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,;  Rabia Belt, “Disability, Debility, and Justice,” Harvard Law Review Blog, March 4, 2021,; 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,; Vissa Thompson on The Harriet Tubman Collective, “Disability Solidarity: Completing the ‘Vision for Black Lives,’ Huff Post, September 7, 2016,; and Alice Wong, The Disability Visibility Project,

[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), and “Forum on Disability in History,” Perspectives 44, no. 8 (November 2006),

[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.

Blackie, Daniel, and Alexia Moncriff. “State of the Field: Disability History.” History, July 20, 2022.

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.

Bucciantini, Alima. “Getting in the Door is the Battle.” AASLH Blog, American Association for State and Local History. January 22, 2019.

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.

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

Denial, Catherine. “A Forward to Designing for Care.” August 23, 2022.

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,

Hamraie, Aimi. “Accessible Teaching in the Time of COVID-19.” Critical Design Lab. March 10, 2020.

_____. “Mapping Access Toolkit,” Critical Design Lab.

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.

Lewis, Talila A. “Working Definition of Ableism: January 2022 Update.” Blog. January 1, 2022.

Meldon, Perri. “The NPS Disability History Handbook: Collaboration, process, and community.” History@Work. December 7, 2023.

Nair, Aparna, and Kylie M. Smith. “We’re Historians of Disability. What We Just Found on eBay Horrified Us.” Slate. July 21, 2022.

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.

Mingus, Mia. “Changing the Framework: Disability Justice: How our communities can move beyond access to wholeness.” Leaving Evidence. February 12, 2011.

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).

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.”

Valldejuli, Jorge Matos. “The Racialized History of Disability Activism from the ‘Willowbrooks of this World.’” The Activist History Review. November 4, 2019.

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.

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.

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),

[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,; and, Melissa Barthelemy, “Documenting Resilience and Community Healing in Orlando,” History@Work, August 28, 2017,

[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.

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.

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,”

[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.

[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.

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.

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:, [email protected], @curatoriologist.

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,

[ii] Emily Burack, “‘Never Again’: From a Holocaust Phrase to a Universal Phrase,” The Jerusalem Post, March 10, 2018, See also, 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,”, accessed August 20, 2019,

[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,

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

Collaborative Practice

Representatives of various tribes, the National Park Service, state officials, the Colorado Historical Society, and local officials after meeting to mark the tenth anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site and discuss the status of the site and future plans. Photo by Karen Wilde, National Park Service, Kiowa County Independent (Eads, Colorado), May 10, 2017.

Defining “public history” precisely and succinctly has proven elusive, yet many recognize collaboration as one of public history’s most salient characteristics. Doing history for, and increasingly with, the public is a complex endeavor that combines the insights and contributions of multiple disciplines and participants. The ranks of the public historian’s potential collaborators are many: other public and academic historians, scholars from various disciplines, students in public history classes, museum professionals, archivists, architects, planners, governmental agency staff, corporate representatives, personnel of non-profits, members of neighborhood organizations, and a multitude of other publics. Collaborative practice empowers the discipline to put history to “work in the world,” an idea that Carl Becker advanced in his 1931 address “Everyman His Own Historian.”[i] This idea lies at the center of public historians’ sense of professionalism.

The public engagement that is inherently part of collaborative practice also highlights the role of history in civic culture. For much of the twentieth century, the American public valued history as an essential component of education and a contributor to national identity. Studying the past helped foster an understanding of American institutions and served to promote good citizenship and democratic change. By the 1970s, however, the importance of history in civic culture began to diminish. An employment crisis among university historians was partly to blame. So too were the budget cuts at the federal and state levels that ravaged many history-related institutions including museums, libraries, and historic sites. Arguably, the most significant factor concerned the growing insularity of academic historians who increasingly perceived their scholarly peers, not the public, as their primary audience. Research-focused colleges and universities have long considered peer-reviewed monographs and articles as the gold standard of scholarship, and these works intended for other academics became a requisite for faculty promotion and tenure. This trajectory only intensified in the volatile political climate after 1980 that, ironically, helped accelerate the rise of public history.

Public historians welcome collaboration with the public. Many believe that a holistic, collaborative examination of the past that confronts both the good and the bad can promote positive social and political changes. This willingness to engage with the public, public historians contend, can help restore the discipline’s beneficial influence in the civic culture.

Basic Principles of Collaboration

In the direct collaborative practice of history, every project is different and presents unique challenges, but following a number of basic principles contributes significantly to successful partnerships. Engagement and communication are key. All the collaborators must be fully vested in the project and willing to listen and learn from one another. Ideally, this starts with the planning of a project and continues through its completion. Every stakeholder should be involved in formulating the research design. This assures that all perspectives receive their due. Similarly, the project timeline and the setting of benchmarks requires mutual agreement. Throughout the course of a project, all involved need to remain in touch with one another and discuss what, if any, changes might be necessary to the research design, timeline, or other project matters. This deliberative and ongoing methodology is part of what is termed reflective practice.

Memorandum of Understanding

A written Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) or Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) is an excellent tool with which to forge a collaboration. Although seldom legally binding, a carefully crafted memorandum addresses exactly what will be done, who is responsible for certain tasks, when these tasks will be completed, and by whom. It also stipulates any necessary information if compensation is involved. A well-executed MOU or MOA clearly delineates the roles and responsibilities of all parties involved and is essential for collaborative practice to be successful.[ii]

Professional-to-Professional Relationships

As public history gained ascendancy in the mid-twentieth century, much of its collaborative practice entailed professional-to-professional relationships, many of them forged through the federal government. Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 required assessing the impact of federal undertakings on historic resources and under certain circumstances mitigating adverse outcomes. Similarly, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 sought to protect the environment from harmful actions that accompanied federal projects. In addition to natural considerations, the law included determining impacts on the human environment, including historic sites and properties. Through these two pieces of legislation, public historians—some of them by establishing their own consulting firms—partnered with archeologists, architects, planners, engineers, and a variety of natural scientists. During this period, many federal agencies also increasingly valued the knowledge of the past as a foundation for formulating policy and helping to meet their stated missions. As a result, public historians found employment throughout the federal government, and their collaborators expanded to include bureaucrats. The same dynamic applied to public historians and state and, to a lesser degree, local governments. These alliances between public historians and other highly educated experts, sometimes including even academic historians, occasionally proved contentious. The advanced academic training and professionalism the partners shared, however, tended to facilitate the settling of differences.

Collaborating with Stakeholders

Since the 1980s, the collaborative practice of public history has progressively entailed the more challenging reality of professional practitioners working with partners having no formal academic training. These collaborators commonly are also among the project’s stakeholders. Oral history offers an excellent example. Professionally trained interviewers record informants who were involved in, or have special knowledge of, a project’s topic. Oral history informants work in partnership with skilled interviewers, engaging in a process of both historical inquiry and interpretation. Reconstructing and interpreting the past through oral history requires active participation by the trained professional and the interviewee. Their partnership produces the history. Similarly, a museum exhibit examining the role of a particular community—be it geographic, ethnic, racial, gender-based, political, economic, or social in nature—needs to be informed by members of that community. These public engagement practices in both oral history and museum exhibition have a long tradition, but have become even more common as the public history field has matured. The inclusion of non-academic partners in public history projects runs contrary to the traditional experience of many academic historians accustomed to self-defining and self-directing their own research. This collaborative practice of history with multiple, often non-academic, partners is one of the defining characteristics that sets public history apart from most academic history. It fundamentally involves doing history for and with the public.

The Question of Authority

Working with an array of collaborators, and especially those from outside the profession, potentially raises the question of authority. Where does authority rest when differences—subtle or profound—emerge among the partners? Where does agency lie? Who tells the story? Whose history is it? Public historians wisely recognize that the answers to such questions are rarely absolute. In wrestling with these conundrums, they have adopted the concept of shared authority, set forth originally by historian Michael Frisch. Born out of the dialogic methods of oral history, sharing authority entails taking into consideration the interpretations and perspectives of all stakeholders and collaborators, not just the trained professionals. It involves going beyond the scholar’s expertise as the sole basis for analysis and conclusions to include incorporating and respecting the viewpoints of all with an interest in the project. The intent is to create a more inclusive understanding of the past.

Public historians thus often find themselves situated in a middle ground between their collaborators and academics. While sharing authority requires openness to multiple perspectives, it does not mean ignoring the historical method, historiography, or well-established facts that historians use to craft a coherent and defensible interpretation of the past. Nor does it result in self-serving relativism, history being whatever a particular group or party says without substantiating evidence. Sound scholarship serves as the foundation for the collaborative practice of history, whether the collaborators are project partners or the entire public. It enables the fulfillment of the historian’s role in civic culture, a critical achievement in a society in which demagogues and other self-interested manipulators promote “alternative facts” and “fake news.”

Since there is no one way to practice history collaboratively or to pursue shared authority, the process can be messy and challenging. For example, one of the tasks faced by the National Park Service while establishing Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, opened in 2007, was locating the exact site of the 1864 attack on Black Kettle’s village near present-day Eads, Colorado. Volunteer cavalry under Colonel John Chivington killed more than 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho, many of them women and children, in the brutal assault. To address this question, the Park Service brought together a variety of collaborators: Cheyenne and Arapaho elders; local landowners; academic and public historians; and, archeologists. At first, traditional, empirical evidence derived from historical research and archeology, along with the work of a historically minded ex-detective, seemed to decide the question. Cheyenne elders strenuously disagreed. Taking into account both the academic conclusions, and the stories shared among generations of tribal members with deeply personal spiritual connections, led project leaders to a different, synthetic, and arguably better understanding of how to interpret where the massacre occurred. The Park Service’s attempt to locate the massacre site certainly exemplified collaborative practice by bringing the stakeholders together, but it failed to answer the question definitively. The solution required the expansion of the site’s originally envisioned boundaries to include both locations. In effect, this transcended traditional scholarly methods by accepting two culturally different ways of revealing the past.[iii]

Ethical Issues

Anyone navigating through the complexities of collaboration—and authority—will also need to consider related ethical issues. In 2007, the National Council on Public History issued its Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct. This document organizes the ethical practice of public history around the public historian’s responsibilities, as well as those pertaining to three different constituencies: the public; clients and employers; and members of the profession. Guiding principles for all these categories apply to collaborative practice, but those attached to responsibility to the public are most germane. They recognize that many diverse publics exist and can complement or compete with one another in interpreting the meaning of the past. Nevertheless, the public historian has an ethical obligation to conduct research with scholarly integrity, while also striving to be culturally inclusive and respecting the interpersonal dynamics that the collaborative practice of history inherently entails. Sometimes this can be challenging. Strong-minded collaborators may be unable to reach a consensus, but the public historian bears the final responsibility for the ultimate results of a project.[iv]

