Poster of the 10 Principles of Disability Justice in a variety of black typefaces. Background features abstract color splotches and paint-like strokes in shades of pink, coral, and red. Principles include: intersectionality, leadership of the most impacted, anti-capitalism, cross-movement organizing, wholeness, sustainability, cross-disability solidarity, interdependence, collective access, and collective liberation.

Disability History

Poster of the 10 Principles of Disability Justice in a variety of black typefaces. Background features abstract color splotches and paint-like strokes in shades of pink, coral, and red. Principles include: intersectionality, leadership of the most impacted, anti-capitalism, cross-movement organizing, wholeness, sustainability, cross-disability solidarity, interdependence, collective access, and collective liberation.
Poster of the 10 Principles of Disability Justice in a variety of typefaces, created by the “disability justice based performance project” Sins Invalid. Public historians often reference the 10 Principles as an important tool for doing work at the intersection of disability history and public history. The Principles were developed over several years by Sins Invalid and other individuals dedicated to disability justice theory and action. These Principles can you help you do sustainable, community-centered public history work that goes beyond accessibility compliance. Plaintext available here. Courtesy of Sins Invalid.

Practitioners of disability history often model community engagement and wide-ranging access practices, and they insist on the value of disabled people and their histories. Interpreting disability history is one way historians and their communities, public or academic, can practice access and inclusion. Accessible and inclusive history must consider the history of everyone, including disabled people, and be accessible for disabled people. Interpreting disability history is linked to advocating for including people with disabilities in public life and therefore combats ableism, or the preference for able-bodied people over disabled people. Moreover, it promotes disability justice today.[i]


Disability history almost always includes a note about language like this one; that is because language is constantly changing. Words disabled people use to talk about disability can vary from person to person. Words historians use to interpret disability change, and many words people used historically and continue to use today to talk about disability, in terms of lived experience or metaphorically, are offensive.

Most historians use contemporary words when interpreting disability history except when they are quoting a historical source. For example, when writing about someone who identified as a “cripple” in the eighteenth century, a historian might use that word if they are quoting a primary source, but they would likely use contemporary words or phrases such as “disabled person” or person with a “physical disability” when they are not quoting historical sources. Historians sometimes limit quoting historical sources because people in the past have used words and phrases like “cripple” or “deaf and dumb” to marginalize or exclude disabled people. Yet some people have reclaimed words like “cripple” and “crip” to assert power over ableist culture. Avoid outdated or offensive language (ex: “handicapped parking” or “handicapable”). People practicing disability history should consult the contemporary disability community or thoughtful language guides. If you are not sure where to start, get in touch with an advocacy organization local to you.

White abstract outline of person using wheelchair to move forward on a blue background.
How can you reimagine access and inclusion in your community? The collaborative Accessible Icon project resulted in a redesign of the person using a wheelchair symbol for access into a symbol that represented disability or ability as a lived, active experience. As the project website explains, the programming surrounding the design were “about disability in public space: editing the cities that we have, and signaling collective action for a more inclusive future.” Accessible Icon Project.

About Me

Similar to providing language notes, historians who interpret disability history sometimes provide information about their relationship to the field. For example, I have experienced temporary disability and have cared for chronically ill family members, but I do not identify as a disabled person. I have studied disabled people in history and have learned from and collaborated with disabled people on a variety of programs and in organizations. I have a lot to learn about disability history and how to assert disability justice. I like to disclose this information to model transparency as well as so people with lived experience or scholarly expertise I do not possess can contribute to the work I am trying to accomplish.[ii]

A History of Disability History in the United States

In the United States, disability history is not a new historical subfield, and it intersects with all historical subfields since disabled people were a part of every historic community. When historians use the phrase “disability history,” they are usually referring to the history of people in the past whose bodies and/or minds were considered atypical and the role ableism played in that history. For those who are new to disability history, one way to explain this definition from a medical perspective is to note that disability history is about people with physical or sensory disabilities and people who would identify today as neurodiverse, mad, or chronically ill.[iii] Interpretative tactics and historiographies vary depending on the nature of disability, historical actors, and contemporary politics. Such work is not confined to the United States. Disability historians and advocates have also been hard at work in, and on, other parts of the world.

Historians typically cite the 1980s as the decade when disability history began to flourish. In the year 2004 the Disability History Association (DHA) was formally established, and, in 2003, historian Catherine Kudlick published a seminal essay in The American Historical Review called “Why We Need Another ‘Other.’” In 2005, historians Susan Burch and Katherine Ott co-edited a special issue on disability history and public history for The Public Historian. According to a DHA newsletter, the American Historical Association (AHA) added “disability history” to its list of subfields in 2006 and featured disability history in its November 2006 issue of Perspectives.[iv] Other recent scholarly landmarks include (but are not limited to) historian Kim E. Nielsen’s 2012 synthesis of disability history in the United States and the 2018 Oxford Handbook of Disability History, edited by Michael Rembis, Catherine Kudlick, and Kim E. Nielsen. Disability studies is a related, interdisciplinary field.[v]

People and historians in and of the United States who are unfamiliar with the vastness of disability history often characterize the field as one that focuses on modern civil rights history, beginning when the United States Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. The act requires independent, physical and programmatic access to private and public spaces and events for disabled people. It marked a moment when the federal government declared that disabled people had civil rights to protect. It helped bring national attention to disabled people and disability rights. The act also helped galvanize the study of disability history itself. But the passage of the ADA did not mark the point in time when historians first identified primary sources for interpreting disability history, when historians started thinking about disability as having a past, or when professionals in public heritage settings started thinking about accessibility for disabled people.

There always were disabled people in the world. Archaeological evidence from before the common era can help us learn more about this long history. As my research and that of my colleagues show, in the context of early British North America, disabled people were well-integrated and visible in everyday life. Many people have not given this fact much thought let alone analyzed its historical meaning or contemporary resonance.

Prior to the 1980s, historians and allied specialists thought about disability as having a past. Historian John Demos, for example, in his book A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony (1970), mentioned that in the early years of colonization, European families often cared for disabled settlers, whether they knew them or not.[vi] In another instance of early interpretation of disabled people in history, anthropologist Jacob Gruber tried for ten years to find a home for an article about a woman who used an artificial leg, but one editor, for example, wrote he was “skeptical” about “her wooden leg and new set of teeth.” Ultimately, Gruber’s published piece focused on other aspects of her story.

Staff and volunteers in museum settings were thinking about what we would call accessibility today long before the ADA was passed. Staff at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, for example, planned field trips for disabled children in the early twentieth century.[vii] Colleagues at other museums in the country did as well.

Disability history—and the fact that people have been slow to recognize that disability has a history—cannot be understood without discussing ableism. Ableism is often perpetuated because public and scholarly understandings of disability history are influenced by both particular histories of disability from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the persistence of ableism today. For example, many people are familiar with—or their perception of disabled people is affected by—some of the following facts: the history of disabled people in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (pre-ADA) often includes histories of people institutionalizing people against their will; people enacting and enforcing laws restricting disabled people in public life; people enacting and enforcing laws restricting immigration of disabled people; and people placing disabled people in education settings that separated them from others.[viii] Despite the fact that, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, people marginalized disabled people in these ways, they were still a part of public life, as the image below suggests. As activist Alice Wong’s Disability Visibility project notes, for all these reasons and more, many of us have not realized the visibility of disabled people historically or today.

1860s tintype of a man in a gold frame. Man is seated, holding two crutches in his right hand. Left hand tucked into coat. Cheeks tinted pink.
This 1860s tintype of a man seated holding crutches is one of dozens in the author’s collection. More can be found in repositories such as the National Museum of American History and in the Bogdan Collection at Yale. Despite the increasing marginalization of disabled people in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many images like these were created during that time. Collection of Nicole Belolan.

Disability History’s Relevance

Disability history is relevant for everyone. It often intersects with histories of war, industry, racism, institutionalization, medicine, public health, civil rights, gender, and design. But it is also about everyday life. Almost any historic site or museum can and should interpret disability history, and everyone’s life involves disability of some form or another. Disability history’s meanings vary depending on context. I encourage you to tell disability histories where you work or volunteer, and if you do, center the voices of disabled people themselves. After all, disability history teaches us the history of access and expands our understanding of what accessibility history and living can look like.

People unfamiliar with disability history often equate it to medical history. Disability history and medical history are not the same fields, but they are related and have spurred important discussions about the nature of that relationship.[ix] Disability history typically emphasizes living with disability rather than diagnosing, curing, or overcoming it, so any discussion of medicine should be carefully considered. For example, gout is a disabling form of arthritis, and its significance in early America cannot be understood without discussing the way doctors and ordinary people tried to cure it. But it is because of this fact that a disability history of gout in early America should emphasize living with and managing it.[x] In public history settings, disability history and medical history often intersect in discussions about the display of human remains.

Disability history in public settings has taken many forms. The Smithsonian National Museum of American history, under Katherine Ott, has produced several disability-related resources including, for example, the 2013 online exhibition EveryBody: An Artifact History of Disability in America. The New York State Museum exhibited suitcases and contents left behind by people who had been incarcerated at the Willard Psychiatric Center. More recently, the National Park Service (NPS) initiated a series of projects aimed to highlight disability history at NPS sites and is working on a disability history handbook. Non-federally affiliated sites and individuals have also delved into disability history. Some groups are advocating for a national museum of disability history. Archivists and oral historians have also centered disability in the work they do as public historians and have written pieces featuring reflections and best practices. Disability history is reaching all areas of public history. What are you doing to highlight it in your work?

Disability Justice-Centered History Work

In addition to interpreting disability history, public historians should make all history content accessible for disabled people. Disability justice should permeate the way historians approach their everyday work and advocacy within work and service settings. In other words, public history work and service settings should be accessible and inclusive regardless of whether they have anything to do with disability history. Many disability advocates believe compliance with the ADA remains inadequate and that compliance with the ADA should not be the goal. In addition, others assert that the disability rights movement marginalized some individuals and groups. Historians can use critiques of the ADA to advance issues in disability justice in their communities in collaboration with disabled individuals and groups, through the interpretation of disability history.

Making public history work accessible and inclusive is, as indicated by the following suggestions, an ongoing process. Start doing what you can and build your practice from there.

Foster the preservation of disability history and interpret disability history in collaboration with disabled people. Include contemporary disabled people in the work of interpreting and making accessible disability history—and be sure to compensate them.

Recruit and hire disabled people and craft recruitment materials in a way that it is inclusive of disabled people.

Create positions in public history that are about disability history or accessibility.

Create an accessibility guide (some examples are here and here) for the place where you live, work, or volunteer. It might include facts such as the number of steps up to your front door; restroom accessibility (including whether they are for families, any gender, etc.); and COVID-19 access information, such as masking and vaccination policies.

Assess places and programming intersectionally and in collaboration with the community to improve access and inclusion. Partner with and consult other historically marginalized groups such as people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals, but also people who promote sustainability and environmental justice. Advocating for accessibility might also involve dismantling other historical injustices.

Insist on basic accessibility measures at conferences and other meetings such as:

  • Providing access copies. Access copies are outlines or full copies of a talk or other interpretive material in accessible word processing formats. They are helpful for people who prefer to process information visually or through reading, including after an event. They are also helpful for people who are blind or who have low vision or who are deaf or hard of hearing. When provided digitally, they can include hyperlinked text to resources not mentioned in the presentation or program itself.
  • Offering specific accommodations in registration materials so disabled people do not have to ask you themselves.
  • Designing programming to expand access to the greatest extent possible through hybrid and remote participation options.
  • Requiring participants to use microphones (in-person) and that organizers arrange for live-captioning (not auto-generated) and/or American Sign Language interpretation.
  • Including disabled people on the planning team from the start.

Build accessibility into classroom settings and re-shape your approach to teaching and accessibility. Learn more about how you can avoid ableism in the academy.

Encourage funders to create opportunities for disabled people; ensure the application process and the award itself is accessible and inclusive of disabled people; and require grantees make their history work accessible and inclusive of disabled people. For example, an accessible research fellowship might allow for remote work. A local granting organization might require its recipients of programming grant money to include an accessibility questionnaire upon registration and/or a budget line for accessibility needs. Or, a funder might encourage applicants to build accessibility research and evaluation into their projects.

In classroom, public program, and office settings, aim for access and inclusion that centers disability justice. When someone asks for what might be considered an accommodation under the ADA, implement the accommodation without requiring someone to go through a bureaucratic and demeaning accommodations process that often does not work.

Many people will fear litigation when you mention the ADA. Advocate for, practice, and talk about access and inclusion for disabled people that minimizes compliance and fear. As Aimi Hamraie and the Critical Design Lab’s Mapping Access project assert, “community-generated versions of accessibility codes . . . can create new standards for accountability” that put “ADA compliance” in the background.

Advocate for the places where you live, work, or volunteer to integrate disabled perspectives into their diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) initiatives. Disability is often inadvertently left out.

Evaluate and reevaluate your access and inclusion practice as much and as often as you can. Much like historians consider the interpretation of history as never being over, disability advocates consider access to be a process that is never complete.

Share these resources with friends, colleagues, and family. Center access and inclusion in your life.


[i] Disability justice could easily be a separate Handbook entry. But to get started on learning more about it, try the following resources: Patty Bern, “Disability Justice – a working draft,” June 10, 2015,;  Rabia Belt, “Disability, Debility, and Justice,” Harvard Law Review Blog, March 4, 2021,; Nomy Lamb, “This is Disability Justice,” The Body is Not an Apology, September 2, 2015; Mia Mingus, “Changing the Framework: Disability Justice: How our communities can move beyond access to wholeness,” Leaving Evidence, February 12, 2011,; Vissa Thompson on The Harriet Tubman Collective, “Disability Solidarity: Completing the ‘Vision for Black Lives,’ Huff Post, September 7, 2016,; and Alice Wong, The Disability Visibility Project,

[ii] David Serlin, “Making Disability History Public: An Interview with Katherine Ott,” Radical History Review (Winter 2006): 201.

[iii] This list is incomplete and individuals may refer to disability in a variety of ways not represented here.

[iv] “Announcements,” Disability History Association Newsletter 2, no. 2 (Fall 2006), and “Forum on Disability in History,” Perspectives 44, no. 8 (November 2006),

[v] The focus here is on disability history in what would become the United States, but historians are doing wonderful work on disability history in the Global South.

[vi] John Demos, A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), 80-81.

[vii] Nicole Belolan, “An ‘effort to bring this little handicapped army in personal touch with beauty’: Democratizing Art for Crippled Children at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1919-1934,” New York History 96, no. 1 (Winter 2015): 38-66.

[viii] Sandra M. Sufian, Familial Fitness: Disability, Adoption, and Family in Modern America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2022), 110-113.

[ix] For more about the relationship between medical history and disability history, see Beth Linker, “On the Borderland of Medical and Disability History: A Survey of the Field,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 87, no. 4 (2013): 499-535, and Catherine Kudlick, “Social History of Medicine and Disability History,” in The Oxford Handbook of Disability History, eds. Michael Rembis, Catherine Kudlick, and Kim E. Nielsen (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 105-124.

[x] “The Material Culture of Gout in Early America,” in Elizabeth Guffey and Bess Williamson, eds., Making Disability Modern: Design Histories (New York: Bloomsbury, 2020), 19-42 and “‘Confined to Crutches’: James Logan and the Material Culture of Disability in Early America,” Pennsylvania Legacies, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Fall 2017): 6-11.

Suggested Readings

Here are just a few projects, reflections on projects, or suggested methodologies that exhibit some or all the tips above.

Accessible Campus Action Alliance. “Beyond ‘High-Risk’: Statement on Disability and Campus Re-openings.” 2020.

Blackie, Daniel, and Alexia Moncriff. “State of the Field: Disability History.” History, July 20, 2022.

Disability and Industrial Society: A Comparative Cultural History of British Coalfields, 1780-1948 (2011-2016).

Belolan, Nicole. “Over-the-hill canes and ideal bodies: teaching disability history as public history.” History@Work. February 7, 2018.

Bucciantini, Alima. “Getting in the Door is the Battle.” AASLH Blog, American Association for State and Local History. January 22, 2019.

Burch, Susan. Committed: Remembering Native Kinship in and Beyond Institutions. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021. Available as an open-access E-Book.

