A large group of young people hold a climate justice banner

Civics Education

Two students interact while looking at a screen at a desk. A teacher and other students are behind them.
Be Washington employs perspective taking and source analysis for students onsite at Mount Vernon and online. Image credit: Dan Chung Photography.

The work that historians do is pivotal to the success of an inclusive civics education centered on debate, perspective taking, civil discourse, and knowledge of the rule of law. Sharing how evidence is gathered and analyzed to make arguments about the past prepares students for civic work in which they are asked why they think the way they do, instead of being told what to think. These skills are not merely important in a classroom setting but are lifelong skills students take into the real world when determining bias in media, understanding viewpoints different from their own, and contributing to civil discourse and compromise.

Current trends in civics instruction and curricula go beyond teaching students about the structure of participatory government. While understanding the rule of law at the national, state, and local levels is critical for young people to contribute to democracy, it is also essential for educational institutions to teach civic dispositions, such as an appreciation and understanding of free speech and willingness to engage with those whose perspectives are different from their own. Classrooms, museums, historic sites, and other educational spaces provide opportunities to practice and develop these skills and build confidence in civic behaviors, such as voting, volunteering, and voicing informed opinions at public meetings.[i]

Elevating historical examples that connect the past with the present—examples that link to issues students encounter in their daily lives—can have profound resonance and empower meaningful engagement.[ii]

Historical Background

Instructing Americans on the “principles of virtue and of liberty; and inspir[ing] them with just and liberal ideas of government”[iii] was a key issue in the public discourse of the eighteenth century around the creation of a new national identity distinct from the rest of the world. Ensuring the nation’s civic life beyond the generation that formed the new government hinged on informed civic participation for those deemed eligible to participate in the process. Leading education philosophers—including Noah Webster in the 1700s, Horace Mann in the 1800s, and John and Evelyn Dewey in the 1900s—contributed to the educational foundation of civics knowledge and its practical application to activate citizens for a participatory democracy.

The work continues today; and in order to ensure all students are prepared to be full participants in a democracy, civics must be taught through an inclusive lens in contemporary classrooms and other educational spaces. This approach resonates with a younger generation whose learning landscape has been defined by heightened participatory experiences throughout their lives. The alternative approach, which prioritizes only civic knowledge without civic dispositions, limits students’ voices and hinders preparedness for civic life. The development of the skills needed to engage in political discourse and contribute to society in meaningful and productive ways are more critical than ever before within a “universe of unregulated information at our fingertips.”[iv]

US Capitol Building, with statue in front
Civic Knowledge, like knowing the three branches of government, must be taught alongside Civic Dispositions, learning how to have civil conversations with people who may disagree with you. Photo Credit: Sandy Torchon from Pexels.

The Role of History in the Civics Classroom

Civics teachers value the joy that comes from their students making connections with the broader world, a world in which they are able to advocate to support or change existing policies. This objective can be achieved through lessons grounded in historical context and sources. When done right, teaching civics is difficult; the challenge of this work starts with harnessing student interest and focus. Some want to move directly to action without the historical context to inform their perspectives; while others bring indifference and need to be inspired to be participatory actors in their communities. This work is even harder when a community is held hostage by partisanship that deters teachers from creating healthy discussions around civics topics.

Teaching civics through the arc of U.S. history provides students untold examples of debates large and small, which show dialogue and discussion by everyday actors in real-life situations and shape the world in which we now operate. Historical content and sources make visible the bumps, cracks, and turns in what can be otherwise disguised as a smooth road and which may wrongly suggest a simple progressive narrative of political history. Historians activate the work of people in the past and help combat the perception that individuals are passive recipients of legislation, laws, and policies. This work can also make visible the individuals and groups that were excluded from civic participation and the world made by the marginalization of their voices. Using historical case studies provides the connection between the ideals of the more perfect union and how those ideals (through policies and institutions) have been created and sustained.[v] This gives the impassioned students historical context through which to align or challenge their thinking. It also can empower the apathetic students who can study a place and time when someone with whom they identify had a voice that impacted history. Allowing students access to the sources, context, and the thinking process of this type of research builds on their capacity to see, contribute, and transform policies and institutions today and in the future.

Practicing historical thinking skills allows for civics classrooms to explore historical debates from multiple perspectives—with a critical eye on sourcing—while benefiting from the time-telescoped view of the context in which these debates occurred. Having students study the past through historical sources and events also provides valuable tools to see the continuity and changes between then and now. For each level of government—whether local, state, or national, or more importantly, the interplay between them in a federalist system—the challenges and limitations built into the infrastructure can be made visible by looking at them over time. In a world where social media democratizes and polarizes information sharing, students armed with these skills are better prepared to analyze, discern, and contribute to political dialogues and decision-making that shapes their lives.

Providing Historical Examples

Historians provide the rich historical narrative upon which civic instruction is built. Inclusive civics educators value contributions from historians and historical institutions that provide vetted sources, historical context, and voices on multiple sides of the debates or issues illustrated. Ideal primary source sets suited for civics classroom adoption should illustrate the successes of constructive government as well as visible failures to achieve compromise or enact positive legislation. Dedicated civics instructors sometimes find themselves (late at night) scouring the internet and doing the vetting to create a document set that shows more than one perspective for their students. Being able to work from research that historians have already done—and that is positioned to support civics lessons in dialogue with current events—creates a richer and more scholarly-sound learning environment.

Examples of this type of teaching resource are offered on a number of history and archival sites, including the website of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP). Using the sources from their collection and the expertise they bring in interpreting them, HSP has provided ideal building blocks for educators and students. The primary sources illustrate different perspectives organized by topic and are supported by historical context, essential questions, and background material. Their unit “Economics through the Long History of America’s First Bank,” designed for an economics or history classroom, can be transferred to a civics classroom because it explores the relationship between capitalism and government. Going beyond the high standard of providing vetted source sets digitally, HSP also provides transparency regarding the author and the funder of the curriculum. As a result, the perspective of the institution that selected the sources and framed the questions is also open for student analysis.

Another example that reflects a more focused scope is the Colored Conventions Project, which provides documentary records and expert-curated document collections related to a series of civic meetings held in Black communities between 1830 and 1890 in the United States and Canada. The variety of sources and the historical inquiry approach model how students can see civic engagement in diverse ways. Newspaper archives combined with data visualizations sit alongside expert interpretation and inquiry prompts. Although men are most prominent in the newspaper accounts of these events, the site also brings to light the civic work women did in these communities to ensure the success of the conventions. The site includes named scholars who can speak further about the project so students have deeper access to experts beyond what is authored on the site.

Resources for Young Civics Learners

Learning about our nation’s history and government also means learning about the history of race in the United States. While integral to all civics coursework, race-based slavery and its continued legacy should be a part of young learners’ knowledge of how our past informs the present. The history of race is too often left out of elementary classrooms or limited to instruction about the achievements of leading figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Harriet Tubman. Teaching students in these grades about all who participated in history is foundational; leaving out a group is the equivalent of excising part of the American story. Children’s historical literature, with context provided by historians and paired with primary sources, gives educators multiple platforms for young learners to have guided and foundational conversations about race and their world.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture provides a series of collections stories that bring context, quotes, and historic artifacts and documents together. Lives in Pieces addresses the four young Black girls killed at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 15, 1963. The central object in the collection are shards of broken stained glass from the church window.  Paired with We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March by Cynthia Levinson (non-fiction) and The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis (fiction), these objects can provide essential civics instruction through historical inquiry and sources.

At the elementary level, civics is intertwined with community lessons, U.S. history lessons, and classroom social and emotional learning standards. Ensuring that historical sources and research can be connected to civics for younger students will prepare them for more complex debates and arguments later in their scholastic study. The National Constitution Center partnered with the Rendell Center for Citizenship and Civics at Arcadia University to create eight elementary lessons that connect fourth-grade state-based civics instruction to student-led classroom responsibilities. We the Civics Kids includes a young readers civics literature list, organized by month to align with state and national holidays and commemorations. Each lesson provides historical context for civics topics that elementary students confront in their classrooms today.

Local History’s Value to Civics Education

For students, discussions about government policies and structures at the national level may sometimes seem most pressing, but in reality, most state civics standards focus as much, if not more, on the unique features of state and local governments. Student engagement with state and local policies creates a more immediate impact on, and connection to, their communities. Historical research often provides a detailed look at a specific time and place, and the work historians do to illustrate the voices engaged in local governance and debate can translate powerfully to a classroom in the same community or state. Seeing the workings of government in which the local community has a more direct impact can inspire student participation in the civics process.

From 2009 to 2018 the Minnesota Department of Education and seven other state-wide organizations worked together on the Minnesota Center for Social Studies Education (CSSE). Focusing on a state-wide approach to social studies education enabled civics instructional materials to apply directly to state standards and the unique challenges facing students in preparing to contribute to their own governance. The sources and interpretation for the exhibition Why Treaties Matter: Self-Government in the Dakota and Ojibwe Nations, created by the Minnesota Humanities Center and Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, directly address the state’s high school civics standard: “Explain how tribal sovereignty establishes a unique relationship between American Indian Nations and the United States Government.” One of the educator guides takes a question framed about the U.S. federal government and tribal nations and localizes the content for the state in which the students live.

The fact that state learning standards include state history and government in their social studies curricula provides a great opportunity to pair civics learning and history learning with a regional focus. Indiana University’s Center on Representative Government, for example, provides a state-based civics instruction tool for Indiana high school students entitled CitizIN.

Local history resources can also connect the civics of the students’ own communities with national stories covered in their history curriculum. The Tsongas Industrial History Center connects local students to the broader story of the Industrial Revolution through the Lowell Mills in nineteenth-century Massachusetts. They use digitized primary sources to show all the components of the Industrial Revolution in a local community thereby connecting individual lives to larger historical themes.

Activating People who Lived in the Past through Games

Race to Ratify game homepage
iCivics games’ suite includes “Race to Ratify,” which situates game play in the past. Image credit: iCivics.

For some students, a lack of interest in history and historical actors can be attributed to the passive nature in which those people who lived in the past are often portrayed. Historical contributions to civics education can be as simple as providing narratives and sources that demonstrate people in the past had an impact on the world in which they lived. The past is filled with people who are not given the agency in traditional textbooks that they possessed in life. A powerful way to shift this is through interactive games.

The interactive Be Washington Experience, created by George Washington’s Mount Vernon, activates George Washington’s role in history and provides the context and perspectives of others who shaped his decisions. Although a powerfully influential decision-maker in his time, students can still speak of his contributions in a passive way, “he was president” being the most common paraphrase of his contributions. The game asks students to make a decision Washington had to make, but before they do, they listen to eight other people and perspectives from the time. Sources Washington would have had access to inform students on different perspectives relating to the controversies like the Whiskey Rebellion that pitted federal tax policy against states’ interests early in U.S. history. After making their choices, student answers are put in dialogue with the historical record and they can compare and contrast their perspective on the issue and how it differed or aligned with Washington’s. Applied in a civics context, the topic of states’ rights and federal authority that Washington wrestled with can be connected to the same debates happening at the national level today.[vi]

The game site iCivics is known for its immersive and addictive games that teach government and the rule of law. In 2019 they launched their first historical game, designed to illustrate the origins of our governing documents. Race to Ratify sets players up to decide if they support or oppose the ratification of the U.S. Constitution while taking a position of a federalist (advocating for the Constitution) or anti-federalist (advocating against the Constitution, or the Constitution adopted with the Bill of Rights). They meet with diverse individuals from all 13 states. Their work is to understand the perspectives and interests of others and make arguments to persuade others of their opinions. What was once a lesson framed by faceless “states” approving foundational documents becomes a way to see the eighteenth century as one filled with diverse people who held differing and dynamic views. The game-based and personality-driven platform gives students a chance to not only learn about these historic events, but also practice the skills needed for participatory government.