Examples of Collaborative Practice

Contemporary examples of collaborative practice in public history abound, simply because the interests of both professionals and non-professionals are intertwined. The Organization of American Historians and the National Park Service, for example, collaborate in a program designed to incorporate the best and most current scholarly research into historical interpretation at national parks. Museums, libraries, historical organizations, historic sites, and other history-related institutions routinely seek to give voice to the publics they serve in the history-making process by following the principles of collaborative practice. Letting Go: Sharing Historical Authority in a User Generated World (2011) provides intriguing case studies of this dynamic in museums seeking connections with the public in an increasingly digital world.[v] Public history educators commonly employ collaborative practice in their courses by having students undertake museum exhibits, conduct oral histories, and other projects with both on- and off-campus partners. One need not delve deep in the field’s literature to discover discussions of the influence of collaboration on the practice of public history. The winter 2006 volume of The Public Historian, organized around the theme “Public History as Reflective Practice,” is a valuable place to start exploring the many practical, ethical, and theoretical dimensions of doing public history collaboratively.[vi]

Doing public history almost always demands a degree of collaborative practice, and successful collaboration can often be challenging. It requires employing the deliberate planning and execution inherent in the concept of reflective practice. A willingness to be inclusive and share authority with different publics is absolutely essential. At the same time, the professional public historian must be mindful of the ethical considerations that arise between academics and their non-scholarly collaborators. Nor can the relevant academic scholarship and the historical method be ignored. Collaborative practice is often complex and messy, and sometimes succeeds and sometimes does not. At its best, the collaborative practice of public history provides valuable perspectives that help us better understand the present and envision the future by creating a history that is nuanced, inclusive, and useful to everyone.


[i] Carl L. Becker, “Everyman His Own Historian,” American Historical Review 37 (January 1932): 221-236. Also available online at The National Council on Public History uses the phrase “putting history to work in the world” in its mission statement.

[ii] Searching “Memorandum of Understanding” or “Memorandum of Agreement” on the National Park Service’s web site,, will yield numerous example of such documents. They involve a variety of partners, the most numerous being other governmental agencies at the federal and state level. Despite the diversity of partnerships they reflect, all the memorandums include language that assures the purpose of the collaboration, the responsibilities of each party, timelines, and other details meant to assure a successful outcome. For an example of a Memorandums of Understanding used for student internships in a collegiate public history program, click on the link to Washington State University’s MOU, accessible though the web page

[iii] The website for Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site can be found at The story of Sand Creek, the effort to determine the location of the massacre, and the influence of memory in establishing the site are the subject of Ari Kelman’s A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016).

[iv] NCPH’s Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct can be found at

[v] Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski, eds., Letting Go: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, Inc., 2011).

[vi] “Public History as Reflective Practice,” The Public Historian 28 (Winter 2006).

Suggested Readings

Babal, Marianne. “Sticky History: Connecting Historians with the Public.” The Public Historian 32 (Fall 2010): 76-84.

Corbett, Katharine T., and Howard S. (Dick) Miller. “A Shared Inquiry into Shared Inquiry.” The Public Historian 28 (Winter 2006): 39-66.

Frisch, Michael H. A Shared Authority:  Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.

Lindsay, Anne. “Student and Community Organizations: Creating Productive Partnerships.” Technical Leaflet 279. American Association for State and Local History.

Tyrell, Ian. Historians in Public: The Practice of American History, 1890-1970. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Weible, Robert. “What’s Happened to Historians.” History News Network, May 28, 2017.  Available online at:


~ Bill Bryans has been putting history to work in the world for over forty years in a variety of capacities. During that time, he has been a consultant, and until his retirement in July 2019 directed the public history program at Oklahoma State University for thirty-one years. He also has served as president of the National Council on Pubic History, president of the Oklahoma Museums Association, and chair of the Oklahoma Humanities Council. Locally, he also has long served as a board member of the Payne County Historical Society and the Stillwater Museum Association.


Poster created by the Health Education Authority for the National Aids Helpline promoting safer sex practices, c. 1990. Photo credit: Wellcome Collection.

The history of sexuality is a history of bodies—how they fit together and find pleasure—and of minds—how desire and pleasure are experienced and rationalized given social and cultural norms and political ideologies. Public-facing histories (like twentieth-century LGBTQIA+[i] activisms) lend themselves well to the excavation of primary source materials—newsletters, picket signs, photographs, etc.—and their respectable interpretation (de-sexualized narratives of identity and equal rights). However, the inclusive historian must remain cognizant of who produced and preserved what evidence, when, where, and why—and how it has been and will be understood by new generations and audiences. This information shapes and comprises extant narratives of sexuality.

Much of human sexuality has played out behind the bedroom door of history, private and concealed. The evidentiary basis for such history is scant. As an inclusive historian, it is your job to expand how these histories can be told using the resources available to you. How can we commit to being more inclusive, equitable, and service-oriented historians given the gaps and silences of the archive? We must always consider who or what is missing from our narratives, and why. Even given a wealth of materials and perspectives, how can we showcase the breadth and depth of sexual experience throughout human history given respectability politics, institutional censorship, and cultural expectations? Studying the history of sexuality brings with it questions of (in)decency and taboo, sex and gender norms, anachronism and bias—all of which create a maze of roadblocks the inclusive historian must continually navigate. This article will equip you with the tools necessary for understanding these challenges, the complexity of the history of sexuality, and examples of best practices for interpreting it.

Defining Sexuality

For the purpose of this article, sexuality can be taken to encompass the following:

  • Sexual orientation—an internal experience, our desires or lack thereof, and who we are or are not attracted to.
  • Sexual behavior—an external and usually private experience, the acts we do or do not engage in, and with whom we do or do not share them.
  • Sexual identity—an external and usually public experience, how we conceive of our sexual experience and what we call ourselves.

These concepts are crucial for an inclusive historian to understand when interpreting sexual experiences of the past. As will be discussed in a later section, the frameworks and language we employ to encapsulate sexuality often present social, cultural, and political biases.

Historicizing Sexuality

Historical actors’ desires, actions, and identities will not always coincide with our expectations. In fact, they rarely do. Take, for example, Michael Wigglesworth, a seventeenth century Puritan minister known for his best-selling poem The Day of Doom. An ardent Christian, father, and husband three times over, Wigglesworth struggled with his sexuality, as revealed through diary entries. An inclusive historian would not automatically declare him “gay” or “prudish” upon learning of his attraction to his male students and his shame about nocturnal emissions. Instead, the inclusive historian would differentiate his inner thoughts and desires (evinced in his diary) from his actions (marriage and children) and identity (or lack thereof).

An inclusive historian is wary of presentist assumptions about the sexuality of historical actors. Modern identifiers like “gay” or “homosexual” reinforce anachronistic ideas about how sexuality was experienced in the past. These words come with their own social, cultural, and political connotations. In the history of sexuality, language serves a very important purpose— contextualizing a specific time and place, and how a particular desire, act, or identity was named (if it was named at all). Wigglesworth serves as a nexus between Puritan sexual mores, their internalization, and individuated experiences of desire. In order to responsibly interpret his history, one must ask how he experienced his sexuality as well as how it might have been read by others. Did Wigglesworth identify himself as part of a nameless underclass of “sodomites” persecuted by society or as a sinner comparable to a drunkard or a murderer? Is the “incongruity” between Wigglesworth’s desires and behavior something to be read as a lack of self-acceptance (by today’s standards) or a spiritual struggle (by Wigglesworth’s own perspective)? The inclusive historian must balance the agency of historical actors (like Wigglesworth) to conceive of their experiences on their own terms, with a critique of the social, cultural, and political constrictions placed on them that shaped their self-conceptions.

American scholar David Halperin once argued that sexuality “is a cultural production: it represents the appropriation of the human body and of its physiological capacities by an ideological discourse.”[ii] In other words, sexuality is a social construct and it is our job, as historians, to trace its genealogy—how experiences and conceptions of sex[iii] have changed over time. As French philosopher Michel Foucault argued in The History of Sexuality, sexuality has been framed by power dynamics that constitute “normal” and “abnormal” sexual experience.[iv] When we say that present-day American society is cisheterocentric,[v] we mean that it continually reinforces those norms about how sexed bodies and sexuality are experienced and described. But was this always the case?

The Importance of Language and Cultural Context

Queer theory serves as a useful framework for the inclusive historian because it encourages us to examine the sexual norms of a given context. “Queerness” (or what a given society deems sexually deviant) is a fluid concept and subject to change. Essentialists argue that sexual experience is innate to historical actors—that people are born with immutable desires. This position often connects to “born this way” and “gay gene” rhetoric, seeking scientific evidence to validate the experiences of queer people. While an important agenda, especially in campaigns against gay conversion therapy, essentialism is also tied to a long tradition of sexological activism and the medicalization of queer experiences. It also tends to conflate orientation and identity—such that “gayness” itself is timeless and universal, rather than homoerotic desire. Conversely, social constructionists find that sexual experiences are shaped by social, cultural, and political contexts—especially behavior and identity. Even if certain sexual desires are inborn, they, too, can be shaped by a person’s environment.

“Gender and sexuality inclusion” is typically considered a catch-all for (or, alternative to) the lengthy acronym of LGBTQIA+. But it has the potential to be much more than that. As inclusive historians, we recognize LGBTQIA+ identity is a specific set of identities, subsumed within a political movement that emerged from a particular time and place. Such terminology, its predominately Euro-American, present-day connotations, threatens to limit the scope of our scholarship. In reading backwards western queer experiences, historians have haphazardly applied modern identities to the sexual past and sought to derive a progressive political narrative. The inclusive historian must contend with this combination of presentism and Euro-Americanism. The misapplication of terminology such as gay, homosexual, or queer to sexual desires and behaviors of the past allows historians to describe non-normative experiences in terms relatable to present-day Euro-American audiences.

However, in order to best interpret and delineate queer histories, we must emphasize relevant temporal and geographic contexts—so as to avoid imposition of modern meanings and allow narratives of non-normative eroticism to emerge on their own, with their own language and self-conception. For example, Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley, Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, argues—“the many vocabularies possible under the umbrella ‘women who love women’ work to dismantle the closet by decentering it, by positioning this trope in a spectrum of constructions of sexuality in which mati, zanmi, bull dagger, or lesbian all carry their own cultural and historical weight.”[vi] Likewise, consider nineteenth-century German lawyer Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, who originated the identifier Urning (also known in English as Uranian) as a way of describing his inner desires. An attraction to men, Ulrichs believed, was an inherently feminine attribute. Consequently, he considered himself and others like him to be part of a third sex—with female sex drives (or psyches) and male bodies. In a conflation of what would now be considered intersexuality, transgender identity, and homosexuality, Ulrichs’ self-conception demonstrates the historical construction of sexed bodies and desires. Sex, gender, and sexuality have not always existed as separate concepts and, indeed, still do not in some cultures. The inclusive historian takes these facts into account when studying unfamiliar contexts.