Clary, Katie Stringer, and Carolyn Dillian. “Technical Leaflet 290: 3-D Technologies for Exhibits and Programming.” American Association of State and Local History.

Clare, Eli. Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.

Denial, Catherine. “A Forward to Designing for Care.” August 23, 2022.

The Disability History Association

Dolmage, Jay Timothy. Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2017. Available as an open access E-book.

Grigely, Joseph. “Inventory of Apologies.” VoCA Journal. December 7, 2020,

Hamraie, Aimi. “Accessible Teaching in the Time of COVID-19.” Critical Design Lab. March 10, 2020.

_____. “Mapping Access Toolkit,” Critical Design Lab.

Higgins, Jason A., UMass Oral History Lab and Ashley Woodman, with Catherine Kudlick and Fred Pelka, narrated by Emily T. H. Redman. “Episode 8: Oral History and People with Disabilities.”

Kudlick, Katherine. “Subversive Access: Disability Goes Public in the United States.” Public Disability History. May 24, 2016.

Lewis, Talila A. “Working Definition of Ableism: January 2022 Update.” Blog. January 1, 2022.

Meldon, Perri. “The NPS Disability History Handbook: Collaboration, process, and community.” History@Work. December 7, 2023.

Nair, Aparna, and Kylie M. Smith. “We’re Historians of Disability. What We Just Found on eBay Horrified Us.” Slate. July 21, 2022.

O’Toole, Corbett Joan. Fading Scars: My Queer Disability History. Fort Worth: Autonomous Press, 2015.

Piepzna-Samarasinha, Leah Lakshmi. Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018.

_____. “where do we go from here? a roundtable from some disability justice organizers in this the only moment in time.” Disability Visibility Project blog. May 21, 2023.

Mingus, Mia. “Changing the Framework: Disability Justice: How our communities can move beyond access to wholeness.” Leaving Evidence. February 12, 2011.

Ott, Katherine. “Disability Things: Material Culture and American Disability History, 1700–2010.” In Disability Histories, edited by Susan Burch and Michael Rembis, 119-135. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2014.

Samuels, Ellen. “Six Ways of Looking at Crip Time.” Disability Studies Quarterly 37, No. 3 (2017).

Schalk, Sami. Black Disability Politics. Durham: Duke University Press, 2022.

Serlin, David. “Making Disability History Public: An Interview with Katherine Ott.” Radical History Review (Winter 2006): 201.

Sins Invalid. “10 Principles of Disability Justice.”

Valldejuli, Jorge Matos. “The Racialized History of Disability Activism from the ‘Willowbrooks of this World.’” The Activist History Review. November 4, 2019.

Virdi, Japreet. Hearing Happiness: Deafness Cures in History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020.

Intersection of Race and Disability History Project. Western Pennsylvania Disability History and Action Consortium.

Wong, Alice, ed., Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the 21st Century. New York: Vintage, 2020.

Note: This essay includes a discussion of legal issues but should not be interpreted as legal advice. The author is grateful to the many disability historians and advocates she has learned from. She has done her best to link to or cite as many as possible and welcomes discussion as access and inclusion evolves.


 ~ Nicole Belolan is a Consulting Public Historian and Independent Scholar. She publishes on disability history and leads workshops on disability history and access and inclusion. She has been on the Board of the Disability History Association since 2019. Belolan would like to thank Susan Burch and Kasey Grier for many conversations that have helped shape her work in this field.

Multiversity Galleries, display cases

View from the Field: Equity-oriented and Anti-racist Curatorial Practice

Portrait of a Female Soldier from Michoacán
Agustín V. Casasola, Retrato de una soldadera de Michoacán (Portrait of a Female Soldier from Michoacán), 1910, sepia-toned enlarged print from original photo negative, 51 1/4″ x 40 1/8″ (paper size), National Museum of Mexican Art Permanent Collection, 1991.148, Gift of Pilsen Neighbors. Photo credit: Michael Tropea.

Inclusive curatorial practice requires the input and voices of stakeholders. It must be accessible to all visitors, honor the cultural context of objects (even when that means not putting objects on display or repatriating them), and respond to the moral mandate for equity by using exhibitions and other programs and projects to undo colonialism and systemic racism. Furthermore, curatorial work lies within an institutional matrix. Inclusive curation can only go as far as the hosting organization. Ideally, it will work along with all of the departments of an organization to ensure that all visitors and stakeholders feel welcome and included. Diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion are paramount for curatorial work because they are lenses through which curators may inspect their work to ensure that it is representative of all relevant subjects, available to all who wish to experience it, and resonant for and respectful of all stakeholders.

Museums have, for centuries, supported and participated in power structures that have elevated the powerful and further limited the resources of marginalized people. This is why it is important for curators to work inclusively from the inception of a project through evaluation. Following a brief history, this essay will explore some practices and parameters that can inspire and inform inclusive curatorial work.

Historical Background

Since at least the mid-nineteenth century, people of color have used curatorial work for social justice in the United States. Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) offer an excellent institutional starting point for a history of anti-racist curatorial work. General Samuel Chapman Armstrong founded the museum at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University) in 1868, making it the oldest museum at an African American institution. It continues in operation today, with a collection of 9,000 objects. Initially, the museum’s collections were not centered on African people, but rather began with Hawaiian and Polynesian objects, reflecting Armstrong’s history as a missionary in Hawai’i. The current mission is to

illustrate the cultures, heritages and histories of African, Native American, Oceanic and Asian peoples, as well as the works of contemporary African American, African and American Indian artists and three-dimensional objects which relate to the history and significance of Hampton University.[i]

The museum’s collection of African American fine art, the first in the nation, began in 1894.[ii] The museum provided an educational resource for the university and elevated its capacity and status, thereby also supporting the development of its Black students. The existence of the university and museum and the support of Black students were anti-racist moves on their own merit, providing Black communities with some insulation from the white supremacist culture in which they lived (and live today). By the 1890s, the exhibitions of the museum, like the broader university itself, were working for social justice simply by asserting and demonstrating that, for example, African Americans made fine art worthy of national and international attention.

A generation later, W.E.B. Du Bois’s curatorial effort of the American Negro Exhibit for the 1900 world’s fair in Paris—the Paris Exposition—became an example of an individual curator working in an anti-racist manner within a racist system. Shawn Michelle Smith tells the story of the exhibit in her fascinating book Photography on the Color Line.[iii] Although African Americans had been denied official participation in the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, Thomas Junius Calloway invited Du Bois to create an exhibition of Black American life for the exposition. Du Bois contradicted white supremacists’ ideas and assertions with an exhibition of 363 photographs that, along with statistical charts, portrayed an elite African American patriarchy. His curatorial work was not without contemporary challenges. He marginalized African American women and constructed his own racial hierarchy of Black folks. But his statement was nevertheless crucially significant in its own time and context on the world’s stage.

In the United States in the 1960s, Black, Indigenous, Asian, and Latinx Americans adapted and adopted social structures such as schools and museums to support communal autonomy and development.[iv] Many culturally specific institutions, such as the DuSable Museum of African American History (1961), the Anacostia Community Museum and the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience (1967), and el Museo del Barrio (1969), hail from this community museum movement.[v]

The movement saw museums as community centers and providers of necessary services. The National Museum of Mexican Art (NMMA) in Chicago used to be called the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum. That name is an artifact of its founding in the early 1980s, when it was struggling to communicate the intentional elision of museum and community center. But the museum’s legacy as a community center and museum informs the experience of visitors to this day: free admission and programming, warm and welcoming in winter, cool and refreshing in summer, and a blood drive around the Día de los Muertos exhibition all speak to this history.

Amy Lonetree’s essential book Decolonizing Museums (2012) nicely contextualizes the work of Native activists within and around this movement. As Native Americans worked for sovereignty, self-determination, and justice in many areas during the 1960s and ’70s, they also began to participate in planning and developing exhibitions about their cultures and advising museums that held their belongings on how to manage collections and, ultimately, the need to repatriate them. Likewise, Native Americans began to become museum professionals with an eye toward making change from within institutions and founding their own institutions. There were tribal museums before this period—Lonetree cites the Osage Tribal Museum (1938)—however, “the first significant wave of tribal museum development occurred in the 1960s and 1970s as part of a broader movement of economic development,” writes Lonetree.[vi] As of 2019, there were roughly 200 tribal museums in North America.

Community museums, culturally specific museums, and Native museums feature First Voice curation, stories told by, of, and for their own communities.[vii] Displaying these narratives was (and is) not only a matter of pride, education, and community maintenance; it was also a crucial step in moving histories of color into the mainstream. When Lonnie Bunch became the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), he was adamant that the African American story was an American story that concerned all Americans.[viii] Bunch’s work itself, from the Chicago History Museum to NMAAHC, grew out of the community museum movement.

In the thick of the debates on multiculturalism of the 1990s, the American Alliance of Museums (then the American Association of Museums; AAM) produced the landmark report Excellence and Equity (1992). Though education was an important part of the missions of many museums prior to this time, the report made it clear that working for equity—in this case through education—was a primary institutional mandate for accredited museums.[ix] It redefined excellence as requiring equity, stating that museums must “embrace cultural diversity in all facets of their programs, staff and audiences, in order to have any hope of sustaining vitality and relevance.”

Across the world, museum professionals sought a diversity of voices in exhibitions. Michael Ames, director of the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) at University of Vancouver from 1974-1997 and 2002-2004, wrote prolifically about changing the role of the curator.[x] In Ames’s view, the curator was not the only individual with expertise. Rather, she could facilitate storytelling and elevate diverse stories inside and outside the museum. Ames sought to further engage visitors by making museum work more transparent. Under his direction, MOA pioneered the concept of visible storage, now known as the Multiversity Galleries. Though visible storage does not automatically lead toward inclusive practices, Ames meant it to unveil the agency behind curatorial work and include visitors in the exploration of collections that curators undertake.

Multiversity Galleries, display cases
Multiversity Galleries in the Museum of Anthropology, University of British Columbia – Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. By Daderot, CC0 2015

Ames’s quest for transparency is still ramifying in the curatorial world through #MuseumsAreNotNeutral, the movement of La Tanya Autry and Mike Murawski, and other efforts to expose the agency behind curatorial work. A visitor confronted with the expansive Multiversity Galleries or another robust example of a collection in storage can begin to see that a curator must bring her own voice to bear on the subject matter in order to select the best objects for an exhibition. That is why, of course, the inclusive curator would do best not to act alone. Stakeholders—such as members of communities that are the subjects of exhibitions, neighbors of institutions, and other relevant groups—can help the curator to literally see the collections with new eyes and find the objects that speak to and include additional visitors.

In the early 1990s museums moved further toward more inclusive, and therefore more relevant, curatorial work. Fred Wilson curated Mining the Museum (1992-1993) for the Maryland Historical Society (MHS). (Like many museums working with artists and other contributors from outside, the MHS had to stretch from its comfort zone to eventually come to terms with Wilson’s work.) Wilson revealed how museums that truly wish to explore long histories of racism and systemic prejudice can use collections to do so. Indeed, artists can be powerful voices within museums that are not focused on the arts, shining a light on collections, as Wilson did, or exposing the challenges in an outdated and offensive exhibition, as Chris Pappan did at the Field Museum in Chicago. In these and many other cases, artists can challenge the museum’s institutional mindset and create friction. That friction can be productive in the long term by demonstrating that the museum can be relevant to groups it had previously not been serving. In short, artists can help museums with inclusive curation.

Art installation with large buffalo in glass case
Installation view of Drawing on Tradition: Kanza Artist Chris Pappan at The Field Museum. Photo by Allison Meier, 2019. Courtesy of Allison Meier.

When we think of repatriation in the United States, we think of NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which Congress signed in 1990. However, this legislation was the result of decades of indigenous activism. Native Americans argued for repatriation in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s as they renewed their resistance to American colonialism. Meanwhile, First Nations and indigenous activists around the world, in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa, for example, lobbied for similar versions of state repatriations and other forms of respect for their sovereignty.

Though imperfect, NAGPRA changed curatorial work in the United States by codifying some of the preceding intention around inclusivity into law. NAGPRA offered one example of a group that could legally no longer be ignored: Native Americans. Legal protection for indigenous peoples is often not worth the paper it’s written on. Nevertheless, NAGPRA provided a mandate for museums to collaborate with indigenous people. In some instances, museums have taken this opportunity to repair the harm they have inflicted through practices of collecting, storage, and exhibition.

Diversity Equity Accessibility Inclusion (DEAI): The Framework for Inclusive Curation

With due respect to the acronym above, this essay addresses these terms in a meaningful order for inclusive curatorial work. Inclusion and equity go hand in hand. Here is a brief overview of these categories as I see them:

Equity: Curators and institutions must demonstrate a commitment to the equitable distribution of risks and rewards in society before marginalized communities can trust those institutions.

Inclusion: Provide a true and generous, respectful welcome to all different types of visitors and those who have yet to visit.

Diversity: Represent as broad a range of stakeholders as possible. Avoid thinking in terms of checking multicultural boxes.

Museums with boards, staff leadership, and front of house staffs dominated by people of privilege (white, wealthy, male, cisgender or some intersection of these categories) must make changes before people in marginalized communities can realistically believe that the institution will respect them. A multidimensional power dynamic exists along lines of race, class, gender, ability, immigration status, and more, and it does inflect relationships between museum professionals and their visiting publics. It places a rift between leaders, and by extension, their institutions and their stakeholders. Leaders must confront this power imbalance.

Though this must happen in every department of a museum, one important way to confront fraught relationships between institutions and stakeholders is to seek funders that support inclusive institutional goals. If efforts for equity or inclusion must fly under the radar, their power and creativity will be diminished. Fundraising is a lynchpin of this effort, since general operating support has become rare and project-based support has become the norm.

Accessible curatorial work is about all visitors being able to gain access to exhibitions and collections.

This may mean physical, emotional, or intellectual access, or some combination of all three. Whether accessibility means enabling touch in exhibitions, offering spaces to decompress, or using universal design, more often than not interventions that make exhibitions and collections more accessible to visitors with disabilities also make them more accessible to able-bodied visitors. One example of this is a social narrative that helps neurodivergent visitors manage expectations about their visit. This same narrative supports the visits of many others as well. Accessibility is another opportunity for museums to involve stakeholder communities in their curatorial work. A collaborator from a Deaf or Hard of Hearing community will be able to illuminate concerns about an exhibition that is taking shape or new ideas about planning a project in a different way, for example, than a partner who uses a wheelchair.

Practicing Inclusive Curation

Inclusion can manifest itself in many different ways, from low-income visitors who feel included because admission is free to queer visitors who feel included by a rainbow sticker on the front door, from English language learners who feel included by multilingual texts to visitors who are welcomed even when they have just stepped in out of the heat or cold or to use the restroom or a bench. True welcome is not conditional.

It is important for curators to consider who the stakeholders are for the stories they are telling. They could be local neighbors or culturally specific groups. In any case, involving stakeholders at the outset of a project is a sign of respect and can also provide excellent support in research and development. Once stakeholders are involved, they must be included in meaningful ways. Setting the agenda for a meeting, for example, is a kind of power; so, too, is selecting the subject matter and organization for an exhibition. The curatorial team can review its efforts to be inclusive at key intervals along the way.

Choosing the curatorial team should be purposeful. The goals of each project will help to determine whether it would benefit from a guest curator—perhaps an artist, an advisory group, community curation, visitor panels, a steering committee, or an in-house curator in conversation with others.

If a collecting institution is hosting the exhibition, mining the collections for unexpected material on the topic may be fruitful. During work on The African Presence in México at the NMMA, my colleagues and I found significant material that had always been used in other contexts, but spoke eloquently to our subject. For example, Portrait of a Female Soldier from Michoacán / Retrato de una soldadera de Michoacán by Agustín Casasola (see above), a photograph from 1910, shows a woman who is clearly of African descent. The famous, large-scale, imposing photograph became one of the signal images for the exhibition.

Once writing begins, ensure that the language is transparent about the agency of the curator and institution. Every exhibition expresses some subjectivity, and naming it will help curators to continue earning the trust of visitors and community members. As many scholars, organizers, and museum professionals have rightly pointed out, museums are not neutral. Portraying a false sense of objectivity can obscure support of the status quo. The trust museums build through transparency may encourage people to participate with the institution, thus making it more inclusive. A Declaration of Immigration is one example of an exhibition that did this at the NMMA. In 2007, the museum called for proposals from artists, asking them to “put a human face” on immigration and allow the audience to better understand the relationship between the United States and its Latin American neighbors. The resultant responses from artists shaped the tenor of the exhibition. In this instance, the unusually diverse group of artists (for this particular museum) were stakeholders.

