Food History

Food justice projects often invoke iconic and historical images that can create openings for public historians to connect with community organizing. Photo credit: David Garten on Flickr

Food: chances are you’ll be thinking about it at some point today, like almost everyone sharing the planet with you. Interacting with food may be as close as we’ll ever get to a universal human experience. But can we say that the public history of food is equally inclusive?

Food has certainly long been present in historical interpretation—often as an entry point. Thanks to our human wiring, food offers immediate appeal—to the mind and to the senses. Food traditions anchor communities, communicate continuity and belonging, and creatively infuse identities.

Yet people also draw sharp dividing lines using food. Ask a politically-committed vegan and a pasture-based husbandry advocate what kind of farming is best for the environment and you’ll get two very different answers. Food is also often subject to borderlines of race, ethnicity, class, and gender. Ali Berlow, in her Food Activist Handbook, shares an anecdote titled “We See What We’re Willing to See.” Looking at the “bucolic” farms of her own town, Berlow sees

. . . a peaceable kingdom: fertile lands producing good food for all, equanimity, access, balance, and respect between people, animals, land and cultivation. But as my friend the author Alice Randall pointed out, we all see things through the lens of our personal histories. My great-grandparents were German immigrants who moved to the Midwest, bought land, then worked the land they owned. My relationship to the landscape that I’ve inherited is different from that of some of my African-American friends and colleagues like Alice. I think it’s safe to say that most of their ancestors did not own the land they worked. When Alice looks at those same cornfields, grand old trees, and pastures, she may not envision a peaceable kingdom but rather one of terror, violence, and oppression.[i]

Food history can quickly lead to big questions about identity, equity, and sustainability. Those questions dig to the root of social, economic, and environmental challenges facing us today. This double-edged nature makes food an outstanding starting point for public historians working toward an equitable and engaged practice.

Let’s take a quick tour of the problematic past and hopeful present of public interpretation of food history, and identify some skills and resources that public historians can bring to food-related projects.

The Roots of Food in Public History

In museums, historic sites, and public history projects, food has often been loaded with assumptions, habits, and traditions that get in the way of inclusion. The earliest generation of historic preservationists preferred to keep the messy work of food cultivation and preparation (and the people who did it) hidden behind kitchen doors, but during the Civil War and succeeding decades, nostalgic “colonial” kitchens became a popular draw at public fairs and appeared in some early historic house museums. These feel-good spaces served unchallenging ideas about the past with their cups of chowder and slices of pie, setting long-lived expectations that public food history would provide comforting, patriotic reinforcement of existing power structures.

These interpretive tropes persisted. They can still be found today in museum displays of groaning farmstead tables, frothing butter churns, and tokenized “multicultural” food presentations that erase or mask histories of struggle, disparity, and oppression. Food historian Ken Albala identifies this mode as “culinary history,” focused on ingredients, cooking equipment, methods, and the re-creation of cooking processes, as opposed to a wider “food history” that investigates the social, economic, ethical, and political dimensions of food production and consumption.

A Broader View of Food History

A wider “food history” point of view began informing public interpretations of food starting in the 1960s, when emerging social history and public history movements brought critical approaches to the past. It also gave rise to a new museum genre: the living historical farm. Its birthplace was Old Sturbridge Village, where in 1970 a group convened to envision a national network of agricultural museums, to be funded in part (they hoped) by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Though that scope was never realized, the living history farm began to dominate public history’s food and agriculture conversation by the 1970s. Key leaders organized ALHFAM (the Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums) to share research and skills and to promote the vision of a new age of agricultural museums. ALHFAM’s influence has been enormous. Its annual national and regional meetings, publications, and workshops have amassed and disseminated practical knowledge on the reconstruction and interpretation of food processes.

But ALHFAM’s history reflects the tension between the narrower scope of “culinary history” and the more complicated questions raised by critical approaches to food. At its 2013 annual meeting, ALHFAM co-founder Darwin Kelsey challenged the group with a call to action, arguing that food interpreters (himself included) had been focused on the “what” of food history, at the expense of the “why.” It was past time, in his view, to engage with the present-day, global consequences of the histories they presented. AHLFAM’s creation, he noted,

. . . coincides almost precisely with the most radical change in the way humans feed themselves since homo sapiens began. We call this grand-scale experiment the industrial food system. For most Americans the industrial food system provides a food supply perceived to be abundant, cheap, and convenient. Yet in the last couple of decades it has become increasingly clear that this system has an inherent pattern of problems: Food of inferior taste and nutrition, fertilizer and herbicide pollution in streams and lakes, degradation and loss of farmland, depleted aquifers, farm worker abuse, inner city food deserts, intensive energy consumption, exacerbation of climate change, and narrow corporate control of the nation’s food supply . . . In 2013, it is clear that such problems make the current system unsustainable without radical change—fundamental culture change. Couldn’t—shouldn’t—playing an active, intentional role in that culture change become part of the why shaping the what of most living history farms?[ii]

Kelsey, who by 2013 was directing an innovative farm partnership within Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio, was speaking as a participant in what is sometimes termed “the food movement.” Sometimes parodied and minimized as a collection of affluent white people obsessed with local, organic, humanely raised kale, in its full dimensions the food movement is notable for its depth and complexity, aptly described by food writer Michael Pollan as a “big lumpy tent.” People of varied backgrounds are drawn to food activism through multiple entry points: hunger and economic access; food sovereignty and food justice; nutrition and health; farm and food service labor and human rights; animal welfare; land conservation, rural redevelopment, and farmland preservation; gardening and urban farming; gastronomy and agritourism; environmentalism and climate change; and more. Like food history, these issues may begin with food, but expand outward to touch on the most pressing issues of our times.

Culinary historian and educator Michael Twitty links past and present in his work on race and Southern food. Photo credit: Ryan Lash/TED on Flickr

Reshaping Food History

Many current practitioners are reshaping the role of history in addressing those issues. Critical perspectives, shared authority, community engagement, and collaborative decision-making and leadership are now being integrated into many sites that present histories of food production, processing, and consumption.

  • The Museum of Ventura County (California) developed a three-part exhibition called At Table: The Business of Food and Community. Through art-inspired installations, programs, and historical interpretation, At Table built awareness and invited consideration of how ongoing immigration into the county has “influenced local recipes, menus and dining habits, as well as food-related businesses and restaurants.”
  • San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora created a Chef-in-Residence program. In 2015, its first resident chef, culinary celebrity Bryant Terry, worked with the museum to curate a program including panels on “Black Women, Food and Power” and “Feeding the Resistance”; a historically-themed dinner; and an interactive talk on food justice and public health.
  • The Queens County Farm Museum preserves New York City’s largest tract of undisturbed farmland. Its sustainable agriculture program interprets the history of organic farming in America and features a year-round growing program. Farm produce is featured in NYC’s Greenmarket, with any surplus donated to the recovery project City Harvest. The farm also provides eggs and hatchlings to the City Chicken program of the food justice group Just Food!, teaching city residents how to raise and keep egg-laying hens.
  • The National Museum of the American Indian features food sovereignty in its online exhibit Native Knowledge 360, with a focus on the Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project to recover the foodways of Salish-speaking people of the Pacific Northwest. Discussion questions, informative resources, definitions, and quotations allow users to engage more deeply with perspectives on food sovereignty.
  • The Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s Food History project brings together contemporary and historical investigations of American food culture from diverse perspectives through programs, an annual symposium, and online collections.