Historical Thinking Skills = Media Literacy Skills

DocsTeach, the online tool for teaching with primary sources from the National Archives and Records Administration, illustrates how effectively moving beyond simply providing digital collections online impacts the effectiveness of applying those sources to civics instruction. With thousands of documents carefully selected for the platform, teachers use built-in tools to ensure that students do not merely learn from the sources but use those sources in improving their ability to apply their own analysis to larger ideas. The digital tools parallel the media literacy skills students need to participate effectively in, and advocate for, their ideas in public dialogue today. The site supports teachers in creating document sets that help students make connections, contextualize both time and place, weigh evidence based on validity and perspective, and interpret data to make meaning from statistics.

Stanford University created the Reading Like a Historian curriculum to support teachers in integrating historical thinking skills into their classrooms. As research has shown the positive impact of this type of teaching, they recently expanded their contributions to include the “Civic Online Reasoning” curriculum. Finally, Engaging Congress is a strong interactive tool that combines gaming elements with historic primary sources to develop media literacy skills. It uses inquiry and drag-and-drop tools laid over source materials to teach the basic structures of government and the challenges they bring in the world today.

History Provides Students with the Knowledge and Tools for Civic Participation

A large group of young people hold a climate justice banner
The generation studying civics in school has been empowered to advocate for their own perspective. Photo credit: Vincent M. A. Janssen from Pexels

Civics is sometimes the first class students take in school where they learn that their opinions matter and they have a voice that will contribute to the world we all live in. The unique skills and talents that historical thinking develops play a critical role in sharpening students’ respect for others’ perspectives and the ability to articulate their own.[vii] By providing sources, contextualization, and viewpoints from a wide array of actors in history, historians contribute to a more inclusive civics classroom education. When history and civics are intertwined, students are better prepared for participation in government and have the skills to contribute to and shape institutions.


[i] Rebecca Winthrop, “The Need for Civic Education in 21st-Century Schools,” Brookings (Brookings, June 4, 2020), https://www.brookings.edu/policy2020/bigideas/the-need-for-civic-education-in-21st-century-schools/.

[ii] Comments ascribed to “teachers” and “classrooms” in this article are based on interviews with nine civics teachers teaching in FL, GA, MD, MO, OH, NY, KY, and PA. Interviews were conducted by the author over phone and email.

[iii] Noah Webster, “On the Necessity of Fostering American Identity after Independence, 1783 & 1787, excerpts,” National Humanities Center (NHC, 2010/2013) https://americainclass.org/sources/makingrevolution/independence/text3/websteramericanidentity.pdf.

[iv] Samuel S. Wineburg, Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone) (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2018), 8.

[v] Stephen Sawchuk, “A ‘Roadmap’ for Teaching Civics and History Is Coming. Will It Restart an Old Curriculum War?,” Education Week, November 8, 2019, https://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/teaching_now/2019/11/roadmap_history_civics_neh_ed.html.

[vi] Kathleen Munn and K. Allison Wickens, “Public History Institutions: Leaders in Civics Through the Power of the Past,” Journal of Museum Education 43, no. 2 (March 2018): 91-103, https://doi.org/10.1080/10598650.2018.1453598.

[vii] Wineburg, 100.

Suggested Readings

Gould, Jonathan, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Peter Levine, Ted McConnell, and David B. Smith, eds. Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools. The Leonore Annenberg Institute for Civics of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, 2011. PDF available for download.

Levinson, Meira. No Citizen Left Behind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.

National Council for the Social Studies. The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards: Guidance for Enhancing the Rigor of K-12 Civics, Economics, Geography and History. Silver Spring, MD: National Council for the Social Studies, 2013. Revised PDF version (2017) available for download.

Nokes, Jeffery D. Teaching History, Learning Citizenship: Tools for Civic Engagement. New York: Teachers College Press, 2019.

Pennay, Anthony. The Civic Mission of Museums. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2020.

Wineburg, Samuel S. Why Learn History (When it’s Already on Your Phone). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2018.

Non-partisan and non-profit organizations that collect and share history and civics resources for communities and schools:


K Allison Wickens is the Vice President for Education at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

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, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/introduction-to-the-holocaust.

[ii] Emily Burack, “‘Never Again’: From a Holocaust Phrase to a Universal Phrase,” The Jerusalem Post, March 10, 2018, https://www.jpost.com/Diaspora/Never-Again-From-a-Holocaust-phrase-to-a-universal-phrase-544666. See also, NeverAgain.com 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,” NPR.org, accessed August 20, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/02/08/690647054/hungarys-new-holocaust-museum-isn-t-open-yet-but-it-s-already-causing-worry.

[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, https://www.chronicle.com/article/Scholars-Push-Back-on/246615.

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 www.artiflection.com.


“Robert Smalls, S.C. M.C. Born in Beaufort, SC, April 1839,” c. 1870-1880. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection, Library of Congress.

The Reconstruction period following the American Civil War marked the transition from slavery to freedom and citizenship for nearly four million enslaved African Americans. Traditionally defined as running from 1865 to 1877, but perhaps more accurately understood as encompassing events taking place between 1861 and the 1890s, Reconstruction was a period of dramatic social, economic, and constitutional change for Americans north and south. While some of its transformations proved lasting, others were rolled back on a tide of violence within twenty years of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

During the Reconstruction era, voters ratified three new constitutional amendments, including one that redefined citizenship in the United States, and Congress passed the first federal civil rights laws in American history. Black men and women sought to define freedom through reordering their daily lives; asserting their rights as free laborers; pursuing access to land; establishing community institutions such as schools and independent black churches; and reestablishing family bonds that had been torn apart under slavery. Black men began to organize politically, and after 1870, to exercise the right to vote, even in the face of intense and frequently violent opposition from southern whites.

Free public school systems emerged across the South during Reconstruction, and constitutional conventions rewrote southern state constitutions. Economic modernization and debt relief became key economic issues across the formerly Confederate South, and the first black colleges in the region opened their doors. In the American West, Reconstruction propelled the expansion of the reservation system and the end of federal willingness to treat tribes as sovereign nations, as well as gave rise to heated conflicts between a federal government that sought to “subdue” native populations and Native Americans who had no desire to enfold themselves into the expanding American republic. Economic panic struck the nation in 1873, the women’s rights movement fractured over the issue of black male suffrage, and a series of fraudulent and violent elections unfolded across the South. In the 1870s and 1880s, the Supreme Court issued a series of decisions that rendered the Reconstruction amendments nearly unenforceable; and mass-scale violence and political terrorism paved the way for the restoration of white supremacy in the South.

Changing Interpretations

Reconstruction is one of the most important—yet least well-understood—periods in American history. For generations, scholars influenced by the Lost Cause portrayed Reconstruction as the lowest point in American history, a period characterized by political corruption and retaliatory action against former Confederates, which “mercifully” came to a close with the withdrawal of the U.S. Army and the restoration of “legitimate” (i.e., white) government in southern states in 1877. Generations of Americans grew up with this deeply racialized interpretation of the era, which implicitly (and at times, explicitly) justified white supremacy; expunged the complex history of community-building, labor negotiation, and political action by freedpeople; and vilified black southerners and their white allies as corrupt, incompetent, and dangerous.

As historian Eric Foner argues, “historical writing on Reconstruction has always spoken directly to current concerns,” and in the wake of the mid-twentieth-century freedom struggle that toppled the system of racial control established in the wake of the Civil War, scholarship on Reconstruction has dramatically transformed.[i] Most scholars now understand the period as one characterized by an expansion of democracy and civil rights, a noble, albeit unsuccessful, attempt to transform the United States into an interracial democracy. In current scholarship, Reconstruction’s most tragic feature is understood to be the fact that it ultimately failed to solidify and sustain the economic, political, and social transformations that it promised. But scholars actively stress its successes in the face of tremendous opposition: particularly the schools, churches, mutual aid societies, clubs, and other community institutions built by freedpeople, and the concessions they forced white landowners to make in the struggle to determine the role of the black laborer in the postwar South.

Alfred R. Waud. “The First Vote.” Harper’s Weekly, November 16, 1867. Copyprint. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-19234 (5-21), Wikimedia Commons.

Public Understanding of Reconstruction

Yet scholars’ understanding of the era as characterized by an expansion of democracy only reaches so far. As Foner has contended, “For no other period in American history does so wide a gap exist between current scholarship and popular historical understanding.”[ii] The era often gets short shrift in many K-12 history curriculums, and sometimes in college classrooms as well, due to its complexity and its timing, and—with notable exceptions—Reconstruction continues to be broadly underrepresented and under-interpreted on the nation’s public history landscape. The consequences of this marginalization are real, and troubling. When the Civil War era is artificially divorced from its aftermath, the long legacies and unresolved questions of the war years can be easily subsumed in a wave of romantic nostalgia. Disassociating the Reconstruction period from the war makes it possible to cast the fierce debates over Confederate memory that have convulsed communities in recent years as a simple matter of “preserving history” versus “erasing history,” rather than as struggles to understand how constructed narratives of Confederate and postwar history have been used to legitimize the restoration of white rule.

Americans’ poor collective understanding of the triumphs and failures of the Reconstruction era also affects our ability—as a society—to have thoughtful, honest, and historically-informed conversations about many issues that are hotly contested in today’s world. The definition and boundaries of citizenship; the relationship between political and economic freedom; the appropriate federal response to episodes of terrorism; concerns about election fraud and voter suppression; and the relationship between the federal government and individual Americans may be contemporary questions, but the way we experience them in the present has been shaped in part by the legacies—plural, not singular—of Reconstruction.

Contemporary Examples of Public Interpretation of Reconstruction

Though Reconstruction is still under-interpreted on the public history landscape, great strides have been made in recent years. Although some of the National Park Service’s Civil War battlefield parks, presidential sites, and homes of eminent black leaders such as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and Maggie Walker have been introducing visitors to certain aspects of the period for years, the NPS did not have a site primarily devoted to Reconstruction until 2017. Reconstruction Era National Monument, an assortment of sites located in and around Beaufort, South Carolina, is the culmination of a fifteen-year effort to highlight and protect buildings and landscapes associated with the transition from slavery to freedom. Beaufort, which came into Union hands early during the war, was the site of a wartime community where freed people farmed confiscated lands, attended schools, governed themselves, and supported the Union war effort in numerous ways. Their efforts convinced many observers that free labor would transform the South and built support for black education, voting rights, and land reform among progressive white northerners. Beaufort was also the home of Robert Smalls, a formerly enslaved sailor who commandeered a Confederate vessel and sailed it to Union lines in 1862, freeing himself, his family, and 14 others. In the aftermath of the war, Smalls purchased his former owner’s house, and represented his home area in the state legislature, state senate, and U.S. House of Representatives, where he championed free public education and public support of the elderly.[iii]

The monument was designated by President Barack Obama, using the president’s executive powers under the Antiquities Act, leaving the door open to congressional designation of other sites of significance. The NPS’s 2017 National Historic Landmarks theme study on Reconstruction, spearheaded by historians Greg Downs and Kate Masur, has identified a wide range of additional sites that hold great significance for public understanding of the Reconstruction era. Some of these properties already bear landmark status, and some would require further study prior to potential designation. Put simply, Reconstruction’s complexity, significance, and long legacy will be best served by preservation and interpretation across a broad network of sites—both inside and outside of the NPS—rather than restriction to a handful of specifically designated properties.