Consider encouraging visitors to take action, especially when it will build empathy or include those who have been marginalized. In order to foster further inclusive curation, examine how visitors are using exhibits and collections and whether or not staff can adjust exhibitions during their run to make them more effective. Record who comes to an exhibition, and evaluate calls to action.

After an exhibition closes, maintain relationships with collaborators and plan for new projects. If one project is successful at including a community that previously did not visit, the work does not stop there. Check back with visitors, if possible. For example, at the end of the visit to Eastern State Penitentiary’s Prisons Today, visitors can answer a few short questions and the site will send them digital postcards at intervals after the visit, continuing the engagement into the future well beyond the visit. Involvement with partners and visitors may offer new insights into the collection or other institutional knowledge that can be carried forward. For example, after the exhibition Out in Chicago at the Chicago History Museum (CHM), which was inspired by the series of public programs “Out at CHM,” CHM began collecting on queer Chicago. The collecting initiative was one of the suggestions of queer partners in creating the exhibition. This demonstrates how creating an inclusive process for curating Out in Chicago, where there were queer curators and a queer visitor panel, can inspire exciting new directions that fit within the mission for the institution.

The global landscape of museums was an enormous resource of 80,000 museums before COVID-19.[xi] This body of institutions is diverse and consists of many museums emerging from Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) and other marginalized communities, as well as predominantly white institutions, or PWIs, in every discipline. Museums from BIPOC and queer communities have long histories developing practices that can inform PWIs as they develop or begin their work toward social justice. In many nations and fields of study, museum workers at PWIs are refusing the elitist, colonial histories of their institutions and creating change from within.[xii] Anti-racist and other inclusive work is becoming central to their institutions’ practices.[xiii] Curators from PWIs and BIPOC museums alike are mining their collections with fresh eyes, telling the histories of faces—and bodies—that might once have hidden in the shadows. Inclusive and especially anti-racist curatorial work is of particular urgency now. The history above demonstrates that inclusive museum work is largely about doing what we have long agreed needs to be done.


[i] Hampton University Museum, “About Us,”

[ii] I usually avoid the term “fine art” because it draws an unnecessary and exclusionary distinction between the so-called fine arts and other art such as traditional, folk art, self-taught artists, and outsider artists. However, in this context it helps to highlight the way in which the Hampton University Museum sought to highlight the legitimacy of Black art.

[iii] Shawn Michelle Smith, Photography on the Color Line: W. E. B. Du Bois, Race, and Visual Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press), 2004.

[iv] Steven Conn, Do Museums Still Need Objects? (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009).

[v] For more on the community museum movement, see Fath Davis Ruffins, “Culture Wars Won and Lost: Ethnic Museums on the Mall, Part I: The National Holocaust Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian,” Radical History Review 68 (1997): 79-100, and “Culture Wars Won and Lost, Part II: The National African-American Museum Project,” Radical History Review 1998, no. 70 (1998): 78-101.

[vi] Amy Lonetree, Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 17-19.

[vii] The history of the term, “first voice,” is difficult to trace. It originated around commemorations of the quincentennial of the encounter between Europeans and Indigenous people of the Americas. And there is an association between the term and terms such as “First Nations” and “First Peoples.” In “The First Voice in Heritage Conservation,” International Journal of Intangible Heritage 3 (2008), Amareswar Galla cites the workshops in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, during the International Year of Worlds Indigenous Peoples (1994). In 2018 Nina Simon, the museum guru and former director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, formed an organization called OF/BY/FOR All that directly builds on this history and attempts to spread it to mainstream organizations and predominantly white institutions (PWIs).

[viii] Though this is a subject he explored in his book, A Fool’s Errand, Bunch had been sharing this idea for many years prior to its publication.

[ix] Ellen Hirzy, Excellence and Equity: Education and the Public Dimension of Museums (Washington, DC: American Association of Museums, 1992).

[x] Michael Ames, Cannibal Tours and Glass Boxes: The Anthropology of Museums (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1992).

[xi] Richard Florida in Gail Dexter Lord and Ngaire Blankenberg, Cities, Museums and Soft Power (Washington, D.C: American Alliance of Museums, 2015), 2. Forbes estimated that a third of the roughly 35,000 museums in the US will close or merge because of the pandemic. For more on the state of museums in the pandemic, see the National Survey of COVID-19 Impact on US Museums.

[xii] See the free Toolkit by MASS Action (Museums as a Site for Social Action) as well as their initiative to keep museums accountable for statements of anti-racism or solidarity made in Spring 2020. Complete their survey here.

[xiii] This report card from Museums and Race can be useful in starting conversations about race in your institution.

Suggested Readings

Ames, Michael. Cannibal Tours and Glass Boxes: The Anthropology of Museums. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1992.

Bunch, Lonnie G., III. A Fool’s Errand: Creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the Age of Bush, Obama, and Trump. Illustrated edition. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2019.

Conn, Steven. Do Museums Still Need Objects? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009.

Diamond, Anna. “Fifty Years Ago, the Idea of a Museum for the People Came of Age.” Smithsonian Magazine.

Galla, Amareswar. “The First Voice in Heritage Conservation.” International Journal of Intangible Heritage 3 (2008).

Hirzy, Ellen. Excellence and Equity: Education and the Public Dimension of Museums. Washington, DC: American Association of Museums, 1992.

Lonetree, Amy. Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012.

Lord, Gail Dexter, and Ngaire Blankenberg. Cities, Museums and Soft Power. Washington, D.C: American Alliance of Museums, 2015.

Ruffins, Fath Davis. “Culture Wars Won and Lost: Ethnic Museums on the Mall, Part I: The National Holocaust Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian.” Radical History Review 68 (1997): 79-100.

_____. “Culture Wars Won and Lost, Part II: The National African-American Museum Project.” Radical History Review 70 (1998): 78-101.

Smith, Shawn Michelle. Photography on the Color Line: W. E. B. Du Bois, Race, and Visual Culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.


~ Elena Gonzales is an independent scholar focusing on curatorial work for social justice and the author of Exhibitions for Social Justice (Routledge 2019) and co-editor of Museums and Civic Discourse: History, Current Practice, and Future Prospects (Greenhouse Studios, forthcoming). She received her doctorate in American Studies (2015) and her Master’s in Public Humanities (2010) from Brown University. She has curated exhibitions since 2006 and has taught curatorial studies since 2010. Contact:, [email protected], @curatoriologist.

Leadership Principles

Advisory Board member for the President’s Economic Recovery Laura Tyson, Director in the Strategic Client Group of Morgan Stanley Carla A. Harris, and Citi Personal Wealth Management CEO Deborah McWhinney at the Women in Finance Symposium at Treasury on March 29, 2010. Photo credit: US Department of the Treasury.

“We need leadership!” is a cry heard from within the ranks of many organizations, but what does that mean, exactly? Often it is a longing for a clearer sense of direction or an explanation of an organization’s decision-making process. It may be the frustration caused by a lack of communication or employee inclusion in matters that affect them. It may even be a manifestation of outright contempt because of diminishing levels of trust and respect. Pleas for leadership are often as fundamental as the desire for a clear articulation of the core values of the organization—what it most values, as well as how it envisions its role and fulfills its mission. It may be about answering key questions: What kind of organization are we? What exactly are we doing? How, why, and for whom are we doing it?

It is the leader’s responsibility to guide these discussions, but first the nature and meaning of leadership must be fully understood. Like articulating what makes for good music and art, defining the nature of good leadership is challenging. It is largely a reflection of individual perspective and circumstances—what works for one leader may not work for another and what works in one situation may not work in another. There is no magic formula for effective leadership; it is far more art than science. The world is growing increasingly complex, and technology is changing the way we communicate and conduct business. The business environment (both for-profit and not-for-profit) is more competitive, and audiences are more sophisticated and demand more services. At the same time, political winds have shifted and financial resources are shrinking. The efficient use of time, money, people, and other resources is imperative. In her book Leading Museums Today, Martha Morris enumerates key leadership challenges that today’s museum leaders face, including issues related to environmental sustainability, security, repatriation, physical expansion (often with disastrous financial repercussions), and low wages. Lack of employee inclusion in decision-making is a serious concern, as is the need for new skills and flexibility in the workplace and meaningful recognition of diversity.[i]

What, Then, Is Leadership?

There are countless definitions of leadership, but they are often incomplete. While most definitions include similar elements—such as setting direction, aligning resources, and communicating with, motivating, and inspiring people—they often confuse leadership with management and do not recognize the true essence of leadership. Author and entrepreneur Kevin Kruse offers an excellent and concise definition, writing that leadership “is a process of social influence which maximizes the efforts of others toward the achievement of a goal.”[ii] It is social because it is largely about relationships with people and less about technical expertise or power. It is about influence because its primary goals are to align resources and communicate with and inspire people.[iii] It is about recognizing and maximizing the efforts of others because it acknowledges that people are our key resources. And, it is about achievement of a goal because there must be a clear and common mission with intended outcomes. Kruse’s definition might be enhanced by noting that effective leadership is not bestowed but instead earned and must be exercised in a way that motivates people to want to move in desirable directions.

Inclusion and Diversity

In 1965, only 5% of Americans were foreign born; by 2016, that number jumped to nearly 14% of the country’s population. Growing racial and ethnic diversity is changing the face of the United States. The Pew Research Center projects that by 2055 the U.S. will not have a single racial or ethnic majority.[iv] Yet, in a 2017 study of nonprofit boards, Boardsource noted that 90% of nonprofit CEOs and board chairs and 84% of all board members were white. Only 16% of board members were people of color. Two-thirds of CEOs expressed dissatisfaction with their organization’s level of leadership diversity.[v] According to a recent report by the American Alliance of Museums, 46% of museum boards are all white. While non-white people are 23% of the U.S. population, only 9% visit museums[vi] and 84% of jobs related to museum mission and leadership are held by white staff members.[vii] Furthermore, women continue to face significant gender discrimination, as Anne W. Ackerson and Joan Baldwin document in their recent survey of “Gender Equity in the Museum Workplace.” The survey, which also uncovered bias against LGBTQ individuals, recorded serious workplace discrimination in a range of forms, including salary inequity and verbal and sexual harassment. Clearly, we have work to do.

Leaders in our field must aggressively seek the diversity that reflects changing demographics lest we render ourselves irrelevant. This begins with individual and organizational commitment and leadership with a focus on both diversity and inclusion. Authors Patricia Bradshaw and Christopher Fredette note that organizations that promote diversity and inclusion have greater success when they employ both functional practices (policies, employment practices, recruitment, and training) and social practices (meaningful participation, relational connections, respect for different values, and trust). Functional practices alone do not create an inclusive organization because they often lead to patronizing attitudes and tokenism. Social practices are essential if organizations expect to be genuinely inclusive.[viii]

It is critical that we embrace a rich diversity of race, ethnicity, nationality, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, religion, socioeconomic status, and physical, intellectual, and developmental abilities in all we do. It broadens our audiences and encourages participation. It helps us develop more meaningful and relevant programs. It improves and more fully informs our collecting activity. It ensures our continued relevance and helps us make more meaningful contributions to the public we serve. It expands our fundraising efforts and makes us more sustainable. And, it makes our work and organizations better. Cultivating diversity and inclusion is the right approach and a smart philosophy to embrace, especially when it is guided by the phrase, “Nothing about us without us.”[ix]

Being Authentic and People-Centered

In order to create an environment that is truly diverse and inclusive we must genuinely live it in everything we do.

Good leaders in our field embrace the notion that we are, above all else, for and about people. Our organizations are managed by people, programs are presented by people, exhibits are developed by people—and they are for people. It is people, with their rich and diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and skills that help us foster a meaningful understanding of our world. Moreover, our work is not just for, and presented by, some people; it must be for, and presented by, all people.

Ultimately, diversity and inclusiveness are about relationships with people—welcoming people, being empathetic and listening to people, working with people—being decent to people, really. It is the leader’s role to set this tone and make it the very ethos of the organization. Being people-centered does not mean over-the-top hand-holding moments. It does not mean acquiescing to every need or demand. But, it does mean involving people in decision-making, listening to them, respecting their needs and perspectives, treating them with respect, and developing a keen sense of empathy. The essence of leadership is about creating relationships among people.

Effective leaders solicit involvement and listen to diverse groups outside the organization and develop leaders within the organization—nurturing their growth and maximizing their involvement. They insist on a diversity of perspectives and encourage dissent and they are not threatened when they hear criticisms. Effective leaders are willing to trust staff and delegate both responsibility and authority. They recognize that effective authority is shared authority.

Leaders lead by example and are sensitive to the needs of employees while balancing those with the needs of the organization and the public it ultimately serves. They communicate transparently and often. Leaders trust in order to be trusted and give respect in order to receive it. Authentic leaders build a repertoire of leadership skills as a result of their lifetime of experiences. Through experience, they learn how best to respond in certain circumstances. How a leader handles a major illness or an untimely death in the family, for example, provides a foundation of empathy and influences how that leader processes and manages difficult situations. It is these experiences that inform an inclusive leader.

Inclusiveness is essential to high performing organizations. Why not maximize all the people and resources we have available to us? Just as our institutional goal is to be inclusive to all people (our audiences), great leaders are inclusive within their organizations, encouraging participation at all levels, listening to concerns and ideas, delegating broadly, and embracing failures as an important part of innovation.

In a productive workplace, people participate in decision-making and feel valued for their contributions. They know how and why their efforts matter, leading to greater job satisfaction and productivity. They are motivated and strive to do their jobs at extraordinary levels with renewed enthusiasm. With proper support, encouragement, and recognition, people are capable of achieving amazing things—for themselves and the public they serve. This shared-authority democratic approach, rather than the top-down autocratic approach, allows for maximum participation and morale. But, one must also recognize that the responsible leader is still decisive and willing to make unpopular or difficult decisions when there is no clear agreement among stakeholders or there is a need to act quickly and decisively.

Great leaders are comfortable with the notion that being open-minded offers an opportunity for much learning. There is nothing to be gained from over-control. Leaders also foster a culture of calculated risk-taking and accept certain levels of failure as part of growth and experimentation. The best leaders are not afraid to expose their vulnerability and show that they, too, are human, imperfect, and make mistakes. Moreover, good leaders are viewed as thoughtful, calm, and deliberate—not petty and impulsive. True leaders are perceived as fair and honest and develop trusting and respectful relationships. They are the very embodiment of the values they espouse. They keep their eyes on a vision of what can be and do not let day-to-day distractions shake their convictions. Leaders have the courage to try new things, seek new audiences, and expand the reach of their organizations.

Inclusive leaders recognize the importance of being good to people. When they are, people are more committed, invested, happier, and productive, and they feel part of something that truly matters. These are the people who come to work not because they have to, but because they want to.

There is no recipe for how to become an authentic leader because, by definition, one cannot pretend to be authentic. But, why do we need to be authentic anyway? The simple answer is that, good relationships must be grounded in honesty, trust, and respect. Leaders know that for people to follow, people must believe in and trust the leader. They know the leader as a person and discern true levels of genuineness and honesty. Nothing is more hollow than a leader who stands for nothing in particular, is not trustworthy, betrays confidences, takes credit for the accomplishments of others, and quickly assigns blame to others for organizational failures. People know a con man. Leaders do what they say; they walk the walk. Good leaders know that it is actions that inspire beliefs—beliefs alone do not inspire sustained actions. Good leaders stand for something and act on it.

Becoming a Good Leader

There are thousands of works on leadership and lists almost as long of the personal characteristics necessary to become a good leader: honesty, integrity, vision, passion, enthusiasm, sense of humor, collegiality, trustworthiness, to name just a few. While they may all have some merit, the qualities of a good leader may be best summarized by author Daniel Goleman in his seminal work on emotional intelligence.[x] Goleman’s view is that as one moves up the leadership ladder it is not IQ and technical knowledge that become increasingly essential (although still important), but rather a well-developed sense of emotional intelligence. There is much evidence to suggest a strong link between organizational success and leaders’ emotional intelligence, especially in senior leadership roles.

