 5% of Americans were foreign born; by 2016, that number jumped to nearly 14% of the country’s population. Growing racial and ethnic diversity is changing the face of the United States. The Pew Research Center projects that by 2055 the U.S. will not have a single racial or ethnic majority.[iv] Yet, in a 2017 study of nonprofit boards, Boardsource noted that 90% of nonprofit CEOs and board chairs and 84% of all board members were white. Only 16% of board members were people of color. Two-thirds of CEOs expressed dissatisfaction with their organization’s level of leadership diversity.[v] According to a recent report by the American Alliance of Museums, 46% of museum boards are all white. While non-white people are 23% of the U.S. population, only 9% visit museums[vi] and 84% of jobs related to museum mission and leadership are held by white staff members.[vii] Furthermore, women continue to face significant gender discrimination, as Anne W. Ackerson and Joan Baldwin document in their recent survey of “Gender Equity in the Museum Workplace.” The survey, which also uncovered bias against LGBTQ individuals, recorded serious workplace discrimination in a range of forms, including salary inequity and verbal and sexual harassment. Clearly, we have work to do.

Leaders in our field must aggressively seek the diversity that reflects changing demographics lest we render ourselves irrelevant. This begins with individual and organizational commitment and leadership with a focus on both diversity and inclusion. Authors Patricia Bradshaw and Christopher Fredette note that organizations that promote diversity and inclusion have greater success when they employ both functional practices (policies, employment practices, recruitment, and training) and social practices (meaningful participation, relational connections, respect for different values, and trust). Functional practices alone do not create an inclusive organization because they often lead to patronizing attitudes and tokenism. Social practices are essential if organizations expect to be genuinely inclusive.[viii]

It is critical that we embrace a rich diversity of race, ethnicity, nationality, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, religion, socioeconomic status, and physical, intellectual, and developmental abilities in all we do. It broadens our audiences and encourages participation. It helps us develop more meaningful and relevant programs. It improves and more fully informs our collecting activity. It ensures our continued relevance and helps us make more meaningful contributions to the public we serve. It expands our fundraising efforts and makes us more sustainable. And, it makes our work and organizations better. Cultivating diversity and inclusion is the right approach and a smart philosophy to embrace, especially when it is guided by the phrase, “Nothing about us without us.”[ix]

Being Authentic and People-Centered

In order to create an environment that is truly diverse and inclusive we must genuinely live it in everything we do.

Good leaders in our field embrace the notion that we are, above all else, for and about people. Our organizations are managed by people, programs are presented by people, exhibits are developed by people—and they are for people. It is people, with their rich and diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and skills that help us foster a meaningful understanding of our world. Moreover, our work is not just for, and presented by, some people; it must be for, and presented by, all people.

Ultimately, diversity and inclusiveness are about relationships with people—welcoming people, being empathetic and listening to people, working with people—being decent to people, really. It is the leader’s role to set this tone and make it the very ethos of the organization. Being people-centered does not mean over-the-top hand-holding moments. It does not mean acquiescing to every need or demand. But, it does mean involving people in decision-making, listening to them, respecting their needs and perspectives, treating them with respect, and developing a keen sense of empathy. The essence of leadership is about creating relationships among people.

Effective leaders solicit involvement and listen to diverse groups outside the organization and develop leaders within the organization—nurturing their growth and maximizing their involvement. They insist on a diversity of perspectives and encourage dissent and they are not threatened when they hear criticisms. Effective leaders are willing to trust staff and delegate both responsibility and authority. They recognize that effective authority is shared authority.

Leaders lead by example and are sensitive to the needs of employees while balancing those with the needs of the organization and the public it ultimately serves. They communicate transparently and often. Leaders trust in order to be trusted and give respect in order to receive it. Authentic leaders build a repertoire of leadership skills as a result of their lifetime of experiences. Through experience, they learn how best to respond in certain circumstances. How a leader handles a major illness or an untimely death in the family, for example, provides a foundation of empathy and influences how that leader processes and manages difficult situations. It is these experiences that inform an inclusive leader.

Inclusiveness is essential to high performing organizations. Why not maximize all the people and resources we have available to us? Just as our institutional goal is to be inclusive to all people (our audiences), great leaders are inclusive within their organizations, encouraging participation at all levels, listening to concerns and ideas, delegating broadly, and embracing failures as an important part of innovation.

In a productive workplace, people participate in decision-making and feel valued for their contributions. They know how and why their efforts matter, leading to greater job satisfaction and productivity. They are motivated and strive to do their jobs at extraordinary levels with renewed enthusiasm. With proper support, encouragement, and recognition, people are capable of achieving amazing things—for themselves and the public they serve. This shared-authority democratic approach, rather than the top-down autocratic approach, allows for maximum participation and morale. But, one must also recognize that the responsible leader is still decisive and willing to make unpopular or difficult decisions when there is no clear agreement among stakeholders or there is a need to act quickly and decisively.

Great leaders are comfortable with the notion that being open-minded offers an opportunity for much learning. There is nothing to be gained from over-control. Leaders also foster a culture of calculated risk-taking and accept certain levels of failure as part of growth and experimentation. The best leaders are not afraid to expose their vulnerability and show that they, too, are human, imperfect, and make mistakes. Moreover, good leaders are viewed as thoughtful, calm, and deliberate—not petty and impulsive. True leaders are perceived as fair and honest and develop trusting and respectful relationships. They are the very embodiment of the values they espouse. They keep their eyes on a vision of what can be and do not let day-to-day distractions shake their convictions. Leaders have the courage to try new things, seek new audiences, and expand the reach of their organizations.

Inclusive leaders recognize the importance of being good to people. When they are, people are more committed, invested, happier, and productive, and they feel part of something that truly matters. These are the people who come to work not because they have to, but because they want to.