A Toolkit for Inclusive Food Interpretation

Despite this work, older interpretive tropes die hard. Institutional engagements with food still often stop at simplistic representation. It’s not difficult to understand why: the issues food connects to—health, environment, identity, economy, energy—are dauntingly vast and highly politicized. Inclusive food interpretation work digs into logistical, political, and regulatory challenges—aligning goals and agendas with commercial partners, including those who struggle to survive in a competitive marketplace; confronting the deep-rooted whiteness that has historically characterized both public history and many sectors of the food movement; and negotiating the constraints of health regulations and zoning. Between logistical challenges, internal resistance, insufficient knowledge, and skeptical leadership, many organizations freeze at the contemplation stage, or assume they can’t take on such charged and complex topics.

But public history can have a profound and powerful role in these conversations. For our book Public History and the Food Movement: Adding the Missing Ingredient, we interviewed eight people who draw on history in their progressive work in fields as disparate as fisheries activism, indigenous food sovereignty, and public policy. As we spoke, common themes emerged. They point toward ways to apply—and extend—historians’ skills toward a more inclusive practice of interpreting food.

  1.     Be reflexive.

As in all public history practice, the work of internal transformation comes first. We should interrogate our own professional past, asking what traditions we have inherited, who authored them, and whether they still serve our purposes. We also need to examine and acknowledge our own positionality—as individuals, as members of the public, and as representatives of our organizations. An excellent place to start this work is with the MASS Action Toolkit, a collection of articles and self-assessment tools created by a grassroots coalition of museum practitioners working to position museums as sites of positive action for social justice.

  1.     Tell stories without endings.

The legacies of living history have encouraged a focus on the minutiae of culinary history—tools, ingredients, methods. Inclusive public historians shouldn’t stop at simply showing how people did it in the old days. Push toward those critical “why” questions: Why did most people stop using these techniques? Why are certain kinds of skills and labor—and the people associated with them—valued or devalued in our food system? Why is hand-processed food so much more expensive than industrially-produced food? If we can pose critical, contextualizing questions, we will be well on the way to telling what we call in Public History and the Food Movement “stories without endings”—stories that connect past to present and historicize unresolved contemporary questions about food culture, dealing directly with the most urgent social, economic, and environmental issues of today. Our existing interpretive and communicative tools are unique contributions to the work of rebuilding more just and inclusive food futures.

  1.     Think like a community organizer.

The practitioners we interviewed were going beyond the “advisory group” consultation model, and instead using the toolbox of community organizing, defined by activist and educator Marshall Ganz as “practicing democracy by mobilizing people to combine their resources to act strategically on behalf of common interests.” This approach is grounded in ongoing relationships with community members and discussions about forms of activity that would be meaningful and useful to them. Is your organization involved in local and regional food organizations and coalitions? Do you know who works on food access locally? Have you had a presence at farmers’ markets, diabetes expos, or town hall meetings? Written op-eds? One entry point can be creating a Community Food Map to identify the players in your local or regional food system. Seeing the lay of the land can help you identify where public history work can be helpful.

An engaged, critical approach to the history of food asks for long-term commitment and a good deal of learning and reflection for public historians as well as their partners and audiences. Some resources to get you started are listed below.


[i] Ali Berlow, Food Activist Handbook (North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing, 2015), 72.

[ii] Darwin Kelsey, “What is a Living History Farm? Introductory Comments,” Proceedings of the 2013 AHLFAM Conference, Vol. 36 (2013).

Suggested Readings

Berlow, Ali. The Food Activist’s Handbook: Big & Small Things You Can Do to Provide Fresh, Healthy Food for Your Community. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing, 2015.

Laudan, Rachel. “Getting Started in Food History.”

Moon, Michelle. Interpreting Food at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield/AASLH, 2016.

Moon, Michelle, and Cathy Stanton. Public History and the Food Movement: Adding the Missing Ingredient. New York: Routledge, 2018. The book’s companion website can be found here:

Oliver, Sandra. “Interpreting Food History.” Technical Leaflet 197. American Association for State and Local History.

Reid, Debra A. Interpreting Agriculture at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield/AASLH, 2017.

Organizations and Associations Doing Food History

American Community Gardening Association

Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums (ALHFAM)

Agricultural History Society (AHS)

Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS)

Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society (AFHVS)

Farm-Based Education Network

Native Seeds/SEARCH

Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance

National Black Farmers Association

Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery

Southern Foodways Alliance

United States Department of Agriculture

Databases, Archives, and Link Lists

Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook Project

The Food Timeline

The FOOD Museum

Growing a Nation: The Story of American Agriculture (timelines from USDA)

New York Public Library list of food history resources


~ Michelle Moon is Chief Programs Officer at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City. She has also worked at the Peabody Essex Museum, Strawbery Banke Museum, and Mystic Seaport, and received her Master’s degree in Museum Studies from Harvard University Extension School. In addition to co-authoring Public History and the Food Movement: Adding the Missing Ingredient (Routledge, 2018) with Cathy Stanton, she is the author of Interpreting Food at Museums and Historic Sites (Rowman and Littlefield/AASLH, 2016).

~ Cathy Stanton teaches anthropology at Tufts University. Her book The Lowell Experiment: Public History in a Postindustrial City won the 2007 NCPH Book Award. Her current scholarly and public work focuses on the uses of knowledge about the past of U.S. food and farming. She has collaborated and consulted with a number of community farms, national parks, land trusts, museums, and others working to present farm history in public.

View from the Field: The Challenges to Being Inclusive in Museum Collections

Annie in the Mississippi Delta, 1920s. Photo credit: From the private collection of Marian Carpenter.

The quest for museums to be diverse and inclusive in staffing, leadership, and programs is not a new challenge. At a recent American Alliance of Museums (AAM) annual meeting, Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, former director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, delivered a landmark keynote that challenged museums “to be of social value by not only inspiring but creating change around one of the most critical issues of our time—the issue of diversity.” Cole’s speech compelled AAM to recognize the need for diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion to ensure that the field remains relevant and sustainable.

In response to the need to be diverse and inclusive, museums, historic sites, and related institutions have written strategic plans that promise to include all voices, cultures, and histories in their board membership, staffing, policies, educational programs, collections, exhibits, and events. Efforts to make museum collections more diverse and inclusive, however, have been slow and problematic. Why? The biggest contributing factor is the lack of diversity within curatorial and collections departments. According to the 2018 Art Museum Staff Demographic Report, produced by the Andrew Mellon Foundation and Ithaka S+R, the number of employed curators who are people of color is 16%, compared to 84% of curators who identify as white. Museums with specific cultural and ethnic collections often do not hire curators, collections managers, or registrars representative of the cultural origins or background of these collections; nor do they establish meaningful relationships with diverse communities.

Throughout my 23-year career in the museum field, I have experienced several occasions where I have had to defend appropriate cultural representation in the areas of object interpretation, documentation, and care. I will endeavor to describe three incidents at various levels within my career where I have had to tackle challenging scenarios around proper cultural representation of difficult objects, overcome personal trauma and emotion associated with racially sensitive objects, and combat discrimination within historical collections. These specific accounts are shared in hopes of motivating my colleagues working in the museum field to be aware of these issues around inclusivity in collections, spark discussion, and speak up in defense of proper cultural representation.

