“My training as a historian taught me that to separate ideas of class, race, gender, sexuality, and ability from their historical contexts is to miss their true meanings—the real power that they hold in American society to shape and define people’s lives.”
By: William Walker
Each spring for the past seven years, I have taught an interdisciplinary course at the Cooperstown Graduate Program in Cooperstown, New York that explores how museums are (or should be) engaging with issues of class, race, gender, sexuality, and ability in American society and culture. My students and I start by reading classic fiction and non-fiction texts—such as Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk, Richard Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children, Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers, and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. These texts serve as entry points for our discussions, which tackle everything from racial violence and stereotypes to LGBTQ rights and issues of accessibility. As a public historian, I encourage my students to connect past and present while exploring the landscape of museum exhibitions, programs, and other projects that address challenging social and cultural topics.
My training as a historian taught me that to separate ideas of class, race, gender, sexuality, and ability from their historical contexts is to miss their true meanings—the real power that they hold in American society to shape and define people’s lives. Even as we discuss historical narratives, however, my students and I think about contemporary society and critically analyze current museum practice. For example, this past spring, when examining representations of lynching—in Richard Wright’s fiction, the Without Sanctuary exhibition, and the work of artist Ken Gonzales-Day—we also spent time discussing the #BlackLivesMatter movement and followed #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson on Twitter. When it works, the course design allows for seamless integration of discussions of historical interpretation and contemporary issues.
Beyond historicizing, the core goal of the course is to hone cultural competency by developing skills for interacting with many different kinds of people and critically examining the personal biases we carry. My students and I practice constructive modes of engagement, which are deeply influenced by the dialogue methods of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. Key ground rules for class discussion are:
- Use “I” statements.
- Don’t look to anyone to represent a whole group of people.
- Keep an open mind. The questions are often more important than the answers.
- Practice mindful listening.
- Engage in gentle inquiry. Ask questions to increase your understanding.
- Notice how you feel internally and how others are reacting to what you are saying or doing.
In my experience, students honor the guidelines scrupulously. On rare occasions, I have had to remind them of a particular guideline or intervene—gently—in a discussion. Typically, however, we are able to get right back on track after these momentary interruptions. Although our discussions can sometimes be intense, these and other ground rules keep the level of engagement civil and constructive. These modes of engagement carry over into other areas of their work, complementing the team building strategies we emphasize throughout the curriculum, and my expectation is that students will carry these life skills forward into their careers as museum professionals.
My students and I share the common objective of analyzing and brainstorming ways museums can engage productively with issues of class, race, gender, sexuality, and ability. To support this goal, each semester we compile a list of model museum projects (like Queering the Museum) and spend time discussing them in class. Students do in-class presentation and write posts for our course blog detailing these projects. Some examples from last spring are: “Community and Collaboration in Waves of Identity: 35 Years of Archiving,” “Hide/Seek: Raising Awareness of AIDS through Art,” and “Native American Voices: Come and Listen.”
When students leave my course, I expect that they will have an array of innovative museum project ideas at their fingertips from which they can draw in the future. For example, if they are asked to contribute suggestions for an exhibition on Chinese immigration, they will be able to refer to the New-York Historical Society’s Exclusion/Inclusion exhibit or the Museum of Chinese in America’s Waves of Identity. Similarly, if they are charged with developing an exhibition on gender and sexuality, they will have the touchstones of Hide/Seek and Revealing Queer to refer to. In this way, as museum professionals, they won’t be constantly reinventing the wheel, but rather they will build on the work of their predecessors.
Each time I teach the course, my students and I start by creating a list of ways museums can engage with issues of class, race, gender, sexuality, and ability. The list is never exactly the same, but typically it looks something like this.
- Challenge stereotypes
- Empower subaltern groups
- Hire diverse staffs
- Collaborate with communities of color
- Explore cultural continuity and change
- Collect material culture from groups that are underrepresented in museum collections
- Run social programs
- Conduct dialogues
- Create inclusive and universally accessible spaces
- Host symposia, workshops, and conferences
- Take public stances against racism, classism, sexism, ableism, homophobia
- Gather oral histories
- Preserve historic buildings that relate to diverse audiences
- Exhibit art by artists who address class, race, gender, sexuality, and ability in their work
Understanding what museums can do, and examining how others have done some or all of these things, is the first step toward creating a new generation of museum professionals who will make twenty-first-century museums more inclusive, engaging, vibrant, and essential institutions. Ultimately, I want graduates of our program to have the skills and knowledge to be able to develop exhibitions, programs, and digital projects about some of the toughest, but also most profoundly important issues in our society. My colleagues and I recognize that a single course cannot train students to accomplish these things. Consequently, we are constantly working on ways to infuse issues of class, race, gender, sexuality, and ability across the curriculum. I would love to hear how others are tackling similar challenges.
 The Cooperstown Graduate Program (SUNY Oneonta) is a two-year master’s degree program in history museum studies located in Cooperstown, New York.
 Most of our guidelines are drawn directly from, or are variations of, the guidelines shared with me by Sarah Pharaon, Senior Director, Methodology and Practice, Sites of Conscience.
Will Walker is associate professor of history at the Cooperstown Graduate Program (SUNY Oneonta). He is the author of A Living Exhibition: The Smithsonian and the Transformation of the Universal Museum and a lead editor for History@Work, the blog of the National Council on Public History.