Statues from the Saas Bahu mandir / Sahastrabahu Vaishnavite temple depicting scenes from the Kama Sutra, c. 11th century AD. Photo credit: Kandukuru Nagarjun, Flickr.

Similarly, the expansion of queer American histories into nonwestern contexts necessitates a broadened vocabulary to describe sexual experiences. The globalization of queer narratives presents the conundrum of a neocolonial occupation of nonwestern epistemologies. For example, localized identities may be reclaimed from precolonial times and/or originated in the present-day to dispute the claimed universality of Anglo sexuality. Their persistence is irreducible to the American constructs of gay, homosexual, or queer. Localized identities directly oppose Euro-Americentrism in queer history because, as in all transnational and cross-lingual surveys of sexuality, translation is an act of approximation and cultural connotation is never fully captured. Therefore, sexual histories in nonwestern contexts are entities unto themselves and should not be treated otherwise. For example, tongzhi is the contemporary Chinese word for a member of what westerners might call the LGBTQIA+ community, but was specifically adopted to counter Anglo identifiers. In other words, even if tongzhi is a modern identity, it may be anachronistically (mis)applied to Chinese history more readily than queer, which is not only anachronistic, but Euro-American in origin. The inclusive historian aids in the decolonization of history through selective language choice.

Modern distinctions of eroticism and romance between women is another example of how language informs the history of sexuality. Queer historians tend to resist ascribing “queerness” to female relationships, and are hyper-vigilant about presentist interpretations of affection. In lieu of same-sex sexual encounters, queer women are often said to have “romantic friendships” due to the absence of an explicitly articulated physical component to their bonds. Most queer women’s narratives rely upon private experiences articulated in the form of correspondence and journal entries, rather than more public records of the court and early activist treatises because female same-sex activity was rarely criminalized. Thus, historical work that glosses over the lives of queer women rests both in the seeming limitations of available primary source materials and in the phallocentric interpretations of extant evidence—in other words, claiming what constitutes intimacy (i.e., penetrative).

Political cartoon of Lady Strachan and Lady Warwick making love in a park while their husbands look on with disapproval, c. 1820. Photo credit: Wellcome Collection.

We must also bear in mind that queerness, while particularly relevant to a discussion of inclusive language, is only one facet of many in the study of the history of sexuality. Indeed, normative sexual desires, acts, and identities (and the language used to describe them) are much easier to excavate because they were openly reinforced rather than marginalized or erased from history. For example, Tom Reichert, Professor of Information and Communications at the University of South Carolina, considers how capitalism has reproduced cultural ideas about bodies, pleasure, and self-conception in The Erotic History of Advertising. Or we may consider the liminality of normative taboos and subcultures—wherein “acceptable” heterosexual desires and behaviors manifest in “unacceptable” contexts such as pornography or sex work. In turn, such experiences are re-eclipsed in the archive.

Ultimately, inclusive historians reorient themselves in an attempt to understand a different sexual experience or perspective, rather than fit those narratives into modern frameworks that are palatable to general audiences. The inclusive historian is successful in educating their audience about unfamiliar or even uncomfortable sexual experiences that challenge their preconceived notions on how sexuality may be experienced, acted upon, or identified.

Collection & Preservation: Considering Your Audience, Crafting the Narrative

The inclusive historian prioritizes provenance. The history of sexuality is often erased from lack of preservation of materials or, when materials are available, from a lack of context. As a collector for an archive, museum, or other repository, one must bear in mind how important source information is for interpretation.

For instance, many of the pornographic films at the Kinsey Institute Library and Archives—one of the largest repositories of sexual history in the United States—were acquired from anonymous donors. Beyond the occasional date of production, no information is offered regarding where the films were produced, by or for whom, or even how they were acquired and viewed. Understandably, taboo and stigma may have prevented the donors from revealing this information or even their identities. However, we are, once again, left with many gaps and silences in our narratives. What are the contingencies? The inclusive historian must identify creative methods of (re)interpretation and future preservation. Ultimately, absence is as telling as presence. What histories of sexuality get censored, based on the norms of their narrators, audiences, or the materials themselves?

For example, Sara Hodson, the Curator of Literary Manuscripts at The Huntington Library, processed the personal documents and correspondence of a gay man, containing the intimate details and confessions of their authors. In accordance with the Society of American Archivists’ Code of Ethics (“respect the privacy of people in collections, especially those who had no say in the disposition of the papers”), Hodson considered the possibility of outing anyone were the letters made publicly accessible.[vii] Similarly, we must prioritize the consent of those whose names and images appear in pornographic materials, lest they be unwillingly identified as sex workers. And what if all involved parties are unidentifiable or deceased? Is attempting to locate and contact them (or their next of kin) for permissions already a violation of their privacy?[viii] Hodson’s “decision-by-avoidance”[ix]—allowing enough time to pass to ensure that public access has, in all likelihood, become a nonissue—while practical, does not allow us to tackle the larger philosophical conundrums of our work.

How are ideas about sexuality in a given historical context evinced in these materials? Conversely, how are these sexual materials evinced in particular historical contexts? In other words, sexuality both shapes and is shaped by history and society. Consider again pornographic materials—while certainly not unique to queer collections, they tend to be more prevalent, thus jarring a placid archivist or curator into recognizing the intractability of attempting to be both inclusive of sexual minorities and keeping their repository “respectable.” Indeed, once pornography intersects with identity and community, it is difficult to accurately position the “objectivity” of the processor. How do we reexamine the role of historians in crafting erotic histories, making them “suitable” for public consumption, especially when said histories are a part of a larger narrative of liberation and representation (e.g., the increasing visibility of queer material culture)?

How is the history of sexuality sanitized for public consumption at the cost of inclusivity? For example, the Western Australian Museum came under fire in 2018 for acquiring and exhibiting a glory hole. The glory hole is part of a wooden toilet door from a demolished train station—a popular hookup spot prior to the 1990 decriminalization of sex between men. This piece of material culture was part of a historic site, where a queer counterpublic was formed. As described in the introduction of this article, sexual behavior is an external and usually private experience, but not always. When sexual behavior is public, it could be identified as hookups, sex work, or masturbation. Such taboo history is not often discussed in museum, archives, or other public history contexts. “Public” sex takes many forms, is not easily defined, and has various social, cultural, political, and legal implications. Critics were primarily concerned with audiences—children who might see the glory hole on display. Despite the lack of anything explicit in the object itself, its implications are enough to shock.

The inclusive historian seeks to interrogate stigma. However, social, cultural, political, and economic considerations may constrain this process. Do you work at a small local archive or historic site, a national institution, private or nonprofit organization? Are you a Catholic schoolteacher with students under eighteen years of age or a tenured professor at a prestigious, liberal university? The inclusive historian’s dependence on private funders, corporate sponsors, and/or public opinion ultimately informs their work. Capitalism censors and drives the narrative, as does racism, sexism, classism, and ableism (past and present). The history of sexuality shapes and is continually shaped by the power dynamics of our society. As historians, we may, unfortunately, end up as cogs in the machine, churning out the narratives most palatable to those in power.

Crafting Grassroots Narratives

When attempting to craft grassroots narratives apart from institutionalized history-making, the inclusive historian prioritizes the direct involvement of the historical “subjects” themselves (if alive) or, if not them, then members of their community. Consider the differences and similarities between your audience and your “subjects.” Whose experiences are being studied and explained—and for whom? An inclusive historian does not speak for their “subjects” or give voice to their experiences.

The inclusive historian is wary of discordant curation, as well as collection—for example, white scholars “specializing” in Black HIV/AIDS history being chosen to consult on an exhibition over actual Black HIV/AIDS activists whose materials and oral histories were included in said exhibition. The inclusive historian understands that equitable practice permeates all facets of historical production—collection, interpretation, and consumption. Whose materials are preserved, who fits them into a narrative, and who gets to learn about the history? Consider the (in)consistencies in demographics between these three groups. In this example, tapping into public power-knowledge—elder community leaders’ memories and legacies, as well as younger constituents’ reflections and connections to this past—would have guaranteed the practitioners involved in the project did not fall into the trap of claiming working-class, queer, and trans histories of color and history-makers of color “don’t exist” but are, rather, excluded from and within elite structures.

The inclusive historian must move beyond the notion that only “professionals” or “practitioners” can bestow historical authenticity. Even with “community-based” work, bear in mind that problems can arise. Oral history projects often appropriate people’s testimonies without compensation or involvement (such that practitioners take without giving back and are, in turn, celebrated for their “scholarship”). Similarly, “advisory groups” may invite token minorities to “sign off” on a predetermined narrative late in the planning process. But the inclusive historian values, supports, and prioritizes the knowledge and cultural production of people outside of the so-called public history field. What does the community get out of a history-making project? What does the community want from a history-making project? What rich and valuable experiences and insights can the community exchange equitably through a history-making project?


Interpreting the history of sexuality encompasses myriad subjects—movements and activisms; kinship and family-making; interracial relationships and mixedness; sexed people; stigmas against particular sex acts and desires; pornography and erotica; BDSM; sexology and medical institutions; eugenics, enslavement, abuse, and assault; reproductive health, STDs, and HIV/AIDS; sex work and the advent of cybersex. Once again, as an inclusive historian, it is your job to expand how these histories can be told using the resources available to you. Documentary evidence for sexuality includes how-to books, skin mags, and medical literature. The material culture of sexuality includes sex toys, film, and contraceptives. At a historic site, where does sexuality hold relevance? Was sexuality truly confined to the bedroom? Bear in mind that sexuality can be experienced anywhere, anytime. And how do we move beyond treating the history of sexuality as something “dead,” to be mediated through materials separate from their original contexts? How do we involve the living in their interpretation—the first-person narratives of historical actors themselves? Finally, with the advent of the Digital Age, we may consider how our sexualities are mediated through technology and encourage our audiences to reflect on how their sexual experiences are similar to, or different from, sexual experiences of the past. As an inclusive historian, you must continually challenge yourself (and your institution) to expand what comes to mind when you think of the history of sexuality and, in turn, what sorts of materials and stories should be included in your narrative production.


[i] LGBTQIA+ is an acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, and additional identities.

[ii] David M. Halperin, “Is There a History of Sexuality?,” History and Theory 28 (1989): 257.

