State History Museums: Geographies of Critical Public Histories

Authors: Samuel Smith*, University of Colorado, Boulder
Topics: Cultural Geography, Tourism Geography, United States
Keywords: Cultural Geography, Museum Geography, Narrative, Heritage
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/7/2021
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:15 AM
Room: Virtual 20
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


History museums have recently emerged as a key venue for geographer to engage research in memory studies. Although cultural geographers have long been interested in how cultural meanings are inscribed in spaces of monuments and memorials, museums offer a particularly nuanced and rich environment for and presenting memory to public audiences. Although many have critiqued history museums as presenting dominant discourses of national heritage and identity, more recently, museums have highlighted “counter-narratives” which destabilize and re-center these discourses. Yet many museums still struggle to juxtapose minority presences or historical episodes of violence and tragedy within overall narratives emphasizing the memories and perspectives of dominant groups.

Within this emerging field of critical museum studies, state historical museums have received relatively little attention. These museums, present in nearly every U.S. state, take a wide variety of approaches to presenting history and memory. This paper thus poses three questions. First, how do state museums use their locations to ground the histories they present? Second, how do their exhibits structure and juxtapose multiple perspectives on public history? And finally, what conclusions do these museum narratives offer about the significance of history to contemporary public life? I present initial findings from comparative research on twenty-eight state museums. I argue that most museums present broadly acceptable renderings of history and memory to the general public. Nonetheless, several museums suggest successful strategies toward innovatively juxtaposing space, place, history, and memory.

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