Telling Big Stories in History Museums: Exhibitions, Narrative, and Synthesis

AHA Session 285
Sunday, January 6, 2019: 11:00 AM-12:30 PM
Stevens C-4 (Hilton Chicago, Lower Level)
Valerie Paley, New-York Historical Society
Lonnie G. Bunch III, National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution
Daniel Greene, Northwestern University and US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Sarah M. Henry, Museum of the City of New York
Jennifer Scott, Jane Addams Hull-House Museum and University of Illinois at Chicago
Valerie Paley, New-York Historical Society

Session Abstract

Recently, several history museums have opened high-profile exhibitions tackling ambitious and wide-ranging narratives, from New York at its Core, the Museum of the City of New York’s examination of four centuries of the city’s history, to Slavery and Freedom, the permanent exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. This panel brings together historians, curators, administrators, and artists to discuss the opportunities and challenges of telling big stories to a diverse body of museumgoers.

Public history sites like museums have the opportunity to make critical and complex themes of history accessible to broad and diverse publics. But this is no small task for curators tackling big and sprawling narratives. Panelists will discuss synthesis as an intellectual endeavor, and how its applications may differ when addressing the needs of the museum and museum audiences. They will frame discussions around the challenges of telling human microhistories in the context of big narratives. And they will consider ways that exhibitions can acknowledge and embrace historiography – while using accessible language and making historical debates relevant to lay audiences.

Questions of user experience are central to effective museum curation. The panel will discuss how curators, historians, and artists can realistically address users’ capacity for content in the context of larger exhibitions. They will also address connections between historical storytelling and marketing strategies used to draw visitors in the door.

Doing synthetic history can variously be a traditional endeavor or a revolutionary one. The panelists will consider ways of addressing the histories that audiences come to expect while disrupting traditional narratives and traditional modes of thinking. How can big histories be tools for reframing history for the twenty-first century museum’s diverse audiences? How can they be used to engage local communities in the process of history telling and history making?

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