There is no recipe for how to become an authentic leader because, by definition, one cannot pretend to be authentic. But, why do we need to be authentic anyway? The simple answer is that, good relationships must be grounded in honesty, trust, and respect. Leaders know that for people to follow, people must believe in and trust the leader. They know the leader as a person and discern true levels of genuineness and honesty. Nothing is more hollow than a leader who stands for nothing in particular, is not trustworthy, betrays confidences, takes credit for the accomplishments of others, and quickly assigns blame to others for organizational failures. People know a con man. Leaders do what they say; they walk the walk. Good leaders know that it is actions that inspire beliefs—beliefs alone do not inspire sustained actions. Good leaders stand for something and act on it.

Becoming a Good Leader

There are thousands of works on leadership and lists almost as long of the personal characteristics necessary to become a good leader: honesty, integrity, vision, passion, enthusiasm, sense of humor, collegiality, trustworthiness, to name just a few. While they may all have some merit, the qualities of a good leader may be best summarized by author Daniel Goleman in his seminal work on emotional intelligence.[x] Goleman’s view is that as one moves up the leadership ladder it is not IQ and technical knowledge that become increasingly essential (although still important), but rather a well-developed sense of emotional intelligence. There is much evidence to suggest a strong link between organizational success and leaders’ emotional intelligence, especially in senior leadership roles.

Goleman defines emotional intelligence as understanding and managing our emotions and those of others. He identifies five major components to becoming a great leader through self-management of emotions and building relationships with others.

The first is Self-Awareness, which means that good leaders have a keen understanding of their strengths, weaknesses, emotions, and needs. They are honest with themselves and others and know how their feelings affect them and others. Self-aware leaders know their strongly held values and principles and live by them. They know where they are going and why. They understand their strengths and have confidence in them. They also understand their weaknesses and do not set themselves up for failure. They are risk takers, but not reckless. They know their limits and those of the organization. They assess themselves honestly and do the same for their organizations.

Self-Regulation is the ability to manage and control emotions, and to think before acting. A self-regulated leader does not pound on the table or throw pencils. The leader is in control (not out of control), reasonable, and chooses their words and actions carefully. The leader is respected because of fairness and well-considered statements and actions. The leader’s approach is calm, not frenzied, and tends to encourage the same behavior from subordinates. Judgment is suspended and impulses are controlled. Reflection, thoughtfulness, and comfort with change are hallmarks. Although sometimes misconstrued as lacking passion, the self-regulated leader knows that high emotion and impulsiveness are often counterproductive.

Motivation is another key component of a great leader. Leaders are driven and strive to exceed their own and others’ expectations. They are motivated by a desire to achieve. Passion for the work is real and they take great pride in their achievements and those of the organization. They are always raising the performance bar and optimistic about the organization achieving more. They see opportunities, not problems. They are deeply committed to the organization and want it to be the best of its kind. Their attitude and enthusiasm are contagious.

Empathy may seem akin to mushiness and non-businesslike behavior, but what it really means is treating people through an understanding of their emotional needs and reactions. This is especially important in a fast-paced environment in which changes happen frequently. It is important to understand and appreciate everyone’s viewpoint to gauge the full implication of decisions and their impact. Related to this is the importance of coaching and mentoring, understanding the needs and aspirations of employees, and responding to them. This often leads to a happier workforce and more retention. Understanding employees as people and practicing cross-cultural sensitivity are hallmarks.

Social Skill is the last component of emotional intelligence. Leaders with this skill set are very good at working with people and establishing rapport and relationships. They are experts at managing teams and have keen abilities of persuasion. They recognize that leaders cannot achieve things alone, and if the leader cannot communicate and build relationships and teams, little will be accomplished. They are skilled at finding common ground and excel at articulating and leading change.

Ultimately, leadership is about getting work done through people and understanding that individual and organizational success are inseparable. Recognizing and cultivating this important truth is perhaps the most important leadership lesson of all.


[i] Martha Morris, Leading Museums Today (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018), 2-7.

[ii] Kevin Kruse, “What is Leadership?” Forbes, www.forbes.com, April 9, 2013.

[iii] John P. Kotter, John P. Kotter on What Leaders Really Do (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Review Books, 1999), 51-62.

[iv] D’vera Cohn and Andrea Caumont, “10 demographic trends shaping the U.S. and the world

in 2016,” Pew Research Center, March 31, 2016, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/03/31/10-demographic-trends-that-are-shaping-the-u-s-and-the-world/.

[v] Leading with Intent: 2017 National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices (Boardsource, 2017), 10-11.

[vi] “Facing Change: Insights from the American Alliance of Museums’ Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Inclusion Group,” American Alliance of Museums, p. 9, https://www.aam-us.org/programs/diversity-equity-accessibility-and-inclusion/facing-change/.

[vii] Brian Boucher, “Mellon Foundation Study Reveals Uncomfortable Lack of Diversity in American Museums,” Artnet, August 4, 2015.

[viii] Patricia Bradshaw and Christopher Fredette, “The Inclusive Nonprofit Boardroom: Leveraging the Transformative Potential of Diversity,” Nonprofit Quarterly, December 29, 2012, https://nonprofitquarterly.org/the-inclusive-nonprofit-boardroomleveraging-the-transformative-potential-of-diversity/.

[ix] The phrase “nothing about us, without us” is closely associated with the disability rights movement.

[x] Daniel Goleman, “What Makes a Leader?” Harvard Business Review Best of HBR 1998, 1-11.

Suggested Readings

Ackerson, Anne W., and Joan H. Baldwin, Leadership Matters: Leading Museums in an Age of Discord. Revised edition. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield/AASLH, 2019. See also, the companion website.

Baldwin, Joan H., and Anne W. Ackerson, Women in the Museum: Lessons from the Workplace. New York and London: Routledge, 2017.

DePree, Max. Leadership is an Art. Dell Publishing, 1989.

Drucker, Peter. Managing the Nonprofit Organization: Principles & Practices. New York: Harper Collins, 2005.

Harvard Business Review. On Leadership. Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation, 2011.

Kotter, John P. John P. Kotter on What Leaders Really Do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Review Books, 1999.

Maxwell, John C. Developing the Leader Within You. Thomas Nelson Inc, 1993.