One site where important preservation and interpretation work is already going on is New Philadelphia, Illinois, the first town in the United States to be founded, planned, and registered by an African American, Free Frank McWhorter.  Though founded in the 1830s, the population and prosperity of the town peaked during Reconstruction, when it functioned as a multiracial community in which African Americans owned land and property, sent their children to school, and exercised political rights. Beginning in the late 1990s, descendants, local residents, archaeologists, and historians have come together to mark, excavate, preserve, and interpret the site. Like many sites associated with Reconstruction, no extant buildings survive, and those committed to providing visitors to New Philadelphia an educational experience have thus pursued Augmented Reality (AR) technology as a means to interpret the site. New Philadelphia’s AR walking tour embeds the stories of the people who lived, loved, and struggled there into the physical space, anchoring this past on the contemporary landscape. In so doing, AR allows “historically significant landmarks that have traditionally fallen outside of the notion of authorised heritage discourse—but which are no less important—to be brought into the fold of public consciousness through a new means of experiencing the past.”[iv]

In cases where surviving buildings do exist, they are being used to give voice to a wide range of historical experiences and perspectives. The centerpiece of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Reconstruction exhibit is a home built in the 1870s by Richard Jones, founder of a Maryland freedmen’s settlement. The museum presents the home as “a tangible symbol of Reconstruction,” a testimony to African American creativity and engineering skills, and a window into both the physical hardships of freedmen’s lives and their aspirations for the future. Conversely, in Columbia, South Carolina, the boyhood home of Woodrow Wilson has been transformed into a museum dedicated to exploring how Reconstruction played out in the city, and across the state more broadly, which in 1868 became the first to elect a black-majority legislature. The museum confronts topics head-on that receive little coverage elsewhere, such as the transition from enslaved to paid domestic servants, the temporary desegregation of the University of South Carolina, the formation of black churches in the city, and the rise of political and racial terrorism across the state. Though the connections between the larger narrative and the Wilson family’s own politics are not always clear, the irony of the home of a man who played a significant role in the campaign to discredit Reconstruction being reinvented as a place for visitors to grapple with the era and its legacies is remarkable.[v]

On the digital front, the After Slavery Project houses an array of primary source materials, interpretive essays, and interactive timelines and maps on Reconstruction in the Carolinas, most of them centering on labor. The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture has launched a crowdsourcing effort to transcribe nearly two million files from the Freedmen’s Bureau records, an initiative that not only makes essential Reconstruction-related materials newly available online, but invites digital volunteers to read, transcribe, and otherwise actively engage with the records. These are only two of an assortment of digital resources now available to assist those interested in better understanding, contextualizing, and reanimating the narratives of this still widely-misunderstood era.


Given the deep-seated misconceptions that have long characterized Reconstruction in the public mind and the continuing underrepresentation of the period in much of the public history realm, it is crucial that public historians make a concerted effort to address the post-Civil War years through as many avenues as possible. Improving public understanding of the Reconstruction period can not only provide vital historical context for many contemporary debates, it can also shed important light on the workings (and failings) of democracy in a highly fractured society. Finally, educating the public about Reconstruction can provide an excellent case study for discussing how and why interpretations of the past change over time.


[i] Eric Foner, “Epilogue,” in The Reconstruction Era: Official National Park Service Handbook, eds. Robert K. Sutton and John A. Latschar (Eastern National, 2016), 179.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] National Park Service, “The Era of Reconstruction, 1861-1900: A National Historic Landmarks Theme Study” (National Park Service, 2017), 103, 111; Cate Lineberry, “The Thrilling Tale of How Robert Smalls Seized a Confederate Ship and Sailed it to Freedom,” June 13, 2017, Smithsonian.com, accessed May 19, 2018, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/thrilling-tale-how-robert-smalls-heroically-sailed-stolen-confederate-ship-freedom-180963689/.

[iv] Paul Shackel, New Philadelphia: An Archaeology of Race in the Heartland (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 38; Jonathan Amakawa and Jonathan Westin, “New Philadelphia: Using Augmented Reality to Interpret Slavery and Reconstruction Era Historical Sites,” International Journal of Heritage Studies 24, no. 3 (November 2017): 317, 321, 327, https://doi.org/ 10.1080/13527258.2017.1378909.

[v] Kriston Capps, “Rebuilding a Former Slave’s House in the Smithsonian,” The Atlantic, September 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/09/this-old-house/492767/; Lauren Safranek, Review of Woodrow Wilson Family Home, The Public Historian 37, No. 2 (May 2015): 121-123.

Suggested Readings

Capps, Kriston. “Rebuilding a Former Slave’s House in the Smithsonian.” The Atlantic, September 2016. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/09/this-old-house/492767/.

Dudden, Faye E. Fighting Chance: The Struggle over Woman Suffrage and Black Suffrage in Reconstruction America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Egerton, Douglas R. The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era. New York: Bloomsbury, 2015.

Foner, Eric. A Short History of Reconstruction. Updated Edition. New York: Harper, 2015.

National Park Service. “The Era of Reconstruction, 1861-1900: A National Historic Landmarks Theme Study.” National Park Service (2017). https://www.nps.gov/nhl/learn/themes/Reconstruction.pdf.

“Reconstruction in Public History and Memory at the Sesquicentennial: A Roundtable Discussion.” Journal of the Civil War Era 7, No. 1 (March 2017): 96-122. https://journalofthecivilwarera.org/forum-the-future-of-reconstruction-studies/reconstruction-in-public-history-and-memory-sesquicentennial-roundtable/

Safranek, Lauren. Review of Woodrow Wilson Family Home. The Public Historian 37, No. 2 (May 2015): 121-123.

Sutton, Robert K., and John A. Latschar, eds. The Reconstruction Era: Official National Park Service Handbook. Eastern National, 2016.


~ Jill Ogline Titus is Associate Director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College and a former seasonal historian for the National Park Service. She is the author of Brown’s Battleground: Students, Segregationists, and the Struggle for Justice in Prince Edward County, Virginia (University of North Carolina Press, 2011) and is currently at work on a study of the convergence of civil rights, Cold War politics, and historical memory during the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. She can be reached at [email protected].

Memorials and Monuments

View of “A Quest for Parity: The Octavius V. Catto Memorial” Statue. Photo credit: Mark Jason Dominus, Wikimedia Commons.

Memorials and monuments punctuate our lives. Many of us are taught to revere them early on—in town squares, at museums, throughout our national parks, and everywhere in between. We may repeat the ritual with our own children, who may someday bury us beneath smaller though no less meaningful monuments. All the while, we live our lives before the silent gaze of granite soldiers, towering obelisks, historic buildings, roadside crucifixes, memorial bridges, and no end of scattered mementos. Some of them were left by ancestors for reasons that may be obscured by time. Some appear as if overnight, often born of grief for a loved one lost to violence or disregard. People have given their lives in the service of monuments; others have killed to protect them. Love, hate, fear, faith, determination, and deception all inhere in our nation’s commemorative landscape. But what do we really know about these silent sentinels?

We know quite well from our vantage point in the early twenty-first century that memorials, monuments, and other expressions of our nation’s complex public memory are not, in fact, as silent as we might suppose. They have, rather, since the beginning of our national saga, witnessed and prompted impassioned dissent, vocal nationalism, and sometimes lethal violence. We know too from decades of scholarship that memorials and monuments trade in all matter of perceptual trickery. One person’s hero was another’s worst enemy. One town’s achievement meant another’s demise. One empire’s victory signaled the death of families and kingdoms and ecosystems elsewhere. Choices made about which of these memories to enshrine, and which ones to erase, are the messages that memorials and monuments convey today. In this sense, then, memorials are never silent, and they certainly do not reflect consensus. They are rather arguments about the past presented as if there were no argument.

We need monuments, even despite their tendency to misrepresent. At their best, monuments can bind us together and fortify our communities in the face of tragedy or uncertainty. They can also remind us that to be great is worthy of aspiration. The meaning of greatness, however, is never fixed. Indeed, how we define it—how, that is, we choose to remember—has become a matter of pointed concern, especially as Americans seek to expand opportunity among those whose forebears were so long erased from public memory. Is it possible to change a monument’s meaning once it has been built? Is there such a thing as a public memorial that respects the infinite diversity of the American public? These and other questions underlie what headlines and pundits characterize as our nation’s “monument wars,” longstanding contests of memory wherein the very meaning of citizenship is up for grabs.

Defining Terms: Memory, Commemoration, Monuments, and Memorials

Making sense of our monument wars and their history is complicated by the variety of words that are used, often interchangeably, to describe them. Words such as “monument,” “memorial,” and “commemoration” all share in their deep history a root in another complicated word: “memory.” Memory, of course, is as old as humankind, and perhaps older. Historians study memory, as do neuroscientists, physiologists, physicists, sociologists, philosophers, and others besides. The remarkable scope of memory studies and the field’s growth in recent decades, signals how deeply memory runs through all facets of modern life. Historians cannot make sense of memory alone. We have, however, made important contributions to the conversation, especially concerning memory’s capacity to shape ideas about nation and citizenship.

In the United States, for instance, leading memory scholars—including Michael Kammen, David Blight, James Young, and Erika Doss—have advanced a set of propositions, drawn from an array of social and cultural theory, that explain how memory promotes a common sense of American identity over time and across lines of difference. They include the possibility that, in addition to each person’s individual memory, there exists a collective memory too—a stew of facts and images and stories—that shapes and is itself shaped by our personal recollections. There is also the notion that memory can reside in objects and places, and that attending to these is one way that nations sustain our loyalties. Historians are concerned, too, with traumatic memories, such as those associated with war and genocide, and have recently begun to explore the monument’s capacity to aggregate and deploy deep wells of emotion. Running through all of this is an awareness that, if we listen closely, monuments can speak volumes about the intent of their makers. They usually tell us more, in fact, about the people who made them than whatever it is that they commemorate.

The monuments and memorials we are concerned with, then, are expressions of public memory. They are born of individuals whose personal memories get bound up by some common interest within some common corner of some community’s collective memory. The process whereby this confluence of individual memories is vetted and repackaged for public consumption is what we refer to as commemoration. Commemoration itself can be an event, such as is the case with some parades, festivals, and even the preservation of old buildings. What we witness in those instances is a process whereby individuals are instructed—both by watching and by participating—in the performance of fealty to a shared set of ideas about the past: the war was noble, our ancestors were great, remembering is patriotic. These are powerful lessons, so much so that commemoration tends to obscure the possibility of believing otherwise.

The terms that we use to describe the products of commemoration, words such as “monument” and “memorial,” may vary in purpose. “Monument,” for instance, usually refers to a commemorative structure or edifice, whereas “memorial” applies to almost anything—including buildings, books, roads, stadiums—that recalls the dead or the experience of profound loss. The Lincoln Memorial, in Washington, D.C., is also a monument, because the structure itself functions as a well of national regard for Lincoln’s sacrifice and vision. Across town, however, only sports fans likely consider the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium a monument. Its tribute to Kennedy’s memory is in name alone. The rules are neither hard nor fast. The National Park Service, for instance, applies the designation “monument” to any unit—whether or not it foregrounds commemoration—that is established by executive order. More significant than these shades of meanings is the ubiquity of words such as “monument” and “memorial” in our daily lives.  Language reveals the extent to which memory surrounds us everywhere and always.

Cemetery Monument, Manzanar National Historic Site. Photo credit: Daniel Mayer, Wikimedia Commons.

A Brief History of Commemoration in the United States

There is nothing that obligates Americans to remember in the ways that they do. Indeed, the nation’s founders railed against the excesses of memory. In their eyes, the corrosive influence of ancient traditions—such as those that sustained Britain’s monarchy and its landed aristocracy—was precisely what prompted the American Revolution. So how then did commemoration end up being so prevalent in the United States?