Appropriate Interpretation of Racially Sensitive Collections

Newly established in my career and armed with the scholarly lessons that earned me my graduate degree in history with a special emphasis in African American history, I thought I was equipped for the curatorial responsibilities neatly outlined in my job description and evaluation. However, there were no university courses or examinations that could have prepared me for the encounter that I had with the chief curator involving the display of racially offensive African American toys that dated from the 1930s and 1940s. The museum didn’t know quite what to do with these toys and how to interpret the sensitive subject of race. Before my arrival, these toys received very little attention and care. They were stored behind different objects as if they didn’t even exist. In fact, the small African American collection that was housed at the museum had been overlooked and no additional funding was allocated to support the growth of this collection. My predecessor was tasked with developing a gallery designed to highlight the history of African Americans and this task left her very little time to grow and care for the collection.

My responsibility as curator of the African American collection was to acquire new objects through loans and purchases as well as interpret and develop exhibit displays that would appeal to the museum’s targeted audience: children. My assistant and I worked with the museum registrars to properly document the collection, including the racially offensive toys. In planning for several upcoming exhibit displays to showcase the African American collection, one of the chief curators asked me to incorporate the racially offensive toys into the exhibits. Because of the sensitivity of the subject matter and the possible lack of understanding by children along with the potential to offend parents, I turned down the initial suggestion, offering several justifiable reasons.

The “Be-Bop” toy from the 1950s. Image credit: Jim Crow Museum, Ferris State University.

Eager to create a teachable moment for both my colleagues and museum visitors, I provided the chief curator with an alternative way to showcase these toys. I volunteered to develop an interactive program that would allow visitors to learn about the negative stereotypes that were attributed to African Americans and recognize how these toys contributed to prejudices and discrimination that were taught in American popular culture. Because the program would be geared toward children of all ages, I explained that this would be a great teaching moment to demonstrate the importance of respect for all cultures and ethnicities. I was shocked that the chief curator didn’t share my ideas nor was she interested in expounding on the history of negative representations of African Americans. She demanded I place the racially offensive toys in the exhibit displays. Was this really happening? What book or guidelines could I reference to stop this insensitive act? What about all of the meetings that I attended that encouraged me to display African American objects and to develop exhibits that celebrated the historic achievements and culture of African Americans? I can’t remember how many days passed before the chief curator and I discussed again the usage of the racially offensive toys. I do recall that when we spoke, I warned her that this plan to display these toys would shatter the relationship between the museum and the African American community. She responded by telling me “maybe that’s the type of attention we need from the African American community.” Stunned by her answer, I told her that I would not display the toys. The chief curator was secure in her decision. I asked another African American museum colleague for advice and she was prepared to alert the local news stations. My connections with the African American community gave me the support I needed to challenge the chief curator. The museum was spared any unnecessary publicity and the racially offensive toys were not exhibited. Was this a victory, or was I unearthing the reality that some of the curators in this museum were not willing to accept inclusiveness?

Learning Points: As a member of the collections and exhibition departments in your museum, you have a duty to interpret cultural collections truthfully and with respect. Never compromise your integrity due to the pressures of colleagues who may not share the same ethical understanding or responsibilities. Always look for teachable moments to enlighten colleagues and the public when dealing with sensitive materials. I can’t stress enough the importance of building meaningful relationships with communities that are not appropriately represented. Their support and trust will be key to measuring the museum’s goal to become more inclusive.

Receiving and Processing Racially Sensitive Collections

After working in the museum field for over 12 years as a curator and registrar, I considered myself well experienced. I had the awesome opportunity to work at several different museums which allowed me to manage and exhibit a number of diverse collections that represented American culture. My interest and ongoing training in public history gave me the advantage in connecting with local African American communities to help them preserve and interpret their histories. I received invitations from colleges and universities, including historic Black institutions to teach and mentor students about museum careers with a special focus on professions as curators, registrars, and collections managers. I mostly appealed to history students and emphasized the importance of object documentation.

Throughout my career, I have processed hundreds of racially sensitive objects and my ability to identify and research these collections became second nature. I was accustomed to documenting objects that were both uncomfortable to look at and to discuss. I often had to console many donors that were uneasy about having these racially sensitive objects connected to their families and thus many of these donors opted to remain anonymous. However, I never expected that a particular donation would almost hinder my ability to fully document an object.

In routine fashion, I accepted a call from a donor that wanted to remain anonymous. Emotionally distraught, the caller informed me that she had found a post card while cleaning out the home of an elderly relative. She was utterly disgusted to know that the relative had saved this particular item. I assured her that the museum would accept the post card along with any historical information. The caller mentioned that she would enclose it in stationary and mail it right away. She didn’t describe the content of the post card and I didn’t ask. The object arrived within a few days. When I opened the beautiful stationary paper, I was horrified to see a black-and-white post card of four African American men hanging from one tree. I knew that lynching photographs were often sent as post cards, but I had never actually seen one.

The post card was sent with no additional information so I had to examine the photograph carefully to find clues that would reveal the timespan and possible location of the lynching to help me find out more about the African American men that were murdered. It took me weeks to process this post card. I was haunted by the bodies hanging from the trees and the faces of the African American onlookers that were standing nearby. I wanted to pass this to the registrar or slip it into a folder to be processed later, but an upcoming collections committee meeting forced me to complete the documentation. To heal from this emotional trauma, I incorporated the lynching post card in my lectures and workshops to teach other museum professionals how to accept racially sensitive materials.

Learning Points: How do museums prepare their collection staff to handle the uncomfortable emotions of processing racially sensitive collections? How can the community help? I challenge museum professionals to ask these questions. Because museums want collections to be more diverse, there must be an investment to make resources available for collections staff to learn how to work with sensitive materials. I encourage staff to openly discuss with other colleagues and communities that share these difficult histories. Be willing to listen and learn from community or local historians and invite them to help with the documentation of these objects.

Preventing and Advocating against Discrimination in Collections

As a seasoned museum professional in collections, I was comfortable working with various types of cultural objects. Collections care is paramount for all objects donated to or purchased for the museum—at least that is how I was trained, in accordance with AAM collections stewardship policies. As collections manager at a history institution, I worked collaboratively with the museum curator. Our relationship soon became frayed when the curator refused to store a significant Latino Art Collection on the same shelves with framed European paintings. At first I thought the curator had misunderstood my request to rehouse the Latino Collection in the permanent storage area. The reality became clear to me. This was not a mistake. The curator purposely devalued the need to administer equal care to an object simply by its cultural affiliation. This was unbelievable. Apparently, my predecessor had tried unsuccessfully for two years to incorporate the Latino artwork on the shelves of the main collections storage. Instead, the framed art pieces were either hung in various staff workspaces or stacked in the hallway. Was I experiencing firsthand cultural object discrimination?

I immediately alerted my supervisor to this act of subtle racism that was practiced through selective storage of objects based on culture and race. He supported me in my plan to care and store all collection objects equally. With several interns, I moved the entire Latino Art Collection to the designated art storage in the main collections building. It took several weeks before the curator noticed the newly stored artwork on the shelves. She retaliated by trying to get other staff to move the objects out of the main collections building. Her efforts became pointless when I reminded the curator that it is the duty of the museum to care for all collections as stated in our collections management policy.

Learning Points: The degree of object care should not be determined based on cultural affiliation or race. Cultural object discrimination does exist, but in subtle ways. The way to detect this is by asking questions: How and where are cultural objects housed in collections storage? Have they been properly documented and accessioned or are they stored in uncatalogued or unmarked boxes? Do the collections that represent a specific ethnicity or race receive the same financial funds and treatment?

