Making History Relevant

By Merilee Mostov, Director of Exhibits and Engagement | June 25, 2020

Chart showing the percentage of the population voting in the 2016 election

Making History Relevant in the BIHM exhibit Her Vote. Her Story.

Since March, I’ve been documenting and collecting materials about the COVID-19 experience on Bainbridge Island. As I gather photos and objects for the Museum’s collection, I consider what will help future generations understand what our community is experiencing today. And I consider what I need for a compelling installation about it scheduled to open later this year.

Does it make sense for a history museum curator to focus on current events? Absolutely. In fact, BIHM’s mission challenges me to promote a greater understanding of our community and the world in which we live.

Once upon a time, history museums focused exclusively on the past. That’s no longer the case. More and more, heritage sites, of all types and sizes, are leveraging events, archival materials, and stories of the past to address contemporary issues.

Consider the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site in Philadelphia,  once the most famous and expensive prison in the world. Transcending conventional storytelling about its celebrated past, this historic site presents programs and exhibits that explore the issues of mass incarceration and prison reform today.

Similarly, the Tenement Museum in New York City activates their historic building and resources as a means to foster a greater understanding of immigrant communities, past and present. These objectives are clearly visible on their website:

We use our collections to help connect past and present and to illustrate the lives of 19th and 20th Century immigrants and migrants. The collections help us understand how the experiences of earlier immigrants and migrants compare and contrast with those of newcomers today.

In Seattle, the Holocaust Center for Humanity employs the stories and cultural materials of the Holocaust to influence how people think and behave now. In their words:

The Holocaust Center for Humanity teaches the lessons of the Holocaust, inspiring students of all ages to confront bigotry and indifference, promote human dignity, and take action.

All three are models of what a dynamic, relevant history organization looks like in the 21st century. Armed with information about the past, they courageously ask questions and provoke conversations about the world we live in today and are building for tomorrow.

Can the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum be equally courageous?

I think we can.

  • Recently, I overheard a docent conversing with visitors about the similarities between the injustices of the Japanese American Exclusion and the US immigrant detention system today.
  • In a current exhibit commemorating the 19th Amendment, I provide a graph depicting voter data from a recent election and invite visitors to reflect on and share their reasons for voting, or not voting.
  • This month, BIHM’s Education & Outreach Manager will facilitate a panel discussion with Island residents from the LGBTQI community. These conversations are sure to shine a light on the participants’ past experiences as well as their hopes for the future in light of the Supreme Court decision earlier this month.
  • Last week, in response to national and local outrage about systemic racism and the murder of George Floyd and other people of color, I mounted a lobby display of posters used in an Island protest organized by ERACE Coalition of Kitsap County.

These topics—immigration, voting, LGBTQI rights, systemic racism— are critical issues challenging our community. Indeed, they have deep roots in our local, regional, and national histories. We are courageous, though, when we reframe how and why we examine them. We are courageous when we resist fixating our interest on the past, and instead, focus our attention, conversation, and action on the present.

As a curator in a historical museum, I frequently hear complaints about the lack of knowledge or interest in history:

“They don’t know anything about our local history!”

“They need to know the history of the Island!”

Here’s the hard truth. “They” really don’t need to know. People can live happy, productive lives without knowing much about their local history. I don’t blame anyone for not knowing or wanting to know. If people don’t care about our history, then we haven’t given them a reason to care. It’s a luxury to spend time reflecting on the past; most of us can barely wrangle the energy to navigate the day or week ahead. When we, a history museum, fail to make explicit connections from the past to the present, we fail to make history meaningful and relevant to people’s lives today.

In 2012, a group of earnest history professionals engaged in lively discussions about the importance of centering history and history museum work on contemporary issues. What came out of those conversations? History Relevance, a web-based initiative designed to

support history organizations that encourage the public to use historical thinking skills to actively engage with and address contemporary issues and to value history for its relevance to modern life.

To date, more than 300 organizations have formally endorsed the Value of History Statement outlined on the website. History Relevance is endorsed by prominent organizations, including The American Alliance for Museums, The Smithsonian, and the American Association for State and Local History.

Last month, the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum endorsed the statement.

So, now what?

Now, we put those ideals to work. We act courageously. We develop programs, exhibits, and projects that challenge people of all ages to think critically about the past and about the world in which we live, today. Stay tuned.