Goleman defines emotional intelligence as understanding and managing our emotions and those of others. He identifies five major components to becoming a great leader through self-management of emotions and building relationships with others.

The first is Self-Awareness, which means that good leaders have a keen understanding of their strengths, weaknesses, emotions, and needs. They are honest with themselves and others and know how their feelings affect them and others. Self-aware leaders know their strongly held values and principles and live by them. They know where they are going and why. They understand their strengths and have confidence in them. They also understand their weaknesses and do not set themselves up for failure. They are risk takers, but not reckless. They know their limits and those of the organization. They assess themselves honestly and do the same for their organizations.

Self-Regulation is the ability to manage and control emotions, and to think before acting. A self-regulated leader does not pound on the table or throw pencils. The leader is in control (not out of control), reasonable, and chooses their words and actions carefully. The leader is respected because of fairness and well-considered statements and actions. The leader’s approach is calm, not frenzied, and tends to encourage the same behavior from subordinates. Judgment is suspended and impulses are controlled. Reflection, thoughtfulness, and comfort with change are hallmarks. Although sometimes misconstrued as lacking passion, the self-regulated leader knows that high emotion and impulsiveness are often counterproductive.

Motivation is another key component of a great leader. Leaders are driven and strive to exceed their own and others’ expectations. They are motivated by a desire to achieve. Passion for the work is real and they take great pride in their achievements and those of the organization. They are always raising the performance bar and optimistic about the organization achieving more. They see opportunities, not problems. They are deeply committed to the organization and want it to be the best of its kind. Their attitude and enthusiasm are contagious.

Empathy may seem akin to mushiness and non-businesslike behavior, but what it really means is treating people through an understanding of their emotional needs and reactions. This is especially important in a fast-paced environment in which changes happen frequently. It is important to understand and appreciate everyone’s viewpoint to gauge the full implication of decisions and their impact. Related to this is the importance of coaching and mentoring, understanding the needs and aspirations of employees, and responding to them. This often leads to a happier workforce and more retention. Understanding employees as people and practicing cross-cultural sensitivity are hallmarks.

Social Skill is the last component of emotional intelligence. Leaders with this skill set are very good at working with people and establishing rapport and relationships. They are experts at managing teams and have keen abilities of persuasion. They recognize that leaders cannot achieve things alone, and if the leader cannot communicate and build relationships and teams, little will be accomplished. They are skilled at finding common ground and excel at articulating and leading change.

Ultimately, leadership is about getting work done through people and understanding that individual and organizational success are inseparable. Recognizing and cultivating this important truth is perhaps the most important leadership lesson of all.


[i] Martha Morris, Leading Museums Today (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018), 2-7.

[ii] Kevin Kruse, “What is Leadership?” Forbes,, April 9, 2013.

[iii] John P. Kotter, John P. Kotter on What Leaders Really Do (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Review Books, 1999), 51-62.

[iv] D’vera Cohn and Andrea Caumont, “10 demographic trends shaping the U.S. and the world

in 2016,” Pew Research Center, March 31, 2016,

[v] Leading with Intent: 2017 National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices (Boardsource, 2017), 10-11.

[vi] “Facing Change: Insights from the American Alliance of Museums’ Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Inclusion Group,” American Alliance of Museums, p. 9,

[vii] Brian Boucher, “Mellon Foundation Study Reveals Uncomfortable Lack of Diversity in American Museums,” Artnet, August 4, 2015.

[viii] Patricia Bradshaw and Christopher Fredette, “The Inclusive Nonprofit Boardroom: Leveraging the Transformative Potential of Diversity,” Nonprofit Quarterly, December 29, 2012,

[ix] The phrase “nothing about us, without us” is closely associated with the disability rights movement.

[x] Daniel Goleman, “What Makes a Leader?” Harvard Business Review Best of HBR 1998, 1-11.

Suggested Readings

Ackerson, Anne W., and Joan H. Baldwin, Leadership Matters: Leading Museums in an Age of Discord. Revised edition. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield/AASLH, 2019. See also, the companion website.

Baldwin, Joan H., and Anne W. Ackerson, Women in the Museum: Lessons from the Workplace. New York and London: Routledge, 2017.

DePree, Max. Leadership is an Art. Dell Publishing, 1989.

Drucker, Peter. Managing the Nonprofit Organization: Principles & Practices. New York: Harper Collins, 2005.

Harvard Business Review. On Leadership. Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation, 2011.

Kotter, John P. John P. Kotter on What Leaders Really Do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Review Books, 1999.

Maxwell, John C. Developing the Leader Within You. Thomas Nelson Inc, 1993.

Morris, Martha. Leading Museums Today. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.

Peters, Thomas J., and Robert H. Waterman, Jr. In Search of Excellence. New York: Harper & Row, 1982.

Roberts, Wess. Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun. New York: Warner Books, 1987.


~ Brian Alexander is Visiting Professor of Museum Administration and Director of the Institute for Cultural Entrepreneurship at the Cooperstown Graduate Program, SUNY Oneonta, in New York. Prior to coming to Cooperstown, Alexander worked for 38 years in the museum field. Among other positions, he served as President & CEO of the National World War I Museum, President & CEO of the Historic Annapolis Foundation, Executive-Vice President & Director of the Shelburne Museum, and Director of the State Museum of North Dakota. He has also been a trustee of the American Association for State & Local History. He can be reached at [email protected].


This image shows the "Hall of Witness," in the interior of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC

Holocaust History

This image shows the "Hall of Witness," in the interior of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC
Hall of Witness at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC, 2009. Photo credit: dbking, Wikimedia Commons.

Since the end of World War II, a worldwide network of sites dedicated to defining, preserving, and interpreting the history of the Holocaust has emerged and evolved. In the public history of the Holocaust, different institutions define the unfolding events in various ways, but for the purposes of this essay, the definition from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) serves well:

The Holocaust was the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its allies and collaborators. Holocaust is a word of Greek origin meaning “sacrifice by fire.” The Nazis, who came to power in Germany in January 1933, believed that Germans were “racially superior” and that the Jews, deemed “inferior,” were an alien threat to the so-called German racial community.

During the era of the Holocaust, German authorities also targeted other groups because of their perceived racial and biological inferiority: Roma (Gypsies), people with disabilities, some of the Slavic peoples (Poles, Russians, and others) Soviet prisoners of war, and blacks. Other groups were persecuted on political, ideological, and behavioral grounds, among them Communists, Socialists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and homosexuals.[i]

“Race” was central to the Nazi worldview, inextricably linked to the idea of the “nation.” In Nazi racial theory, Germany was an “Aryan” nation, whose people were descended from ancient Indo-Europeans who settled throughout the European continent as well as in Iran and India. Thus, conflating “Aryan” with “German” meant that “non-Aryan” peoples could not be German, no matter how they thought of themselves prior to 1933; and German-speaking “Aryans” living within the post-World War I borders of other nations were German, and thus the territory they occupied must be part of Germany. The internal consistency of this worldview drove the actions of the Third Reich that led to both the Holocaust and World War II.

Efforts to preserve and present the history of the Holocaust launched the ethos of “Never Again.”[ii] Confronted by the reality of the Holocaust, historians and activists hoped that visitors would be inspired not only to prevent genocide, but to combat antisemitism wherever it rebounded in the world.

An Overview of Holocaust Public History

In 1978, driven by a sense of moral and ethical responsibility born from an evolving understanding of the United States’ lack of official response to the warning signs of the Holocaust and its atrocities as they began to unfold, members of Jimmy Carter’s President’s Commission on the Holocaust began the process that would lead to the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. This American effort was one among many, and it occurred about thirty years after the first international efforts to preserve Holocaust history.

The landscape of Holocaust public history includes “sites of conscience,” national museums, educational initiatives, exhibits, and archives. The following is a sampling of the variety of these initiatives.

Place-based sites of remembrance were among the first to be preserved and often fall under state administration. These sites include places such as the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum in Poland (founded in 1947) and Dachau in Germany (preserved as a memorial in the 1960s). They also include more recent initiatives like the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Memorial, created in China in 1993. Architecture and artifact-intensive sites include Yad Vashem in Israel (founded in 1953, with a modern museum exhibit added in 2005), the USHMM (opened in Washington, D.C. in 1993), and the Memorial de la Shoah in France (2005). Regional museums of significant size and scope exist in many states and provinces and include such places as the Holocaust Museum of Houston (1996) and the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City (1997). Many were founded by survivors. Some, including the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles (1993) and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (2014), take a more broad-based approach to their mission.

Holocaust education initiatives (some of which include museums) exist at many colleges and universities around the world. These include places like the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights, and Genocide Education (CHHANGE) at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey (1979), the Shoah Foundation (1994) at the University of Southern California, and the Museum of History and Holocaust Education (MHHE) at Kennesaw State University in Georgia (2003).

Traveling exhibits, such as Anne Frank in the World or Remembering Ravensbrück: Women and the Holocaust, allow for portable explorations of sub-topics or introductions to the larger history which can be installed at multiple libraries, museums, and schools. Others with more specific themes, along with artifacts and mixed media, include Vedem Underground about a zine published by boys imprisoned at Theresienstadt/Terezen and Art and Remembrance based on the textile work of Holocaust survivor Esther Krinitz. Finally, there are blockbuster multi-national partnerships such as the 2016 exhibit Auschwitz: Not Long Ago, Not Far Away, which premiered at the Arte Canal Exhibition Centre in Madrid, Spain.

Temporary exhibits and initiatives at Holocaust museums and education centers allow for deeper exploration of important sub-topics and themes within Holocaust history. With its mission to evoke a sense of responsibility in its visitors, the USHMM has had a number of successful, well-executed temporary exhibits including, most recently, Americans and the Holocaust and Some Were Neighbors. Built with contemporary technology, temporary exhibits can make use of the staying power of digital media to live beyond their physical tenure. Educational initiatives also benefit from Web-based technology. These include Yad Vashem’s Echoes and Reflections, the Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program of the Azrieli Foundation in Toronto, Canada, and Facing History and Ourselves, originally launched in 1976.

Strategies for Interpreting the Holocaust

With over seventy years of evolving public history to consider, what should today’s “inclusive historian” count as best practices for interpreting the Holocaust?

Accuracy and Evidence

The magnitude and specificity of the Holocaust tests the limits of human comprehension and credence. It has invited denial and diminishment since people were first aware of atrocities happening in Germany after the National Socialist (Nazi) party came to power in 1933. Efforts to define the Holocaust occurred first in the context of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. Notably, the adoption of this convention occurred two years after the conclusion of the Nuremberg War Crimes trials for which mountains of evidence and witness testimony against top Nazi officials were compiled. The need to gather evidence and create a criminal narrative during judicial proceedings has led both to the preservation of evidence and to the parsing of precise definitions of crimes committed. Bureaucratic precision can sometimes obscure emotional truths, lead people to doubt witness testimony, or attempt to compare suffering. Thus, definitions of the Holocaust that foreground the Jews as the Nazis’ primary target for genocide, but also mention and contextualize “other” targets, are of paramount importance.

Comprehensive Coverage

The “other groups” targeted by the Nazi regime must be included in any comprehensive coverage of the Holocaust period. Discussing the unique characteristics and specific humanity of these approximately five million individuals honors their memory. It does not detract from the story of the Jews as the Nazis’ primary targets for genocide. However, it does help contemporary people to grasp the totality and complexity of the Nazi party’s murderous ideology.

Importance of Individuality

An event of such magnitude and darkness as the Holocaust (or Shoah—the Hebrew word for annihilation) invites understanding through statistics. Six million Jews were killed, two-thirds of the Jews of Europe and forty percent of the Jews in the world. More than 200,000 people, about one-quarter of the European population of Roma and Sinti, were killed in what the survivors recall as the “Porajmos” (Roma for great devouring). An estimated 1.8 million non-Jewish Polish civilians were killed during the “Zaglada” (Polish for destruction).[iii] On their own, such numbers provoke an intake of breath, a shaking of the head, but they do not do justice to the people who suffered and died or to the cultures that were erased from the great story map of the world. When people encounter and retain historical understanding, they do so through relating to the unique journeys of individuals both like and unlike themselves.


The ways in which these individuals’ stories are both like and unlike those of the public historian’s contemporary audience depends on the make-up of that audience. The years 1933-1945 are significant to the entire world. They encompass the Great Depression and World War II. Thus, the reality of the Holocaust is sometimes best understood through juxtaposition of other historical moments and events that may be familiar to visitors. In 1935, African American track star Jesse Owens was training for the 1936 Berlin Olympics while the German government was passing the Nuremberg race laws, based in part on the Jim Crow and anti-miscegenation laws of the American South.[iv] In the winter of 1942, American paratroopers were learning to jump in Georgia, preparing for deployment overseas, Japanese American civilians were being herded into concentration camps across the arid American West, and the architects of the “Final Solution” were planning for the destruction of the world’s Jews from the comfort of a classical villa in the Wannsee suburb of Berlin.


Similar to the importance of juxtaposition for people to find resonance in this history, relatability is especially important to people who have no direct connection to the story. For these audiences, it is important to emphasize that just because the Holocaust happened in a particular time and place does not mean it was only experienced by “foreigners.” It is also important to counter stereotypes that people might hold about European Jews. The Jews of Europe were by no means monolithic. They were rural, urban, rich, poor, multi-lingual, gay, straight, Zionist, assimilationist, political, and apolitical. Underscoring the diversity of the targets of Nazi ideology is also an important way to increase relatability. The Nazi regime cast a wide net. They imprisoned Jehovah’s Witnesses who would not bow to the power of the state. They targeted gay men for incarceration and “annihilation through work.” They pitted German political dissidents against Poles, Slavs, and Russians in their complex of prisons and concentration camps. They targeted Afro-Germans (the so-called “Rhineland Bastards” of World War I) for forced sterilization, murdered people with disabilities, and rendered “asocials” like Roma and Sinti invisible before “liquidating” their family camps.[v] Each group targeted by the Nazis remembers the horror of the Holocaust years in their own unique way. All of their stories are human stories.

So, too, are the stories of the witnesses, the bystanders, and the perpetrators. Those who encountered the Holocaust in its immediate aftermath are as diverse as those who encounter it today. They include the African American soldiers who liberated Buchenwald and the women on the home front reading newspapers and listening to radio broadcasts. They include the children who learned about the events through hearsay, and then through published diaries and memoirs, and, if they were lucky enough, through the testimony of survivors. They include the soldiers of the USSR whose testimony and experiences were buried in the snow of the Cold War for fifty years after they liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau. And, they include people whose minds had been poisoned by years of antisemitic rhetoric and imagery; people whose nationalistic goals were better served by the fantasy of Jewish conspiracy theories than by the reality of the Holocaust.


In the rhetorical universe of “Never Again,” it can be challenging to balance historical accuracy, reflection, and memorialization with inspiration of civic and moral responsibility, especially in a time when acting on behalf of human rights and against racism, antisemitism, sex and gender discrimination, ableism, and xenophobia seems increasingly urgent.[vi] Studying the Holocaust has helped us to codify the warning signs and conditions that can make genocide possible. It helps us recognize failures of the state and failures of individuals. It has helped us to understand the importance and the limitations of human choices. Under the “right” set of conditions, it is possible to shrink the universe of choices available to people over time until it seems there are no choices left at all. And, even when there are some choices left, they may be what theorist Lawrence Langer termed “choiceless choices.”[vii] Studying the Holocaust points out the limits of ethics under abnormal conditions. Placed in terrible situations, some people make decisions that seem to benefit them at the expense of others, but they may also feel that maintaining their power might allow them to intervene on behalf of a loved one, or simply to survive. The dilemma of “choiceless choices” leads some Holocaust educators to ask visitors, “What would you have done, had you been there?” Instead, however, we should consider the moral imperative of Holocaust education differently, asking people to consider their actions today. Everyone has a responsibility to use what power they have for good.

This photo shows the exterior of the Kigali Memorial Centre in Rwanda
Just as the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum was opening its doors, Rwanda was on the verge of genocide. The Kigali Genocide Memorial was opened in 2004. Photo credit: United States Department of the Treasury, Wikimedia Commons.