Two common explanations deploy two different histories: one deep, the other more recent. In the first case, the American preoccupation with commemoration, and especially the mingling of objects and memory, reaches all the way back to medieval Europe. The early Christian church, as the story goes, sought by the ninth century to entice converts by deploying an array of sacred objects, the so-called cult of saints’ relics. The appeal of these relics—bits of hair, bone, and other vestiges of bygone saints—resided in their power to connect worshipers to the divine, literally, through touch or by mere proximity. Elaborate rituals of belief grew up around these objects and the reliquaries that contained them. Increasingly their power mingled, in early modern Europe, with secular objects of curiosity gathered by explorers and exhibited alongside relics in cathedrals, princely chambers, and curiosity cabinets. Mastery of worlds, human and divine, might be had by whomever could amass the largest collection. Even mystics and clerics got in on the game, imagining elaborate memory theaters from within which one might see, and thus learn to recall, knowledge of all times and places. The ways of knowing associated with these practices, as has been shown by Stephen Greenblatt and cleverly illustrated by Lawrence Weschler, penetrated western culture so deeply that they travelled along with Europeans into North America. Modern-day museums thus recall the ancient impulse to venerate remarkable objects, as do memorials and monuments where visitors might commune with the past by bringing themselves near to all manner of markers and cenotaphs.

In the other case, made by historians such as Alfred Young and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, American commemorative preoccupations are associated with a sense of historical discontinuity that seems to have originated by the 1770s, during the “Age of Revolution,” and which reached a fevered pitch by at least 1900. This story explains why, though the founding generation distrusted monuments, the deaths of its most prominent leaders—first George Washington and, later, Thomas Jefferson—prompted an early wave of commemorative activity by the 1820s. The Civil War, of course, exacerbated this sense of historical rupture and set into motion a commemorative spree that has not yet abated. By the end of the nineteenth century, Americans erected obelisks, collected old things—clothes, quilts, furniture, tools, and more—opened museums, founded historical societies, preserved old homes, and staged fetes and festivals all in hopes of staving off their nagging concern that something had been lost amid the ravages of modernity. Their efforts, especially during the years spanning the World Wars, were so expansive that much of the commemorative infrastructure they built remains today.

Since World War II, Americans have experimented with new commemorative forms. During the postwar years, named municipal buildings and commemorative highways replaced a previous generation’s fondness for granite soldiers and obelisks. Monuments to shared loss have also become increasingly common. Inspired by Maya Lin’s widely influential 1982 Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial, modern monuments often feature abstract forms and reflective surfaces in place of the figurative literalism preferred a century ago. Impermanent or impromptu memorials have also become a staple of modern commemorative practice. Mounds of stuffed animals, ghost-white bicycles, roadside shrines with hard-hats and t-shirts, car windows airbrushed with sentimental tributes, tattoos, and scores of commemorative websites all reveal our own era’s concern to mourn publicly. It is a shift, as Erika Doss argues, that signals a new period in our commemorative history, one wherein national belonging is reckoned emotionally in acts of public feeling.

Oklahoma City National Memorial on the 10th anniversary of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Photo credit: Executive Office of the President of the United States, Wikimedia Commons.

The Contours of Memory

Commemorative trends notwithstanding, memorials and monuments are endlessly diverse insomuch as acts of public memory always reflect the particularities of time and place. An uneasy grid of concrete slabs recalls the Holocaust at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, Germany. The “Door of No Return”—part of the Maison des Esclaves on Senegal’s Gorée Island—commemorates the terrors of the Atlantic slave trade. And a commemorative complex in Vietnam’s Quảng Ngãi Province testifies to the rape and slaughter of civilians by U.S. Army soldiers in a place Americans remember as My Lai. These monuments demonstrate that commemoration need not always seek resolution. Indeed, commemorating sites of shame offers an important corrective to triumphant portrayals of the past that inevitably obscure historical complexity. Monuments like these, that are indelibly bound up with American history abroad, also remind us that memory is not confined to national borders. The circulation for centuries of people, capital, and ideas has ensured that all of our memories are entwined within deep networks of global remembrance.

Some monuments and memorials seek to redress lapses in what is presented as “official” public memory. The Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in Colorado, for instance, now insists—after more than a century of white Coloradans deliberately mischaracterizing the massacre as a battle—that the Arapaho and Cheyenne be reinscribed onto our national memory of westward expansion, which for generations has either omitted Native Americans or dismissed them as mere obstacles to progress. Such is the function of so-called counter monuments. Counter monuments, as James Young suggests, demand a reappraisal of collective memory by demonstrating awareness of their own contrivance. They do so, in some cases, by insisting on the inclusion of people—and, sometimes, entire segments of American society—that have been persistently absented from public memory. In 2017, Philadelphians honored Octavius V. Catto with a statue, the first ever in Philadelphia to commemorate an individual of African descent. Elsewhere, counter monuments do their work by modifying extant monuments or presenting them in a different light. Artist Krzysztof Wodiczko complicated our understanding of the Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown, Massachusetts, for instance, with a temporary 1998 installation that projected onto its sides towering videos of mothers torn by the loss of children to neighborhood street violence.

Removing or relocating monuments and memorials can also reveal the deep intensity of contested memory. Beginning in 2015, in response to a mass shooting at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, cities across the United States—including New Orleans, Baltimore, and Los Angeles—opted to remove monuments valorizing the Confederacy and white supremacy from courthouses and parks. Scores of these monuments had been erected throughout the twentieth century to legitimize white supremacy and otherwise shift Americans’ commemorative gaze away from the degradations of slavery. The removal campaign turned violent in August 2017 when white supremacists and their supporters rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia, ostensibly in defense of a monument portraying Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Clashes with counter-protesters resulted in one death and multiple injuries, and appeared to many Americans as a metaphor for the heated debates about race and citizenship that consumed the nation during the presidential election of 2016.

Tomorrow’s Monuments and Memorials

Removal debates remind us that commemoration is always political. Even the most benign monuments are products of choices made about how to remember, what to remember, and how to pay for it all. Faced with this certainty, then, how might we create monuments today that speak beyond our immediate concerns, and to audiences who may not remember in the same ways that we do? History shows us that a good first step is to engage as many constituencies as possible in the commemorative process. Commemoration grows from conversation, and as such should include as many voices as possible. Archiving the conversations that produce monuments is another important step. By preserving a record of our deliberations over public memory, we leave for future generations an indication of what is at stake in our commemorative aspirations. Above all, we must remember that monuments and memorials are neither silent nor innocent. The harder we think about their meanings today, the more likely they are to speak with clarity tomorrow.

Suggested Readings

Allison, David B., ed. Controversial Monuments and Memorials: A Guide for Community Leaders. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield/AASLH, 2018.

Bruggeman, Seth C., ed. Commemoration: The American Association for State and Local History Guide. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.

Doss, Erika. Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Duppstadt, Andrew, Rob Boyette, and Sgt. Damian J.M. Smith. “Planning Commemorations.” Technical Leaflet 241. American Association for State and Local History.

Glassberg, David. “Public History and the Study of Memory.” The Public Historian 18, no. 2 (Spring 1996): 7-23.

Savage, Kirk. Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Reconsideration of Memorials and Monuments. A special edition of History News 71, no. 4 (Autumn 2016).


~ Seth C. Bruggeman is an associate professor of history at Temple University, where he directs the Center for Public History. His books include Commemoration: The American Association for State and Local History Guide (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), Born in the USA: Birth and Commemoration in American Public Memory (University of Massachusetts Press, 2012), and Here, George Washington Was Born: Memory, Material Culture, and the Public History of a National Monument (University of Georgia Press, 2008). You can follow him on Twitter @scbrug and explore his website at https://sites.temple.edu/sethbruggeman.

President Barack Obama in the Oval Office on his first day in office

U.S. Presidents

President Barack Obama in the Oval Office on his first day in office, January 21, 2009. Photo credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza, Wikimedia Commons.

As long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on earth is my story even possible. . . . But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts—that out of many, we are truly one. ~Barack Obama

Barack Obama here expresses one of the most enduring ideas about the United States: America as a land of opportunity, where anybody (well, so far any man) can aspire to be president. The National Park Service, National Archives, state and local governments, and private nonprofit organizations operate at least eighty-seven places commemorating forty-four past presidents. The list includes Mount Vernon, the homes of John and John Quincy Adams, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, James Madison’s Montpelier, and most recently the Bill Clinton Birthplace and the George W. Bush Childhood Home (also the home of George H. W. Bush between 1951 and 1955). There are also presidential libraries, tombs (Monroe, Grant, and McKinley), and monuments in Washington, D.C. (Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and both Franklin Roosevelt and Theodore Roosevelt).

Memorializing Presidents

Why do we memorialize presidents? One answer is that presidents themselves consciously worked to secure their legacies as patriotic and revered leaders. George Washington, for example, sat for twenty-four portraits during his lifetime, and modern presidents—beginning with Franklin Roosevelt—have had a hand in creating their presidential libraries.

Many of us memorialize presidents because we have been taught—and we believe—that the presidents literally personify the nation. From the start, when the nation was a fragile union of thirteen contentious former colonies, writers, artists, and educators tried to bind the country together by portraying George Washington as the human face of the abstract principles on which the nation was founded. Never was this more evident than when The Apotheosis of Washington was painted in the oculus of the Capitol Dome in 1863. As the divided nation tore itself apart during the Civil War, the deified first president looked down from the heavens beneath a banner declaring E Pluribus Unum.

Apotheosis of Washington, United States Capitol. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

It is for good reason that Washington became known to succeeding generations as “the father of his country.” He was unanimously elected president in an age of hereditary kings whose subjects believed him to be the embodiment of the nation-state. Washington instilled in the office of the presidency republican values that rejected European traditions of inherited rule, but the belief that the president personifies the nation nevertheless crossed the ocean and lives on to this day.

Indeed, the idea that the presidency is synonymous with the nation makes patriotic nationalism a central component of America’s traditional narrative. Even though there was no direct connection between FDR’s presidency and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, for example, visitation spiked at his presidential library immediately afterward—likely because Americans were seeking a meaningful way to express and reinforce their patriotism.

To many Americans and many historians, however, the history of the presidency is full of examples that contradict the traditional celebratory and patriotic narrative. Three Founders who became president, for example, held other human beings in bondage even as they declared that “all men are created equal.” Beginning with Jefferson, presidents tried to remove Native Americans from their lands—Andrew Jackson, in the name of national security, even pursued policies that were arguably genocidal. Abraham Lincoln chose saving the Union over freeing the slaves until half-way through the Civil War. And he, like James Monroe, advocated resettling freed slaves in Africa rather than allowing them to share the “blessings of liberty” in the country of their birth. Seventeen men would occupy the office of the presidency after women gathered at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848 to promote their equality before gaining the right to vote with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. Woodrow Wilson, father of the League of Nations, was also responsible for the establishment of Jim Crow policies. Franklin Roosevelt, whose New Deal brought hope, dignity, and financial security to the nation’s most forgotten men and women, is also remembered for interning nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. Ronald Reagan restored popular faith in the presidency but also seriously undermined the rights of the American worker.


Many everyday Americans have—for a variety of reasons—grown alienated from American history and come to believe that the presidency is no longer relevant to their lives. Some, driven by anti-government rhetoric in the media, may have even come to regard the nation’s history as a betrayal of the patriotic values that they learned in school. Obama’s “out of many, we are truly one” sometimes rings hollow, and too many people have grown unwilling to memorialize the presidency or visit presidential historic sites.

Lots of Americans, though, remain committed to the democratic values of the Founders and many (if not all) of the presidents. For their part, social historians have for years been exploring the experiences of immigrants, workers, racial and ethnic minorities, enslaved people, Native Americans, women, children, families, and people with disabilities or different gender identities to create a more inclusive historical narrative. And while often critical, the underlying point of this history is that by protest and/or working together Americans have generally succeeded in extending their freedoms and overcoming the forces that have divided them—whether by race, ethnicity, gender, or class. This is inclusive history and it carries a very powerful message that historians should embrace and aggressively pursue.