Morris, Martha. Leading Museums Today. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.

Peters, Thomas J., and Robert H. Waterman, Jr. In Search of Excellence. New York: Harper & Row, 1982.

Roberts, Wess. Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun. New York: Warner Books, 1987.


~ Brian Alexander is Visiting Professor of Museum Administration and Director of the Institute for Cultural Entrepreneurship at the Cooperstown Graduate Program, SUNY Oneonta, in New York. Prior to coming to Cooperstown, Alexander worked for 38 years in the museum field. Among other positions, he served as President & CEO of the National World War I Museum, President & CEO of the Historic Annapolis Foundation, Executive-Vice President & Director of the Shelburne Museum, and Director of the State Museum of North Dakota. He has also been a trustee of the American Association for State & Local History. He can be reached at [email protected].


Photo of a demolished store

Urban Renewal

Photo of a demolished store
Demolition of Joe Epstein’s store in Kingston, NY. Photo courtesy of Gene Dauner.

Urban renewal is the process of seizing and demolishing large swaths of private and public property for the purpose of modernizing and improving aging infrastructure. Between 1949 and 1974, the U.S. government underwrote this process through a Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grant and loan program. Although the money was federal, renewal plans originated with and were implemented at the local level.

In cities nationwide, the consequences of urban renewal included the destruction of historic structures, the displacement of low-income families, and the removal (often closure) of small businesses.[i] The local officials and business leaders who promoted renewal regarded the federal program as the best available method for addressing the problems attendant with suburbanization, a process fueled by HUD and G.I. Bill mortgages. For many black, Latinx, and low-income families, however, it was a tragedy and injustice, a loss of home and community. Urban renewal reshaped the geography and demographics of cities, and, in the process, exacerbated conflict and promoted resistance.

Federal Policy and Local Politics

Although some renewal projects, such as Stuyvesant Town in New York City, predated the Housing Act of 1949, this law, along with later iterations, effectively expanded the practice to cities across the nation. With the goal of improving the nation’s housing stock and reviving its cities, the federal urban renewal program provided grants and loans to municipalities, underwriting much of the cost of site acquisition and clearance. The program was attractive to city leaders both because it provided what appeared to be an answer to declining tax revenue and because the federal government defrayed two-thirds (three-quarters in smaller places) of the cost. The city’s share could be paid from state funds or through credits for capital projects, such as school construction or sewer-line improvements. Clearance completed, cities were responsible for transferring the parcels to private developers or public agencies for reconstruction.

Initially, support for the federal urban renewal program united business interests and housing reformers, conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats. Ultimately, however, commercial development proved more attractive than low- and middle-income housing to most city leaders.[ii] These same officials would use urban renewal funds to destroy much of their city’s stock of affordable housing.

Over the course of the program’s life, federal officials approved over $13 billion in grants to more than 1,200 cities, ranging in population size from a few thousand to several million. Although there is no precise count of persons displaced or structures demolished, we do know that hundreds of thousands of families lost their homes to urban renewal. State and federal highway construction displaced hundreds of thousands more.[iii]

By the late 1960s, the federal urban renewal program had become controversial, both for its destructiveness and for the slow pace of reconstruction. In 1968, for example, the National Commission on Urban Problems found that the application process alone took, on average, four and one-third years to complete. Even worse, of 37,200 acres cleared between 1949 and 1967, only 17,400 had been, or were in the process of being, redeveloped.[iv] In 1974, in the midst of a recession, federal funding for renewal was reduced and folded into the Community Development Block Grant program.

This is a photo of a file about a property that was subject to urban renewal
Appraisal file, Newburgh Urban Renewal Agency records, M. E. Grenander Department of Special Collections, University at Albany, SUNY.

Memory and Archives

Due, in part, to federal reporting requirements, the local story of urban renewal tends to be well documented in municipal and county archives. Of course, documents in government archives typically preserve the redeveloper’s perspective, giving little voice to the people who would lose their homes and businesses. Indeed, an over-reliance on archival records such as these has produced a scholarly literature too focused on the work and worldview of planners and politicians. Nevertheless, historians searching among the records of their local urban renewal agency will likely uncover the seeds of a social history of lost neighborhoods and missing places.

For the purpose of inclusion, perhaps the most important of these official records are photographs, especially pre-demolition images of the redevelopment area. Although produced for appraisal purposes or in response to litigation over reimbursement payments, these photographs preserve lost architecture, commerce, and street life. (See, for example, Finding Kenyon Barr: Exploring Photographs of Cincinnati’s Lost Lower West End.) Some photographs may even reproduce the interiors of public buildings and private homes. These interior photographs are particularly valuable when relocation records are unavailable. In the case of Albany, New York’s Empire State Plaza, for example, images of rooming house interiors provide a rare window into the lives of the many roomers who once made their home in the redevelopment area. The members of this transient group are largely undocumented by other archival sources and have been forgotten by most of the area’s former residents.

In our research on Albany (98 Acres in Albany), pre-demolition photographs have proved to be important outreach tools. Promoted on social media and in public presentations, these images have helped us both build an audience and, more importantly, identify potential informants among the residents and business owners who once populated redevelopment areas. Furthermore, these photographs provide something of value to share with our informants. Focused as they are on the details and condition of soon-to-be-demolished structures, they differ dramatically from family photographs and often have the effect of prompting memories, some happy, others painful.

This is a photo of a person in a rooming house
Unidentified rooming house tenant, Albany, NY, Office of General Services South Mall photos, New York State Archives.