I applaud the museums and institutions that are conscious of the care of their collections on an equal scale regardless of their cultural affiliation, but there are many that do not exercise that level of consciousness. I witnessed this inequality at a history institution several years ago when my interns and I were conducting research for an upcoming online exhibition. The African American collection of rare photographs and documents from World War I needed serious care and treatment. The collection was stored in worn archival folders and boxes. I was shocked that the institution allowed us to physically handle the photographs because of their fragility. When I asked the assistant if this collection would be digitized soon to prevent unnecessary handling, she told me that was their hope, but there were no definite future plans. Sadly, the donors gave these priceless photographs and papers of their military service with the museum’s promise that their items would receive the best quality of care.

Collections managers, conservators, and curators should feel empowered to speak up for the care of all collections. Don’t be afraid to correct colleagues. Challenge leadership to allocate appropriate funds to treat and document objects, particularly the ones that have a significant connection with local communities that are not represented in the museum.

Defending cultural representation in the areas of object interpretation, documentation, and care takes courage and a lot of patience. I credit my friends, mentors, and fellow colleagues for giving me direction and advice to speak out and educate colleagues and leadership on the importance of diversity and inclusion. I hope these examples will alert my colleagues of cultural exclusivity “red flags” within collections, generate meaningful conversations, and encourage individuals within the profession to take action where needed.

Suggested Readings

American Alliance of Museums, Facing Change: Insights from the American Alliance of Museums’ Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion Working Group, 2018, https: //

Schonfeld, Roger C., Mariët Westermann, and Liam Sweeney, “Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey,” The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, January 28, 2019,


~ Marian Carpenter has over twenty years of experience in collections management and exhibitions. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in History and Afro-American Studies from Indiana University and a Masters of Arts in American History with a concentration in African American History from the University of Cincinnati. Currently, she is the Associate Director of Collections/Chief Registrar at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.

Diversity and Inclusion

Graduate students in the University of Minnesota’s Heritage Studies and Public History program visiting with a book conservator. Photo credit: Chris Taylor.

Historians hold the awesome power to shape historical narratives. With this power comes an equally awesome responsibility to create narratives that represent all groups within our society. Growing discourse in public history scholarship reflects an increasing acknowledgment of the limited scope of representation within the historical narrative. The conversation about diversity and inclusion within the history field has increased exponentially in the last decade. More and more, public historians link the terms together as a single concept. It is important to separate these terms and draw distinctions between them as they refer to different concepts. This essay focuses on drawing distinctions between the terms and further exploring inclusion, both in terms of social inclusion and workplace inclusion. Although we often associate the terms diversity and inclusion with equity and accessibility, this essay will focus on diversity and inclusion.

Defining Diversity

Many definitions of the word diversity exist. Providing a clear definition of diversity remains difficult. Universal to all definitions is the concept of differences. Diversity implies that we possess different characteristics and identities. One look at the diversity wheel and you quickly see diversity defined in multiple ways.[i] When we include diversity in our work, where do we start? How do we define the target beneficiaries of our diversity work? In Minnesota, where I live, there are over thirty racial or ethnic groups represented in the population of the state.[ii] As we embed diversity within our programming and staffing structures, must we make sure we have all racial and ethnic groups represented? Further, what about age, sexual orientation, gender, and physical ability? Diversity becomes a numbers game. How many of this group? Did we include some from that group? This approach becomes a cycle of “chasing diversity” or checking the boxes to make sure we represent certain groups in our work. This approach is a numbers game that holds no real value for those who belong to the groups we identify as “different.”

Diversity and inclusion consultant Michael L. Wheeler writes, “diversity is a force of change that will force change.”[iii] This change, brought on by increasing calls for diversity, manifests in all facets of our work. Diversity is important from the standpoint that we must recognize that diversity necessitates a different way of working.

Defining Inclusion

Rather than prioritizing numbers, inclusion emphasizes whether members of diverse groups feel valued and respected within an organization, project, or social system. Diversity and inclusion consultant Mary Frances Winters expands on this definition. She writes, “I define inclusion as creating an environment that acknowledges, welcomes, and accepts different approaches, styles, perspectives, and experiences, so as to allow all to reach their potential and result in enhanced organizational success.”[iv] When the conversation switches from diversity to inclusion, we worry less about checking boxes for the different dimensions of diversity and worry more about how people, across all differences, are feeling as a result of our work.

The Distinction between Diversity and Inclusion

While we often use the words diversity and inclusion interchangeably, a distinction does exist. Winters points out, “Diversity is about counting heads; inclusion is about making heads count. Another way to distinguish between diversity and inclusion is to define diversity as a noun describing the state and inclusion as a verb or action noun, in that to include requires action.”[v] Increased diversity allows for multiple perspectives to be present in a system, whether an organization, a project team, or other groups of people. While diversity exists within these groups, the group does not inherently maximize the benefits of that diversity. Historical systems of power, privilege, and oppression often dictate the operating rules and hierarchies within group settings. Inclusion is an intentional strategy to mitigate power and privilege and maximize the benefits of diversity. Inclusion refers to how we leverage diversity within a system to create a fair, equitable, and healthy environment which leads to higher performing groups.

Inclusion as a Practice, Experience, and Philosophy

Inclusion is simultaneously a practice, an experience, and a philosophy. As historians, we have accepted practices. We have research practices, writing practices, exhibit practices, and so on. We must begin to internalize the fact that inclusion is also a practice. Much like we needed to learn the technical skills of research, writing, and exhibit practices, we must also learn the technical skills of inclusive practices. Adding tools like empathy, cross-cultural communication, cultural humility, cultural intelligence, and intercultural conflict management to our toolboxes enhances our abilities to engage diverse groups and work cross-culturally. For those already in the field, you need to find ways to build these skills. It is imperative that practitioners create space to develop cultural self-awareness, “the conscious ability to critically view and understand the objective and subjective culture to which an individual belongs.”[vi] As much as technical skills such as research, writing, and exhibition development are important for public historians, skills that increase intercultural competence push practitioners to see their work through multiple perspectives and ultimately practice more inclusively.

Inclusion, as an experience, relates to how individuals feel valued, heard, and engaged within a group. The ability for an individual to participate in public history work as their whole and authentic self is critical for feeling included. Free from the pressure to assimilate or conceal parts of their identity, an individual fully engages and brings a diverse range of perspectives to bear on the work at hand. Professor and diversity and inclusion consultant Bernardo Ferdman writes, “We believe that the ways in which we as individuals combine, manage, and express our multiple identities – in short, how we show up and express our full selves at work – is a key part of the dynamic process of inclusion.”[vii] For the individual, inclusion allows for psychological safety and the ability to participate and contribute to work based on experiences, philosophies, and worldviews that are not always present in the work we do as public historians.

Inclusion as a philosophy takes a systemic approach to inclusivity. It is imperative we recognize dominant norms embedded in our work habits and shift to more inclusive mental models. Frameworks such as Critical Theory (Critical Race Theory, Feminist Theory, Queer Theory, Postcolonialism, and Critical Management Studies) help us recognize structures of prejudice, bias, discrimination, and oppression embedded within our default ways of working. A deeper understanding of how, over time, we internalized dominant norms into our practices allows us to begin to dismantle these prevailing ideologies. Shifting to an inclusive philosophy positions inclusion as a core value for the work we, as historians, undertake. Inclusion permeates all our activities, becoming core to our approach, conceptualization, execution, and evaluation of public history work.