Engaging Audiences

Many people who visit presidential sites come to demonstrate their patriotism and often hold emotionally charged opinions about their presidents. Still, while presidential sites may occupy sacred ground, they are also educational institutions where historians can introduce the public to historical context and the many nuances of historical interpretation. Because history resonates differently with different audiences, however, historians at these sites first need to acknowledge and show respect for the diverse points of view they are likely to encounter at their museums and libraries. History professionals can learn from visitors who hail from different cultures and understand history differently than they do. At the same time that historians respectfully engage visitors in the give and take of democratic discourse, they also need to remember that they too have valuable expertise. Historical interpretation should be based on the best available evidence.

Public audiences sometimes need help moving beyond myths and legends to understand why a given president made the decisions he did. Did he marginalize certain groups out of bigotry or prejudice? Or did he believe that he needed to make a hard decision because of other circumstances? Could he have chosen a different course? Did others in positions of power make different choices? What are different historians’ perspectives on the subject? A useful rubric for an inclusive history of the presidency might pose this question: How well did a given president employ the power of his office to advance equality, civil rights, liberty, and democracy?

Addressing Controversy

Every presidential site is different, just as every presidency offers different opportunities for exploring its own narrative. Consider, for example, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum. Twenty years ago certain subjects were taboo in the museum’s permanent exhibition. Roosevelt’s response to the Holocaust was one of them, because museum leaders felt that discussion of the subject might tarnish the memory of Roosevelt’s presidency. Still, historical studies in the 1980s criticized Roosevelt for inaction or even charged him with complicity in the deaths of millions of Jews, and the museum recognized that it needed to include some representation of the Holocaust. But instead of an interpretation that placed the subject in context and presented alternative historical interpretations, the museum offered a single object: a de-consecrated manuscript scroll of the Torah that had been rescued from a Czechoslovakian synagogue in 1938. There was no interpretive label, just catalog information that the National Council of Young Israel had presented the Torah to Roosevelt on March 14, 1939, to “inspire thousands upon thousands of young people with deeper respect and reverence for the eternal values contained therein.” Displaying the Torah implied (but did not explicitly state) the message that the museum hoped to convey—that the Jews of his day admired Roosevelt and that, even though the Holocaust took place during his presidency, there was little Roosevelt could do beyond his central goal of winning the war and defeating Hitler as quickly as possible.

This institutional response to responsible criticism was good as far as it went, but it failed to acknowledge any alternative interpretations. Worse, it did not mention the fact that the overwhelming majority of Czechoslovakian Jews died in Hitler’s extermination camps; neither did it engage its audience in a conversation about the causes and legacies of the Holocaust.

The museum has since recognized the problem, and today has made a deeper story of the Holocaust an important part of its permanent exhibition. Two of ten interactive touch screen kiosks now feature digital flipbooks (titled “Confront the Issues”) that encourage visitors to explore for themselves Roosevelt’s response to the Holocaust: FDR and the Prewar Refugee Crisis and FDR and the Holocaust 1942–1945. Visitors get to examine facsimile documents and photographs and, under “Historical Perspectives,” read historians’ differing views on the subject. They consequently learn to appreciate and respect alternative—more inclusive—narratives, and they come away with their own, now more informed, interpretations.

While the interpretation of this and other controversial issues questions the traditional celebratory narrative of the Roosevelt presidency, it has not led to any outpouring of protest at the museum. Nor has it damaged Roosevelt’s reputation. Quite the opposite. Visitors instead feel more respected and appreciative of thought-provoking museum displays and texts that encourage them to better understand Roosevelt and the democracy that he and Americans of his era championed.

Civic Obligations and an Engaged Citizenry

Americans in all eras have faced challenges to their democracy. Historians have a civic obligation to help people understand the complexities of the past so that they can make better decisions in the present. After all, the idea that an educated citizenry is essential to democracy is written into our national DNA. As Jefferson wrote to Madison from Paris in 1787, “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. . . . They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” Washington agreed. He wrote in his Farewell Address, “In proportion as the structure of government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.”

The question we sometimes ask ourselves today is whether or not Barack Obama was a great president. Only time will tell. But the measure of Obama’s success—like that of every other president—lies not in his group identity, but in his dedication to the great principles on which the nation was founded and his mastery of the forces that shaped his presidency. Obama himself understood this. Remember his contention that “the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts—that out of many, we are truly one”? It suggests that Obama recognized that the success of his presidency was possible only because of the durability of the nation’s founding principles.

Historians have important work to do. Franklin Roosevelt, a keen student of history, knew this when he wrote that a “Nation must believe in three things. It must believe in the past. It must believe in the future. It must, above all, believe in the capacity of its own people so to learn from the past that they can gain in judgment in creating their own future.” If Americans—all Americans—hope to learn from the past, they need to find better ways to learn it together. For historians, certainly, working with the public to develop a more inclusive history of the presidency is an essential way to strengthen the nation’s democracy and make it work for the diverse, multi-racial, and multi-ethnic society we are today.

Suggested Readings

Atkinson, Rick. “Why We Still Care About America’s Founders.” New York Times, May 11, 2019.

Koch, Cynthia. “The American Story: From Washington to Roosevelt, Reagan and Beyond.” The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Foundation@Adams House, Harvard. November 10, 2015.

Koch, Cynthia. “The End of History? FDR, Trump and the Fake Past.” The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Foundation@Adams House, Harvard. May 15, 2019.

Lepore, Jill. “A New Americanism.” Foreign Affairs.com. February 5, 2019.

Loewen, James W. Teaching What Really Happened. New York: Teachers College Press, 2010.

Moss, Walter G. “Which Presidents—If Any—Did Right by Native Americans?” History News Network. October 7, 2018.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. 1980. Reprint. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1999.


Cynthia M. Koch is Historian in Residence and Director of History Programming for the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Foundation at Adams House, Harvard University. She was Director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York (1999-2011) and subsequently Senior Adviser to the Office of Presidential Libraries, National Archives, Washington, D.C. From 2013-16 she was Public Historian in Residence at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY where she taught courses in public history and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. She was a member of the Board of Directors of the National Council for Public History (2010-2013) and Executive Committee (2011-2014). Previously Dr. Koch was Associate Director of the Penn National Commission on Society, Culture and Community, a national public policy research group at the University of Pennsylvania. She served as Executive Director (1993-1997) of the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and was Director (1979-1993) of the National Historic Landmark Old Barracks Museum in Trenton, New Jersey. A native of Erie, Pennsylvania, she holds a Ph.D. and M.A. in American Civilization from the University of Pennsylvania and a B.A. in History from Pennsylvania State University.


Digital History

The United States Census Bureau used Film Optical Sensing Device for Input to Computers (FOSDIC) to transfer data from paper questionnaires to microfilm from the 1960 through 1990 Censuses. U.S. Census Bureau, 1960s, Wikimedia Commons.

Digital history is an approach to researching and interpreting the past that relies on computer and communication technologies to help gather, quantify, interpret, and share historical materials and narratives. It empowers individuals and organizations to be active participants in preserving and telling stories from the past, and it unlocks patterns embedded across diverse bodies of sources. Making technology an integral component of the historian’s craft opens new ways of analyzing patterns in data and offers means to visualize those patterns, thereby enriching historical research. Moreover, digital history offers multiple pathways for historians to collaborate, publish, and share their work with a wide variety of audiences. Perhaps most important, digital methods help us to access and share marginalized or silenced voices and to incorporate them into our work in ways not possible in print or the space of an exhibition gallery. This essay provides an overview of the multiple ways historians are using digital tools to research and share inclusive histories with broad audiences.

The Growth of Digital History

Over the last twenty-five years, digital history has grown into a subfield of its own. Using computers to assist in both historical analysis and the sharing of historical narratives is not new. Economic and social historians began adopting computer-based statistical methods in the 1960s to analyze historical data as means for documenting and quantifying different communities. In the 1980s and 1990s, as personal computers became more available and accessible, some historians created simple databases of sources, transcriptions, and numerical data derived from their own research. The birth of the Web and the first modern browser, Mosaic, in 1993, opened new means for sharing, networking, and collaborating in ways not previously possible. Using computer languages designed for the Web, historians found opportunities for crafting and publishing narratives filled with links to other resources, creating non-linear pathways that encouraged new ways of reading.

An important milestone occurred in the 1990s when cultural heritage institutions began creating digital copies of their holdings and sharing them online for free. The Library of Congress’s American Memory and the New York Public Library’s first iteration of the Digital Schomburg collection were path-breaking resources that facilitated access to sources for historians and students. Genealogists, collectors, and enthusiasts benefited from these collections, and the Web provided a means for them to share their passion and connect with others. Genealogists, in particular, benefited from digitized databases of passenger records from the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation records documenting immigrants entering Ellis Island. In this period, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints also began its long history of providing access to digitized U.S. Census records and other public records.[i] Collector Omar Khan launched a website filled with his collections, Harappa: The Indus Valley and the Raj in India and Pakistan, driven by his personal interest in the histories of South Asia. Soon after the site launched in 1995, Khan connected with scholars in and of the region and the Harappa grew beyond a hobbyist’s project into an impressive online resource containing collections and exhibitions on two distinct eras in South Asian history.[ii] Motivated by the potential to expose and document voices from underserved and under-heard communities, individuals and organizations gravitated to the Web to harness the power of computers to collect, analyze, and present digitized data.

Digital Collections

Today, digitized collections of primary sources from thousands of libraries, archives, and museums continue to facilitate access to existing collections. Many of these collections replicate existing archival structures and collections. As such, digital collections can reproduce the power structures, and absences, involved in the creation of the original physical archives. At the same time, digital scanning and photography, combined with web protocols, have allowed individuals and organizations to build, curate, and share more inclusive collections around themes and communities. Online collaborative research collections, such as the Digital Library of the Caribbean, combine resources from multiple organizations to serve an international and multi-lingual audience and promote the study of Caribbean history and culture. Since their founding in 2004, their governance model is designed with principles of equity and inclusion: decision-making is shared and the combined monetary and professional resources are distributed equitably across more than forty institutions.[iii] When designated physical spaces for certain types of archival material do not exist (or are limited), people are creating digital spaces to fill the gap.

An important example of digital collections work documenting under-heard voices is the Colored Conventions Project. Led by Gabrielle Foreman and a large collaborative team at the University of Delaware, it brings together newly-digitized sources related to Black political conventions from the 1830s to 1890s into a website that includes minutes from local, regional, state, and national meetings discoverable by year, place, and subject tags. To make the scanned documents fully text searchable, Foreman and her team collaborate with students and community groups, including African American churches, to transcribe documents and research the lives of individuals mentioned in meeting minutes, most of whom are not national figures. Through this community-sourced research, a new story of African American political activism is emerging.[iv]

Many digital collections projects begin outside of academic institutions. The South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA), led by Michelle Caswell and Samip Mallick, began as a way for the organizers to see themselves and their community in history. After ten years of collecting digitally, it holds thousands of items making it the largest collection of South Asian American history.[v] When the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) first formed, they lacked a physical collection and turned to digital means to jumpstart their efforts. The museum launched an online Memory Book in 2007 that asked visitors to share their stories, family photos, or traditions. These early contributions influenced how curators shaped their interpretative priorities and helped them build their physical and digital collections. This practice also informed their digital strategy from the institution’s earliest stages.[vi] These digital collections provided building blocks for writing and teaching more inclusive histories.