In conversations with former residents, researchers should expect to uncover stories of emotional and economic hardship—an aged father who fell into depression after closing the family store, a divorced or widowed mother who struggled with alcohol after losing her rooming house. (Most rooming houses were woman-owned businesses.) Even those who did not suffer economic hardship are likely to have experienced a painful loss of place and community. Psychologist Marc Fried and psychiatrist Mindy Fullilove have analyzed the emotional impact of urban renewal. In 1963, Fried, who studied former residents of Boston’s predominantly white West End, described being forcibly dispersed as “highly disturbing and disruptive,” the emotional response as akin to grief. “It’s just like a plant,” one of his informants told him, “when you tear up the roots, it dies!” More recently, Fullilove diagnosed the trauma of displacement as “root shock.” Focusing on neighborhoods where southern migrants settled during the Great Migration, Fullilove blames urban renewal for the loss of “kindness” and cohesiveness that served as a “buffer” against personal sorrows and external prejudice. At the individual level, root shock is “a profound emotional upheaval” that “undermines trust, increases anxiety…, destabilizes relationships, destroys social, emotional, and financial resources, and increases the risk for every kind of stress-related disease, from depression to heart attack.”[v]

One challenge of collecting such emotionally charged memories is to recognize how nostalgia and anger may color them. For example, the children of former business owners and homeowners typically underestimate the value of reimbursements paid for seized property. This error of fact, nevertheless, contains an important kernel of truth, both emotional and economic. With justice, these informants feel unfairly dispossessed. Furthermore, due to redlining, buildings demolished for renewal were typically undervalued compared to similar structures in other parts of the city.[vi]

Citywide Disruption

Other stressors were felt citywide. In Albany, for example, the destruction of 3,300 housing units and displacement of roughly 7,000 residents produced a crisis of low-income housing, especially in the city’s overcrowded black ghettoes. A related problem was the lack of affordable housing for the elderly poor, who had previously found shelter in the urban renewal area’s rooming houses and single-room-occupancy hotels. The noise, dirt, and disruptions of demolition and reconstruction reverberated across the city. Conditions were worse in the areas adjacent to the redevelopment area and along the route from the construction site to the dump.

Urban renewal destroyed not just homes but also community institutions, including churches, schools, and ethnic and fraternal organizations. Some neighborhood bars served important social functions, by organizing bowling leagues, for example. Others quietly catered to LGBTQ patrons. In San Francisco, Damon Scott found that city leaders’ efforts to shut down such bars via urban renewal prompted the gay community to organize in the mid-1960s. Researchers in other cities are likely to find evidence of LGBTQ sociability—as well as of sex work and gambling—in taverns targeted for clearance.[vii]


Urban renewal is not simply a story of trauma but also of community building, particularly during the 1960s and 1970s, an era of civil rights organizing and urban revolts. By this time, many city residents had experienced the losses and disruptions of earlier projects and were wary of redevelopers’ promises. Local officials, likewise, had grown weary of construction expenses and delays; they were increasingly willing to listen to protesters. In Boston, for example, community activists successfully halted construction on the Southwest Expressway, convincing local officials instead to invest in mass transit improvements. In New York City, Jane Jacobs and her Greenwich Village neighbors led the most famous of such protests, against Robert Moses’s proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway.

Urban renewal’s threat to homes and neighborhoods sparked demands for social justice. In the West Town section of Chicago, for example, twenty-two Catholic parishes collaborated with Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation to form the Northwest Community Organization. The organization successfully resisted redevelopment by bringing community members together behind a “People’s Conservation Plan,” which emphasized rehabilitation, rather than demolition, and preservation of the area’s economic and demographic character. Community leaders initially used this plan as a rationale to block City redevelopment proposals and, later, to negotiate a “Program for Improvement” with business leaders who sought to revitalize Chicago’s core. Similar organizations were founded in cities across the nation, and although they might not have left papers behind, it is likely that the local press covered their stories and that former activists would be willing to be interviewed.

As a whole, the opposition to urban renewal was motivated by a commitment to protect both low-income communities and architecturally significant structures. Although the social justice and preservation strands of opposition were not necessarily united in their priorities, groups representing each strand did form alliances toward shared goals. In Albany, for example, a woman’s civic club, two homeowner’s associations, and the NAACP banded together to stop construction of a new arterial highway in 1968. Their priorities were, respectively, protecting a downtown park, preventing demolition of historic homes, and preserving access between low- and middle-income neighborhoods.

This is a drawing of building plans
Rendering of proposed but unrealized waterfront/central business district development from the 1969 Comprehensive Development Plan by Metcalf & Eddy for Newburgh, NY.


In most but not all places, urban renewal is also the story of reconstruction. Modern housing complexes, shopping malls, office buildings, civic centers, sports arenas, parking lots, and college campuses all owe their existence to urban renewal. Funded through private investment and public bonds, erecting these new structures required the skill and labor of countless workers. Many of these men and their families remember this period as an era of economic security. Try contacting local labor federations or building councils. Be warned that because urban renewal has become controversial, these potential informants may be skeptical of your motives. Then again, you may find they are proud of their work.

The long history of black exclusion from the construction unions means that most of the tradesmen you meet will be white. Look for information on apprenticeship programs designed to address African American demands for equal access to jobs. Most of these programs failed to live up to the demands. As a result, you will likely find evidence of activism and protest.[viii]

Local planners, architects, and bureaucrats generated a great deal of documentation. Planning studies, architectural renderings, meeting minutes, and other related correspondence can be found in city and county archives, likely filed among housing authority, planning board, or urban renewal agency records. Together, these documents and drawings present a vision of a prosperous and populous future that the relevant projects seldom realized. They may also record how plans changed over time in response to changing conditions. (The process of applying for and receiving federal funds typically took four or more years, site clearance and reconstruction much longer.) Like construction workers, planners and architects may be reluctant to share their experiences, but their perspective is important for understanding how local leaders hoped to transform their city. Keep in mind that their intent was to improve urban environments, even if the results fell short of their goals.

Idealistic elements of planning and design deserve serious consideration. In New York State, for example, the goal of racial and economic integration drove the work of Edward J. Logue and his staff at the Urban Development Corporation. This state agency was formed in 1968 to address a flaw in federal policy—the overabundance of unproductive land cleared with renewal funds. Over the course of the next seven years, the UDC coordinated the funding and construction of almost 31,000 housing units in 42 New York towns and cities. Resistance to integration, combined with the recession of 1973-1975, led to the UDC’s premature demise.

