Why this women’s historian doesn’t support the National Women’s History Museum (for now anyway)
Michel writes that in the midst of Women’s History Month, ” Joan Wages, the president and CEO of the National Women’s History Museum, abruptly informed me and my fellow historians on the museum’s Scholarly Advisory Council that our services were no longer needed. For three years, we had been trying to help Wages’ nonprofit organization develop an overall vision for the institution it hopes to build on the National Mall. Oddly, this move came just as the NWHM is about to win the preliminary congressional approval for the project it has been seeking for sixteen years. But the enabling legislation, which will set up an exploratory commission, offers no guarantee that scholars who have built the field of women’s history will have a role in the institution. Both Wages and lawmakers seem to think that a women’s history museum doesn’t need women’s historians. Without them, however, historians fear that the exigencies of congressional politics and day-to-day fundraising will lead to the creation of a museum that seeks to be as non-controversial as possible—whatever the cost to its scholarly reputation.”
This dismissal of scholars, says Michel, “followed yet another example of a museum offering that embarrassed those of us who were trying to ensure that the institution was adhering to the highest standards in our field. In mid-March, the museum announced that it had launched a new online exhibit, “Pathways to Equality: The U.S. Women’s Rights Movement Emerges,” in conjunction with the Google Cultural Institute. Never informed that the exhibit was in the works, much less given an opportunity to vet it, we were appalled to discover that it was riddled with historical errors and inaccuracies. To pick just one example: Harriet Beecher Stowe was described as having been ‘born into a family of abolitionists’ when, from the time of her birth through her young adulthood in the 1830s, her family actively opposed the abolitionist movement. ‘Pathways to Equality,’ noted Kathryn Kish Sklar, the nineteenth-century specialist who pointed out the error, ‘could have been written by a middle-school student.’” [actually I think this is too kind. Middle school students in Connecticut wouldn't make these mistakes!]
This article confirms my general impressions of the NWHM “virtual” museum — although it’s okay for basic information (most of the time anyway) it’s definitely lacking in depth and sophisticated analysis.
I read Michel’s article a month after attending an excellent session on “Gender: Just Add Women and Stir?” at the National Council on Public History meeting in Monterey. The session reported on a 2013 study trip to historic sites in and around Boston hosted by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. The participants in the study trip “were struck by the wide variety of ways they saw gender and sexuality interpreted — or in some cases, not interpreted at all.” The session discussed the question of “how do we move beyond the ‘just add women and stir’ model of gender interpretation?”
It seems to me that the NWHM needs to ask the same question. Is having a women’s history museum on the Mall simply going to be a monument-size version of “just add women and stir” history? Right now, things don’t look good.
A few years ago I agree to be a “charter member” which involved a relatively modest donation. For now, though, I’m throwing their renewal invitations in the trash. I’m also taking the advice of Kristen Ann Ehrenberger who reported on the Women Historians of Medicine listserv, “I wrote to my Congresspersons as a historian, woman, and voter and urged them not to support HR 863 / SB 399 as currently written. I would like to see historians speak up for substance over donors so this does not become an example of simplistic, populist history overtaking the careful, nuanced work of actual scholars on American women.” This sounds like a fine idea to me.
Update: On Facebook, I asked the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites what they thought of all this and their reply was: “The NCWHS Board has not taken a formal position on the National Women’s History Museum, but various board members are deeply concerned that respected scholars in women’s history express reservations about the absence of serious commitment to historical scholarship. We share your admiration for this piece by Dr. Sonya Michel….“
Another update: Here’s is the National Women’s History Museum’s reply to Michel’s article and Michel’s rejoinder.