Potential Pitfalls

The “Echoes and Reflections” paradigm of Holocaust pedagogy cautions educators to avoid traumatizing their students by guiding them “safely in and safely out” of study. Of course, triggers are going to be different for different students, depending on their unique personal histories and sense of their heritage. Some strategies will work better for some than for others. It is also important to note here that simulation exercises and other forms of Holocaust reenactment, although they can foster empathy, are highly problematic and should only be attempted with the utmost care, if at all, by highly trained Holocaust educators.

There are problems as well with Holocaust heuristics. It is easy to portray the Holocaust as the ultimate in large-scale human cruelty. Characterizing the Holocaust as “the ultimate,” however, can lead people to try to compare suffering, in some cases diminishing or dismissing the suffering of some in order to gain attention for the suffering of themselves or their group, or others for whom they feel sympathy. History is not a zero-sum game, but the events of the past do compete for attention from teachers and students, governments and activists. Such a powerful story as the Holocaust lends itself to being politicized. Of course, historians need to be able to reference the present in discussions of the past in order to advance understanding, but this must be done with an eye toward precision and accuracy.[viii] It is similarly problematic to see Holocaust history only as a means to transmit a moral message. The story can be told extrinsically to support a particular agenda (such as genocide prevention, anti-bullying, claiming that everyone bears some responsibility for evil or, equally and oppositely, absolving people of responsibility within an oppressive system). Although learning from the past is important, problems occur when people perceive the agenda as supplanting the intrinsic importance of the story.

Problematic Holocaust pedagogy can be particularly burdensome for survivors and their families, because they can feel personally implicated or used for a purpose that might not be their priority. Thus, it is important for public historians to respect the rights of survivors and their descendants to speak or not to speak, to educate or to disengage. Historians must also treat testimony with respect even when using it to illustrate specific themes that may resonate with particular individuals or audiences. This responsibility grows ever greater as the generation of survivors and witnesses reach the end of their natural lives.

This is a photo of Holocaust survivor Herbert Kohn
Herbert Kohn spoke regularly to children at the Museum of History and Holocaust Education about his German childhood during the rise of the Nazi regime. He recorded the testimony seen in still image here in 2013. Since 2018, his poor health has prevented him from leaving his home. As of the writing of this piece, he is 93 years old. Photo credit: Georgia Journeys, MHHE, Kennesaw State University.


What, then, is the ultimate responsibility of public historians of the Holocaust? Tell the story simply enough that your target audience can understand the narrative, but don’t oversimplify or eliminate complexity. It is always possible to go deeper. Talk about the limits of choice in an increasingly oppressive situation, but talk about resistance and resilience too. Tell stories of victims, perpetrators, survivors, liberators, bystanders, and the people who played more than one of these roles at different moments in their historical journeys. Know the value and the limits of empathy. Place the story in context. Describe antisemitism, eugenics, segregation, and anti-miscegenation laws. Chronicle xenophobia and restrictive immigration policy. Discuss leading and following, militarism and conformity. Contemplate censorship and the spectacle of cultural unity, media and propaganda, scapegoating and dehumanization. Set the scene of the aftermath of World War I and the onset of World War II. Include discussions of communism and nationalism, isolationism and appeasement, and soldiers and strategy. Finally, talk about witnessing, gathering evidence, and preserving testimony. Narrate human resilience and compassion. Consider power and responsibility, memory and (re)membrance. Acknowledge your own unique subjectivity, and endeavor to understand that of your audience.

Public history is rooted in traditions of storytelling—gathering and sharing, telling and retelling. There are always new listeners. Every day, we ourselves, are new listeners. Our work is never done.


[i] “Introduction to the Holocaust,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,

[ii] Emily Burack, “‘Never Again’: From a Holocaust Phrase to a Universal Phrase,” The Jerusalem Post, March 10, 2018, See also, and the #neveragain hashtag.

[iii] Luis Ferreiro and Miriam Greenbaum, Auschwitz: Not Long Ago. Not Far Away., ed. Robert Jan van Pelt (New York ; London: Abbeville Press, 2019).

[iv] James Q. Whitman, Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017).

[v] During World War I, soldiers from parts of Africa under French colonial rule fought on behalf of France. After the war, a number of them occupied German territory along the Rhine river, the “Rhineland.” Although many German women married soldiers from the occupying forces, some had children out of wedlock, opening the rhetorical door for the “Rhineland Bastards” moniker that would first be used as a derogatory term to refer to Afro-Germans in German newspapers in 1919. For more details, see Iris Wigger, The “Black Horror on the Rhine”: Intersections of Race, Nation, Gender, and Class in 1920s Germany (Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2017).

[vi] The rise of right-wing regimes in Europe with a predilection for Holocaust revisionism has also given Holocaust educators a sense of increased urgency. For example, see “Hungary’s New Holocaust Museum Isn’t Open Yet, But It’s Already Causing Concern,”, accessed August 20, 2019,

[vii] Lawrence L. Langer, “The Dilemma of Choice in the Death Camps,” Centerpoint: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies 4 (Fall 1980): 53-59.

[viii] For a discussion of recent scholarly debates over the use of Holocaust analogies in political speech, see Liam Knox, “Scholars Push Back on Holocaust Museum’s Rejection of Historical Analogy,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 3, 2019,

Suggested Readings

Berenbaum, Michael. The World Must Know: The History of the Holocaust as Told in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Revised edition. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.

Bergen, Doris L. War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust. Third edition. Lanham ; Boulder ; New York ; London: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2016.

Ferreiro, Luis, and Miriam Greenbaum. Auschwitz: Not Long Ago. Not Far Away. Edited by Robert Jan van Pelt. New York ; London: Abbeville Press, 2019.

Hersh, June Feiss. Recipes Remembered. Museum of Jewish Heritage, 2013.

Linenthal, Edward. Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Museum. 1st edition. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

Lipstadt, Deborah E. Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. Reprint edition. New York, N.Y: Plume, 1994.

Spiegelman, Art. The Complete Maus. New York: Pantheon, 1996.

Wiesel, Elie. The Night Trilogy: Night, Dawn, Day. First PB Edition, First Printing edition. New York: Hill and Wang, 2008.


~ Adina Langer has served as the curator of the Museum of History and Holocaust Education at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Georgia, since 2015. A 2009 graduate of the MA program in Archives and Public History at New York University, she has focused her career on interpreting traumatic historical events for diverse audiences while emphasizing the dignity and individuality of the people who experienced them. You can follower her on Twitter @Artiflection and find her on the web at

Food History

Food justice projects often invoke iconic and historical images that can create openings for public historians to connect with community organizing. Photo credit: David Garten on Flickr

Food: chances are you’ll be thinking about it at some point today, like almost everyone sharing the planet with you. Interacting with food may be as close as we’ll ever get to a universal human experience. But can we say that the public history of food is equally inclusive?

Food has certainly long been present in historical interpretation—often as an entry point. Thanks to our human wiring, food offers immediate appeal—to the mind and to the senses. Food traditions anchor communities, communicate continuity and belonging, and creatively infuse identities.

Yet people also draw sharp dividing lines using food. Ask a politically-committed vegan and a pasture-based husbandry advocate what kind of farming is best for the environment and you’ll get two very different answers. Food is also often subject to borderlines of race, ethnicity, class, and gender. Ali Berlow, in her Food Activist Handbook, shares an anecdote titled “We See What We’re Willing to See.” Looking at the “bucolic” farms of her own town, Berlow sees

. . . a peaceable kingdom: fertile lands producing good food for all, equanimity, access, balance, and respect between people, animals, land and cultivation. But as my friend the author Alice Randall pointed out, we all see things through the lens of our personal histories. My great-grandparents were German immigrants who moved to the Midwest, bought land, then worked the land they owned. My relationship to the landscape that I’ve inherited is different from that of some of my African-American friends and colleagues like Alice. I think it’s safe to say that most of their ancestors did not own the land they worked. When Alice looks at those same cornfields, grand old trees, and pastures, she may not envision a peaceable kingdom but rather one of terror, violence, and oppression.[i]

Food history can quickly lead to big questions about identity, equity, and sustainability. Those questions dig to the root of social, economic, and environmental challenges facing us today. This double-edged nature makes food an outstanding starting point for public historians working toward an equitable and engaged practice.

Let’s take a quick tour of the problematic past and hopeful present of public interpretation of food history, and identify some skills and resources that public historians can bring to food-related projects.

The Roots of Food in Public History

In museums, historic sites, and public history projects, food has often been loaded with assumptions, habits, and traditions that get in the way of inclusion. The earliest generation of historic preservationists preferred to keep the messy work of food cultivation and preparation (and the people who did it) hidden behind kitchen doors, but during the Civil War and succeeding decades, nostalgic “colonial” kitchens became a popular draw at public fairs and appeared in some early historic house museums. These feel-good spaces served unchallenging ideas about the past with their cups of chowder and slices of pie, setting long-lived expectations that public food history would provide comforting, patriotic reinforcement of existing power structures.

These interpretive tropes persisted. They can still be found today in museum displays of groaning farmstead tables, frothing butter churns, and tokenized “multicultural” food presentations that erase or mask histories of struggle, disparity, and oppression. Food historian Ken Albala identifies this mode as “culinary history,” focused on ingredients, cooking equipment, methods, and the re-creation of cooking processes, as opposed to a wider “food history” that investigates the social, economic, ethical, and political dimensions of food production and consumption.

A Broader View of Food History

A wider “food history” point of view began informing public interpretations of food starting in the 1960s, when emerging social history and public history movements brought critical approaches to the past. It also gave rise to a new museum genre: the living historical farm. Its birthplace was Old Sturbridge Village, where in 1970 a group convened to envision a national network of agricultural museums, to be funded in part (they hoped) by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Though that scope was never realized, the living history farm began to dominate public history’s food and agriculture conversation by the 1970s. Key leaders organized ALHFAM (the Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums) to share research and skills and to promote the vision of a new age of agricultural museums. ALHFAM’s influence has been enormous. Its annual national and regional meetings, publications, and workshops have amassed and disseminated practical knowledge on the reconstruction and interpretation of food processes.

But ALHFAM’s history reflects the tension between the narrower scope of “culinary history” and the more complicated questions raised by critical approaches to food. At its 2013 annual meeting, ALHFAM co-founder Darwin Kelsey challenged the group with a call to action, arguing that food interpreters (himself included) had been focused on the “what” of food history, at the expense of the “why.” It was past time, in his view, to engage with the present-day, global consequences of the histories they presented. AHLFAM’s creation, he noted,

. . . coincides almost precisely with the most radical change in the way humans feed themselves since homo sapiens began. We call this grand-scale experiment the industrial food system. For most Americans the industrial food system provides a food supply perceived to be abundant, cheap, and convenient. Yet in the last couple of decades it has become increasingly clear that this system has an inherent pattern of problems: Food of inferior taste and nutrition, fertilizer and herbicide pollution in streams and lakes, degradation and loss of farmland, depleted aquifers, farm worker abuse, inner city food deserts, intensive energy consumption, exacerbation of climate change, and narrow corporate control of the nation’s food supply . . . In 2013, it is clear that such problems make the current system unsustainable without radical change—fundamental culture change. Couldn’t—shouldn’t—playing an active, intentional role in that culture change become part of the why shaping the what of most living history farms?[ii]

Kelsey, who by 2013 was directing an innovative farm partnership within Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio, was speaking as a participant in what is sometimes termed “the food movement.” Sometimes parodied and minimized as a collection of affluent white people obsessed with local, organic, humanely raised kale, in its full dimensions the food movement is notable for its depth and complexity, aptly described by food writer Michael Pollan as a “big lumpy tent.” People of varied backgrounds are drawn to food activism through multiple entry points: hunger and economic access; food sovereignty and food justice; nutrition and health; farm and food service labor and human rights; animal welfare; land conservation, rural redevelopment, and farmland preservation; gardening and urban farming; gastronomy and agritourism; environmentalism and climate change; and more. Like food history, these issues may begin with food, but expand outward to touch on the most pressing issues of our times.

Culinary historian and educator Michael Twitty links past and present in his work on race and Southern food. Photo credit: Ryan Lash/TED on Flickr

Reshaping Food History

Many current practitioners are reshaping the role of history in addressing those issues. Critical perspectives, shared authority, community engagement, and collaborative decision-making and leadership are now being integrated into many sites that present histories of food production, processing, and consumption.

  • The Museum of Ventura County (California) developed a three-part exhibition called At Table: The Business of Food and Community. Through art-inspired installations, programs, and historical interpretation, At Table built awareness and invited consideration of how ongoing immigration into the county has “influenced local recipes, menus and dining habits, as well as food-related businesses and restaurants.”
  • San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora created a Chef-in-Residence program. In 2015, its first resident chef, culinary celebrity Bryant Terry, worked with the museum to curate a program including panels on “Black Women, Food and Power” and “Feeding the Resistance”; a historically-themed dinner; and an interactive talk on food justice and public health.
  • The Queens County Farm Museum preserves New York City’s largest tract of undisturbed farmland. Its sustainable agriculture program interprets the history of organic farming in America and features a year-round growing program. Farm produce is featured in NYC’s Greenmarket, with any surplus donated to the recovery project City Harvest. The farm also provides eggs and hatchlings to the City Chicken program of the food justice group Just Food!, teaching city residents how to raise and keep egg-laying hens.
  • The National Museum of the American Indian features food sovereignty in its online exhibit Native Knowledge 360, with a focus on the Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project to recover the foodways of Salish-speaking people of the Pacific Northwest. Discussion questions, informative resources, definitions, and quotations allow users to engage more deeply with perspectives on food sovereignty.
  • The Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s Food History project brings together contemporary and historical investigations of American food culture from diverse perspectives through programs, an annual symposium, and online collections.

A Toolkit for Inclusive Food Interpretation

Despite this work, older interpretive tropes die hard. Institutional engagements with food still often stop at simplistic representation. It’s not difficult to understand why: the issues food connects to—health, environment, identity, economy, energy—are dauntingly vast and highly politicized. Inclusive food interpretation work digs into logistical, political, and regulatory challenges—aligning goals and agendas with commercial partners, including those who struggle to survive in a competitive marketplace; confronting the deep-rooted whiteness that has historically characterized both public history and many sectors of the food movement; and negotiating the constraints of health regulations and zoning. Between logistical challenges, internal resistance, insufficient knowledge, and skeptical leadership, many organizations freeze at the contemplation stage, or assume they can’t take on such charged and complex topics.

But public history can have a profound and powerful role in these conversations. For our book Public History and the Food Movement: Adding the Missing Ingredient, we interviewed eight people who draw on history in their progressive work in fields as disparate as fisheries activism, indigenous food sovereignty, and public policy. As we spoke, common themes emerged. They point toward ways to apply—and extend—historians’ skills toward a more inclusive practice of interpreting food.

  1.     Be reflexive.

As in all public history practice, the work of internal transformation comes first. We should interrogate our own professional past, asking what traditions we have inherited, who authored them, and whether they still serve our purposes. We also need to examine and acknowledge our own positionality—as individuals, as members of the public, and as representatives of our organizations. An excellent place to start this work is with the MASS Action Toolkit, a collection of articles and self-assessment tools created by a grassroots coalition of museum practitioners working to position museums as sites of positive action for social justice.

  1.     Tell stories without endings.

The legacies of living history have encouraged a focus on the minutiae of culinary history—tools, ingredients, methods. Inclusive public historians shouldn’t stop at simply showing how people did it in the old days. Push toward those critical “why” questions: Why did most people stop using these techniques? Why are certain kinds of skills and labor—and the people associated with them—valued or devalued in our food system? Why is hand-processed food so much more expensive than industrially-produced food? If we can pose critical, contextualizing questions, we will be well on the way to telling what we call in Public History and the Food Movement “stories without endings”—stories that connect past to present and historicize unresolved contemporary questions about food culture, dealing directly with the most urgent social, economic, and environmental issues of today. Our existing interpretive and communicative tools are unique contributions to the work of rebuilding more just and inclusive food futures.

  1.     Think like a community organizer.

The practitioners we interviewed were going beyond the “advisory group” consultation model, and instead using the toolbox of community organizing, defined by activist and educator Marshall Ganz as “practicing democracy by mobilizing people to combine their resources to act strategically on behalf of common interests.” This approach is grounded in ongoing relationships with community members and discussions about forms of activity that would be meaningful and useful to them. Is your organization involved in local and regional food organizations and coalitions? Do you know who works on food access locally? Have you had a presence at farmers’ markets, diabetes expos, or town hall meetings? Written op-eds? One entry point can be creating a Community Food Map to identify the players in your local or regional food system. Seeing the lay of the land can help you identify where public history work can be helpful.