Lasting Impact

The results of renewal are varied. In some places, private developers built convention centers, shopping malls, office towers, and luxury apartment buildings on the remains of communities condemned as blighted. In other cities, local housing authorities erected new low-income public housing complexes, where displaced families were given priority over other potential tenants. All of this served to intensify the racial and economic divisions that still exist in most, if not all, American cities.

At its worst, urban renewal was simply destructive. When interest rates rose and federal funding dried up in the mid-1970s, demolition halted along with reconstruction. Cities like Newburgh, NY, Atlantic City, NJ, and even New York City were left with empty fields or parking lots where neighborhoods once stood.

Since the mid-1970s, rehabilitation, rather than demolition, has become the preferred method of revitalizing historic downtown business and residential districts. As part of a process of gentrification, this strategy has successfully lured wealthy whites from the suburbs back to the city. At the same time, this new wave of redevelopment has displaced low-income minority communities. Compared to urban renewal, gentrification is a more varied and diffuse process and has thus far proved harder to fight.[ix]


[i] See Digital Scholarship Lab’s “Renewing Inequality,” part of the American Panorama series, https://dsl.richmond.edu/panorama/renewal/#view=0/0/1&viz=cartogram&text=sources.

[ii] For more on the politics of urban renewal, see Roger Biles, The Fate of Cities: Urban America and the Federal Government, 1945-2000 (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2011) and Jon C. Teaford, The Rough Road to Renaissance: Urban Revitalization in America, 1940-1985 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990).

[iii] The National Commission on Urban Problems estimated that by 1967, federally funded urban renewal projects were responsible for the demolition of 404,000 dwelling units. Eleven years of highway construction, 1956-1967, led to the displacement roughly 330,000 urban households. National Commission on Urban Problems, Building America’s Cities (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1969), 81.

[iv] Ibid., 165-69.

[v] Marc Fried, “Grieving for a Lost Home: Psychological Costs of Relocation” in James Q. Wilson, ed., Urban Renewal: the Record and the Controversy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1966), 359-60. Mindy Thompson Fullilove, Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It (New York: One World, 2004), 14, 122-23.

[vi] Redlining was the informal term given to the practice by banks and other home mortgage lenders of denying loans in inner-city neighborhoods deemed risky due to the presence of immigrants and people of color. For more on redlining, see Digital Scholarship Lab’s “Mapping Inequality,” part of the American Panorama series, https://dsl.richmond.edu/panorama/redlining/#loc=5/39.1/-94.58.

[vii] Damon John Scott, “The City Aroused: Sexual Politics and the Transformation of San Francisco’s Urban Landscape, 1943-1964,” Ph.D. diss., University of Texas, Austin, 2008.

[viii] See Black Power at Work: Community Control, Affirmative Action, and the Construction Industry, edited by David Goldberg and Trevor Griffey (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010).

[ix] See “Cities for People, Not for Profit!” http://citiesforppl.org/.

Suggested Readings

American Association for State and Local History. “Conference Context: White Flight and Civil Rights in Johnson County, Kansas.” AASLH Blog. https://aaslh.org/conference-context-white-flight-and-civil-rights-in-johnson-county-kansas/.

Aylworth, Stephanie. “A Multifaceted Approach to Historic District Interpretation in Georgia.” The Public Historian 32, no. 4 (2010): 42-50. doi:10.1525/tph.2010.32.4.42.

Baumann, Timothy, Andrew Hurley, Valerie Altizer, and Victoria Love. “Interpreting Uncomfortable History at the Scott Joplin House State Historic Site in St. Louis, Missouri.” The Public Historian 33, no. 2 (2011): 37-66. doi:10.1525/tph.2011.33.2.37.

Bendiner-Viani, Gabrielle. Contested City: Art and Public History at New York’s Seward Park Urban Renewal Area. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2019.

Cohen, Lizabeth. Saving America’s Cities: Ed Logue and the Struggle to Renew Urban America in the Suburban Age. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019.

Crockett, Karilyn. People Before Highways: Boston Activists, Urban Planners, and a New Movement for City Making. Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2018.

Frieden, Bernard J., and Lynne B. Sagalyn. Downtown Inc.: How America Rebuilds Cities. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991.

Fullilove, Mindy Thompson. Urban Alchemy: Restoring Joy in America’s Sorted out Cities. New York: New Village Press, 2013.

Hurley, Andrew. Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010.

Lost Rondout: A Story of Urban Removal (film). Directed by Stephen Blauweiss and Lynn Woods. Kingston, NY: Lost Rondout Project, 2016.

Mirabal, Nancy Raquel. “Geographies of Displacement: Latina/os, Oral History, and The Politics of Gentrification in San Francisco’s Mission District.” The Public Historian 31, no. 2 (2009): 7-31. doi:10.1525/tph.2009.31.2.7.

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (film). Directed by Chad Freidrichs. Columbia, Missouri: Unicorn Stencil Documentary Films, 2011.

Rae, Douglas. City: Urbanism and Its End. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.

Rotenstein, David. “Historic Preservation Shines a Light on a Dark Past.” History@Work blog. https://ncph.org/history-at-work/historic-preservation-shines-a-light/.

Zenzen, Joan. Fort Stanwix National Monument: Reconstructing the Past and Partnering for the Future. Albany: SUNY Press, 2008.

Zipp, Samuel. Manhattan Projects: The Rise and Fall of Urban Renewal in Cold War New York. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.


~ Ann Pfau, David Hochfelder, and Stacy Sewell are the 98 Acres in Albany project. They blog about the history of urban renewal at https://98acresinalbany.wordpress.com/. They were recently awarded two National Endowment for the Humanities grants to plan and begin prototyping a website tentatively titled Picturing Urban Renewal. Pfau is an independent scholar. Hochfelder is associate professor of history at the University at Albany, SUNY. Sewell is professor of history at St. Thomas Aquinas College.