[iii] In another entry on “Gender,” a co-author will elucidate the differences between sex (as in a combination of biological and anatomical characteristics unique to an individual body) and gender (a fluid combination of roles, identities, and expressions). One thing to note on how interrelated these concepts are with sexuality is that they are all social constructs. We might often hear that gender is a social construct—born of societal expectations for sexed bodies. But what we do not often discuss is how sex is also a social construct—created by modern, western medical establishments to fit bodies into categories. The dichotomous categories of male and female are each a specific combination of myriad elements—such as hormones, chromosomes, and primary/secondary sex characteristics. Each of these elements has myriad manifestations—different balances of estrogen and testosterone, other chromosomes besides XX and XY, internal and external genitalia in different forms and sizes, etc.—and they occur in different combinations. In other words, sexed bodies are infinite and diverse. In turn, an inclusive, historical approach to sexuality would examine not just how different genders (roles, identities, and expressions) have interacted sexually over time but how different sexes (different bodies and the categories placed on them) have been desired and identified, fit together, and found pleasure over time.

[iv] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction (New York: Random House, 1978).

[v] Cisheterocentric comes from ciscentric and heterocentric. Ciscentric comes from cisgender—cisgender people identify with the sex they were assigned at birth (as opposed to transgender people, who do not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth). Heterocentric comes from heterosexual—heterosexual people are attracted to people of another sex.

[vi] Tinsley, Omise’eke Natasha. Thiefing Sugar: Eroticism between Women in Caribbean Literature. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

[vii] Sara S. Hodson, “In Secret Kept, in Silence Sealed: Privacy in the Papers of Authors and Celebrities,” The American Archivist 67 (2004): 200–201.

[viii] For an example of privacy rights violation posed by the advent of new technologies, please refer to Luke O’Neil, “How Facial Recognition Software Is Changing the Porn Industry,” Esquire, September 27, 2016,

[ix] Hodson, “In Secret Kept, in Silence Sealed,” 200–201.

Suggested Readings

Ferentinos, Susan.” Lifting our skirts: Sharing the sexual past with visitors.” History@Work. 1 July 2014.

Hansen, Karen V. “‘No Kisses Is Like Youres’: An Erotic Friendship Between Two African-American Women During the Mid-Nineteenth Century.” Gender and History 7 (1995): 153-182.

Hartman, Saidiya. “Venus in Two Acts.” Small Axe 12, no. 2 (2008): 1-14.

Liu, Petrus. “Why Does Queer Theory Need China?.” positions 18 (2010): 291-320.

NOTCHES: a peer-reviewed, collaborative, and international history of sexuality blog. At:

Povinelli, Elizabeth A. and George Chauncey. “Thinking Sexuality Transnationally: An Introduction.” GLQ 5 (1999): 439-449.

Tang, GVGK. “Sex in the Archives: The Politics of Processing and Preserving Pornography in the Digital Age.” The American Archivist 80, no. 2 (2017): 439-452.

Tinsley, Omise’eke Natasha. “Black Atlantic, Queer Atlantic: Queer Imaginings of the Middle Passage.” GLQ 14 (2008): 191-215.


~ GVGK Tang is a public historian and community organizer with a background in transnational queer politics. Tang serves on the Long-Range Planning Committee and Diversity & Inclusion Task Force for NCPH. To get in touch, visit @gvgktang on Twitter and

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.

Historic Preservation

“Women Barbers at Tule Lake Segregation Center,” Photo credit: Library of Congress

Historic preservation is often linked, hand in hand, with ideas of placemaking, where preservationists embed their work in a neighborhood, community, or landscape to highlight what makes that place unique and preserve its character.[i] In doing this work, preservationists make evaluations about a place’s beauty, integrity, and significance. In the United States, the criteria on which they base these determinations come largely from the standards listed in the National Register of Historic Places’ nomination process. As the work of historic preservation has evolved in recent years, however, many practitioners have begun to push back against these limited criteria. More people are looking to tell the stories of underrepresented communities, document and protect vernacular architecture, preserve sites of the recent past, and promote the protection of intangible heritage.

More than fifty years after the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act in the United States, more individuals and institutions are recognizing the need to go beyond preserving big houses and places that match traditional standards of architectural beauty. This call to action is pushing the historic preservation movement to embrace inclusive practice—one that not only focuses on the protection of buildings, but also on documenting and sharing the richly varied stories that define places. The goal is to forge a people-centered preservation movement that is inclusive, community driven, and intersectional in nature.[ii]

Early History of the Preservation Movement 

There are two events that are often cited as critical to the founding of historic preservation as a movement in the United States. The first is the story of Ann Pamela Cunningham, founder of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, who rallied women from across the United States in the 1850s to advocate for the protection and preservation of George Washington’s home. The first call of its kind, it opened conversations about preserving and protecting key sites critical to the history of the United States. The second event, taking place just over a century later, was the loss of the magnificent Pennsylvania Railroad Station in New York City. The destruction of this structure spurred those working in the nascent field to come together, leading eventually to the passage of the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). The NHPA, which included the creation of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and the National Register of Historic Places, enabled the development of a regulatory process for the protection of historic places.[iii]

“With Heritage So Rich” cover.

Much of the NHPA’s framework came from a report called With Heritage So RichDeveloped by the Special Committee on Historic Preservation within the U.S. Conference of Mayors, this report ended with a series of recommendations and this statement: “In sum, if we wish to have a future with greater meaning, we must concern ourselves not only with the historic highlights, but we must be concerned with the total heritage of the nation and all that is worth preserving from our past as a living part of the present.”[iv] Although the preservation movement has struggled to realize this ambitious vision, contemporary practitioners have embraced a renewed call for broader and more diverse understandings of preservation and its role in society. Significant challenges exist, however, for those who seek to reorient preservation practice.

Focusing on People

A key element of inclusive preservation practice is the need to shift from an exclusive focus on the places being protected to the people who have lived and continue to live in those places. We must also pay more attention to the impacts of preservation projects on neighborhoods and communities.

In an anthology marking the 50th anniversary of the NHPA, former National Trust for Historic Preservation Chief Preservation Officer David J. Brown stated: “To build a movement for all Americans, we must recognize that preservation takes many more forms . . . than the ones associated with our work today. Frankly we need tools that give every person a voice in determining what is worth preserving in their community.”[v] In the same article, Brown emphasizes the need to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach toward a more nuanced understanding of how to work collaboratively with communities to determine what places to protect.[vi]

Leading up to the anniversary of the NHPA, the National Trust for Historic Preservation held a series of listening sessions across the country. These sessions included individuals who were active in the preservation profession as well as voices from outside the field. These conversations coalesced into a vision for the future of preservation. The reportPreservation for People, centers around three different principles:

  • A people-centered preservation movement hears, understands, and honors the full diversity of the ever-evolving American story.
  • A people-centered preservation movement creates and nurtures more equitable, healthy, resilient, vibrant, and sustainable communities.
  • A people-centered preservation movement collaborates with new and existing partners to address fundamental social issues and make the world better.
“Preservation for People” cover. Image credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation

Preservation for People seeks to lay out strategies and tactics to make preservation more democratic, inclusive, and equitable. Essential to achieving these goals is building a more inclusive profession. Historically, preservation has been seen as an elitist practice, and while the demographics of the field are slowly shifting, there are still significant barriers to entry.

It is critical to demonstrate to young people that preservation is something that is relevant to their lives. During the 2015 PastForward Diversity Summit Jose Antonio Tijerino, president and CEO of the Hispanic Heritage Foundation, stated that “the first step is reaching out. And also making it relevant. How is it relevant to a young black man? Woman? A young Latino? Young Asian? Young LGBT? To be able to feel connected to what your mission is . . .”[vii]

Some organizations have made telling underrepresented stories and protecting places that are sharing these narratives central to their work. For example, Asian Pacific Americans in Historic Preservation and Latinos in Heritage Conservation (LHC) have worked to support a network of individuals who are engaged in these types of projects. Sarah Zenaida Gould of LHC says that “We envision this network as one that equally welcomes professional preservationists and community preservationists. For we all have knowledge, ideas, experiences, and strategies to share.”[viii]

In summarizing the 2015 Diversity Summit which took place at PastForward, Stephanie K. Meeks, then CEO and President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, stated:

Over the course of the discussion, common themes emerged. All of the panelists agreed that recognizing and honoring diverse stories was key to understanding our present political debates and to building a more inclusive and allied future. All felt that, while we have made important strides as a movement, we still have a lot of work to do to get this right. All believed that forging stronger partnerships with and across diverse groups was essential for continued success. And all emphasized the wisdom of today’s broader vision of preservation, in which we seek to save the modest and even ordinary places where history happened.[ix]

Re-thinking the Preservation of Places

In recent years, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has begun to look more closely at the impacts of preservation in cities through an initiative called ReUrbanism. Fundamental to ReUrbanism is the idea that building reuse encourages economic growth and stimulates vibrant communities. Through a variety of studies, the National Trust has found that mixed use neighborhoods are often more sustainable than those communities with a single building stock.[x] Many of the principles of ReUrbanism look toward creating equity in neighborhood development and planning, and derive from a broader conversation with the field about preservation planning in urban areas. In a piece for the Forum Journal’s issue on ReUrbanism, Justin Garrett Moore describes the need to change preservation and planning processes. The example he uses is a new community playbook in New York City. This Neighborhood Planning Playbook

includes tools designed to reveal the complexities of a neighborhood and provide a framework for comprehension, communication, education, and exchange with community residents and stakeholders. The playbook aims to help the city better study, develop, and implement plans for neighborhood change—and, most importantly, build public engagement and communication into all stages of the work.[xi]

Community engagement is a key piece of ReUrbanism. There is an evolving understanding that preservationists need to shift from an authority-based model to one that works in tandem with those who will be most impacted by preservation efforts.

Additionally, it is important to recognize that the protection of place also involves a full engagement in issues surrounding climate change. In her series on America’s Eroding EdgesVictoria Herrmann, a National Geographic Explorer and president and managing director of the Arctic Institute, examines the role flooding, coastal erosion, melting permafrost, and other climate impacts have not just on buildings and tangible heritage, but also on traditional cultural practices and entire communities. While it is paramount that we develop a robust set of strategies to adapt historic resources to climate impacts, these efforts must go hand in hand with conversations about economic and cultural equity and resilience.

In her 2018 TrustLive talk at PastForward, Herrmann discussed how in all of her conversations with communities impacted by climate change, the one consistent factor is that “climate change is the looming reality of losing the places and histories that make us who we are.” She continues to say that “climate change is not race, gender, or income neutral. Low-income communities, communities of color, and women are disproportionally affected by climate impacts. From centuries of discriminatory, social, and environmental policies, these communities have not been able to create the resources they need to prepare for and adapt to climate disasters.” With this in mind, inclusive preservation practice must include a recognition of climate impacts on communities; it is through dialogue and partnerships with organizations such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, 100 Resilient Cities, US ICOMOS, and the Association for Preservation Technology that the practice can move forward.