An engaged, critical approach to the history of food asks for long-term commitment and a good deal of learning and reflection for public historians as well as their partners and audiences. Some resources to get you started are listed below.


[i] Ali Berlow, Food Activist Handbook (North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing, 2015), 72.

[ii] Darwin Kelsey, “What is a Living History Farm? Introductory Comments,” Proceedings of the 2013 AHLFAM Conference, Vol. 36 (2013).

Suggested Readings

Berlow, Ali. The Food Activist’s Handbook: Big & Small Things You Can Do to Provide Fresh, Healthy Food for Your Community. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing, 2015.

Laudan, Rachel. “Getting Started in Food History.”

Moon, Michelle. Interpreting Food at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield/AASLH, 2016.

Moon, Michelle, and Cathy Stanton. Public History and the Food Movement: Adding the Missing Ingredient. New York: Routledge, 2018. The book’s companion website can be found here:

Oliver, Sandra. “Interpreting Food History.” Technical Leaflet 197. American Association for State and Local History.

Reid, Debra A. Interpreting Agriculture at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield/AASLH, 2017.

Organizations and Associations Doing Food History

American Community Gardening Association

Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums (ALHFAM)

Agricultural History Society (AHS)

Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS)

Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society (AFHVS)

Farm-Based Education Network

Native Seeds/SEARCH

Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance

National Black Farmers Association

Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery

Southern Foodways Alliance

United States Department of Agriculture

Databases, Archives, and Link Lists

Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook Project

The Food Timeline

The FOOD Museum

Growing a Nation: The Story of American Agriculture (timelines from USDA)

New York Public Library list of food history resources


~ Michelle Moon is Chief Programs Officer at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City. She has also worked at the Peabody Essex Museum, Strawbery Banke Museum, and Mystic Seaport, and received her Master’s degree in Museum Studies from Harvard University Extension School. In addition to co-authoring Public History and the Food Movement: Adding the Missing Ingredient (Routledge, 2018) with Cathy Stanton, she is the author of Interpreting Food at Museums and Historic Sites (Rowman and Littlefield/AASLH, 2016).

~ Cathy Stanton teaches anthropology at Tufts University. Her book The Lowell Experiment: Public History in a Postindustrial City won the 2007 NCPH Book Award. Her current scholarly and public work focuses on the uses of knowledge about the past of U.S. food and farming. She has collaborated and consulted with a number of community farms, national parks, land trusts, museums, and others working to present farm history in public.

View from the Field: The Challenges to Being Inclusive in Museum Collections

Annie in the Mississippi Delta, 1920s. Photo credit: From the private collection of Marian Carpenter.

The quest for museums to be diverse and inclusive in staffing, leadership, and programs is not a new challenge. At a recent American Alliance of Museums (AAM) annual meeting, Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, former director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, delivered a landmark keynote that challenged museums “to be of social value by not only inspiring but creating change around one of the most critical issues of our time—the issue of diversity.” Cole’s speech compelled AAM to recognize the need for diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion to ensure that the field remains relevant and sustainable.

In response to the need to be diverse and inclusive, museums, historic sites, and related institutions have written strategic plans that promise to include all voices, cultures, and histories in their board membership, staffing, policies, educational programs, collections, exhibits, and events. Efforts to make museum collections more diverse and inclusive, however, have been slow and problematic. Why? The biggest contributing factor is the lack of diversity within curatorial and collections departments. According to the 2018 Art Museum Staff Demographic Report, produced by the Andrew Mellon Foundation and Ithaka S+R, the number of employed curators who are people of color is 16%, compared to 84% of curators who identify as white. Museums with specific cultural and ethnic collections often do not hire curators, collections managers, or registrars representative of the cultural origins or background of these collections; nor do they establish meaningful relationships with diverse communities.

Throughout my 23-year career in the museum field, I have experienced several occasions where I have had to defend appropriate cultural representation in the areas of object interpretation, documentation, and care. I will endeavor to describe three incidents at various levels within my career where I have had to tackle challenging scenarios around proper cultural representation of difficult objects, overcome personal trauma and emotion associated with racially sensitive objects, and combat discrimination within historical collections. These specific accounts are shared in hopes of motivating my colleagues working in the museum field to be aware of these issues around inclusivity in collections, spark discussion, and speak up in defense of proper cultural representation.

Appropriate Interpretation of Racially Sensitive Collections

Newly established in my career and armed with the scholarly lessons that earned me my graduate degree in history with a special emphasis in African American history, I thought I was equipped for the curatorial responsibilities neatly outlined in my job description and evaluation. However, there were no university courses or examinations that could have prepared me for the encounter that I had with the chief curator involving the display of racially offensive African American toys that dated from the 1930s and 1940s. The museum didn’t know quite what to do with these toys and how to interpret the sensitive subject of race. Before my arrival, these toys received very little attention and care. They were stored behind different objects as if they didn’t even exist. In fact, the small African American collection that was housed at the museum had been overlooked and no additional funding was allocated to support the growth of this collection. My predecessor was tasked with developing a gallery designed to highlight the history of African Americans and this task left her very little time to grow and care for the collection.

My responsibility as curator of the African American collection was to acquire new objects through loans and purchases as well as interpret and develop exhibit displays that would appeal to the museum’s targeted audience: children. My assistant and I worked with the museum registrars to properly document the collection, including the racially offensive toys. In planning for several upcoming exhibit displays to showcase the African American collection, one of the chief curators asked me to incorporate the racially offensive toys into the exhibits. Because of the sensitivity of the subject matter and the possible lack of understanding by children along with the potential to offend parents, I turned down the initial suggestion, offering several justifiable reasons.

The “Be-Bop” toy from the 1950s. Image credit: Jim Crow Museum, Ferris State University.

Eager to create a teachable moment for both my colleagues and museum visitors, I provided the chief curator with an alternative way to showcase these toys. I volunteered to develop an interactive program that would allow visitors to learn about the negative stereotypes that were attributed to African Americans and recognize how these toys contributed to prejudices and discrimination that were taught in American popular culture. Because the program would be geared toward children of all ages, I explained that this would be a great teaching moment to demonstrate the importance of respect for all cultures and ethnicities. I was shocked that the chief curator didn’t share my ideas nor was she interested in expounding on the history of negative representations of African Americans. She demanded I place the racially offensive toys in the exhibit displays. Was this really happening? What book or guidelines could I reference to stop this insensitive act? What about all of the meetings that I attended that encouraged me to display African American objects and to develop exhibits that celebrated the historic achievements and culture of African Americans? I can’t remember how many days passed before the chief curator and I discussed again the usage of the racially offensive toys. I do recall that when we spoke, I warned her that this plan to display these toys would shatter the relationship between the museum and the African American community. She responded by telling me “maybe that’s the type of attention we need from the African American community.” Stunned by her answer, I told her that I would not display the toys. The chief curator was secure in her decision. I asked another African American museum colleague for advice and she was prepared to alert the local news stations. My connections with the African American community gave me the support I needed to challenge the chief curator. The museum was spared any unnecessary publicity and the racially offensive toys were not exhibited. Was this a victory, or was I unearthing the reality that some of the curators in this museum were not willing to accept inclusiveness?

Learning Points: As a member of the collections and exhibition departments in your museum, you have a duty to interpret cultural collections truthfully and with respect. Never compromise your integrity due to the pressures of colleagues who may not share the same ethical understanding or responsibilities. Always look for teachable moments to enlighten colleagues and the public when dealing with sensitive materials. I can’t stress enough the importance of building meaningful relationships with communities that are not appropriately represented. Their support and trust will be key to measuring the museum’s goal to become more inclusive.

Receiving and Processing Racially Sensitive Collections

After working in the museum field for over 12 years as a curator and registrar, I considered myself well experienced. I had the awesome opportunity to work at several different museums which allowed me to manage and exhibit a number of diverse collections that represented American culture. My interest and ongoing training in public history gave me the advantage in connecting with local African American communities to help them preserve and interpret their histories. I received invitations from colleges and universities, including historic Black institutions to teach and mentor students about museum careers with a special focus on professions as curators, registrars, and collections managers. I mostly appealed to history students and emphasized the importance of object documentation.

Throughout my career, I have processed hundreds of racially sensitive objects and my ability to identify and research these collections became second nature. I was accustomed to documenting objects that were both uncomfortable to look at and to discuss. I often had to console many donors that were uneasy about having these racially sensitive objects connected to their families and thus many of these donors opted to remain anonymous. However, I never expected that a particular donation would almost hinder my ability to fully document an object.

In routine fashion, I accepted a call from a donor that wanted to remain anonymous. Emotionally distraught, the caller informed me that she had found a post card while cleaning out the home of an elderly relative. She was utterly disgusted to know that the relative had saved this particular item. I assured her that the museum would accept the post card along with any historical information. The caller mentioned that she would enclose it in stationary and mail it right away. She didn’t describe the content of the post card and I didn’t ask. The object arrived within a few days. When I opened the beautiful stationary paper, I was horrified to see a black-and-white post card of four African American men hanging from one tree. I knew that lynching photographs were often sent as post cards, but I had never actually seen one.

The post card was sent with no additional information so I had to examine the photograph carefully to find clues that would reveal the timespan and possible location of the lynching to help me find out more about the African American men that were murdered. It took me weeks to process this post card. I was haunted by the bodies hanging from the trees and the faces of the African American onlookers that were standing nearby. I wanted to pass this to the registrar or slip it into a folder to be processed later, but an upcoming collections committee meeting forced me to complete the documentation. To heal from this emotional trauma, I incorporated the lynching post card in my lectures and workshops to teach other museum professionals how to accept racially sensitive materials.

Learning Points: How do museums prepare their collection staff to handle the uncomfortable emotions of processing racially sensitive collections? How can the community help? I challenge museum professionals to ask these questions. Because museums want collections to be more diverse, there must be an investment to make resources available for collections staff to learn how to work with sensitive materials. I encourage staff to openly discuss with other colleagues and communities that share these difficult histories. Be willing to listen and learn from community or local historians and invite them to help with the documentation of these objects.

Preventing and Advocating against Discrimination in Collections

As a seasoned museum professional in collections, I was comfortable working with various types of cultural objects. Collections care is paramount for all objects donated to or purchased for the museum—at least that is how I was trained, in accordance with AAM collections stewardship policies. As collections manager at a history institution, I worked collaboratively with the museum curator. Our relationship soon became frayed when the curator refused to store a significant Latino Art Collection on the same shelves with framed European paintings. At first I thought the curator had misunderstood my request to rehouse the Latino Collection in the permanent storage area. The reality became clear to me. This was not a mistake. The curator purposely devalued the need to administer equal care to an object simply by its cultural affiliation. This was unbelievable. Apparently, my predecessor had tried unsuccessfully for two years to incorporate the Latino artwork on the shelves of the main collections storage. Instead, the framed art pieces were either hung in various staff workspaces or stacked in the hallway. Was I experiencing firsthand cultural object discrimination?

I immediately alerted my supervisor to this act of subtle racism that was practiced through selective storage of objects based on culture and race. He supported me in my plan to care and store all collection objects equally. With several interns, I moved the entire Latino Art Collection to the designated art storage in the main collections building. It took several weeks before the curator noticed the newly stored artwork on the shelves. She retaliated by trying to get other staff to move the objects out of the main collections building. Her efforts became pointless when I reminded the curator that it is the duty of the museum to care for all collections as stated in our collections management policy.

Learning Points: The degree of object care should not be determined based on cultural affiliation or race. Cultural object discrimination does exist, but in subtle ways. The way to detect this is by asking questions: How and where are cultural objects housed in collections storage? Have they been properly documented and accessioned or are they stored in uncatalogued or unmarked boxes? Do the collections that represent a specific ethnicity or race receive the same financial funds and treatment?

I applaud the museums and institutions that are conscious of the care of their collections on an equal scale regardless of their cultural affiliation, but there are many that do not exercise that level of consciousness. I witnessed this inequality at a history institution several years ago when my interns and I were conducting research for an upcoming online exhibition. The African American collection of rare photographs and documents from World War I needed serious care and treatment. The collection was stored in worn archival folders and boxes. I was shocked that the institution allowed us to physically handle the photographs because of their fragility. When I asked the assistant if this collection would be digitized soon to prevent unnecessary handling, she told me that was their hope, but there were no definite future plans. Sadly, the donors gave these priceless photographs and papers of their military service with the museum’s promise that their items would receive the best quality of care.

Collections managers, conservators, and curators should feel empowered to speak up for the care of all collections. Don’t be afraid to correct colleagues. Challenge leadership to allocate appropriate funds to treat and document objects, particularly the ones that have a significant connection with local communities that are not represented in the museum.

Defending cultural representation in the areas of object interpretation, documentation, and care takes courage and a lot of patience. I credit my friends, mentors, and fellow colleagues for giving me direction and advice to speak out and educate colleagues and leadership on the importance of diversity and inclusion. I hope these examples will alert my colleagues of cultural exclusivity “red flags” within collections, generate meaningful conversations, and encourage individuals within the profession to take action where needed.

Suggested Readings

American Alliance of Museums, Facing Change: Insights from the American Alliance of Museums’ Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion Working Group, 2018, https: //

Schonfeld, Roger C., Mariët Westermann, and Liam Sweeney, “Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey,” The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, January 28, 2019,


~ Marian Carpenter has over twenty years of experience in collections management and exhibitions. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in History and Afro-American Studies from Indiana University and a Masters of Arts in American History with a concentration in African American History from the University of Cincinnati. Currently, she is the Associate Director of Collections/Chief Registrar at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.

Diversity and Inclusion

Graduate students in the University of Minnesota’s Heritage Studies and Public History program visiting with a book conservator. Photo credit: Chris Taylor.

Historians hold the awesome power to shape historical narratives. With this power comes an equally awesome responsibility to create narratives that represent all groups within our society. Growing discourse in public history scholarship reflects an increasing acknowledgment of the limited scope of representation within the historical narrative. The conversation about diversity and inclusion within the history field has increased exponentially in the last decade. More and more, public historians link the terms together as a single concept. It is important to separate these terms and draw distinctions between them as they refer to different concepts. This essay focuses on drawing distinctions between the terms and further exploring inclusion, both in terms of social inclusion and workplace inclusion. Although we often associate the terms diversity and inclusion with equity and accessibility, this essay will focus on diversity and inclusion.

Defining Diversity

Many definitions of the word diversity exist. Providing a clear definition of diversity remains difficult. Universal to all definitions is the concept of differences. Diversity implies that we possess different characteristics and identities. One look at the diversity wheel and you quickly see diversity defined in multiple ways.[i] When we include diversity in our work, where do we start? How do we define the target beneficiaries of our diversity work? In Minnesota, where I live, there are over thirty racial or ethnic groups represented in the population of the state.[ii] As we embed diversity within our programming and staffing structures, must we make sure we have all racial and ethnic groups represented? Further, what about age, sexual orientation, gender, and physical ability? Diversity becomes a numbers game. How many of this group? Did we include some from that group? This approach becomes a cycle of “chasing diversity” or checking the boxes to make sure we represent certain groups in our work. This approach is a numbers game that holds no real value for those who belong to the groups we identify as “different.”

Diversity and inclusion consultant Michael L. Wheeler writes, “diversity is a force of change that will force change.”[iii] This change, brought on by increasing calls for diversity, manifests in all facets of our work. Diversity is important from the standpoint that we must recognize that diversity necessitates a different way of working.

Defining Inclusion

Rather than prioritizing numbers, inclusion emphasizes whether members of diverse groups feel valued and respected within an organization, project, or social system. Diversity and inclusion consultant Mary Frances Winters expands on this definition. She writes, “I define inclusion as creating an environment that acknowledges, welcomes, and accepts different approaches, styles, perspectives, and experiences, so as to allow all to reach their potential and result in enhanced organizational success.”[iv] When the conversation switches from diversity to inclusion, we worry less about checking boxes for the different dimensions of diversity and worry more about how people, across all differences, are feeling as a result of our work.