This image shows the "Hall of Witness," in the interior of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC

Holocaust History

This image shows the "Hall of Witness," in the interior of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC
Hall of Witness at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC, 2009. Photo credit: dbking, Wikimedia Commons.

Since the end of World War II, a worldwide network of sites dedicated to defining, preserving, and interpreting the history of the Holocaust has emerged and evolved. In the public history of the Holocaust, different institutions define the unfolding events in various ways, but for the purposes of this essay, the definition from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) serves well:

The Holocaust was the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its allies and collaborators. Holocaust is a word of Greek origin meaning “sacrifice by fire.” The Nazis, who came to power in Germany in January 1933, believed that Germans were “racially superior” and that the Jews, deemed “inferior,” were an alien threat to the so-called German racial community.

During the era of the Holocaust, German authorities also targeted other groups because of their perceived racial and biological inferiority: Roma (Gypsies), people with disabilities, some of the Slavic peoples (Poles, Russians, and others) Soviet prisoners of war, and blacks. Other groups were persecuted on political, ideological, and behavioral grounds, among them Communists, Socialists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and homosexuals.[i]

“Race” was central to the Nazi worldview, inextricably linked to the idea of the “nation.” In Nazi racial theory, Germany was an “Aryan” nation, whose people were descended from ancient Indo-Europeans who settled throughout the European continent as well as in Iran and India. Thus, conflating “Aryan” with “German” meant that “non-Aryan” peoples could not be German, no matter how they thought of themselves prior to 1933; and German-speaking “Aryans” living within the post-World War I borders of other nations were German, and thus the territory they occupied must be part of Germany. The internal consistency of this worldview drove the actions of the Third Reich that led to both the Holocaust and World War II.

Efforts to preserve and present the history of the Holocaust launched the ethos of “Never Again.”[ii] Confronted by the reality of the Holocaust, historians and activists hoped that visitors would be inspired not only to prevent genocide, but to combat antisemitism wherever it rebounded in the world.

An Overview of Holocaust Public History

In 1978, driven by a sense of moral and ethical responsibility born from an evolving understanding of the United States’ lack of official response to the warning signs of the Holocaust and its atrocities as they began to unfold, members of Jimmy Carter’s President’s Commission on the Holocaust began the process that would lead to the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. This American effort was one among many, and it occurred about thirty years after the first international efforts to preserve Holocaust history.

The landscape of Holocaust public history includes “sites of conscience,” national museums, educational initiatives, exhibits, and archives. The following is a sampling of the variety of these initiatives.

Place-based sites of remembrance were among the first to be preserved and often fall under state administration. These sites include places such as the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum in Poland (founded in 1947) and Dachau in Germany (preserved as a memorial in the 1960s). They also include more recent initiatives like the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Memorial, created in China in 1993. Architecture and artifact-intensive sites include Yad Vashem in Israel (founded in 1953, with a modern museum exhibit added in 2005), the USHMM (opened in Washington, D.C. in 1993), and the Memorial de la Shoah in France (2005). Regional museums of significant size and scope exist in many states and provinces and include such places as the Holocaust Museum of Houston (1996) and the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City (1997). Many were founded by survivors. Some, including the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles (1993) and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (2014), take a more broad-based approach to their mission.

Holocaust education initiatives (some of which include museums) exist at many colleges and universities around the world. These include places like the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights, and Genocide Education (CHHANGE) at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey (1979), the Shoah Foundation (1994) at the University of Southern California, and the Museum of History and Holocaust Education (MHHE) at Kennesaw State University in Georgia (2003).

Traveling exhibits, such as Anne Frank in the World or Remembering Ravensbrück: Women and the Holocaust, allow for portable explorations of sub-topics or introductions to the larger history which can be installed at multiple libraries, museums, and schools. Others with more specific themes, along with artifacts and mixed media, include Vedem Underground about a zine published by boys imprisoned at Theresienstadt/Terezen and Art and Remembrance based on the textile work of Holocaust survivor Esther Krinitz. Finally, there are blockbuster multi-national partnerships such as the 2016 exhibit Auschwitz: Not Long Ago, Not Far Away, which premiered at the Arte Canal Exhibition Centre in Madrid, Spain.

Temporary exhibits and initiatives at Holocaust museums and education centers allow for deeper exploration of important sub-topics and themes within Holocaust history. With its mission to evoke a sense of responsibility in its visitors, the USHMM has had a number of successful, well-executed temporary exhibits including, most recently, Americans and the Holocaust and Some Were Neighbors. Built with contemporary technology, temporary exhibits can make use of the staying power of digital media to live beyond their physical tenure. Educational initiatives also benefit from Web-based technology. These include Yad Vashem’s Echoes and Reflections, the Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program of the Azrieli Foundation in Toronto, Canada, and Facing History and Ourselves, originally launched in 1976.

Strategies for Interpreting the Holocaust

With over seventy years of evolving public history to consider, what should today’s “inclusive historian” count as best practices for interpreting the Holocaust?

Accuracy and Evidence

The magnitude and specificity of the Holocaust tests the limits of human comprehension and credence. It has invited denial and diminishment since people were first aware of atrocities happening in Germany after the National Socialist (Nazi) party came to power in 1933. Efforts to define the Holocaust occurred first in the context of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. Notably, the adoption of this convention occurred two years after the conclusion of the Nuremberg War Crimes trials for which mountains of evidence and witness testimony against top Nazi officials were compiled. The need to gather evidence and create a criminal narrative during judicial proceedings has led both to the preservation of evidence and to the parsing of precise definitions of crimes committed. Bureaucratic precision can sometimes obscure emotional truths, lead people to doubt witness testimony, or attempt to compare suffering. Thus, definitions of the Holocaust that foreground the Jews as the Nazis’ primary target for genocide, but also mention and contextualize “other” targets, are of paramount importance.

Comprehensive Coverage

The “other groups” targeted by the Nazi regime must be included in any comprehensive coverage of the Holocaust period. Discussing the unique characteristics and specific humanity of these approximately five million individuals honors their memory. It does not detract from the story of the Jews as the Nazis’ primary targets for genocide. However, it does help contemporary people to grasp the totality and complexity of the Nazi party’s murderous ideology.