It is clear that many of the places currently being preserved only protect a fraction of historical narratives. Clement Price, who was a former Trustee of the National Trust and a Vice Chair of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, stated that broadening the spaces being preserved “connects very ordinary Americans with their personal histories, and in turn these histories connect with the larger narrative of making a more perfect and yet complicated union.”[xii] Examples of such places exist across the United States and, in recent years, some have become the focus of preservation efforts.

Two important examples are Tule Lake, a Japanese internment camp, and Rio Vista Farm in Texas, an agricultural site where migrant laborers from Mexico toiled. One site is evidence of the challenges to U.S. democracy that arose when segments of the U.S. population were unconstitutionally incarcerated due to racist fears and wartime hysteria; the other is a place that demonstrates how migrant workers from Mexico filled critical gaps in the U.S. agricultural labor system. In both cases, we find pieces of U.S. history that are often overlooked and, in doing so, begin to recognize the layers of experience and history that can be encountered in these places.

Speaking about sites such as Tule Lake, Cathlin Goulding writes, “Though the euphemisms for these places range, they all have in common a political climate of fear, suspicion, and hysteria and a system of governance wherein power is ultimately rooted in the ability to decide who can and does belong.”[xiii]

Inclusive Storytelling

The final pivot for preservation as an inclusive practice is something that runs parallel to work within both public history and museums: storytelling. In some ways this term feels like the latest buzzword across disciplines; nevertheless, it is an important piece of the broader mission of preservation as we strive to tell fuller and richer stories. In order to know what places to protect, we have to listen to the people to whom these stories belong; in doing so, it is important to recognize that these stories cannot be told using the same methods and practices as before. An inclusive preservation practice recognizes that preservation is not just about buildings and structures but also intangible heritage, which is often only available through conversations with community members.

Consider the work of the San Antonio Office of Historic Preservation, which uses a process called culture mapping to make connections to place and document change over time. Claudia Guerra, from San Antonio’s Office of Historic Preservation, describes the process where recorded narratives are paired with hand-drawn maps from community storytellers. She emphasizes the need to protect the intangible: “Safeguarding and preserving our heritage is what preservationists do, but preservation is about more than just protection—it is inherently about sharing.”[xiv] In her essay, she emphasizes a variety of tools and lessons critical to working with communities: “Listen more than you speak.” “Be prepared for unusual places to be documented.” And, “be aware and sensitive to the fact that similar cultural communities that share some traits may nevertheless differ widely in [their] thinking.”

In a sense, the importance of expanding preservation’s scope is to further build connections among people, places, and the past. In an interview for the Preservation Leadership Forum, Angelo Baca, filmmaker and cultural resources director for the Utah Diné Bikéyah, stated that “stories are very important because they hold knowledge. And it is important for us to understand that even the oral traditions, the legends, the myths, and all these things that talk about the time before what we understand now are actually . . . a resource.” For many Native communities, the importance of place is centered in both the tangible and the intangible. The identity of many of these communities is rooted not only in physical places but also the traditional knowledge embedded within those places.

Lisa Yun Lee, director of the National Public Housing Museum, says it best when she states “Our commitment to preservation and interpretation must always include a commitment not only to telling a narrative or presenting a counter-narrative but also to meaningfully empowering people to change the narrative.”[xv]

An Inclusive Preservation Practice

In the edited collection Bending the Future, Gail Dubrow, professor at the University of Minnesota, writes:

My vision and hope…is that these relatively new advocacy groups and constituencies move from the margins to the center of the preservation movement, bring their independent identity-based preservation interests into more effective alliances that bridge the divides of race, class, gender, and sexuality. While identity based politics have resulted in a more inclusive agenda for what we preserve, the democratic future of how we preserve depends on bringing their experiences, insights, and perspectives to bear on redefining the scope, policies, practices, and priorities of the preservation movement as a whole.[xvi]

Building inclusive preservation practices requires acknowledging the stories, places, and needs of all communities. Tried-and-true preservation tools need to be used in tandem with other methods and practices. Collaboration and partnership are essential to protecting places in a fair and equitable way.

Historic preservation can be a force for good rather than a tool of elitist forces, but in order to make it so, many of the field’s practices need to shift. This reorientation is essential because, as Tom Mayes, author of Why Old Places Matter, writes, “The old places of people’s lives are deeply important—more important than is generally recognized—because these neighborhoods, churches, temples, old houses, stone-walled fields, landmark trees, and courthouses contribute to people’s well-being, from that sense of identity and belonging, to the awe inspired by beauty, to the drive to build and sustain a greener and more equitable world.”[xvii]


[i] A growing conversation in the art community is centered around the vocabulary of placemaking. During a 2018 PastForward session Lauren Hood from Deep Dive Detroit talked about the concept of place-keeping where instead of coming into a neighborhood and rebuilding from the ground up, preservationists and art organizers work to support and sustain the cultural practices that already exist. In order to have an inclusive preservation practice, language is an important element to focus on. See also Erica Ciccarone, “Nashville Artist’s Aim for Place-keeping More Than Placemaking,” Burnaway, September 17, 2017.

[ii] Coined in 1989 by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectionality is a term that examines the overlapping issues of discrimination within specific identities. That is, where stories of discrimination for black women are often connected to discrimination bias based on their gender and race. For the purposes of this essay, intersectionality uses that central definition as a means of storytelling, in which preservationists and historians tell the full history of the American past through the lens of overlapping identities.

[iii] Max Page and Marla Miller, “Introduction,” in Bending the Future: Fifty Ideas for the Next Fifty Years of Historic Preservation in the United States, eds. Max Page and Marla Miller (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2016), 2.

[iv] Byrd Wood, ed. With Heritage So Rich (Washington D.C.: National Trust for Historic Preservation, 1999), 194.

[v] David Brown, “A Preservation Movement for All Americans” in Bending the Future: Fifty Ideas for the Next Fifty Years of Historic Preservation in the United States, eds. Max Page and Marla Miller (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2016), 59.

[vi] Brown, “A Preservation Movement for All Americans,” 60.

[vii] Stephanie Meeks, “Introduction: Our Future Is In Diversity,” Forum Journal: The Full Spectrum of History: Prioritizing Diversity and Inclusion in Preservation 30, no. 4 (Summer 2016): 9. There are a two significant programs that work to engage youth in preservation projects. The National Trust’s HOPE Crew focuses on training young people and veterans in historic trades. Another program, HistoriCorps, was inspired by the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps to bring volunteers together to work on preservation projects. Both programs provide avenues of engagement outside of professional university training.

[viii] Sarah Zenaida Gould, “Latinos in Heritage Conservation,” in Bending the Future: Fifty Ideas for the Next Fifty Years of Historic Preservation in the United States, eds. Max Page and Marla Miller (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2016), 89.

[ix] Meeks, 6.

[x] More detail on these ideas can be found in the National Trust for Historic Preservation research reports Older, Smaller, Better: Measuring how the character of buildings and blocks influences urban vitality and Untapped Potential: Strategies for Revitalization and Reuse.

[xi] Justin Garrett Moore, “Making A Difference: Reshaping the Past, Present, and Future Toward Greater Equity,” Forum Journal: Reurbanism: Past Meets Future in American Cities 31, no. 4 (2018): 23-24.

[xii] Clement Alexander Price, “The Path to Big Mama’s House: Historic Preservation, Memory and African-American History,” Forum Journal: Imagining a More Inclusive Preservation Movement 28, no. 3 (2014): 27.

[xiii] Cathlin Goulding, “Tule Lake: Learning from Places of Exception in a Climate of Fear,” Forum Journal: Preserving Difficult Histories 31, no. 3 (Spring 2017): 50.

[xiv] Claudia Guerra, “Culture Mapping: Engaging Community in Historic Preservation,” Forum Journal: The Full Spectrum of History: Prioritizing Diversity and Inclusion in Preservation 30, no. 4 (Summer 2016): 30.

[xv] Lisa Yun Lee, “The Stories We Collect: Promoting Housing as a Human Right at the National Public Housing Museum,” Forum Journal: Preserving Difficult Histories 31, no. 3 (Spring 2017): 17.

[xvi] Gail Dubrow, “From Minority to Majority,” in Bending the Future: Fifty Ideas for the Next Fifty Years of Historic Preservation in the United States, eds. Max Page and Marla Miller (Amherst, MA:  University of Massachusetts Press, 2016), 74.

[xvii] Thompson M. Mayes, Why Old Places Matter: How Historic Places Affect Our Identity and Well-Being (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers/AASLH, 2018).

Suggested Readings

Baca, Alex. “Places Journal Reading Lists: Reading Cities.” Places Journal.

Herrmann, Victoria. “Blog Series: America’s Eroding Edges.” October 1, 2018, More stories at

Mayes, Thompson M. Why Old Places Matter: How Historic Places Affect Our Identity and Well-BeingNew York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers/AASLH, 2018). Blog Series here:

Meeks, Stephanie K. “Presenting ‘Preservation for People: A Vision for the Future.’” Preservation Leadership Forum. May, 18, 2017,

National Council on Public History. “Special Issue: Conversations in Critical Cultural Heritage” The Public Historian 41, no. 1 (February 2019).

National Council on Public History. “National Historic Preservation Act Commemoration Series” History@Work blog,

National Park Service. “Theme Studies.” Accessed February 16, 2019,

  • Finding A Path Forward: Asian American Pacific Islander National Historic Landmark Theme Study. 2018.
  • LGBTQ America: A Theme Study of Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, and Queer History. 2016.
  • American Latino Heritage. 2013.

Page, Max, and Marla Miller, eds. Bending the Future: Fifty Ideas for the Next Fifty Years of Historic Preservation in the United StatesAmherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2016.

Preservation Leadership Forum. Forum Journal: The Full Spectrum of History: Prioritizing Diversity and Inclusion in Preservation 30, no. 4 (Summer 2016).

Preservation Leadership Forum. Forum Journal: Preserving Difficult Histories 31, no. 3 (Spring 2017).

Preservation Leadership Forum. Forum Journal: “Every Story Told”: Centering Women’s History 32, No. 2. Behind a Firewall Until 2020. Available on Project Muse.

Preservation Leadership Forum. Forum Journal: Imagining a More Inclusive Preservation Movement 28, no. 3 (2014).

Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. “Culture Lab Playbook.” Accessed February 16, 2019,

UNESCO. “About Intangible Heritage.” Accessed February 16, 2019,

US/ICOMOS. “With a World of Heritage So Rich.” US/ICOMOS Organization Website. Accessed February 16, 2019

Valadares, Desiree. “Places Journal Reading Lists: Race, Space, and the Law.” Places Journal.

Various Authors. “Blog Series: When Does Preservation Become Social Justice.” Preservation Leadership Forum. July 26, 2017.

Various Authors. “Blog Series: Women’s History and Historic Preservation.” Preservation Leadership ForumSeptember 13, 2017.


Priya Chhaya is a public historian and the associate director of publications and programs at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. You can contact her through her website at

Digital History

The United States Census Bureau used Film Optical Sensing Device for Input to Computers (FOSDIC) to transfer data from paper questionnaires to microfilm from the 1960 through 1990 Censuses. U.S. Census Bureau, 1960s, Wikimedia Commons.

Digital history is an approach to researching and interpreting the past that relies on computer and communication technologies to help gather, quantify, interpret, and share historical materials and narratives. It empowers individuals and organizations to be active participants in preserving and telling stories from the past, and it unlocks patterns embedded across diverse bodies of sources. Making technology an integral component of the historian’s craft opens new ways of analyzing patterns in data and offers means to visualize those patterns, thereby enriching historical research. Moreover, digital history offers multiple pathways for historians to collaborate, publish, and share their work with a wide variety of audiences. Perhaps most important, digital methods help us to access and share marginalized or silenced voices and to incorporate them into our work in ways not possible in print or the space of an exhibition gallery. This essay provides an overview of the multiple ways historians are using digital tools to research and share inclusive histories with broad audiences.

The Growth of Digital History

Over the last twenty-five years, digital history has grown into a subfield of its own. Using computers to assist in both historical analysis and the sharing of historical narratives is not new. Economic and social historians began adopting computer-based statistical methods in the 1960s to analyze historical data as means for documenting and quantifying different communities. In the 1980s and 1990s, as personal computers became more available and accessible, some historians created simple databases of sources, transcriptions, and numerical data derived from their own research. The birth of the Web and the first modern browser, Mosaic, in 1993, opened new means for sharing, networking, and collaborating in ways not previously possible. Using computer languages designed for the Web, historians found opportunities for crafting and publishing narratives filled with links to other resources, creating non-linear pathways that encouraged new ways of reading.

An important milestone occurred in the 1990s when cultural heritage institutions began creating digital copies of their holdings and sharing them online for free. The Library of Congress’s American Memory and the New York Public Library’s first iteration of the Digital Schomburg collection were path-breaking resources that facilitated access to sources for historians and students. Genealogists, collectors, and enthusiasts benefited from these collections, and the Web provided a means for them to share their passion and connect with others. Genealogists, in particular, benefited from digitized databases of passenger records from the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation records documenting immigrants entering Ellis Island. In this period, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints also began its long history of providing access to digitized U.S. Census records and other public records.[i] Collector Omar Khan launched a website filled with his collections, Harappa: The Indus Valley and the Raj in India and Pakistan, driven by his personal interest in the histories of South Asia. Soon after the site launched in 1995, Khan connected with scholars in and of the region and the Harappa grew beyond a hobbyist’s project into an impressive online resource containing collections and exhibitions on two distinct eras in South Asian history.[ii] Motivated by the potential to expose and document voices from underserved and under-heard communities, individuals and organizations gravitated to the Web to harness the power of computers to collect, analyze, and present digitized data.

Digital Collections

Today, digitized collections of primary sources from thousands of libraries, archives, and museums continue to facilitate access to existing collections. Many of these collections replicate existing archival structures and collections. As such, digital collections can reproduce the power structures, and absences, involved in the creation of the original physical archives. At the same time, digital scanning and photography, combined with web protocols, have allowed individuals and organizations to build, curate, and share more inclusive collections around themes and communities. Online collaborative research collections, such as the Digital Library of the Caribbean, combine resources from multiple organizations to serve an international and multi-lingual audience and promote the study of Caribbean history and culture. Since their founding in 2004, their governance model is designed with principles of equity and inclusion: decision-making is shared and the combined monetary and professional resources are distributed equitably across more than forty institutions.[iii] When designated physical spaces for certain types of archival material do not exist (or are limited), people are creating digital spaces to fill the gap.

An important example of digital collections work documenting under-heard voices is the Colored Conventions Project. Led by Gabrielle Foreman and a large collaborative team at the University of Delaware, it brings together newly-digitized sources related to Black political conventions from the 1830s to 1890s into a website that includes minutes from local, regional, state, and national meetings discoverable by year, place, and subject tags. To make the scanned documents fully text searchable, Foreman and her team collaborate with students and community groups, including African American churches, to transcribe documents and research the lives of individuals mentioned in meeting minutes, most of whom are not national figures. Through this community-sourced research, a new story of African American political activism is emerging.[iv]

Many digital collections projects begin outside of academic institutions. The South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA), led by Michelle Caswell and Samip Mallick, began as a way for the organizers to see themselves and their community in history. After ten years of collecting digitally, it holds thousands of items making it the largest collection of South Asian American history.[v] When the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) first formed, they lacked a physical collection and turned to digital means to jumpstart their efforts. The museum launched an online Memory Book in 2007 that asked visitors to share their stories, family photos, or traditions. These early contributions influenced how curators shaped their interpretative priorities and helped them build their physical and digital collections. This practice also informed their digital strategy from the institution’s earliest stages.[vi] These digital collections provided building blocks for writing and teaching more inclusive histories.

Teaching and Learning

Some of the earliest digital history projects sought to bring students into direct contact with digitized primary sources and multi-media interactives to teach historical methods and analysis. History Matters offered one of the first free online U.S. history courses designed for high school and college classrooms, based on the textbook and CD-ROM, Who Built America?. By assembling different types of primary sources to represent many voices from the past and publishing guides to help students interpret different kinds of evidence, History Matters demonstrated the potential for building inclusive and synthetic teaching materials for the Web—such materials are now collectively known as Open Educational Resources (OERs).[vii] Since these early projects, educators have posted lesson plans, activities, and other materials online, which has created a need to aggregate these sources in central places for teachers, leading to sites such as EDSITEment and Teaching[viii]

Immersive websites and games have also played an important role in history education. In Who Killed William Robinson?, launched in the late 1990s, Canadian historians experimented with an immersive site that invited students to closely examine primary and secondary evidence pertaining to a specific historical event. Designed to help undergraduates understand historical methods and uncertainties in the record, the project asked students to spend time reading about the contexts surrounding the murder and associated events, then dig through a collection of primary sources and different interpretations of the eventsStudents using the website quickly learned how murky evidence presented at trial led to the conviction and execution of a Chemainus Indian and many questioned the verdict. Project co-creators, Ruth Sandwell and John Lutz, wove together the social, cultural, and political contexts at work in colonial British Columbia to help students solve the mystery behind the death of William Robinson and other African Americans who migrated to British Columbia in the 1860s.[ix] Designing investigative activities like Who Killed William Robinson? and other serious educational games requires an intense amount of technical and research resources to build and sustain as web browsers evolve and the use of mobile devices continues to increase.

Historians are also sharing and creating undergraduate and graduate-level syllabi online to encourage more inclusive reading lists and assignments that acknowledge and respond to current events. Responding to racially-motivated violence in the 2010s, educators began generating reading lists to promote teaching the history of racial violence, mass incarceration, and white supremacy. One example is #CharlestonSyllabus, initiated by Brandies University professor Chad Williams, following the horrific 2015 shootings at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The resulting community-sourced resource, now maintained by Keisha Blain and the African American Intellectual History Society, is filled with books and articles on relevant historical topics, many of which were written by scholars of color. These efforts encourage instructors to teach and discuss difficult historical, cultural, and political topics with their students.[x] Through these examples, we see historians building both simple and complex projects to engage students in historical thinking and research.

Digital Exhibits and Publications

Unlike a print article that has an accepted structure and form designed to be read sequentially, digital narratives offer historians the ability to create non-linear paths to explore themes and paths of argumentation and invite conversations with community audiences. Some projects invite users to see complexity in history by following different pathways through layers of content including: links to digitized primary sources; visualizations of historical data in maps, graphs, or charts; and narrative threads that work together to address historical questions in ways not possible in print monographs or exhibition catalogues.

American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music is an example of an online exhibition that accompanied a traveling show developed by EMP Museum and the University of Washington. American Sabor’s bilingual website invites Spanish and English speakers to learn about the musical contributions of Latinx musicians and how their culture shaped the American popular music scene after World War II. Site visitors learn about Latinx migration in and out of particular regions, hear musicians’ oral histories, learn about musical styles such as the Rumba and Mambo, and listen to sample songs. This exhibition brings together multiple kinds of sources—including sound—that are important for telling more inclusive histories by using digital means to craft historical arguments about the past.

Digital publishing platforms such as Scalar, Omeka, WordPress, and Manifold offer historians the means to bring together annotated media and sources with long-form writing and embed visualizations not possible in a book. In one example, Matthew F. Delmont has created an online companion to augment his print monograph, Why Busing Failed. The digital edition is a free and accessible version of his research that incorporates in-depth examination of multimedia sources and provides him the opportunity to reframe his academically-focused monograph as more approachable online essays that offer twelve new ways to rethink the way that the history of school desegregation and civil rights is taught in American schools.[xi]

Professional organizations are also turning to free digital publishing platforms as ways to reach and support their members by discussing new scholarship, but also to provide a voice for their organizations’ advocacy roles in the profession and public policy, as well as in struggles for social justice. The African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS) publication Black Perspectives, an award-winning digital history site with dozens of contributing scholars, promotes and disseminates “scholarship on global black thought, history, and culture.” The National Council on Public History and the American Association for State and Local History decided to publish The Inclusive Historian’s Handbook online as a free resource not only for their members, but also to open the practice of history for diverse communities of practitioners and directly support inclusive and equity-focused historical work in public settings.[xii] Free online publishing software facilitates a type of dialogue that many inclusive historians already engage with in other ways; however, it expands the reach, depth, and breadth of these conversations.

