I originally posted this article in The Inkwell, the blog for the AASLH Educators & Interpreters Community, for Women’s History Month in 2013. It was written to discuss some current issues in women’s history interpretation at historic sites and offer suggestions for best practices.
It’s Women’s History Month, and the question begs to be asked: How well does your organization interpret women’s history? If you are the Emily Dickinson Museum or the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House, then the answer should be pretty well. But the majority of historic sites are not centered on the life of an individual women or cause. What other options are available for interpreting women’s history?
A recent post on the NCPH blog – Telling Real Women’s Stories by Molly Brookfield – makes a compelling argument that many museums and sites don’t tell women’s history very well:
“…. though there are many historic sites that include women’s experiences in their interpretation, too often they do so with broad brushstrokes, choosing stereotypes and generalizations over the experiences of the actual women.”
Reading that, I immediately thought of my days working as a volunteer coordinator at a historic home in Maryland that was guilty of exactly that offense. While the house was owned for many years by two sisters, the interpretation was stuck in the early 1800s and The Young Republic. They even got to say they had a chair George Washington sat in during a visit.
Brookfield goes on to challenge historic homes to research the real women that lived there, or the real women in the communities, and how those stories can be brought in to the interpretation of the home. I certainly would welcome a “No More Generic Lady of the House” campaign.
As the field continues to build on the model of the 21st Century Museum, museums and sites can connect the past to the present. The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center not only preserves and interprets the life of a historical person, it uses that person to effect change in today’s time. On the home page is their call to action:
“Stowe wrote the anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in 1852. The world was never the same. Abolition became possible. Emancipation became law. But today, in the 21st century, inequity is everywhere. What would Stowe do? What will YOU do?”
The center is a wonderful example of how a historical organization can create civic capital – what I call the measurement of an institution’s civic worth and contribution to society. Using Stowe’s life and work as a starting point, they conquer issues facing us today, including poverty, human trafficking, education, and health care. This is another great and rewarding way sites can use the life of a real historical woman.
Thinking more strategically, women’s history month doesn’t have to be only about when programs occur. Use the month for planning purposes. Make a note that every March staff reviews the interpretation program that involves women. Update the plan with any new research that came out the past year on women in your community or time period. Museums and sites should consider themselves a clearinghouse of information. If new research came out that is relevant or would enhance your visitor experience, you should share that with your audience. Just because your collection is in the past, doesn’t mean your interpretation should be.
And remember, women’s history should be built in year round. March is just when we have a Megaphone!