Importance of Individuality

An event of such magnitude and darkness as the Holocaust (or Shoah—the Hebrew word for annihilation) invites understanding through statistics. Six million Jews were killed, two-thirds of the Jews of Europe and forty percent of the Jews in the world. More than 200,000 people, about one-quarter of the European population of Roma and Sinti, were killed in what the survivors recall as the “Porajmos” (Roma for great devouring). An estimated 1.8 million non-Jewish Polish civilians were killed during the “Zaglada” (Polish for destruction).[iii] On their own, such numbers provoke an intake of breath, a shaking of the head, but they do not do justice to the people who suffered and died or to the cultures that were erased from the great story map of the world. When people encounter and retain historical understanding, they do so through relating to the unique journeys of individuals both like and unlike themselves.


The ways in which these individuals’ stories are both like and unlike those of the public historian’s contemporary audience depends on the make-up of that audience. The years 1933-1945 are significant to the entire world. They encompass the Great Depression and World War II. Thus, the reality of the Holocaust is sometimes best understood through juxtaposition of other historical moments and events that may be familiar to visitors. In 1935, African American track star Jesse Owens was training for the 1936 Berlin Olympics while the German government was passing the Nuremberg race laws, based in part on the Jim Crow and anti-miscegenation laws of the American South.[iv] In the winter of 1942, American paratroopers were learning to jump in Georgia, preparing for deployment overseas, Japanese American civilians were being herded into concentration camps across the arid American West, and the architects of the “Final Solution” were planning for the destruction of the world’s Jews from the comfort of a classical villa in the Wannsee suburb of Berlin.


Similar to the importance of juxtaposition for people to find resonance in this history, relatability is especially important to people who have no direct connection to the story. For these audiences, it is important to emphasize that just because the Holocaust happened in a particular time and place does not mean it was only experienced by “foreigners.” It is also important to counter stereotypes that people might hold about European Jews. The Jews of Europe were by no means monolithic. They were rural, urban, rich, poor, multi-lingual, gay, straight, Zionist, assimilationist, political, and apolitical. Underscoring the diversity of the targets of Nazi ideology is also an important way to increase relatability. The Nazi regime cast a wide net. They imprisoned Jehovah’s Witnesses who would not bow to the power of the state. They targeted gay men for incarceration and “annihilation through work.” They pitted German political dissidents against Poles, Slavs, and Russians in their complex of prisons and concentration camps. They targeted Afro-Germans (the so-called “Rhineland Bastards” of World War I) for forced sterilization, murdered people with disabilities, and rendered “asocials” like Roma and Sinti invisible before “liquidating” their family camps.[v] Each group targeted by the Nazis remembers the horror of the Holocaust years in their own unique way. All of their stories are human stories.

So, too, are the stories of the witnesses, the bystanders, and the perpetrators. Those who encountered the Holocaust in its immediate aftermath are as diverse as those who encounter it today. They include the African American soldiers who liberated Buchenwald and the women on the home front reading newspapers and listening to radio broadcasts. They include the children who learned about the events through hearsay, and then through published diaries and memoirs, and, if they were lucky enough, through the testimony of survivors. They include the soldiers of the USSR whose testimony and experiences were buried in the snow of the Cold War for fifty years after they liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau. And, they include people whose minds had been poisoned by years of antisemitic rhetoric and imagery; people whose nationalistic goals were better served by the fantasy of Jewish conspiracy theories than by the reality of the Holocaust.


In the rhetorical universe of “Never Again,” it can be challenging to balance historical accuracy, reflection, and memorialization with inspiration of civic and moral responsibility, especially in a time when acting on behalf of human rights and against racism, antisemitism, sex and gender discrimination, ableism, and xenophobia seems increasingly urgent.[vi] Studying the Holocaust has helped us to codify the warning signs and conditions that can make genocide possible. It helps us recognize failures of the state and failures of individuals. It has helped us to understand the importance and the limitations of human choices. Under the “right” set of conditions, it is possible to shrink the universe of choices available to people over time until it seems there are no choices left at all. And, even when there are some choices left, they may be what theorist Lawrence Langer termed “choiceless choices.”[vii] Studying the Holocaust points out the limits of ethics under abnormal conditions. Placed in terrible situations, some people make decisions that seem to benefit them at the expense of others, but they may also feel that maintaining their power might allow them to intervene on behalf of a loved one, or simply to survive. The dilemma of “choiceless choices” leads some Holocaust educators to ask visitors, “What would you have done, had you been there?” Instead, however, we should consider the moral imperative of Holocaust education differently, asking people to consider their actions today. Everyone has a responsibility to use what power they have for good.

This photo shows the exterior of the Kigali Memorial Centre in Rwanda
Just as the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum was opening its doors, Rwanda was on the verge of genocide. The Kigali Genocide Memorial was opened in 2004. Photo credit: United States Department of the Treasury, Wikimedia Commons.

Potential Pitfalls

The “Echoes and Reflections” paradigm of Holocaust pedagogy cautions educators to avoid traumatizing their students by guiding them “safely in and safely out” of study. Of course, triggers are going to be different for different students, depending on their unique personal histories and sense of their heritage. Some strategies will work better for some than for others. It is also important to note here that simulation exercises and other forms of Holocaust reenactment, although they can foster empathy, are highly problematic and should only be attempted with the utmost care, if at all, by highly trained Holocaust educators.