Teaching and Learning

Some of the earliest digital history projects sought to bring students into direct contact with digitized primary sources and multi-media interactives to teach historical methods and analysis. History Matters offered one of the first free online U.S. history courses designed for high school and college classrooms, based on the textbook and CD-ROM, Who Built America?. By assembling different types of primary sources to represent many voices from the past and publishing guides to help students interpret different kinds of evidence, History Matters demonstrated the potential for building inclusive and synthetic teaching materials for the Web—such materials are now collectively known as Open Educational Resources (OERs).[vii] Since these early projects, educators have posted lesson plans, activities, and other materials online, which has created a need to aggregate these sources in central places for teachers, leading to sites such as EDSITEment and Teaching History.org.[viii]

Immersive websites and games have also played an important role in history education. In Who Killed William Robinson?, launched in the late 1990s, Canadian historians experimented with an immersive site that invited students to closely examine primary and secondary evidence pertaining to a specific historical event. Designed to help undergraduates understand historical methods and uncertainties in the record, the project asked students to spend time reading about the contexts surrounding the murder and associated events, then dig through a collection of primary sources and different interpretations of the eventsStudents using the website quickly learned how murky evidence presented at trial led to the conviction and execution of a Chemainus Indian and many questioned the verdict. Project co-creators, Ruth Sandwell and John Lutz, wove together the social, cultural, and political contexts at work in colonial British Columbia to help students solve the mystery behind the death of William Robinson and other African Americans who migrated to British Columbia in the 1860s.[ix] Designing investigative activities like Who Killed William Robinson? and other serious educational games requires an intense amount of technical and research resources to build and sustain as web browsers evolve and the use of mobile devices continues to increase.

Historians are also sharing and creating undergraduate and graduate-level syllabi online to encourage more inclusive reading lists and assignments that acknowledge and respond to current events. Responding to racially-motivated violence in the 2010s, educators began generating reading lists to promote teaching the history of racial violence, mass incarceration, and white supremacy. One example is #CharlestonSyllabus, initiated by Brandies University professor Chad Williams, following the horrific 2015 shootings at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The resulting community-sourced resource, now maintained by Keisha Blain and the African American Intellectual History Society, is filled with books and articles on relevant historical topics, many of which were written by scholars of color. These efforts encourage instructors to teach and discuss difficult historical, cultural, and political topics with their students.[x] Through these examples, we see historians building both simple and complex projects to engage students in historical thinking and research.

Digital Exhibits and Publications

Unlike a print article that has an accepted structure and form designed to be read sequentially, digital narratives offer historians the ability to create non-linear paths to explore themes and paths of argumentation and invite conversations with community audiences. Some projects invite users to see complexity in history by following different pathways through layers of content including: links to digitized primary sources; visualizations of historical data in maps, graphs, or charts; and narrative threads that work together to address historical questions in ways not possible in print monographs or exhibition catalogues.

American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music is an example of an online exhibition that accompanied a traveling show developed by EMP Museum and the University of Washington. American Sabor’s bilingual website invites Spanish and English speakers to learn about the musical contributions of Latinx musicians and how their culture shaped the American popular music scene after World War II. Site visitors learn about Latinx migration in and out of particular regions, hear musicians’ oral histories, learn about musical styles such as the Rumba and Mambo, and listen to sample songs. This exhibition brings together multiple kinds of sources—including sound—that are important for telling more inclusive histories by using digital means to craft historical arguments about the past.

Digital publishing platforms such as Scalar, Omeka, WordPress, and Manifold offer historians the means to bring together annotated media and sources with long-form writing and embed visualizations not possible in a book. In one example, Matthew F. Delmont has created an online companion to augment his print monograph, Why Busing Failed. The digital edition is a free and accessible version of his research that incorporates in-depth examination of multimedia sources and provides him the opportunity to reframe his academically-focused monograph as more approachable online essays that offer twelve new ways to rethink the way that the history of school desegregation and civil rights is taught in American schools.[xi]

Professional organizations are also turning to free digital publishing platforms as ways to reach and support their members by discussing new scholarship, but also to provide a voice for their organizations’ advocacy roles in the profession and public policy, as well as in struggles for social justice. The African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS) publication Black Perspectives, an award-winning digital history site with dozens of contributing scholars, promotes and disseminates “scholarship on global black thought, history, and culture.” The National Council on Public History and the American Association for State and Local History decided to publish The Inclusive Historian’s Handbook online as a free resource not only for their members, but also to open the practice of history for diverse communities of practitioners and directly support inclusive and equity-focused historical work in public settings.[xii] Free online publishing software facilitates a type of dialogue that many inclusive historians already engage with in other ways; however, it expands the reach, depth, and breadth of these conversations.

Collaborative Digital Public History

Digital public history practitioners collaborate with groups outside of the academy and other formal cultural institutions to document their experiences and work together in telling their histories. For example, Outhistory.org launched in 2008 by a team led by Ned Katz to facilitate collaboratively-written histories of the LGBTQ community. The project collects personal reflections, but it focuses on using its Wiki publishing platform as the means to collaboratively write and discuss episodes important to the diverse LBGTQ community. As the number of contributors grew, so did the project’s stature as a resource for LGBTQ history.[xiii] Public historians are also actively trying to change understandings of American history and the shared racist, colonial, and exclusionary legacies that are made visible through current events. Denise Meringolo created Preserve the Baltimore Uprising to document the events of protest by those living and experiencing it in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray in 2015. The project began as a crowdsourced, community collecting project, but it continues to transform as Meringolo works with Baltimore residents, including high school students, to reflect and interpret this series of events within the historical roots of racial injustice and political unrest in their city.[xiv]

In reaction to racially-motivated police violence in 2014, museum professionals Aleia Brown and Adrianne Russell, started the hashtag #museumsrespondtoferguson to begin a long conversation about how museums and cultural heritage organizations might improve and change racial and cultural understandings within their communities. By hosting regular conversations on Twitter and blogging, Brown and Russell encouraged museum professionals to examine their hiring practices, collections policies, and public programming offerings.[xv] By using social media platforms like Twitter with hashtags that can be followed in-real time and asynchronously, robust conversations occurred in ways that are not possible within the confines of conference presentations or other in-person meetings. There are risks, however, when public historians participate in community conversations of highly-contested historical episodes, such as the building of Confederate monuments in the early twentieth century. In the absence of skilled facilitation, it can sometimes be difficult to participate in thoughtful and rational discussions and it is easy for discussants to be dismissive, rude, and even threatening. People of color, LGBTQ individuals, and women are more often targets of racist, sexist, and exclusionary attacks on social media. Preserving these active conversations and saving the public witness of events recorded in real time is important but not easy. Most social media platforms are commercial entities, so saving these conversations requires understanding terms of service for each platform, user rights, and advanced technical knowledge to harvest conversation streams. Led by archivist Bergis Jules, the Documenting the Now team has developed tools and workflows to enable saving of social media hashtags and streams for future research.[xvi] No matter the project, digital public historians encourage and facilitate active participation of communities to increase understanding of the past and contextualization of the present through digital means.

Computational Analysis

Digital history that requires computer programming languages to explore historical data through visualization is often referred to as computational analysis. This approach can be most helpful for exploring collections of digital sources and other types of data that can be visualized to frame research questions or expose the relationships among people, places, and ideas. Using spatial data, some digital historians interpret landscapes by generating maps. Exploring the constructions and connections of place and space are important when studying the spread of commodities, ideas, and people, as well as the impact of public policies on physical places. Through careful research of local records, Prologue DC’s Mapping Segregation in Washington, DC visualizes segregation in twentieth-century Washington, D.C., neighborhoods by mapping the restrictive covenants, block-by-block, across the city. Weaving together legal challenges, historical photographs, and other sources on a map, this project offers a good example of how placed-based storytelling can make systemic racism visible in concrete ways.[xvii]

Textual analysis, more commonly used in literature and rhetoric fields, offers methods for examining language use by identifying language patterns and themes based on combinations of words and phrases across bodies of texts (corpora). Historian Michelle Moravec employs these techniques when examining documents related to the women’s suffrage movement in the United States. Through analyzing the rhetoric amassed across six volumes of the History of Woman Suffrage, Moravec can see how the white editors framed the voting rights movement’s rhetoric. By excluding radical voices and women of color who saw suffrage as one step toward achieving equal rights for all women, the compendium’s editors focused on issues pertinent to themselves—property rights of married white women.[xviii] These limitations are important to identify when researching a large body of sources. Since computational methods require digitized and machine-readable content, the absence of inclusive collections presents real challenges. Online collecting and recovery efforts mentioned earlier in the essay are an integral piece for creating an inclusive digital history.

Social network analysis helps digital historians to explore relationships between different entities and visualize them. The Linked Jazz project team, led by Cristina Pattuelli, spent years extracting and identifying names of jazz musicians, composers, and leaders through recorded transcriptions of oral histories, photographs, and documents using computational techniques. The team built a database of names and identified connections, such as band member, mentor, influencer, or collaborator. They then asked for assistance from historians, fans, and jazz musicians to identify and confirm the relationships and other biographical information from this community. Driven by metadata that links individuals across multiple collections, Linked Jazz generates visualizations that show the many connections of individuals lesser known in mainstream histories, such as Toshiko Akiyoshi, a prominent Japanese band leader and musician.[xix] Engaging in computational analysis requires a digital historian to create datasets, and data needs definition to be processed. Forcing uncertain information into a fixed value, such as a date or specific place, when source material may not offer that certainty creates tension for historians and may mean that a specific digital method cannot reasonably be employed as means for analysis. This also can make computational methods less accessible than other areas of digital history.

Challenges for the Field

Despite the field’s efforts to build an open and collaborative community, digital history methods can be exclusive and challenging to practice. Digital historians have worked to be inclusive of underrepresented and under-served communities in their project work, but they have not been as successful in expanding the corps of practitioners. Even still, efforts such as the multi-lingual Programming Historian, offer step-by-step lessons with sample data and content for learning different digital methods, free open source software, and workflows. Started in 2008 by William J. Turkel and Alan MacEachern, Programming Historian is now a free peer-reviewed publication supported by an active cohort of authors, editors, and reviewers committed to teaching, fostering, and growing an inclusive community of practitioners.[xx] Other efforts to increase capacity can be found through free professional development opportunities offered through the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Getty Foundation, and professional organizations, as well as fee-based courses at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute and many universities. National networks, such as RailsGirls, are working to give young women free training in computational thinking and programming and, in this way, seek to create a more inclusive workforce in the technology sector.[xxi] This essay shows that digital methods and projects offer dynamic ways for creating, publishing, and collaborating on inclusive history projects. While this essay does not address digital infrastructure, it is important to note that historians are contributing to these new methods and the scholarly communications ecosystem through the development of and contributions to free and open source software that undergirds much of the work cited here.[xxii] A major challenge for us, is to be active in conversations about preserving and sustaining the open digital infrastructure that makes this inclusive digital history work accessible for all in years to come.


[i] Library of Congress, American Memoryhttps://memory.loc.gov/ammem/index.html; New York Public Library, Digital Schomburghttp://digital.nypl.org/schomburg/images_aa19/; Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, https://www.libertyellisfoundation.org/family-history-center; Family Search has grown tremendously since its launch in May 1999, as an outgrowth of the LDS Church’s Genealogical Society of Utah, https://www.familysearch.org/.

[ii] Omar Khan, Harappa: The Indus Valley and the Raj in India and Pakistan, original website content lives here http://old.harappa.com/, and the updated newly-designed site is found at http://harappa.com/.

[iii] Digital Library of the Caribbean, http://dloc.com.

[iv] P. Gabrielle Foreman, Jim Casey, Sarah Lynn Patterson, et al, The Colored Conventions Projecthttp://coloredconventions.org.

[v] Michelle Caswell, “Seeing Yourself in History: Community Archives and the Fight Against Symbolic Annihilation,” The Public Historian 36, no. 4 (November 2014): 26-37, https://doi.org/10.1525/tph.2014.36.4.26.

[vi] Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African American History and Culture, Memory Book, 2007-2011: https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/initiatives/memory-book; Laura Coyle, “Right from the Start: The Digitization Program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture,” The Public Historian 40, no. 3 (August 2018): 292-318, https://doi.org/10.1525/tph.2018.40.3.292.

[vii] Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and American Social History Project, History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Webhttp://historymatters.gmu.edu.

[viii] National Endowment for the Humanities, EDSITEment, https://edsitement.neh.gov/; Kelly Schrum, et al, Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, TeachingHistory.org: National History Education Clearinghousehttps://teachinghistory.org.