Collaborative Digital Public History

Digital public history practitioners collaborate with groups outside of the academy and other formal cultural institutions to document their experiences and work together in telling their histories. For example, launched in 2008 by a team led by Ned Katz to facilitate collaboratively-written histories of the LGBTQ community. The project collects personal reflections, but it focuses on using its Wiki publishing platform as the means to collaboratively write and discuss episodes important to the diverse LBGTQ community. As the number of contributors grew, so did the project’s stature as a resource for LGBTQ history.[xiii] Public historians are also actively trying to change understandings of American history and the shared racist, colonial, and exclusionary legacies that are made visible through current events. Denise Meringolo created Preserve the Baltimore Uprising to document the events of protest by those living and experiencing it in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray in 2015. The project began as a crowdsourced, community collecting project, but it continues to transform as Meringolo works with Baltimore residents, including high school students, to reflect and interpret this series of events within the historical roots of racial injustice and political unrest in their city.[xiv]

In reaction to racially-motivated police violence in 2014, museum professionals Aleia Brown and Adrianne Russell, started the hashtag #museumsrespondtoferguson to begin a long conversation about how museums and cultural heritage organizations might improve and change racial and cultural understandings within their communities. By hosting regular conversations on Twitter and blogging, Brown and Russell encouraged museum professionals to examine their hiring practices, collections policies, and public programming offerings.[xv] By using social media platforms like Twitter with hashtags that can be followed in-real time and asynchronously, robust conversations occurred in ways that are not possible within the confines of conference presentations or other in-person meetings. There are risks, however, when public historians participate in community conversations of highly-contested historical episodes, such as the building of Confederate monuments in the early twentieth century. In the absence of skilled facilitation, it can sometimes be difficult to participate in thoughtful and rational discussions and it is easy for discussants to be dismissive, rude, and even threatening. People of color, LGBTQ individuals, and women are more often targets of racist, sexist, and exclusionary attacks on social media. Preserving these active conversations and saving the public witness of events recorded in real time is important but not easy. Most social media platforms are commercial entities, so saving these conversations requires understanding terms of service for each platform, user rights, and advanced technical knowledge to harvest conversation streams. Led by archivist Bergis Jules, the Documenting the Now team has developed tools and workflows to enable saving of social media hashtags and streams for future research.[xvi] No matter the project, digital public historians encourage and facilitate active participation of communities to increase understanding of the past and contextualization of the present through digital means.

Computational Analysis

Digital history that requires computer programming languages to explore historical data through visualization is often referred to as computational analysis. This approach can be most helpful for exploring collections of digital sources and other types of data that can be visualized to frame research questions or expose the relationships among people, places, and ideas. Using spatial data, some digital historians interpret landscapes by generating maps. Exploring the constructions and connections of place and space are important when studying the spread of commodities, ideas, and people, as well as the impact of public policies on physical places. Through careful research of local records, Prologue DC’s Mapping Segregation in Washington, DC visualizes segregation in twentieth-century Washington, D.C., neighborhoods by mapping the restrictive covenants, block-by-block, across the city. Weaving together legal challenges, historical photographs, and other sources on a map, this project offers a good example of how placed-based storytelling can make systemic racism visible in concrete ways.[xvii]

Textual analysis, more commonly used in literature and rhetoric fields, offers methods for examining language use by identifying language patterns and themes based on combinations of words and phrases across bodies of texts (corpora). Historian Michelle Moravec employs these techniques when examining documents related to the women’s suffrage movement in the United States. Through analyzing the rhetoric amassed across six volumes of the History of Woman Suffrage, Moravec can see how the white editors framed the voting rights movement’s rhetoric. By excluding radical voices and women of color who saw suffrage as one step toward achieving equal rights for all women, the compendium’s editors focused on issues pertinent to themselves—property rights of married white women.[xviii] These limitations are important to identify when researching a large body of sources. Since computational methods require digitized and machine-readable content, the absence of inclusive collections presents real challenges. Online collecting and recovery efforts mentioned earlier in the essay are an integral piece for creating an inclusive digital history.

Social network analysis helps digital historians to explore relationships between different entities and visualize them. The Linked Jazz project team, led by Cristina Pattuelli, spent years extracting and identifying names of jazz musicians, composers, and leaders through recorded transcriptions of oral histories, photographs, and documents using computational techniques. The team built a database of names and identified connections, such as band member, mentor, influencer, or collaborator. They then asked for assistance from historians, fans, and jazz musicians to identify and confirm the relationships and other biographical information from this community. Driven by metadata that links individuals across multiple collections, Linked Jazz generates visualizations that show the many connections of individuals lesser known in mainstream histories, such as Toshiko Akiyoshi, a prominent Japanese band leader and musician.[xix] Engaging in computational analysis requires a digital historian to create datasets, and data needs definition to be processed. Forcing uncertain information into a fixed value, such as a date or specific place, when source material may not offer that certainty creates tension for historians and may mean that a specific digital method cannot reasonably be employed as means for analysis. This also can make computational methods less accessible than other areas of digital history.

Challenges for the Field

Despite the field’s efforts to build an open and collaborative community, digital history methods can be exclusive and challenging to practice. Digital historians have worked to be inclusive of underrepresented and under-served communities in their project work, but they have not been as successful in expanding the corps of practitioners. Even still, efforts such as the multi-lingual Programming Historian, offer step-by-step lessons with sample data and content for learning different digital methods, free open source software, and workflows. Started in 2008 by William J. Turkel and Alan MacEachern, Programming Historian is now a free peer-reviewed publication supported by an active cohort of authors, editors, and reviewers committed to teaching, fostering, and growing an inclusive community of practitioners.[xx] Other efforts to increase capacity can be found through free professional development opportunities offered through the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Getty Foundation, and professional organizations, as well as fee-based courses at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute and many universities. National networks, such as RailsGirls, are working to give young women free training in computational thinking and programming and, in this way, seek to create a more inclusive workforce in the technology sector.[xxi] This essay shows that digital methods and projects offer dynamic ways for creating, publishing, and collaborating on inclusive history projects. While this essay does not address digital infrastructure, it is important to note that historians are contributing to these new methods and the scholarly communications ecosystem through the development of and contributions to free and open source software that undergirds much of the work cited here.[xxii] A major challenge for us, is to be active in conversations about preserving and sustaining the open digital infrastructure that makes this inclusive digital history work accessible for all in years to come.


[i] Library of Congress, American Memory; New York Public Library, Digital Schomburg; Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation,; Family Search has grown tremendously since its launch in May 1999, as an outgrowth of the LDS Church’s Genealogical Society of Utah,

[ii] Omar Khan, Harappa: The Indus Valley and the Raj in India and Pakistan, original website content lives here, and the updated newly-designed site is found at

[iii] Digital Library of the Caribbean,

[iv] P. Gabrielle Foreman, Jim Casey, Sarah Lynn Patterson, et al, The Colored Conventions Project

[v] Michelle Caswell, “Seeing Yourself in History: Community Archives and the Fight Against Symbolic Annihilation,” The Public Historian 36, no. 4 (November 2014): 26-37,

[vi] Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African American History and Culture, Memory Book, 2007-2011:; Laura Coyle, “Right from the Start: The Digitization Program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture,” The Public Historian 40, no. 3 (August 2018): 292-318,

[vii] Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and American Social History Project, History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web

[viii] National Endowment for the Humanities, EDSITEment,; Kelly Schrum, et al, Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, National History Education Clearinghouse

[ix] Ruth Sandwell and John Lutz, Who Killed William Robinson? Race, Justice and Settling the Land

[x] Dan Cohen, “A Million Syllabi,”, blog, March 31, 2011,; Chad Williams, et al, #Charleston Syllabus:

[xi] Alliance for Networking Visual Culture, Scalar:; Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and Corporation for Digital Scholarship, Omeka:; WordPress Foundation, WordPress:; University of Minnesota Press, Manifold,; Matthew F. Delmont, Why Busing Failed, digital project,

[xii] African American Intellectual History Society, Black Perspectives, Black Perspectives won the American Historical Association’s Roy Rosenzweig Prize for Innovation in Digital History in 2017.

[xiii] Lauren Jae Gutterman, “OutHistory.Org: An Experiment in LGBTQ Community History-Making.” The Public Historian 32, no. 4 (November 2010): 96-109.

[xiv] Denise Meringolo, Maryland Historical Society, et al, Preserve the Baltimore Uprising,

[xv] Aleia Brown and Adrianne Russell, “We Who Believe in Freedom Cannot Rest,” The Incluseum (blog), December 17, 2015,

[xvi] Bergis Jules and Ed Summers, et al, Documenting the Now,

[xvii] Prologue DC, Mapping Segregation in Washington, DC

[xviii] Michelle Moravec, “‘Under this name she is fitly described’: A Digital History of Gender in the History of Woman Suffrage,” Women and Social Movements 19, no. 1 (March 2015),

[xix] Cristina Pattuelli, et al, Linked Jazz

[xx] The Programming Historian

[xxi] National Endowment for the Humanities, Office of Digital Humanities, Institutes for Advanced Topics in Digital Humanities program,; Digital Humanities Summer Institute at University of Victoria, Canada,; National RailsGirls,

[xxii] Software is developed and maintained by historians and humanists at institutions, such as the Roy Rosenzweig Center for New Media at George Mason University and the Corporation for Digital Scholarship (Zotero; Omeka; and Tropy,; Stanford University’s Humanities + Design Lab (Palladio,; and Alliance for Networking Visual Culture (Scalar, Individuals contributing software include Stefan Sinclair and Geoffrey Rockwell (Voyant Tools, and Lincoln Mullen (R packages:

Suggested Readings

Brennan, Sheila A. “Public, First.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016, edited by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren Klein. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.

Caswell, Michelle. “Seeing Yourself in History: Community Archives and the Fight Against Symbolic Annihilation.” The Public Historian 36, no. 4 (November 2014): 26-37.

Cohen, Daniel J., and Roy Rosenzweig. Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.

Coyle, Laura. “Right from the Start: The Digitization Program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture.” The Public Historian 40, no. 3 (August 2018): 292-318.

Gallon, Kim. “Making a Case for the Black Digital Humanities.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016, edited by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren Klein. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.

Gibbs, Frederick W. “New Forms of History: Critiquing Data and Its Representations.” The American Historian, February 2016.

Gutterman, Lauren Jae. “ An Experiment in LGBTQ Community History-Making.” The Public Historian, 32, no. 4 (November 2010): 96-109.

Leon, Sharon. “Complicating a ‘Great Man’ Narrative of Digital History in the United States.” In Bodies of Information, Intersectional Feminism and Digital Humanities, edited by Elizabeth Losh and Jacqueline Wernimont, 344-366. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018.

Graham, Shawn, et al. Exploring Big Historical Data: The Historian’s Macroscope. London: Imperial College Press, 2016.

Posner, Miriam. “What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016, edited by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren Klein. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.

Rosenzweig, Roy, et al. Clio Wired: The Future of the Past in the Digital Age. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

Tilton, Lauren, et al, editors. American Quarterly Special Issue: Toward a Critically Engaged Digital Practice: American Studies and the Digital Humanities 70, no. 3 (September 2018).

White, Richard. “What Is Spatial History?” The Spatial History Project, February 1, 2010.