The Distinction between Diversity and Inclusion

While we often use the words diversity and inclusion interchangeably, a distinction does exist. Winters points out, “Diversity is about counting heads; inclusion is about making heads count. Another way to distinguish between diversity and inclusion is to define diversity as a noun describing the state and inclusion as a verb or action noun, in that to include requires action.”[v] Increased diversity allows for multiple perspectives to be present in a system, whether an organization, a project team, or other groups of people. While diversity exists within these groups, the group does not inherently maximize the benefits of that diversity. Historical systems of power, privilege, and oppression often dictate the operating rules and hierarchies within group settings. Inclusion is an intentional strategy to mitigate power and privilege and maximize the benefits of diversity. Inclusion refers to how we leverage diversity within a system to create a fair, equitable, and healthy environment which leads to higher performing groups.

Inclusion as a Practice, Experience, and Philosophy

Inclusion is simultaneously a practice, an experience, and a philosophy. As historians, we have accepted practices. We have research practices, writing practices, exhibit practices, and so on. We must begin to internalize the fact that inclusion is also a practice. Much like we needed to learn the technical skills of research, writing, and exhibit practices, we must also learn the technical skills of inclusive practices. Adding tools like empathy, cross-cultural communication, cultural humility, cultural intelligence, and intercultural conflict management to our toolboxes enhances our abilities to engage diverse groups and work cross-culturally. For those already in the field, you need to find ways to build these skills. It is imperative that practitioners create space to develop cultural self-awareness, “the conscious ability to critically view and understand the objective and subjective culture to which an individual belongs.”[vi] As much as technical skills such as research, writing, and exhibition development are important for public historians, skills that increase intercultural competence push practitioners to see their work through multiple perspectives and ultimately practice more inclusively.

Inclusion, as an experience, relates to how individuals feel valued, heard, and engaged within a group. The ability for an individual to participate in public history work as their whole and authentic self is critical for feeling included. Free from the pressure to assimilate or conceal parts of their identity, an individual fully engages and brings a diverse range of perspectives to bear on the work at hand. Professor and diversity and inclusion consultant Bernardo Ferdman writes, “We believe that the ways in which we as individuals combine, manage, and express our multiple identities – in short, how we show up and express our full selves at work – is a key part of the dynamic process of inclusion.”[vii] For the individual, inclusion allows for psychological safety and the ability to participate and contribute to work based on experiences, philosophies, and worldviews that are not always present in the work we do as public historians.

Inclusion as a philosophy takes a systemic approach to inclusivity. It is imperative we recognize dominant norms embedded in our work habits and shift to more inclusive mental models. Frameworks such as Critical Theory (Critical Race Theory, Feminist Theory, Queer Theory, Postcolonialism, and Critical Management Studies) help us recognize structures of prejudice, bias, discrimination, and oppression embedded within our default ways of working. A deeper understanding of how, over time, we internalized dominant norms into our practices allows us to begin to dismantle these prevailing ideologies. Shifting to an inclusive philosophy positions inclusion as a core value for the work we, as historians, undertake. Inclusion permeates all our activities, becoming core to our approach, conceptualization, execution, and evaluation of public history work.

These concepts are mutually reinforcing. As we adopt inclusive philosophies and approaches to our work, the need to develop inclusive practices becomes ingrained. As we develop inclusive practices, a more diverse group of participants experience feeling included within the work of historians. Whether we focus these efforts outside our organizations and institutions or we look to reinvent our organizations and institutions from the inside out, inclusion is the common thread that continues to create increased levels of relevancy for the work of public historians.

Social Inclusion vs. Workplace Inclusion

To further define inclusion, it is important to understand the distinction between social inclusion and workplace inclusion. Each are equally important and incorporate similar concepts, but each targets a different audience. Social inclusion focuses on the benefits our work brings to the larger society. Asking ourselves how our work benefits society and dismantles systems of power and privilege lies at the heart of social inclusion. The American Alliance of Museums’ recent working group on Diversity, Equity, Access and Inclusion (DEAI) reaffirmed the relevance of DEAI. They wrote, “We believe that those who have historically been relegated to the margins of society due to legacies of racism, ableism, sexism, heterosexisms, xenophobia, and all other forms of injustice must be fully included in museum workplaces and communities.”[viii] To take this a step further, we must research and present the histories of those relegated to the margins of society to pull those groups back from the margins.

We must recognize the work we do is often to collect, preserve, research, and create narratives related to the cultures of other groups. It is mandatory we include these groups in the process and center the needs and desires of these groups. In 2014, a group of museum bloggers and other interested colleagues wrote a joint statement on the events in Ferguson, Missouri and other related events. As part of that statement, they wrote, “As mediators of culture, all museums should commit to identifying how they connect to relevant contemporary issues irrespective of collection, focus, or mission.”[ix] We only evolve to be inclusive, socially conscious public historians through building relationships, asking questions, listening to the answers, and shifting our work to incorporate the needs and desires of the communities we profess to serve.

Similar to social inclusion, workplace inclusion also mitigates systems of power and oppression, but focuses on those practitioners within our field. Are the systems and structures that exist within our organizations, institutions, training programs, and professional networks inclusive? Organization Development experts Lisa Nishii and Robert Rich write, “Unlike many diversity practices that focus specifically on improving the outcomes of disadvantaged groups, [workplace] inclusion is a general organizing principle that permeates an organization’s practices, norms, and operational functioning and that affects employees across the board.”[x] This approach embeds inclusion within an organization, institution, training program, or professional network at a systemic level. Workplace inclusion focuses on creating fair, equitable workplaces that embrace and leverage diversity and better serve diverse communities. Individuals that feel included produce at a higher rate, are more likely to stay with the organization, and demonstrate higher levels of creativity and problem solving. The desire to increase diversity within the ranks of public historians is a noble one, but without an emphasis on workplace inclusion, retention of practitioners that identify with a primary dimension of diversity remains difficult.

Social inclusion and workplace inclusion are not mutually exclusive. This is not a “one or the other” proposition. Institutions must internalize both types of inclusion to realize the potential social impact of our work. Social inclusion helps us understand who is or is not at the table. Building relationships with those not at the table can help us better understand how our work has been a tool of oppression in the past and how we can change that moving forward. Workplace inclusion focuses on systems within organizations to create fair and equitable work environments where all individuals feel their diverse identities are valued and appreciated. As we work simultaneously to create inclusive work environments and address systems of oppression within our society, we realize the vision of inclusive public history.


As we continue to search for justification for history work, it is important we serve a broader segment of the public than in recent years. It is important to demonstrate the power of history as a catalyst for understanding, for making connections between historical events and current-day contexts, and for deepening the understanding of the experience of various groups over the course of history in our society. Making sure the cultures represented within the historical narrative and the voices shaping it are more diverse is critical to the future relevance of our field. The end goal may be diversity, but to achieve that goal, we must become more inclusive in our practice. As practitioners, we need to focus on employing more inclusive practices and using our work to address societal inequities. We also need to make sure we are addressing those same inequities that exist within our organizations and institutions. This is a journey. Change is hard. We need to stay the course.


[i] Multiple versions of the “diversity wheel” exist. I reference the “Four Layers of Diversity” model created by Gardenswartz and Rowe ( A different version can be found through the Association of Science-Technology Centers ( It is adapted from Marilyn Loden and Judy Rosener, “Workforce America! Managing Employee Diversity as a Vital Resource” (McGraw-Hill Professional Publishing, 1990).

[ii] Susan Brower and Andi Egbert, Overview of Racial, Ethnic and Cultural Changes in Minnesota, 2015,

[iii] Michael L. Wheeler, “Inclusion as a Transformational Diversity and Business Strategy,” in Diversity at Work: The Practice of Inclusion, ed. Bernardo M. Ferdman and Barbara R. Deane (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014), 549-563, quotation on 556.

[iv] Mary-Frances Winters, “From Diversity to Inclusion: An Inclusion Equation,” in Diversity at Work: The Practice of Inclusion, 205-228, quotation on 206.

[v] Winters, 206.

[vi] Elizabeth Stallman Madden, “Cultural Self-Awareness,” in The SAGE Encyclopedia of Intercultural Competence, ed. Janet M. Bennett (Los Angeles: Sage Publication, 2015), 177-178.

[vii] Bernardo M. Ferdman and Laura Morgan Roberts, “Creating Incusion for Oneself: Knowing, Accepting, and Expressing One’s Whole Self at Work,” in Diversity at Work: The Practice of Inclusion, 93-127, quotation on 95.

[viii] American Alliance of Museums, Facing Change: Insights from AAM’s DEAI Working Group (Washington DC: American Alliance of Museums, 2018), 2,

[ix] “Joint Statement from Museum Bloggers and Colleagues on Ferguson and Related Events,” Incluseum, December 22, 2014,

[x] Lisa H. Nishii and Robert E. Rich, “Creating Inclusive Climates in Diverse Organizations,” Diversity At Work: The Practice of Inclusion, 330-363.

Suggested Readings

American Alliance of Museums. Facing Change: Insights from AAM’s DEAI Working Group. Washington DC: American Alliance of Museums, 2018.

Brower, Susan, and Andi Egbert. Overview of Racial, Ethinic and Cultural Changes in Minnesota. Accessed July 9, 2018.

Ferdman, Bernardo M., and Laura Morgan Roberts. “Creating Incusion for Oneself: Knowing, Accepting, and Expressing One’s Whole Self at Work.” In Diversity at Work: The Practice of Inclusion, by Bernardo M. Ferdman and Barbara R. Deane, 93-127. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014.

Hayles, V. Robert. “Communicating About Diversity and Inclusion.” In Diversity at Work: The Practice of Inclusion, by Bernardo M. Ferdman and Barbara R. Deane, 55-90. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014.

“Joint Statement from Museum Bloggers and Colleagues on Ferguson and Related Events.” December 22, 2014.

Nishii, Lisa H., and Robert E. Rich. “Creating Inclusive Climates in Diverse Organizations.” In Diversity At Work: The Practice of Inclusion, edited by Bernardo M. Ferdman and Barbara R. Deane, 330-363. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014.

Stallman Madden, Elizabeth. “Cultural Self-Awareness.” In The SAGE Encyclopedia of Intercultural Competence, edited by Janet M. Bennett, 177-178. Los Angeles: Sage Publication, 2015.

Wheeler, Michael L. “Inclusion as a Transformational Diveristy and Business Strategy.” In Diversity at Work: The Practice of Inclusion, edited by Bernardo M. Ferdman and Barbara R. Deane, 549-563. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014.

Winters, Mary-Frances. “From Diversity to Inclusion: An Inclusion Equation.” In Diversity at Work: The Practice of Inclusion, edited by Bernardo M. Ferdman and Barbara R. Deane, 205-228. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014.


Chris Taylor is Chief Inclusion Officer for the State of Minnesota. He was formerly Director for Inclusion and Community Engagement and Chief Inclusion Officer at the Minnesota Historical Society.


An original slave cabin on the Whitney Plantation with statues by Woodrow Nash on the porch. Photo credit: Elsa Hahne.

Visiting a plantation museum today can be a jarring experience. Since the mid-twentieth century, the once-ubiquitous economic engines of the pre-Civil War South have been recast as elegant mansions. Visitors are meant to feel comfortable and safe, strolling grounds surrounded by lush landscaping and feeling nostalgic for a romantic, simpler time. In some ways, visitors see what they want to see, and they are influenced by popular films and novels that prop up the “moonlight and magnolias” trope. But historians are not off the hook. Public historians, academic historians, and museum professionals alike have been complicit in rewriting plantation history to put white slaveowners front and center.

Though museum interpretation is rapidly changing, it is still possible to tour a plantation house in this country without hearing anything substantive about the enslaved people who built it. This is problematic for many reasons, but consider the numbers to start: the majority of people who lived on plantations in the nineteenth century were African and African-descended enslaved people. Enslaved people cleared the land, milled the wood, fired the bricks, built the houses, and tended land and livestock on plantations. Plantations were predominantly black spaces built and maintained by black people against their will. Yet in every former slave state, visitors can find plantation tours that elevate the stories of owners over enslaved people.

Historical Background

Museum practitioners began to minimize the history of slavery on plantations by the time the first plantation home opened for tours in the United States. Mount Vernon, the first house museum in the United States, is also the first plantation museum. Its history as a historic site bleeds into its history as a plantation, since the slave-owning women of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association bought the property in 1858 from a descendant of George Washington who was still enslaving people at the time.[i] In words that would presage the interpretation of hundreds of sites that followed in its footsteps, the founder of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association instructed the early members of the organization to “see to it that you keep it the home of Washington” and “let no irreverent hand change it; no vandal hands desecrate it with the fingers of progress.”[ii] Lauding the history of owners while minimizing or erasing the history of the enslaved became standard practice for most plantation museums until the late twentieth century.

From the time the women of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association opened Mount Vernon for tours in the 1850s until today, plantation museums have reflected the political culture of the country. The resurgence in what is known as “moonlight and magnolias” interpretation in the 1960s had more to do with white Americans’ discomfort with changing racial dynamics than it did historical interest. In the 1960s and 1970s, as a reaction to the civil rights movement and coinciding with a peak in interest about history around the bicentennial of the American Revolution, plantation tours became popular throughout the South. In 1976, Louisiana’s Oak Alley Plantation was advertised as a “bicentennial landmark,” whose “trees are a living link with the era of the American Revolution.”[iii] Many plantations became frozen in time in the years immediately preceding the Civil War, with guides dressed in hoop skirts inviting guests to learn about the lavish lives of antebellum plantation owners.

Throughout the twentieth century, this imagined history of plantations became big business, particularly in places such as South Carolina and Louisiana with a large number of extant plantations, many of which had been in operation with resident African-American sharecroppers and wage workers into the late twentieth century. Today, tourism is the fourth largest industry in Louisiana, with plantation tourism holding a major claim over heritage tourism dollars. Louisiana’s historic sites are top of mind for visitors, ranking higher than nightlife in visitor activities.[iv]

In the 1980s and 1990s, plantations gradually began weaving narratives of slavery into their interpretation. Even as plantation tours grappled with slavery, they often did so in the form of special events, segregated interpretive spaces, and optional tours. Discussing slavery at length only during an optional slavery tour and not on the tour of the plantation home allows visitors to think of the institution as ancillary to the true narrative—that of the plantation owners. Early slavery interpretation often failed to present enslaved people as multi-dimensional individuals. Instead, they became nameless figures who faded into the background or appeared only when they had direct interaction with the white interpretive subjects.

Whitney Plantation owner’s house, constructed in 1790. Photo credit: Elsa Hahne.

Changing Interpretation

Today, many sites are changing their interpretation in important ways to highlight the history of enslavement. James Madison’s Montpelier opened a groundbreaking exhibit, The Mere Distinction of Colour, in 2017; George Washington’s Mount Vernon created a comprehensive slavery exhibit in 2016; and in 2018 Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello opened an exhibit dedicated to the story of Sally Hemings, with curatorial help from a Hemings descendant. In addition to the interpretive expansion seen in Virginia sites, there are new museums opening dedicated to counter-narratives. In 2014, the Whitney Plantation opened in Louisiana as a memorial site with an exclusive focus on slavery. Charleston County Parks’ McLeod Plantation opened in 2015, interpreting the whole history of African-American labor at the site, from the time of slavery until the last resident workers left in 1990.

Despite the numerous plantation sites that are doing valuable work to bring this important history to the fore, there is still much more that public historians can do to be inclusive in their interpretation. It is important for public historians to remember that plantations are sites of trauma. Too often, we ignore the immense pain of these places in favor of a generalized interpretation that may acknowledge that life was hard, but not that it was traumatic. Spaces of brutal terror, plantations continue to bring immense pain to people whose ancestors lived and worked on them. In the case of plantations like Whitney and McLeod, there are still numerous living people who remember life on these plantations. Across the plantation South, African-American workers—many of them descended from enslaved people who worked the same land—did not leave plantations in large numbers until the Second Great Migration in the 1950s and 1960s. In South Louisiana, resident cane workers remained on plantations as late as the 1980s. Inclusive interpretation at plantation sites takes the depth and breadth of this pain seriously, acknowledging that the history has a long footprint that extends to our present day.