[ix] Ruth Sandwell and John Lutz, Who Killed William Robinson? Race, Justice and Settling the Landhttp://canadianmysteries.ca/sites/robinson/home/indexen.html.

[x] Dan Cohen, “A Million Syllabi,” DanCohen.org, blog, March 31, 2011, https://dancohen.org/2011/03/30/a-million-syllabi/; Chad Williams, et al, #Charleston Syllabus: https://www.aaihs.org/resources/charlestonsyllabus/.

[xi] Alliance for Networking Visual Culture, Scalar: https://scalar.me/anvc/; Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and Corporation for Digital Scholarship, Omeka: http://omeka.org; WordPress Foundation, WordPress: http://wordpress.org; University of Minnesota Press, Manifold, https://manifold.umn.edu/; Matthew F. Delmont, Why Busing Failed, digital project, http://whybusingfailed.com/anvc/why-busing-failed/index.

[xii] African American Intellectual History Society, Black Perspectives, https://www.aaihs.org/black-perspectives. Black Perspectives won the American Historical Association’s Roy Rosenzweig Prize for Innovation in Digital History in 2017.

[xiii] Lauren Jae Gutterman, “OutHistory.Org: An Experiment in LGBTQ Community History-Making.” The Public Historian 32, no. 4 (November 2010): 96-109. https://doi.org/10.1525/tph.2010.32.4.96.

[xiv] Denise Meringolo, Maryland Historical Society, et al, Preserve the Baltimore Uprising, http://baltimoreuprising2015.org/.

[xv] Aleia Brown and Adrianne Russell, “We Who Believe in Freedom Cannot Rest,” The Incluseum (blog), December 17, 2015, https://incluseum.com/2015/12/17/we-who-believe-in-freedom-cannot-rest/.

[xvi] Bergis Jules and Ed Summers, et al, Documenting the Now, https://www.docnow.io/.

[xvii] Prologue DC, Mapping Segregation in Washington, DChttp://www.mappingsegregationdc.org/.

[xviii] Michelle Moravec, “‘Under this name she is fitly described’: A Digital History of Gender in the History of Woman Suffrage,” Women and Social Movements 19, no. 1 (March 2015), http://womhist.alexanderstreet.com/moravec-full.html.

[xix] Cristina Pattuelli, et al, Linked Jazzhttps://linkedjazz.org/.

[xx] The Programming Historianhttps://programminghistorian.org/.

[xxi] National Endowment for the Humanities, Office of Digital Humanities, Institutes for Advanced Topics in Digital Humanities program, https://www.neh.gov/divisions/odh/institutes; Digital Humanities Summer Institute at University of Victoria, Canada, http://www.dhsi.org/; National RailsGirls, http://railsgirls.com/.

[xxii] Software is developed and maintained by historians and humanists at institutions, such as the Roy Rosenzweig Center for New Media at George Mason University and the Corporation for Digital Scholarship (Zotero http://zotero.org; Omeka http://omeka.org; and Tropy, http://tropy.org); Stanford University’s Humanities + Design Lab (Palladio, http://hdlab.stanford.edu/palladio/); and Alliance for Networking Visual Culture (Scalar, https://scalar.me/anvc/scalar/). Individuals contributing software include Stefan Sinclair and Geoffrey Rockwell (Voyant Tools, https://voyant-tools.org/) and Lincoln Mullen (R packages: https://lincolnmullen.com/code/).

Suggested Readings

Brennan, Sheila A. “Public, First.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016, edited by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren Klein. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016. http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/83.

Caswell, Michelle. “Seeing Yourself in History: Community Archives and the Fight Against Symbolic Annihilation.” The Public Historian 36, no. 4 (November 2014): 26-37. https://doi.org/10.1525/tph.2014.36.4.26.

Cohen, Daniel J., and Roy Rosenzweig. Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/.

Coyle, Laura. “Right from the Start: The Digitization Program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture.” The Public Historian 40, no. 3 (August 2018): 292-318. https://doi.org/10.1525/tph.2018.40.3.292.

Gallon, Kim. “Making a Case for the Black Digital Humanities.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016, edited by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren Klein. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016. http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/55.

Gibbs, Frederick W. “New Forms of History: Critiquing Data and Its Representations.” The American Historian, February 2016. http://tah.oah.org/february-2016/new-forms-of-history-critiquing-data-and-its-representations/.

Gutterman, Lauren Jae. “OutHistory.org: An Experiment in LGBTQ Community History-Making.” The Public Historian, 32, no. 4 (November 2010): 96-109. https://doi.org/10.1525/tph.2010.32.4.96.

Leon, Sharon. “Complicating a ‘Great Man’ Narrative of Digital History in the United States.” In Bodies of Information, Intersectional Feminism and Digital Humanities, edited by Elizabeth Losh and Jacqueline Wernimont, 344-366. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018.

Graham, Shawn, et al. Exploring Big Historical Data: The Historian’s Macroscope. London: Imperial College Press, 2016. http://www.themacroscope.org/2.0/.

Posner, Miriam. “What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016, edited by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren Klein. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016. http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/54

Rosenzweig, Roy, et al. Clio Wired: The Future of the Past in the Digital Age. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/rose15086.

Tilton, Lauren, et al, editors. American Quarterly Special Issue: Toward a Critically Engaged Digital Practice: American Studies and the Digital Humanities 70, no. 3 (September 2018). https://muse.jhu.edu/journal/13.

White, Richard. “What Is Spatial History?” The Spatial History Project, February 1, 2010. http://web.stanford.edu/group/spatialhistory/cgi-bin/site/pub.php?id=29.


Sheila A. Brennan is a digital public historian and strategic planner with over 20 years of experience working in public humanities. She has directed dozens of digital projects and published an open access digital monograph, Stamping American Memory: Collectors, Citizens, and the Post (University of Michigan Press, 2018).

Humanities Councils

This walking tour of the Greater Rosemont neighborhood in Baltimore was funded by the Maryland Humanities Council in 2010. The tour was led by Dr. Ed Orser, professor emeritus at UMBC, and included as speakers members of the Evergreen Protective Association, including Kirin Smith, featured here. Photo credit: Baltimore Heritage, Wikimedia Commons.

A network of fifty-six nonprofit organizations located in every state and U.S. territory, humanities councils have been a significant supporter of public history since their creation in 1971. An offshoot of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), their founding purpose was to democratize humanistic knowledge and methods by bridging the gap between scholars and the public.

Humanities councils encourage humanities activities everywhere—through museums, libraries, archives, historical societies, cultural organizations, and colleges and universities in rural communities, urban neighborhoods, and suburban towns. Their grant programs, which are locally-focused, are more accessible to many public historians than NEH grants, which are geared towards national projects. Public historians also work with councils as project scholars, grant reviewers, and board members.

Humanities Relevance

Since their creation, humanities councils have struggled with how to make their programs relevant to contemporary issues and appeal to a wide variety of audiences. This essay explores humanities councils’ current efforts to foster diversity and inclusion. It also analyzes how the definition of diversity and inclusion changed over time for the councils, showing how they responded to societal concerns at three critical junctures by creating particular kinds of programs. It concludes with thoughts about the future of diversity and inclusion for humanities councils.

In the early twenty-first century, declining funding and support for the humanities led to a wave of articles and reports on the crisis in the humanities. Councils responded by forcefully asserting the role of the humanities in helping people deal with issues of contemporary relevance. As the nation debates immigration policy and Black Lives Matter, for example, councils are offering programs to help contextualize these complex issues. In 2016, Oregon Humanities offered a program called “Why Aren’t There More Black People in Oregon?: A Hidden History,” that examined how Oregon became one of the whitest states in the nation. Alabama Humanities Foundation gave workshops to law enforcement officers on the history of the Scottsboro Boys, a 1931 case in which nine African American teenagers were wrongfully convicted of rape by all-white juries. This historical context is used to answer the question of “how we got where we are today in terms of persistent social, economic, cultural, and racial issues often dividing communities and presenting challenges in terms of police/community relations.”[i] In 2016, the NEH created an initiative called “Humanities and the Legacy of Race and Ethnicity in the United States,” which supported a range of programming. Some councils created their own grant programs with the funding, supporting projects developed by local organizations. The Arizona Humanities Council offered a series of programs utilizing many public humanities methodologies, including writing workshops, film screenings, a history immersion tour, and panel discussions. Ohio Humanities offered speakers on topics including African American history, immigration history, and nativism to spur discussions about U.S. society today.

Key Questions

While the names of these programs are new, the questions they raise are old ones. What makes the humanities meaningful to the general public? What do we mean by the general public anyway? For decades, humanities councils grappled with issues of diversity and inclusion as they struggled to come up with answers to these questions. From 1971 to the early 1980s, diversity was defined as reaching non-academic audiences with humanities content delivered by credentialed scholars. One way this objective was accomplished was by connecting humanities scholars with public policymakers, with the hope that the scholars would shape policies being created. These policies would, in turn, affect everyday Americans. In the 1980s, multiculturalism defined diversity. Council programs delved into the pluralism of communities, celebrating heritage and culture. In response to the move to multiculturalism, conservative politicians waged the culture wars in the 1990s against the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), as well as the NEH and humanities councils. In the 1990s and 2000s, seeing the hardening of partisan political lines between conservatives and liberals nationwide, councils moved towards civic dialogue and community conversation as a noncontroversial way to find common ground. Today, councils talk about diversity and inclusion in a variety of ways. They want to attract audiences that are diverse in terms of race, class, gender, sexuality, and age. Councils are experimenting with new kinds of programming created by nontraditional humanities organizations that takes place in community spaces and that involve people as participants, not passive audiences. The keywords today are action and collaboration—humanists are working with communities to address what’s happening around us. Councils are also looking at their own executive leadership, staffs, and boards and asking why there are comparatively few people of color, women, and LGBTQ people in these important positions.

Historical Background of the National Endowment for the Humanities

To understand the role of the humanities councils in public history, it is necessary to give a brief overview of the creation of the NEH in 1965. The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union convinced the federal government to pump money into science, engineering, and technology. National reputation hinged on whether the Soviets or the Americans would land a man on the moon, for example. Humanities scholars and professional associations looked on enviously as their colleagues in science and technology benefitted from this funding. The National Commission on the Humanities, made up of the American Council of Learned Societies, the Council of Graduate Schools in America, and the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa—all scholarly organizations—released a “Report of the Commission on the Humanities” in 1964 that argued that the humanities were as important to national identity and international prestige as science and technology.[ii] It described a future without the humanities: technology without ethics, humans turned into automatons. The Cold War was being fought for nothing if the United States did not nurture its humanists, which it defined as scholars, artists, and teachers in disciplines including history, literature, philosophy, the arts, and others that were qualitative rather than quantitative. Their suggestion was to create a federal agency modeled on the National Science Foundation that would spend federal money on supporting the work of these scholars, artists, and teachers while also replenishing their ranks through graduate fellowships. The wider public would learn from these people, but the agency itself would not be in the business of reaching the public directly. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the National Arts and Humanities Act into law, creating two federal agencies, the NEH and NEA.[iii] In this legislation, the public humanities were envisioned as the foundation of democracy: “Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens,” which could not be gained through science alone. Instead, individuals needed to “recognize and appreciate the aesthetic dimensions of our lives, the diversity of excellence that comprises our cultural heritage, and artistic and scholarly expression.”[iv] The achievements of the past must be remembered to provide citizens with a common history and sense of pride. But, as public historians know, the devil is in the details. What do we mean by “our cultural heritage”? In articulating these goals, the legislation, which borrowed language from the ACLS report, created the public humanities that we know today.