There are problems as well with Holocaust heuristics. It is easy to portray the Holocaust as the ultimate in large-scale human cruelty. Characterizing the Holocaust as “the ultimate,” however, can lead people to try to compare suffering, in some cases diminishing or dismissing the suffering of some in order to gain attention for the suffering of themselves or their group, or others for whom they feel sympathy. History is not a zero-sum game, but the events of the past do compete for attention from teachers and students, governments and activists. Such a powerful story as the Holocaust lends itself to being politicized. Of course, historians need to be able to reference the present in discussions of the past in order to advance understanding, but this must be done with an eye toward precision and accuracy.[viii] It is similarly problematic to see Holocaust history only as a means to transmit a moral message. The story can be told extrinsically to support a particular agenda (such as genocide prevention, anti-bullying, claiming that everyone bears some responsibility for evil or, equally and oppositely, absolving people of responsibility within an oppressive system). Although learning from the past is important, problems occur when people perceive the agenda as supplanting the intrinsic importance of the story.

Problematic Holocaust pedagogy can be particularly burdensome for survivors and their families, because they can feel personally implicated or used for a purpose that might not be their priority. Thus, it is important for public historians to respect the rights of survivors and their descendants to speak or not to speak, to educate or to disengage. Historians must also treat testimony with respect even when using it to illustrate specific themes that may resonate with particular individuals or audiences. This responsibility grows ever greater as the generation of survivors and witnesses reach the end of their natural lives.

This is a photo of Holocaust survivor Herbert Kohn
Herbert Kohn spoke regularly to children at the Museum of History and Holocaust Education about his German childhood during the rise of the Nazi regime. He recorded the testimony seen in still image here in 2013. Since 2018, his poor health has prevented him from leaving his home. As of the writing of this piece, he is 93 years old. Photo credit: Georgia Journeys, MHHE, Kennesaw State University.


What, then, is the ultimate responsibility of public historians of the Holocaust? Tell the story simply enough that your target audience can understand the narrative, but don’t oversimplify or eliminate complexity. It is always possible to go deeper. Talk about the limits of choice in an increasingly oppressive situation, but talk about resistance and resilience too. Tell stories of victims, perpetrators, survivors, liberators, bystanders, and the people who played more than one of these roles at different moments in their historical journeys. Know the value and the limits of empathy. Place the story in context. Describe antisemitism, eugenics, segregation, and anti-miscegenation laws. Chronicle xenophobia and restrictive immigration policy. Discuss leading and following, militarism and conformity. Contemplate censorship and the spectacle of cultural unity, media and propaganda, scapegoating and dehumanization. Set the scene of the aftermath of World War I and the onset of World War II. Include discussions of communism and nationalism, isolationism and appeasement, and soldiers and strategy. Finally, talk about witnessing, gathering evidence, and preserving testimony. Narrate human resilience and compassion. Consider power and responsibility, memory and (re)membrance. Acknowledge your own unique subjectivity, and endeavor to understand that of your audience.

Public history is rooted in traditions of storytelling—gathering and sharing, telling and retelling. There are always new listeners. Every day, we ourselves, are new listeners. Our work is never done.


[i] “Introduction to the Holocaust,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/introduction-to-the-holocaust.

[ii] Emily Burack, “‘Never Again’: From a Holocaust Phrase to a Universal Phrase,” The Jerusalem Post, March 10, 2018, https://www.jpost.com/Diaspora/Never-Again-From-a-Holocaust-phrase-to-a-universal-phrase-544666. See also, NeverAgain.com and the #neveragain hashtag.

[iii] Luis Ferreiro and Miriam Greenbaum, Auschwitz: Not Long Ago. Not Far Away., ed. Robert Jan van Pelt (New York ; London: Abbeville Press, 2019).

[iv] James Q. Whitman, Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017).

[v] During World War I, soldiers from parts of Africa under French colonial rule fought on behalf of France. After the war, a number of them occupied German territory along the Rhine river, the “Rhineland.” Although many German women married soldiers from the occupying forces, some had children out of wedlock, opening the rhetorical door for the “Rhineland Bastards” moniker that would first be used as a derogatory term to refer to Afro-Germans in German newspapers in 1919. For more details, see Iris Wigger, The “Black Horror on the Rhine”: Intersections of Race, Nation, Gender, and Class in 1920s Germany (Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2017).

[vi] The rise of right-wing regimes in Europe with a predilection for Holocaust revisionism has also given Holocaust educators a sense of increased urgency. For example, see “Hungary’s New Holocaust Museum Isn’t Open Yet, But It’s Already Causing Concern,” NPR.org, accessed August 20, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/02/08/690647054/hungarys-new-holocaust-museum-isn-t-open-yet-but-it-s-already-causing-worry.

[vii] Lawrence L. Langer, “The Dilemma of Choice in the Death Camps,” Centerpoint: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies 4 (Fall 1980): 53-59.

[viii] For a discussion of recent scholarly debates over the use of Holocaust analogies in political speech, see Liam Knox, “Scholars Push Back on Holocaust Museum’s Rejection of Historical Analogy,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 3, 2019, https://www.chronicle.com/article/Scholars-Push-Back-on/246615.

Suggested Readings

Berenbaum, Michael. The World Must Know: The History of the Holocaust as Told in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Revised edition. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.

Bergen, Doris L. War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust. Third edition. Lanham ; Boulder ; New York ; London: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2016.

Ferreiro, Luis, and Miriam Greenbaum. Auschwitz: Not Long Ago. Not Far Away. Edited by Robert Jan van Pelt. New York ; London: Abbeville Press, 2019.

Hersh, June Feiss. Recipes Remembered. Museum of Jewish Heritage, 2013.

Linenthal, Edward. Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Museum. 1st edition. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

Lipstadt, Deborah E. Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. Reprint edition. New York, N.Y: Plume, 1994.

Spiegelman, Art. The Complete Maus. New York: Pantheon, 1996.

Wiesel, Elie. The Night Trilogy: Night, Dawn, Day. First PB Edition, First Printing edition. New York: Hill and Wang, 2008.


~ Adina Langer has served as the curator of the Museum of History and Holocaust Education at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Georgia, since 2015. A 2009 graduate of the MA program in Archives and Public History at New York University, she has focused her career on interpreting traumatic historical events for diverse audiences while emphasizing the dignity and individuality of the people who experienced them. You can follower her on Twitter @Artiflection and find her on the web at www.artiflection.com.