These concepts are mutually reinforcing. As we adopt inclusive philosophies and approaches to our work, the need to develop inclusive practices becomes ingrained. As we develop inclusive practices, a more diverse group of participants experience feeling included within the work of historians. Whether we focus these efforts outside our organizations and institutions or we look to reinvent our organizations and institutions from the inside out, inclusion is the common thread that continues to create increased levels of relevancy for the work of public historians.

Social Inclusion vs. Workplace Inclusion

To further define inclusion, it is important to understand the distinction between social inclusion and workplace inclusion. Each are equally important and incorporate similar concepts, but each targets a different audience. Social inclusion focuses on the benefits our work brings to the larger society. Asking ourselves how our work benefits society and dismantles systems of power and privilege lies at the heart of social inclusion. The American Alliance of Museums’ recent working group on Diversity, Equity, Access and Inclusion (DEAI) reaffirmed the relevance of DEAI. They wrote, “We believe that those who have historically been relegated to the margins of society due to legacies of racism, ableism, sexism, heterosexisms, xenophobia, and all other forms of injustice must be fully included in museum workplaces and communities.”[viii] To take this a step further, we must research and present the histories of those relegated to the margins of society to pull those groups back from the margins.

We must recognize the work we do is often to collect, preserve, research, and create narratives related to the cultures of other groups. It is mandatory we include these groups in the process and center the needs and desires of these groups. In 2014, a group of museum bloggers and other interested colleagues wrote a joint statement on the events in Ferguson, Missouri and other related events. As part of that statement, they wrote, “As mediators of culture, all museums should commit to identifying how they connect to relevant contemporary issues irrespective of collection, focus, or mission.”[ix] We only evolve to be inclusive, socially conscious public historians through building relationships, asking questions, listening to the answers, and shifting our work to incorporate the needs and desires of the communities we profess to serve.

Similar to social inclusion, workplace inclusion also mitigates systems of power and oppression, but focuses on those practitioners within our field. Are the systems and structures that exist within our organizations, institutions, training programs, and professional networks inclusive? Organization Development experts Lisa Nishii and Robert Rich write, “Unlike many diversity practices that focus specifically on improving the outcomes of disadvantaged groups, [workplace] inclusion is a general organizing principle that permeates an organization’s practices, norms, and operational functioning and that affects employees across the board.”[x] This approach embeds inclusion within an organization, institution, training program, or professional network at a systemic level. Workplace inclusion focuses on creating fair, equitable workplaces that embrace and leverage diversity and better serve diverse communities. Individuals that feel included produce at a higher rate, are more likely to stay with the organization, and demonstrate higher levels of creativity and problem solving. The desire to increase diversity within the ranks of public historians is a noble one, but without an emphasis on workplace inclusion, retention of practitioners that identify with a primary dimension of diversity remains difficult.

Social inclusion and workplace inclusion are not mutually exclusive. This is not a “one or the other” proposition. Institutions must internalize both types of inclusion to realize the potential social impact of our work. Social inclusion helps us understand who is or is not at the table. Building relationships with those not at the table can help us better understand how our work has been a tool of oppression in the past and how we can change that moving forward. Workplace inclusion focuses on systems within organizations to create fair and equitable work environments where all individuals feel their diverse identities are valued and appreciated. As we work simultaneously to create inclusive work environments and address systems of oppression within our society, we realize the vision of inclusive public history.


As we continue to search for justification for history work, it is important we serve a broader segment of the public than in recent years. It is important to demonstrate the power of history as a catalyst for understanding, for making connections between historical events and current-day contexts, and for deepening the understanding of the experience of various groups over the course of history in our society. Making sure the cultures represented within the historical narrative and the voices shaping it are more diverse is critical to the future relevance of our field. The end goal may be diversity, but to achieve that goal, we must become more inclusive in our practice. As practitioners, we need to focus on employing more inclusive practices and using our work to address societal inequities. We also need to make sure we are addressing those same inequities that exist within our organizations and institutions. This is a journey. Change is hard. We need to stay the course.


[i] Multiple versions of the “diversity wheel” exist. I reference the “Four Layers of Diversity” model created by Gardenswartz and Rowe ( A different version can be found through the Association of Science-Technology Centers ( It is adapted from Marilyn Loden and Judy Rosener, “Workforce America! Managing Employee Diversity as a Vital Resource” (McGraw-Hill Professional Publishing, 1990).

[ii] Susan Brower and Andi Egbert, Overview of Racial, Ethnic and Cultural Changes in Minnesota, 2015,

[iii] Michael L. Wheeler, “Inclusion as a Transformational Diversity and Business Strategy,” in Diversity at Work: The Practice of Inclusion, ed. Bernardo M. Ferdman and Barbara R. Deane (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014), 549-563, quotation on 556.

[iv] Mary-Frances Winters, “From Diversity to Inclusion: An Inclusion Equation,” in Diversity at Work: The Practice of Inclusion, 205-228, quotation on 206.

[v] Winters, 206.

[vi] Elizabeth Stallman Madden, “Cultural Self-Awareness,” in The SAGE Encyclopedia of Intercultural Competence, ed. Janet M. Bennett (Los Angeles: Sage Publication, 2015), 177-178.

[vii] Bernardo M. Ferdman and Laura Morgan Roberts, “Creating Incusion for Oneself: Knowing, Accepting, and Expressing One’s Whole Self at Work,” in Diversity at Work: The Practice of Inclusion, 93-127, quotation on 95.

[viii] American Alliance of Museums, Facing Change: Insights from AAM’s DEAI Working Group (Washington DC: American Alliance of Museums, 2018), 2,

[ix] “Joint Statement from Museum Bloggers and Colleagues on Ferguson and Related Events,” Incluseum, December 22, 2014,

[x] Lisa H. Nishii and Robert E. Rich, “Creating Inclusive Climates in Diverse Organizations,” Diversity At Work: The Practice of Inclusion, 330-363.

Suggested Readings

American Alliance of Museums. Facing Change: Insights from AAM’s DEAI Working Group. Washington DC: American Alliance of Museums, 2018.

Brower, Susan, and Andi Egbert. Overview of Racial, Ethinic and Cultural Changes in Minnesota. Accessed July 9, 2018.

Ferdman, Bernardo M., and Laura Morgan Roberts. “Creating Incusion for Oneself: Knowing, Accepting, and Expressing One’s Whole Self at Work.” In Diversity at Work: The Practice of Inclusion, by Bernardo M. Ferdman and Barbara R. Deane, 93-127. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014.

Hayles, V. Robert. “Communicating About Diversity and Inclusion.” In Diversity at Work: The Practice of Inclusion, by Bernardo M. Ferdman and Barbara R. Deane, 55-90. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014.

“Joint Statement from Museum Bloggers and Colleagues on Ferguson and Related Events.” December 22, 2014.

Nishii, Lisa H., and Robert E. Rich. “Creating Inclusive Climates in Diverse Organizations.” In Diversity At Work: The Practice of Inclusion, edited by Bernardo M. Ferdman and Barbara R. Deane, 330-363. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014.

Stallman Madden, Elizabeth. “Cultural Self-Awareness.” In The SAGE Encyclopedia of Intercultural Competence, edited by Janet M. Bennett, 177-178. Los Angeles: Sage Publication, 2015.

Wheeler, Michael L. “Inclusion as a Transformational Diveristy and Business Strategy.” In Diversity at Work: The Practice of Inclusion, edited by Bernardo M. Ferdman and Barbara R. Deane, 549-563. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014.

Winters, Mary-Frances. “From Diversity to Inclusion: An Inclusion Equation.” In Diversity at Work: The Practice of Inclusion, edited by Bernardo M. Ferdman and Barbara R. Deane, 205-228. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014.