Before reworking interpretation, it is important to remember that the language we use in our interpretation is key. By referring to enslaved people as “slaves,” we are affirming their status as objects rather than multi-dimensional human beings. Using the term “enslaved” as an adjective emphasizes their humanity first, indicating that their enslavement is just a condition and not their entire identity. Under no circumstances should interpreters use euphemisms like “servants” when referring to enslaved people. This sanitizes the history of slavery and minimizes the fact that enslaved people were held against their will. Similarly, public historians should openly acknowledge and discuss methods of punishment and coercion that were in place at the site. This truth-telling is critical to communicating a complete narrative.


Plantations that are just beginning to interpret the whole history of their site may be intimidated or afraid that they don’t have enough information to give the history of slavery justice. The interpretation of slavery is often more difficult than the interpretation of free people because of a lack of sources. Yet there are creative ways that plantation sites can use sources to uncover the history of their enslaved workers.

Because enslaved people were property, most plantations have records of the people who were held in bondage there even if those records are incomplete. Inventories and sale documents can be invaluable in learning about the ages, skill sets, and even ethnic origins of enslaved people. Researchers can usually find these documents in local courthouses. Courthouses also have records of lawsuits involving enslaved people. Enslaved people often stood trial for resisting their captivity through violence and conspiracy. These lawsuits allow us to understand their methods of resistance. Historical newspapers are also important sources of information, as they published runaway notices in nearly every edition. Plantation owners advertised by name when someone they owned ran away, and these advertisements usually include personal details about the enslaved person. Historians have launched a crowd-sourced project to digitize and transcribe runaway notices called Freedom on the Move. This is just one of many digital resources researchers can put to use. Additionally, though they must be understood in their context, the Works Progress Administration slave narratives, which are available for free through the Library of Congress, can also be incredibly useful sources that can help us interpret the daily lives of enslaved people.

Connecting with Descendants

Perhaps the most valuable relationships that plantation sites can build in order to understand the lives of their enslaved populations is with descendants of enslaved people. Descendants should be involved in interpretation in every step from planning to execution. Their perspectives are essential to equitable and inclusive interpretation. In 2018, descendants, historians, and museum professionals from around the country gathered at James Madison’s Montpelier to craft best practices for working with descendant communities in the interpretation of slavery. Many sites have been engaged with this work for some time, from presidential sites to lesser-known plantations like Somerset in North Carolina. There are numerous road maps for sites that want to engage in meaningful co-creation with descendant communities.

Above all, museum professionals who work at plantation sites must be mindful of the immense weight of the history of slavery and treat it with respect and care. We must be humble in acknowledging that our field has done damage to descendant communities and to the wider public by not honestly interpreting the history of slavery. Despite our history, there is much room for reparative practice and we should find encouragement and inspiration in the numerous sites that are doing good work. With violent events igniting Americans over issues of race and history in places such as Charleston and Charlottesville, this is a critical time for historic sites to bravely tell the truth.


[i] “The Early History of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association,” Mount Vernon

[ii] Jessica Foy Donnelly, Interpreting Historic House Museums (Lanham: AltaMira Press, 2002), 22.

[iii] The Assumption Pioneer, July 1, 1976, 4.

[iv] D.K. Shifflet & Associates, Ltd., “Year-End 2017 Visitor Profile: An Inside Look at the Louisiana Travel Market,” State of Louisiana Cultural Resources & Tourism Department study, 2018.

Suggested Readings

van Balgooy, Max, ed. Interpreting African-American History and Culture at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Press/AASLH, 2014.

Berlin, Ira. Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2004.

Gallas, Kristin, and James DeWolf Perry, eds. Interpreting Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Press/AASLH, 2014.

Horton, James Oliver, and Lois E. Horton, eds. Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

National Summit on Teaching Slavery. “Engaging Descendant Communities in the Interpretation of Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites.” History News, 74, no. 1 (Winter 2019): 14-21.

National Summit on Teaching Slavery. “Engaging Descendant Communities in the Interpretation of Slavery: A Rubric of Best Practices.” Technical Leaflet 285. American Association for State and Local History.

Rose, Julia. Interpreting Difficult History. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Press/AASLH, 2016.


~ Ashley Rogers is the Executive Director at the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana. She is a frequent speaker on the topic of slavery interpretation and she has served as an advisor on museum projects with the Atlanta History Center, Rhode Island’s Center for Reconciliation, and Stenton. She is a co-author of the MASS Action toolkit and James Madison’s Montpelier’s rubric for descendant community engagement. She can be reached at [email protected].


Artifacts from the exhibition American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith, National Museum of American History, Washington, D.C. In visually displaying the struggle and realization of voting rights, NMAH includes signage for accessible voter parking that uses a common disability symbol: a person in a wheelchair. Photograph by Cynthia Falk, June 2018.

When public historians talk about making spaces and programs accessible, they can mean anything from affordable pricing to multi-lingual offerings to age-appropriate content. Yet in recent years, the term accessibility has most frequently come to mean ensuring access for people with disabilities. Often the focus is on elevators and restrooms, with a strong emphasis on providing facilities that serve those with physical limitations. A recent Project Access white paper entitled “Beyond Ramps” appropriately asks readers to think more broadly about barriers, although the focus remains on mobility rather than sensory or cognitive disabilities.

In planning for accessibility, it is important to remember that disabilities are far from uniform. In addition to mobility, physical impairments may affect sight or hearing. Cognitive abilities may be diminished by dementia. Sensory sensitivities may result from autism. Mental illness may cause anxiety or phobias that make public places difficult to navigate. The Americans with Disabilities Act (section 12102) defines a disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities,” such as walking, standing, working, learning, communicating, reading, thinking, or even breathing. Although a common symbol for accessibility is a schematic of a person in a wheelchair, the reality is that impairments are often invisible and do not have to involve recognizable assistive devices.

Most people will experience a disability at some point in their lives. In 2010, almost 19 percent of all Americans, or 56,672,000 individuals, reported a disability. As a person’s age increased, so did the likelihood of an impairment. Among those 65 years of age and older, almost 39 percent reported at least one disability, while the number jumped to more than 72 percent among those 85 and over. Add to this temporary impairments due to injuries, illnesses, or medical procedures, and it is more likely than not that anyone reading this will at some time experience a physical or cognitive limitation.

Legal Framework

In the United States, several Federal anti-discrimination laws protect people with disabilities. The Architectural Barriers Act, enacted in 1968, regulates buildings designed, constructed, or altered by the Federal government; the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 applies to federally funded programs or activities. Congress enacted more sweeping legislation in 1990 with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which applies not only to federally supported enterprises but also to other places, including those that are privately owned and operated, where public access is expected. The ADA is important civil rights legislation that establishes a minimum threshold for the inclusion of people with disabilities in American society. Among its stated goals are “equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency” (Section 12010). Failure to comply with the ADA constitutes discrimination, just as excluding people based on their skin color or national background would.

Several portions of the Americans with Disabilities Act apply to those working in the public history sector. Title I concerns employment and makes it illegal to discriminate against individuals on the basis of disability. Title II applies to public services provided by entities of state or local government, including some museums, libraries, educational institutions, and arts organizations. At the state or local level, Title II of the ADA requires that a public entity not deny “the benefits of services, programs, or activities” to individuals with disabilities (Section 12132). It is important to note that Title II emphasizes programming, so it may not be legally necessary to make all facilities physically accessible, although this should always be the goal.

Title III of the ADA applies to public accommodations and services operated by private entities, a category that includes most history organizations. Section 12182 of the law prohibits owners or operators of public accommodations from discriminating against anyone with a disability. The ADA further specifies that providing unequal benefits or separate benefits constitutes discrimination, and the law lays the groundwork for the provision of integrated spaces that serve people with disabilities as well as those who are able-bodied.

Paul Revere House, Boston, Massachusetts, as seen from Lathrop Place. Access to the first floor of the Paul Revere House for those in wheelchairs is through a ramped and widened doorway to an early kitchen addition, the same entrance used by all visitors to the site. Second-floor access is by a bridge from the neighboring Lathrop Place, an 1835 building that was rehabilitated with an elevator for visitor use. Photograph by Cynthia G. Falk, May 2017.

Historic Sites

The need for physically accessible facilities can present special challenges at historic sites or in historic buildings (e.g., stairs or narrow doors or passages that do not accommodate wheelchairs). The ADA includes provisions that specifically address resources listed on, or eligible for, the National Register of Historic Places, as well as those designated at the state or local level. Building owners are not required to undertake accessibility measures that threaten or destroy historic resources. Yet if the goal is to provide access to the public, refusing to address accessibility is counterproductive. Some champions of disability rights have argued that not providing access to public buildings is akin to using Confederate symbols: it harkens back to a period of widespread discrimination before universal civil rights in the United States.[1] Nevertheless, the National Park Service walks a fine line in its Preservation Brief on the topic of access, calling for “balance” between historic preservation and accessibility.

The goal at historic properties should be for all visitors, regardless of ability, to have the same positive experience. Ramped entrance to the first floor should be a minimum standard, keeping in mind that all visitors should use the same entrances. If upper or lower floors are an integral part of the experience, people who cannot use stairs will need to be provided with access through alternative means (e.g., audio-visual materials). Some sites have been able to bypass stairs with an appropriately placed elevator or lift.

Physical access is not the only way historic places should serve people with disabilities. Historic sites provide ideal environments for tactile engagement, and staff should be prepared with touchable materials, as well as verbal descriptions, for those who are blind or have low vision. As a guided tour is often the primary avenue for experiencing a historic site, printed materials should be available for those who have difficulty hearing a docent. Sites that have significant visitation, especially within confined spaces, may consider adding special hours or special programs for those on the autism spectrum and their caregivers, during which time loud noises and other disruptions are minimized. Moreover, enacting policies that welcome service and emotional support animals are critical to avoiding controversies at sites that otherwise do not allow animals.

Universal Design

Public history sites should strive to exceed the standards set in the Americans with Disabilities Act, which is now more than twenty-five years old. Simply creating or refashioning spaces and programs to meet the legislated obligations of ADA is not enough, and professionals should seek more holistic solutions that recognize the broad range of abilities among individuals. Public history organizations should make inclusive design their overall objective and create environments that serve the greatest number of people. Designers who once used a “standard” male body to determine the appropriate measurements for architectural elements, for example, need to recognize that size, strength, mobility, or sensory perception vary person to person.

Ronald Mace coined the term Universal Design in 1985 to denote “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” By offering multiple intellectual entry points and seeking aesthetic solutions that are easy to use and easy to communicate, Mace’s principles can help public historians meet audiences where they are and engage people through informal learning opportunities. Today some designers question the possibility of truly universal design[2] and are employing terms such as inclusive design or human-centered design, which recognize the range of human diversity, physical and otherwise. Still, the seven principles of Universal Design—Equitable Use, Flexibility in Use, Simple and Intuitive Use, Perceptible Information, Tolerance for Error, Low Physical Effort, and Size and Space for Approach and Use—still remain good guidelines for planning.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Washington, D.C. The FDR Memorial includes multiple sculpted images, including this one of the president by Robert Graham, which was added in 2001 after the 1997 opening of the site. The National Organization on Disability raised funds for its inclusion so that the memorial would include a visual representation of Roosevelt using a wheelchair due to the effects of polio. Photograph by Cynthia G. Falk, June 2018.

Eliminating Barriers

In 2011, the World Health Organization (WHO) and World Bank began the first chapter of the World Report on Disability with the statement: “Disability is part of the human condition.” The report marked an important transition in how disability is understood. Western society has long seen impairments as medical problems to be solved. This medical approach calls for treatment and, when that fails, charity, and has often led to the institutionalization of people with physical or cognitive impairments. Today, the medical model has been combined with, and increasingly replaced by, a social model of disability, which recognizes the role that environment, both physical and attitudinal, plays in how an impairment is experienced. According to the WHO, environmental factors—including products and technology, the natural and built environment, attitudes, services, systems, support networks, and policies—can be either facilitators or barriers.

Public historians have an obligation, as stewards of tangible and intangible resources for the public good, to create positive encounters for people with disabilities. For organizations such as libraries, museums, historical societies, and historic house museums, this means considering the whole experience, from pre-visit planning to transportation and wayfinding to interactions with staff or volunteers to services to ensure a comfortable visit. Some accessibility solutions are easy and relatively inexpensive: creating wide and uncluttered aisles, flexible seating for programming, and scheduled times for those who require quieter, less-crowded spaces.

Public historians should be prepared to collaborate with organizations that specialize in serving people with disabilities. It is difficult to be an expert in every aspect of accessibility, so history organizations must be willing to learn from those who live with impairments, their caregivers, and the groups that serve them. Not everyone may agree on the one best solution, but getting to know members of the local community and their preferences will allow for better access and better relationships. Regional ADA Centers are great resources as well.

Communication is key to avoiding misunderstandings and perpetuating stereotypes. Training is necessary to ensure that staff and volunteers are prepared to answer questions, advertise opportunities, and explain policies. Information about accessibility should always be conveyed in online and print publications. Marketing materials should provide contact information for those who wish to make arrangements for accommodations. Website design should follow the principles developed by the Web Accessibility Initiative. Websites can be easily audited using a free online tool such as to ensure that they serve users who cannot see well or do not have the dexterity to navigate the internet using a touchscreen, mouse, or similar device. Audio-visual materials used onsite or on the internet should be captioned, and the need for braille text and American Sign Language interpretation should be assessed for exhibits and programs.

Spoken and written words should always seek to humanize all visitors, and public historians should use people-first language and recognize that people with disabilities are first and foremost individuals who should not be defined by their impairments. In addition, people-first language means avoiding categorizing able-bodied people as “normal” and those with disabilities as “handicapped.”

Just as language is important, so is the content public historians offer to their audiences. When representing the human form in signage and exhibits, consider including people who use assistive devices such as canes, wheelchairs, or scooters. When developing exhibition or program topics, explore the history of disability; there are often compelling stories to tell, and lessons to be learned, about local institutions such as hospitals, schools, and mental health facilities, as well as the experiences of soldiers returning from conflict zones with war-related injuries and psychological trauma. Many historical societies have collections that include artifacts related to the ways in which people with physical or cognitive disabilities have become more independent or found creative outlets, and public historians should make better use of these collections.

Accessibility is fundamentally about empowerment. For too long society has marginalized those with disabilities. We can reverse that trend by providing accessible spaces and activities, communicating clearly what we offer and where we need help, and bringing the topic of disability from the sidelines to the center. We should be advocates for and models of inclusive design, people-first language, and recognizing the centrality of physical and cognitive limitations to the human experience. Too often people argue that accessibility is not necessary or important because people with impairments do not visit and costs are too high to make it worthwhile. The reality is that we, as public historians, have to convey to those with disabilities that we have something to offer and we are willing to invest in making sure every experience is complete and meaningful.


[1] Wanda Liebermann, “Architectural Heritage, Disabled Access, and the Memory Landscape,” paper presented at the Society of Architectural Historians annual meeting, St. Paul, Minnesota, April 20, 2018.

[2] Bess Williamson, “Getting a Grip: Disability in American Industrial Design of the Late Twentieth Century,” Winterthur Portfolio 46, no. 4 (Winter 2012): 232-234.

Suggested Readings

Art Beyond Sight. Museum Education Institute.

Clary, Katie Stringer. Programming for People with Special Needs: A Guide for Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield/AASLH, 2014.

Ginley, Barry. “Museums: A Whole New World for Visually Impaired People.” Disability Studies Quarterly 33, no. 3 (2013).

Hamraie, Aimi. Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017.

Jester, Thomas C. and Sharon C. Park, “Making Historic Properties Accessible.” Preservation Briefs 32.

Kudick, Catherine. “The Local History Museum, So Near and Yet So Far.” The Public Historian 27, no. 2 (Spring 2005): 75-81.

Museum Access Consortium. “Working Document of Best Practices: Tips for Making All Visitors Feel Welcome.” 2015.

Smithsonian Accessibility Program. “Smithsonian Guidelines for Accessible Exhibition Design.”


~ Cynthia G. Falk is Professor at the Cooperstown Graduate Program, a master’s degree program in museum studies at the State University of New York College at Oneonta. Falk is the author of the books Barns of New York: Rural Architecture of the Empire State and Architecture and Artifacts of the Pennsylvania Germans: Constructing Identity in Early America. She served as the co-editor of Buildings & Landscapes, the journal of the Vernacular Architecture Forum, from 2012 to 2017 and is currently Deputy Mayor of the Village of Cooperstown. Falk can be reached by email at [email protected].

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