Sheila A. Brennan is a digital public historian and strategic planner with over 20 years of experience working in public humanities. She has directed dozens of digital projects and published an open access digital monograph, Stamping American Memory: Collectors, Citizens, and the Post (University of Michigan Press, 2018).

Civic Engagement

Brooklyn Museum, First Saturday Party, July 2009. Photo credit: Eric, brooklynmuseum_073, Flickr.

The term “civic engagement” refers to both formal political practices and informal organizational activities that promote democracy by expanding citizen participation in problem solving and broadening access to social and political capital. Historians play at least three crucial roles in the promotion of civic engagement. First, they provide access to historical content and context which inform analyses of contemporary social, cultural, or political issues. Second, they promote collaborative practice, reflection-in-action, and facilitated dialogue as essential components of productive and inclusive political discourse. Finally, they participate in and often lead efforts to open up museums, historic sites, archives, libraries, and other institutional spaces for a variety of civic uses by individuals and communities. Because public historians, in particular, are employed in a variety of cultural institutions and in a growing number of colleges and universities, they have influenced the expansion of civic engagement as a defining value in both education and professional practice.

Historical Perspective

The rise of civic engagement as a central process of public history practice can be viewed through either a short or a long historical lens, but a truncated history tends to dominate the literature on civic engagement in academic and public history institutions. Throughout most of this literature, civic engagement appears to have emerged in response to the culture wars of the 1990s, a period during which political leaders repeatedly vilified universities and museums. A series of high profile controversies regarding federally funded museum exhibitions reflected a general sense that American cultural institutions had become too disconnected from their audiences and stakeholders. According to critics, this disconnection—not the conservative impulses embedded in institutional structures, collections, and interpretations—was to blame for a variety of ills including controversies, budget crises, and shrinking audiences. Politicians and citizens alike questioned the use of public funds to support institutions that appeared to serve so few. In response, museums and universities developed programs to demonstrate their civic value. The American Alliance of Museums, the leading professional association for museums in the United States (then called the American Association of Museums), initiated a challenge for museums to become more inclusive, making an effort to connect with their communities.[i]

Viewing civic engagement as a recent phenomenon can lead to a rather cynical reading of its value. The assessment of these programs has been focused on internal institutional impacts: student learning, curator and faculty research, success in winning grants, development of administrative infrastructure, and financial stability. The literature highlighting this recent history clearly indicates that strategies of civic engagement—including community partnerships and collaborative research—have indeed had a profoundly positive impact on both universities and cultural institutions. City administrators tout the value of civic engagement for improving fiscal management and promoting urban development. Experts on pedagogy have analyzed the value of civic engagement for improving students’ political awareness, empathy, and inter-personal skills. Experts on museums and other cultural institutions have accepted civic engagement as an essential component of best practices, a tool for diversifying audiences, enhancing the relevance of museums, and illuminating new perspectives on the past. Because there has been little emphasis on identifying and analyzing external impacts, however, civic engagement appears in the literature to best serve as a response to institutional crisis, not necessarily as a response to community needs and desires.[ii] In contrast, even a cursory effort to identify a longer history suggests that civic engagement is a potentially radical practice with deep roots.

Connections to Anti-Racist Projects

Looking for precedents and antecedents allows us to begin to recognize civic engagement’s potential value for addressing community interests. While recent trends helped institutionalize civic engagement as a value of public history, the practices that define it originated in older, experimental efforts to build inclusive forms of historical practice on a foundation of commitment to the common good. Many of these early experiments supported anti-racist intellectual projects, broadly conceived. In the early twentieth century, for example, Carter G. Woodson established a collaborative set of processes for the promotion and expansion of African American history. Recognizing the crucial importance of historical representation, he engaged university scholars as well as primary school teachers and members of commemorative organizations in a wide-ranging effort to preserve, interpret, and celebrate African American history.[iii] The organization he established in 1915, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, remains a broadly inclusive organization with members from a wide range of educational and cultural institutions. Similarly, the founding directors and curators in the black museums movement, which scholars trace to the middle of the twentieth century, recognized preservation and interpretation as relevant for addressing the immediate needs of black communities.[iv] Finally, the values and commitments that underpin civic engagement in institutions of higher learning have been most fully realized in Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). HBCU founders, faculty, and administrators recognized their essential role in providing solutions to the problems faced by black communities in the United States and emphasized responsiveness as their guiding principle. While the forms of civic engagement codified during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries tended to reinforce, however unintentionally, a hierarchical relationship between universities and communities, this was not typically the case for HBCUs and the communities they served. Black students and faculty tended to have closer connections with surrounding communities, and they were more likely to view local people as peers and colleagues than clients.[v]

Viewed from the perspective of this deeper history, the potential of civic engagement becomes visible. Educational and cultural institutions can become more permeable and transparent spaces that foster inclusiveness and emphasize the co-creation of knowledge over top-down instruction. Approaching these aims can challenge deeply institutionalized beliefs about the nature and parameters of professionalism.

Effective Models of Civic Engagement

In the twenty-first century, crowdsourced digital collecting practices have emerged as an effective method for engaging average people in shaping the historical record. While the vast majority of crowdsourced digital collections remain subject to collections policies and curatorial discretion that impose some limits on collaborative practices, they nonetheless make collections processes more transparent and inclusive. Notably, a small but growing number of crowdsourced digital collections actively confront institutional practices that limit or control contributors’ efforts to define historical materials and their meaning. For example, the People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland actively involves Cleveland residents in decision making and empowers them to retain control of the collection. The collection is maintained through cooperation between Puncture the Silence, a local activist organization in Cleveland and an independent collective of archivists from around the country who are committed to its long-term preservation.

Examining the long history of civic engagement further suggests that leaders in museums, cultural institutions, colleges, and universities must be able to identify and respond to rapidly changing economic, social, and political conditions. Fostering this kind of responsiveness requires the development and maintenance of meaningful relationships between organizations and the communities they serve. Organizations are most successful in this work when it is integrated into their mission. For example, both the Jane Addams Hull House Museum in Chicago, IL, and the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, CT, have successfully made the case that active political engagement with their stakeholders is not simply important; it is central to each site’s history and preservation. Hull House founder, Jane Addams, established the settlement as a site for local residents to meet, organize, and problem solve. The institution’s staff continues that tradition, providing space for community meetings, English language classes, and other uses. Located in a historic structure associated with the abolitionist and author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center puts the methods of historical inquiry to work to promote dialogue and action around issues of incarceration, enslavement, and injustice.

Other institutions actively work to develop meaningful relationships with local residents and other stakeholders by encouraging innovative collaboration. For example, the Brooklyn Museum in New York has developed a process for enabling the community to design and lead museum programs. Anyone can submit a program proposal, and the museum staff accepts and reviews them on a rolling basis. Once a proposal has been adopted, museum staff can provide support and advice to aid community members in organizing their event. These community-designed programs are not “special events.” Rather, they are fully integrated into the museum’s regular schedule of weekend events, monthly First Saturdays, and weekly Thursday evenings. More importantly, community-led programming is a mode of reciprocal communication. It empowers local people to actively define their relationship with the museum, and it enables the museum staff to remain engaged with community needs and interests.

Finally, exploring the development of civic engagement over time suggests its highest aims are best served when practitioners recognize themselves as serving not only their typical constituencies, but also a wider community. The development of networks of practice can expand community engagement, amplify and broaden interpretive processes, and foster dialogue among people with divergent perspectives, beliefs, and experiences. For example, the Humanities Action Lab is a collective of universities, action organizations, and public spaces dedicated to the design and implementation of community-based history projects that provide a response to urgent contemporary issues. Action Lab projects have included the Guantanamo Public Memory Project, States of Incarceration, and Migration and Environmental Justice, each of which seeks to shed light on injustice and foster dialogue about the future. Similarly, the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience provides educational resources and support to organizations and individuals who wish to use memorial sites, museums, and historic places to promote dialogue and reconciliation.


As these examples suggest, civic engagement is a means by which historians can challenge exclusive pasts and promote a more just and inclusive future. By valuing responsiveness and connection, by working to treat different ways of knowing and analyzing events as equally relevant for problem solving, and by privileging inclusiveness over authority, public history can play a role in expanding democracy and craft a strong foundation from which average citizens can become stronger advocates and agitators for social justice causes.


[i] American Association of Museums, Mastering Civic Engagement: A Challenge to Museums (Washington, D.C.: American Association of Museums, 2002).

[ii] Roger L. Kemp, ed., Town and Gown Relations: A Handbook of Best Practices (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2013); Susan Benigni Cipolle, Service Learning and Social Justice: Engaging Students in Social Change (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2010); Christine M. Cress, Peter J. Collier, Vicki L. Reitenauer, and Associates, Learning Through Serving: A Student Guidebook for Service-Learning and Civic Engagement across Academic Disciplines and Cultural Communities (Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, 2013); Barbara Jacoby and Associates, Civic Engagement in Higher Education: Concepts and Practices (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009); Gail Anderson, ed. Reinventing the Museum: The Evolving Conversation and the Paradigm Shift (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2012); Viv Golding and Wayne Modest, eds., Museums and Communities: Curators, Collections, and Collaboration (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013).

[iii] Pero Dagbovie, The Early Black History Movement, Carter G. Woodson, and Lorenzo Johnston Greene (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007).

[iv] Andrea Burns, From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museums Movement (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013).

[v] Marybeth Gasman, Dorsey Spencer, and Cecilia Orphan, “‘Building Bridges not Fences’: A History of Civic Engagement at Private Black Colleges and Universities, 1944-1965,” History of Education Quarterly  55, No. 3 (August 2015): 346-379 (published online January 20, 2017),

Suggested Readings

Adair, Bill, and Benjamin Filene, Editors. Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User Generated World. New York: Routledge, 2011.

Blouin, Francis X. Jr., and William G. Rosenberg. Processing the Past: Contesting Authority in History and the Archives. New York: Oxford University Press, Reprint Edition, 2012.

Coombes, Annie E. History after Apartheid: Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

Gonzalez, Kenneth P. Doing the Public Good: Latina/o Scholars Engage Civic Participation. Stylus Publishing, 2007.

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

Onciul, Bryony. Museums, Heritage, and Indigenous Voice: Decolonizing Engagement. New York: Routledge, 2015.

Rizzo, Mary. “Finding the Roots of Civic Engagement in the Public Humanities.” History@Work, July 21, 2014

Rocksborough-Smith, Ian. Black Public History in Chicago: Civil Rights Activism from World War II into the Cold War. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2018.

Simon, Nina. The Participatory Museum. 2010.


Denise D. Meringolo is Associate Professor of History and Director of Public History at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.