Chris Taylor is Chief Inclusion Officer for the State of Minnesota. He was formerly Director for Inclusion and Community Engagement and Chief Inclusion Officer at the Minnesota Historical Society.


An original slave cabin on the Whitney Plantation with statues by Woodrow Nash on the porch. Photo credit: Elsa Hahne.

Visiting a plantation museum today can be a jarring experience. Since the mid-twentieth century, the once-ubiquitous economic engines of the pre-Civil War South have been recast as elegant mansions. Visitors are meant to feel comfortable and safe, strolling grounds surrounded by lush landscaping and feeling nostalgic for a romantic, simpler time. In some ways, visitors see what they want to see, and they are influenced by popular films and novels that prop up the “moonlight and magnolias” trope. But historians are not off the hook. Public historians, academic historians, and museum professionals alike have been complicit in rewriting plantation history to put white slaveowners front and center.

Though museum interpretation is rapidly changing, it is still possible to tour a plantation house in this country without hearing anything substantive about the enslaved people who built it. This is problematic for many reasons, but consider the numbers to start: the majority of people who lived on plantations in the nineteenth century were African and African-descended enslaved people. Enslaved people cleared the land, milled the wood, fired the bricks, built the houses, and tended land and livestock on plantations. Plantations were predominantly black spaces built and maintained by black people against their will. Yet in every former slave state, visitors can find plantation tours that elevate the stories of owners over enslaved people.

Historical Background

Museum practitioners began to minimize the history of slavery on plantations by the time the first plantation home opened for tours in the United States. Mount Vernon, the first house museum in the United States, is also the first plantation museum. Its history as a historic site bleeds into its history as a plantation, since the slave-owning women of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association bought the property in 1858 from a descendant of George Washington who was still enslaving people at the time.[i] In words that would presage the interpretation of hundreds of sites that followed in its footsteps, the founder of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association instructed the early members of the organization to “see to it that you keep it the home of Washington” and “let no irreverent hand change it; no vandal hands desecrate it with the fingers of progress.”[ii] Lauding the history of owners while minimizing or erasing the history of the enslaved became standard practice for most plantation museums until the late twentieth century.

From the time the women of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association opened Mount Vernon for tours in the 1850s until today, plantation museums have reflected the political culture of the country. The resurgence in what is known as “moonlight and magnolias” interpretation in the 1960s had more to do with white Americans’ discomfort with changing racial dynamics than it did historical interest. In the 1960s and 1970s, as a reaction to the civil rights movement and coinciding with a peak in interest about history around the bicentennial of the American Revolution, plantation tours became popular throughout the South. In 1976, Louisiana’s Oak Alley Plantation was advertised as a “bicentennial landmark,” whose “trees are a living link with the era of the American Revolution.”[iii] Many plantations became frozen in time in the years immediately preceding the Civil War, with guides dressed in hoop skirts inviting guests to learn about the lavish lives of antebellum plantation owners.

Throughout the twentieth century, this imagined history of plantations became big business, particularly in places such as South Carolina and Louisiana with a large number of extant plantations, many of which had been in operation with resident African-American sharecroppers and wage workers into the late twentieth century. Today, tourism is the fourth largest industry in Louisiana, with plantation tourism holding a major claim over heritage tourism dollars. Louisiana’s historic sites are top of mind for visitors, ranking higher than nightlife in visitor activities.[iv]

In the 1980s and 1990s, plantations gradually began weaving narratives of slavery into their interpretation. Even as plantation tours grappled with slavery, they often did so in the form of special events, segregated interpretive spaces, and optional tours. Discussing slavery at length only during an optional slavery tour and not on the tour of the plantation home allows visitors to think of the institution as ancillary to the true narrative—that of the plantation owners. Early slavery interpretation often failed to present enslaved people as multi-dimensional individuals. Instead, they became nameless figures who faded into the background or appeared only when they had direct interaction with the white interpretive subjects.

Whitney Plantation owner’s house, constructed in 1790. Photo credit: Elsa Hahne.

Changing Interpretation

Today, many sites are changing their interpretation in important ways to highlight the history of enslavement. James Madison’s Montpelier opened a groundbreaking exhibit, The Mere Distinction of Colour, in 2017; George Washington’s Mount Vernon created a comprehensive slavery exhibit in 2016; and in 2018 Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello opened an exhibit dedicated to the story of Sally Hemings, with curatorial help from a Hemings descendant. In addition to the interpretive expansion seen in Virginia sites, there are new museums opening dedicated to counter-narratives. In 2014, the Whitney Plantation opened in Louisiana as a memorial site with an exclusive focus on slavery. Charleston County Parks’ McLeod Plantation opened in 2015, interpreting the whole history of African-American labor at the site, from the time of slavery until the last resident workers left in 1990.

Despite the numerous plantation sites that are doing valuable work to bring this important history to the fore, there is still much more that public historians can do to be inclusive in their interpretation. It is important for public historians to remember that plantations are sites of trauma. Too often, we ignore the immense pain of these places in favor of a generalized interpretation that may acknowledge that life was hard, but not that it was traumatic. Spaces of brutal terror, plantations continue to bring immense pain to people whose ancestors lived and worked on them. In the case of plantations like Whitney and McLeod, there are still numerous living people who remember life on these plantations. Across the plantation South, African-American workers—many of them descended from enslaved people who worked the same land—did not leave plantations in large numbers until the Second Great Migration in the 1950s and 1960s. In South Louisiana, resident cane workers remained on plantations as late as the 1980s. Inclusive interpretation at plantation sites takes the depth and breadth of this pain seriously, acknowledging that the history has a long footprint that extends to our present day.


Before reworking interpretation, it is important to remember that the language we use in our interpretation is key. By referring to enslaved people as “slaves,” we are affirming their status as objects rather than multi-dimensional human beings. Using the term “enslaved” as an adjective emphasizes their humanity first, indicating that their enslavement is just a condition and not their entire identity. Under no circumstances should interpreters use euphemisms like “servants” when referring to enslaved people. This sanitizes the history of slavery and minimizes the fact that enslaved people were held against their will. Similarly, public historians should openly acknowledge and discuss methods of punishment and coercion that were in place at the site. This truth-telling is critical to communicating a complete narrative.


Plantations that are just beginning to interpret the whole history of their site may be intimidated or afraid that they don’t have enough information to give the history of slavery justice. The interpretation of slavery is often more difficult than the interpretation of free people because of a lack of sources. Yet there are creative ways that plantation sites can use sources to uncover the history of their enslaved workers.

Because enslaved people were property, most plantations have records of the people who were held in bondage there even if those records are incomplete. Inventories and sale documents can be invaluable in learning about the ages, skill sets, and even ethnic origins of enslaved people. Researchers can usually find these documents in local courthouses. Courthouses also have records of lawsuits involving enslaved people. Enslaved people often stood trial for resisting their captivity through violence and conspiracy. These lawsuits allow us to understand their methods of resistance. Historical newspapers are also important sources of information, as they published runaway notices in nearly every edition. Plantation owners advertised by name when someone they owned ran away, and these advertisements usually include personal details about the enslaved person. Historians have launched a crowd-sourced project to digitize and transcribe runaway notices called Freedom on the Move. This is just one of many digital resources researchers can put to use. Additionally, though they must be understood in their context, the Works Progress Administration slave narratives, which are available for free through the Library of Congress, can also be incredibly useful sources that can help us interpret the daily lives of enslaved people.

Connecting with Descendants

Perhaps the most valuable relationships that plantation sites can build in order to understand the lives of their enslaved populations is with descendants of enslaved people. Descendants should be involved in interpretation in every step from planning to execution. Their perspectives are essential to equitable and inclusive interpretation. In 2018, descendants, historians, and museum professionals from around the country gathered at James Madison’s Montpelier to craft best practices for working with descendant communities in the interpretation of slavery. Many sites have been engaged with this work for some time, from presidential sites to lesser-known plantations like Somerset in North Carolina. There are numerous road maps for sites that want to engage in meaningful co-creation with descendant communities.

Above all, museum professionals who work at plantation sites must be mindful of the immense weight of the history of slavery and treat it with respect and care. We must be humble in acknowledging that our field has done damage to descendant communities and to the wider public by not honestly interpreting the history of slavery. Despite our history, there is much room for reparative practice and we should find encouragement and inspiration in the numerous sites that are doing good work. With violent events igniting Americans over issues of race and history in places such as Charleston and Charlottesville, this is a critical time for historic sites to bravely tell the truth.


[i] “The Early History of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association,” Mount Vernon

[ii] Jessica Foy Donnelly, Interpreting Historic House Museums (Lanham: AltaMira Press, 2002), 22.

[iii] The Assumption Pioneer, July 1, 1976, 4.

[iv] D.K. Shifflet & Associates, Ltd., “Year-End 2017 Visitor Profile: An Inside Look at the Louisiana Travel Market,” State of Louisiana Cultural Resources & Tourism Department study, 2018.

Suggested Readings

van Balgooy, Max, ed. Interpreting African-American History and Culture at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Press/AASLH, 2014.

Berlin, Ira. Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2004.

Gallas, Kristin, and James DeWolf Perry, eds. Interpreting Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Press/AASLH, 2014.

Horton, James Oliver, and Lois E. Horton, eds. Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

National Summit on Teaching Slavery. “Engaging Descendant Communities in the Interpretation of Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites.” History News, 74, no. 1 (Winter 2019): 14-21.

National Summit on Teaching Slavery. “Engaging Descendant Communities in the Interpretation of Slavery: A Rubric of Best Practices.” Technical Leaflet 285. American Association for State and Local History.

Rose, Julia. Interpreting Difficult History. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Press/AASLH, 2016.


~ Ashley Rogers is the Executive Director at the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana. She is a frequent speaker on the topic of slavery interpretation and she has served as an advisor on museum projects with the Atlanta History Center, Rhode Island’s Center for Reconciliation, and Stenton. She is a co-author of the MASS Action toolkit and James Madison’s Montpelier’s rubric for descendant community engagement. She can be reached at


Artifacts from the exhibition American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith, National Museum of American History, Washington, D.C. In visually displaying the struggle and realization of voting rights, NMAH includes signage for accessible voter parking that uses a common disability symbol: a person in a wheelchair. Photograph by Cynthia Falk, June 2018.

When public historians talk about making spaces and programs accessible, they can mean anything from affordable pricing to multi-lingual offerings to age-appropriate content. Yet in recent years, the term accessibility has most frequently come to mean ensuring access for people with disabilities. Often the focus is on elevators and restrooms, with a strong emphasis on providing facilities that serve those with physical limitations. A recent Project Access white paper entitled “Beyond Ramps” appropriately asks readers to think more broadly about barriers, although the focus remains on mobility rather than sensory or cognitive disabilities.

In planning for accessibility, it is important to remember that disabilities are far from uniform. In addition to mobility, physical impairments may affect sight or hearing. Cognitive abilities may be diminished by dementia. Sensory sensitivities may result from autism. Mental illness may cause anxiety or phobias that make public places difficult to navigate. The Americans with Disabilities Act (section 12102) defines a disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities,” such as walking, standing, working, learning, communicating, reading, thinking, or even breathing. Although a common symbol for accessibility is a schematic of a person in a wheelchair, the reality is that impairments are often invisible and do not have to involve recognizable assistive devices.

Most people will experience a disability at some point in their lives. In 2010, almost 19 percent of all Americans, or 56,672,000 individuals, reported a disability. As a person’s age increased, so did the likelihood of an impairment. Among those 65 years of age and older, almost 39 percent reported at least one disability, while the number jumped to more than 72 percent among those 85 and over. Add to this temporary impairments due to injuries, illnesses, or medical procedures, and it is more likely than not that anyone reading this will at some time experience a physical or cognitive limitation.

Legal Framework

In the United States, several Federal anti-discrimination laws protect people with disabilities. The Architectural Barriers Act, enacted in 1968, regulates buildings designed, constructed, or altered by the Federal government; the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 applies to federally funded programs or activities. Congress enacted more sweeping legislation in 1990 with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which applies not only to federally supported enterprises but also to other places, including those that are privately owned and operated, where public access is expected. The ADA is important civil rights legislation that establishes a minimum threshold for the inclusion of people with disabilities in American society. Among its stated goals are “equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency” (Section 12010). Failure to comply with the ADA constitutes discrimination, just as excluding people based on their skin color or national background would.

Several portions of the Americans with Disabilities Act apply to those working in the public history sector. Title I concerns employment and makes it illegal to discriminate against individuals on the basis of disability. Title II applies to public services provided by entities of state or local government, including some museums, libraries, educational institutions, and arts organizations. At the state or local level, Title II of the ADA requires that a public entity not deny “the benefits of services, programs, or activities” to individuals with disabilities (Section 12132). It is important to note that Title II emphasizes programming, so it may not be legally necessary to make all facilities physically accessible, although this should always be the goal.

Title III of the ADA applies to public accommodations and services operated by private entities, a category that includes most history organizations. Section 12182 of the law prohibits owners or operators of public accommodations from discriminating against anyone with a disability. The ADA further specifies that providing unequal benefits or separate benefits constitutes discrimination, and the law lays the groundwork for the provision of integrated spaces that serve people with disabilities as well as those who are able-bodied.

Paul Revere House, Boston, Massachusetts, as seen from Lathrop Place. Access to the first floor of the Paul Revere House for those in wheelchairs is through a ramped and widened doorway to an early kitchen addition, the same entrance used by all visitors to the site. Second-floor access is by a bridge from the neighboring Lathrop Place, an 1835 building that was rehabilitated with an elevator for visitor use. Photograph by Cynthia G. Falk, May 2017.

Historic Sites

The need for physically accessible facilities can present special challenges at historic sites or in historic buildings (e.g., stairs or narrow doors or passages that do not accommodate wheelchairs). The ADA includes provisions that specifically address resources listed on, or eligible for, the National Register of Historic Places, as well as those designated at the state or local level. Building owners are not required to undertake accessibility measures that threaten or destroy historic resources. Yet if the goal is to provide access to the public, refusing to address accessibility is counterproductive. Some champions of disability rights have argued that not providing access to public buildings is akin to using Confederate symbols: it harkens back to a period of widespread discrimination before universal civil rights in the United States.[1] Nevertheless, the National Park Service walks a fine line in its Preservation Brief on the topic of access, calling for “balance” between historic preservation and accessibility.

The goal at historic properties should be for all visitors, regardless of ability, to have the same positive experience. Ramped entrance to the first floor should be a minimum standard, keeping in mind that all visitors should use the same entrances. If upper or lower floors are an integral part of the experience, people who cannot use stairs will need to be provided with access through alternative means (e.g., audio-visual materials). Some sites have been able to bypass stairs with an appropriately placed elevator or lift.

Physical access is not the only way historic places should serve people with disabilities. Historic sites provide ideal environments for tactile engagement, and staff should be prepared with touchable materials, as well as verbal descriptions, for those who are blind or have low vision. As a guided tour is often the primary avenue for experiencing a historic site, printed materials should be available for those who have difficulty hearing a docent. Sites that have significant visitation, especially within confined spaces, may consider adding special hours or special programs for those on the autism spectrum and their caregivers, during which time loud noises and other disruptions are minimized. Moreover, enacting policies that welcome service and emotional support animals are critical to avoiding controversies at sites that otherwise do not allow animals.

Universal Design

Public history sites should strive to exceed the standards set in the Americans with Disabilities Act, which is now more than twenty-five years old. Simply creating or refashioning spaces and programs to meet the legislated obligations of ADA is not enough, and professionals should seek more holistic solutions that recognize the broad range of abilities among individuals. Public history organizations should make inclusive design their overall objective and create environments that serve the greatest number of people. Designers who once used a “standard” male body to determine the appropriate measurements for architectural elements, for example, need to recognize that size, strength, mobility, or sensory perception vary person to person.

Ronald Mace coined the term Universal Design in 1985 to denote “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” By offering multiple intellectual entry points and seeking aesthetic solutions that are easy to use and easy to communicate, Mace’s principles can help public historians meet audiences where they are and engage people through informal learning opportunities. Today some designers question the possibility of truly universal design[2] and are employing terms such as inclusive design or human-centered design, which recognize the range of human diversity, physical and otherwise. Still, the seven principles of Universal Design—Equitable Use, Flexibility in Use, Simple and Intuitive Use, Perceptible Information, Tolerance for Error, Low Physical Effort, and Size and Space for Approach and Use—still remain good guidelines for planning.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Washington, D.C. The FDR Memorial includes multiple sculpted images, including this one of the president by Robert Graham, which was added in 2001 after the 1997 opening of the site. The National Organization on Disability raised funds for its inclusion so that the memorial would include a visual representation of Roosevelt using a wheelchair due to the effects of polio. Photograph by Cynthia G. Falk, June 2018.

Eliminating Barriers

In 2011, the World Health Organization (WHO) and World Bank began the first chapter of the World Report on Disability with the statement: “Disability is part of the human condition.” The report marked an important transition in how disability is understood. Western society has long seen impairments as medical problems to be solved. This medical approach calls for treatment and, when that fails, charity, and has often led to the institutionalization of people with physical or cognitive impairments. Today, the medical model has been combined with, and increasingly replaced by, a social model of disability, which recognizes the role that environment, both physical and attitudinal, plays in how an impairment is experienced. According to the WHO, environmental factors—including products and technology, the natural and built environment, attitudes, services, systems, support networks, and policies—can be either facilitators or barriers.

Public historians have an obligation, as stewards of tangible and intangible resources for the public good, to create positive encounters for people with disabilities. For organizations such as libraries, museums, historical societies, and historic house museums, this means considering the whole experience, from pre-visit planning to transportation and wayfinding to interactions with staff or volunteers to services to ensure a comfortable visit. Some accessibility solutions are easy and relatively inexpensive: creating wide and uncluttered aisles, flexible seating for programming, and scheduled times for those who require quieter, less-crowded spaces.

Public historians should be prepared to collaborate with organizations that specialize in serving people with disabilities. It is difficult to be an expert in every aspect of accessibility, so history organizations must be willing to learn from those who live with impairments, their caregivers, and the groups that serve them. Not everyone may agree on the one best solution, but getting to know members of the local community and their preferences will allow for better access and better relationships. Regional ADA Centers are great resources as well.

Communication is key to avoiding misunderstandings and perpetuating stereotypes. Training is necessary to ensure that staff and volunteers are prepared to answer questions, advertise opportunities, and explain policies. Information about accessibility should always be conveyed in online and print publications. Marketing materials should provide contact information for those who wish to make arrangements for accommodations. Website design should follow the principles developed by the Web Accessibility Initiative. Websites can be easily audited using a free online tool such as to ensure that they serve users who cannot see well or do not have the dexterity to navigate the internet using a touchscreen, mouse, or similar device. Audio-visual materials used onsite or on the internet should be captioned, and the need for braille text and American Sign Language interpretation should be assessed for exhibits and programs.

Spoken and written words should always seek to humanize all visitors, and public historians should use people-first language and recognize that people with disabilities are first and foremost individuals who should not be defined by their impairments. In addition, people-first language means avoiding categorizing able-bodied people as “normal” and those with disabilities as “handicapped.”

Just as language is important, so is the content public historians offer to their audiences. When representing the human form in signage and exhibits, consider including people who use assistive devices such as canes, wheelchairs, or scooters. When developing exhibition or program topics, explore the history of disability; there are often compelling stories to tell, and lessons to be learned, about local institutions such as hospitals, schools, and mental health facilities, as well as the experiences of soldiers returning from conflict zones with war-related injuries and psychological trauma. Many historical societies have collections that include artifacts related to the ways in which people with physical or cognitive disabilities have become more independent or found creative outlets, and public historians should make better use of these collections.

Accessibility is fundamentally about empowerment. For too long society has marginalized those with disabilities. We can reverse that trend by providing accessible spaces and activities, communicating clearly what we offer and where we need help, and bringing the topic of disability from the sidelines to the center. We should be advocates for and models of inclusive design, people-first language, and recognizing the centrality of physical and cognitive limitations to the human experience. Too often people argue that accessibility is not necessary or important because people with impairments do not visit and costs are too high to make it worthwhile. The reality is that we, as public historians, have to convey to those with disabilities that we have something to offer and we are willing to invest in making sure every experience is complete and meaningful.


[1] Wanda Liebermann, “Architectural Heritage, Disabled Access, and the Memory Landscape,” paper presented at the Society of Architectural Historians annual meeting, St. Paul, Minnesota, April 20, 2018.

[2] Bess Williamson, “Getting a Grip: Disability in American Industrial Design of the Late Twentieth Century,” Winterthur Portfolio 46, no. 4 (Winter 2012): 232-234.

Suggested Readings

Art Beyond Sight. Museum Education Institute.

Clary, Katie Stringer. Programming for People with Special Needs: A Guide for Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield/AASLH, 2014.

Ginley, Barry. “Museums: A Whole New World for Visually Impaired People.” Disability Studies Quarterly 33, no. 3 (2013).

Hamraie, Aimi. Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017.

Jester, Thomas C. and Sharon C. Park, “Making Historic Properties Accessible.” Preservation Briefs 32.

Kudick, Catherine. “The Local History Museum, So Near and Yet So Far.” The Public Historian 27, no. 2 (Spring 2005): 75-81.

Museum Access Consortium. “Working Document of Best Practices: Tips for Making All Visitors Feel Welcome.” 2015.

Smithsonian Accessibility Program. “Smithsonian Guidelines for Accessible Exhibition Design.”


~ Cynthia G. Falk is Professor at the Cooperstown Graduate Program, a master’s degree program in museum studies at the State University of New York College at Oneonta. Falk is the author of the books Barns of New York: Rural Architecture of the Empire State and Architecture and Artifacts of the Pennsylvania Germans: Constructing Identity in Early America. She served as the co-editor of Buildings & Landscapes, the journal of the Vernacular Architecture Forum, from 2012 to 2017 and is currently Deputy Mayor of the Village of Cooperstown. Falk can be reached by email at