Through the efforts of the National Commission on the Humanities and its first Chairman, Barnaby C. Keeney, the President of Brown University, the NEH was deeply tied to higher education and the needs of university-based academics. Its central activity was grant making, conducted by panels of academically-credentialed scholars, for research fellowships, publications, education, and public programs. The first funded NEH grant was to the American Society of Papyrologists to conduct a six-week training workshop for scholars who studied ancient writings on papyrus. Such a project suggests who the NEH saw as its main audience: academic scholars. The agency was not, however, entirely divorced from contemporary concerns. Other early grants supported public television programs on African American arts, Alaskan material culture, and the urban crisis. Interestingly, a substantial number of public program grants in the first five years of the NEH funded internship programs at museums.

Creating Humanities Councils

After just a few years of NEH grantmaking, Rhode Island Senator Claiborne Pell, who had helped write the legislation creating the agency (as well as the college loan program that bears his name), was dissatisfied with its impact. Rather than reaching local communities at the grassroots level, funding was supporting universities and scholarly research. If the humanities were really essential to democracy, then there needed to be a method of reaching non-academics with the insights of humanities scholars. The state humanities councils, which could work with local communities, were the solution. If the 1960s were a moment of expansion of federal power that made the NEH possible, Nixon’s New Federalism, which shifted power from the federal government to state governments, ironically created the conditions for the councils. Based on the state arts council model, the humanities councils (originally called committees on the humanities) were statewide outposts of the NEH that would offer grants and programs to smaller organizations who would be able to reach people everywhere. In 1971, the Federal/State Partnership was created as the liaison between the NEH and the network of state councils.

The mission of the humanities councils was to democratize knowledge. They wanted to connect humanities scholars with local communities in order to give people access to the research being done in universities. Over the next several decades certain trends in the public humanities emerged from these partnerships, each of which had implications for issues of diversity and inclusion. In the 1970s, when the NEH created the state councils, it mandated that they bring scholars into conversation with citizens about topics of public policy. Councils responded in two ways. First, councils created programs that gave citizens more information that would help them address the complex issues facing the nation, such as a 1977 symposium on “The Free Flow of Information: Government, Media and the Individual,” which brought 300 people, including journalists and scholars, together in Texas. In New Jersey, the council coordinated a series of talks on “The Juvenile Justice System: Who is Responsible?” Secondly, councils and the NEH paired historians, ethicists, philosophers, and literature scholars with policymakers to see if the result was better policy. In 1979, for example, the US Conference of Mayors received funding from the NEH to develop a humanities program for mayors, publishing two reports on its findings. The policy mandate felt limiting to some scholars, who didn’t see connections between their research and policy issues.

Multiculturalism and the Culture Wars

By the 1980s, the NEH and Congress had loosened the rules on what the councils could fund at the same moment that multiculturalism was bubbling up in universities. Diversity at this moment was defined through pluralism: the nation was made up of various groups with their own histories and cultural practices. Rather than melting together into something new, these groups coexisted like vegetables in a salad bowl, an oft-used metaphor. Moving away from an assimilationist model in which the humanities were defined as a canonical set of texts written by white men opened up avenues for different communities to engage and claim public space. In 1981, for example, the Illinois Humanities Council funded “Bridging the Gap.” The project videotaped a Baltic theater production and showed it to Eastern European immigrant organizations to discuss their heritage and values.[v] But multiculturalism as practiced in many public heritage programs flattened racial, ethnic, and religious difference into cultural symbols. The cultural heritage festival was emblematic of the problems with this model. Did eating a new food or watching a folk dance teach festival-goers about another race, ethnicity, or religion, or did it simply turn them into pleasurable experiences disconnected from real questions about history and power? While the acknowledgement of common humanity was valuable, the focus on heritage, folk culture, and aesthetic display seemed to argue that all groups had equal access to resources, which was simply untrue.

As inoffensive as the discourse of multiculturalism seems now, conservative government officials responded to what they perceived as an attack on American or Western values. NEH Chairman William Bennett (1981-1985) argued that multiculturalism had overtaken the canon of Western civilization. Without the shared values that the humanities, which Bennett and others defined through texts like the Bible and the plays of William Shakespeare, provided, what would hold our society together? Known as the “culture wars,” these debates escalated in the mid-1990s with the controversy over the Smithsonian’s exhibit on the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped an atomic bomb in Japan during World War II. Museum labels included the Japanese point of view, suggesting that the American narrative of the “good war” was one-sided. Politicians and commentators condemned the use of tax dollars being used to support these kinds of projects. Congress, led by Republicans, resoundingly said no, and cut funding to the NEA, as well as the NEH and state councils. Federal funding for the NEH plummeted in the mid-1990s and has never entirely recovered, though the NEH has maintained a steady level of support for the councils.[vi] Councils, however, have had to find other sources of funding through their state governments, foundations, and individual donors to deal with growing costs.

Civic Dialogue

The hardening of partisan lines during the culture wars suggested that there was little common ground for civic discussion. Congress made it clear it would use its power of appropriation to limit even slightly controversial perspectives. Councils responded by adopting civic dialogue as a major programming initiative in the late 1990s and 2000s. These community-based conversations convened people for discussion by trained facilitators. While earlier council programs like lectures or film programs encouraged mostly passive audiences, dialogue necessitated participation. Council practice paralleled discussions happening in museum circles around the dialogic or participatory museum which sought to shift authority from humanities scholars towards the audience allowing for more inclusive programs that valued the knowledge of community members as well as those with academic credentials.[vii] Community conversations centered on common issues and often utilized a shared text as a starting point. They happened in public library branches, churches, and hospitals, expanding where the public humanities took place. One long-running dialogue program is “Literature and Medicine: Humanities at the Heart of Healthcare,” which uses literature as the basis for conversations between healthcare professionals to help them manage burnout and develop better cultural sensitivity when interacting with patients from backgrounds different from theirs. Created by the Maine Humanities Council, it is offered by a number of councils across the country. Both Oregon Humanities and Humanities New York not only offer conversation-based programs, but train facilitators in how to lead these discussions.[viii] Showing how councils are bringing humanities programs into nontraditional spaces designed to appeal to different audiences, Think and Drink programs are held at bars. Humanities Washington’s Think & Drink offers hosted conversations on topics like feminism and protest since 1968.[ix]

Broadening Audiences

This chronology does not mean that one type of program was superseded by another. Instead, councils use all of the techniques discussed in this essay to this day. But just like decades ago, they are still trying to broaden the audience. One new audience that humanities councils and the NEH have identified are veterans. Recognizing that thousands of American military personnel were returning to civilian life after being involved in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the NEH and councils have made a concerted effort to reach this group and help their transition back to home life. Literature, history, facilitated conversation, and creative writing are some of the ways that councils have served this community.

Since their inception, councils have used media, especially radio, television, and documentary film, to spread the humanities to broad audiences. While the reach of such programs can be huge, it is impossible to know how much impact they have on viewers or who, exactly, is viewing them. For California Humanities the goal is creating more diverse media content. Grants from the California Documentary Project support media projects that tell lesser-known stories about diverse communities and are relevant to contemporary issues.[x] Digital humanities are a new focus for councils. For some, digital humanities extends their media programs in new directions. In the War Ink project, which California Humanities funded, veterans told stories through their tattoos, which was accompanied by an online interpretive exhibit. For other councils, online state encyclopedias or digital exhibitions increase accessibility of humanities resources. Councils also use social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, to communicate with their constituencies. But councils are not at the forefront of the digital humanities, perhaps because other funders, like the NEH, have more resources to support large-scale digital humanities projects. Certainly digital efforts will grow but councils, like museums, also see themselves as offering something increasingly rare in our networked world: real-life interaction.

Re-defining the Humanities Scholar

Today, diversity and inclusion is more than simply who attends programs. Humanities councils, like museums, libraries and archives, and other public history institutions, need to examine why their staff and boards of directors are often dominated by white middle-class educated professionals. One positive change is in the definition of “humanities scholar.” A humanities scholar is required to be part of every grant-funded project. Historically, humanities scholars had PhDs in humanities disciplines and university affiliations. Many councils have changed this requirement to include people like tradition bearers or community scholars who have deep knowledge, but no academic qualifications. This shift is critical because it signals to community members that their knowledge is valued and helps to counter the elitism that was present at the creation of the NEH and has dogged the public humanities since.


As this essay has argued, councils are part of a larger public humanities infrastructure. Like museums, libraries, and universities, they must critique themselves as part of debates around diversity and inclusion. Do they support neutral spaces for public dialogue or can they lift up the perspectives of economically and socially marginalized communities? Is the elitism that marked the development of the public humanities surmountable or do we need to create a new term to describe this work? What does it mean to serve all the residents of a state who have very different interests, needs, and political perspectives? Should councils take stands on public questions? These are the questions that state humanities councils must answer in the twenty-first century to become truly inclusive organizations.


[i] The Scottsboro Case and the Legacy of Law and Justice in Alabama, Alabama Humanities Foundation, http://www.alabamahumanities.org/programs/humanitiesandlaw/.

[ii] “Report of the Commission on the Humanities,” American Council of Learned Societies, http://www.acls.org/about/historical_documents/.

[iii] “National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965,” National Endowment for the Humanities, https://www.neh.gov/about/history/national-foundation-arts-and-humanities-act-1965-pl-89-209.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] “Straumanis backs cuts,” Southern Illinoisian, May 10, 1981.

[vi] “National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Funding Levels,” Humanities Indicators, https://www.humanitiesindicators.org/content/indicatordoc.aspx?i=75.

[vii] Linda Shopes, “The Museum of Chinese in America: Continuity and Change,” Cross Ties, https://march.rutgers.edu/the-museum-of-chinese-in-america-continuity-and-change/.

[viii] “What is the Conversation Project?” Oregon Humanities, https://oregonhumanities.org/programs/conversation-project/. “Community Conversations,” Humanities New York, http://humanitiesny.org/our-work/programs/community-conversations/.

[ix] Think & Drink, Humanities Washington, https://www.humanities.org/program/think-and-drink/.

[x] “California Documentary Project,” California Humanities, http://calhum.org/programs-initiatives/programs/california-documentary-project/.

Suggested Readings

Greenfield, Briann. “Making the Humanities Public: The Example of Connecticut’s Humanities Council.” The Public Historian 35, no. 1 (2013): 51-66.

Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. The Humanities and the Dream of America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences For a Vibrant, Competitive and Secure Nation. Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts & Sciences, 2013. https://www.amacad.org/content/publications/publication.aspx?d=21724.

Lynn, Elizabeth. An Ongoing Experiment: State Councils, the Humanities and the American Public. Kettering Foundation, 2013. https://www.kettering.org/catalog/product/ongoing-experiment-state-councils-humanities-and-american-public.

Rizzo, Mary. “Finding the Roots of Civic Engagement in the Public Humanities,” History@Work, National Council on Public History, July 21, 2014. http://ncph.org/history-at-work/finding-the-roots-of-civic-engagement/.

Zainaldin, Jamil. “Public Works: NEH, Congress, and the State Humanities Councils.” The Public Historian 35, no. 1 (2013): 28-50.


~ Mary Rizzo is an Assistant Professor in History and Associate Director of Public and Digital Humanities Initiatives for the Graduate Program in American Studies at Rutgers University-Newark. She worked for several years at the New Jersey Council for the Humanities. Currently, she is completing a book on how Baltimore has been represented in popular culture from the 1950s to the early twenty-first century. She tweets as @rizzo_pubhist and can be reached at [email protected].

Heritage Tourism

Freedom Crossing Monument, Lewiston, New York. Photo credit: Cordell Reaves

Heritage tourism is focused on people, attractions, history, and activities that are particular to a region. The relationship between heritage travelers and museums and historic sites is a natural coupling of shared interests and intellectual curiosity. Heritage travelers are seekers of the authentic and unique and are, not surprisingly, frequent visitors to cultural attractions.

Attracting heritage travelers can be an elusive prize for museums and historic sites, and it often pays dividends to cooperate with cultural organizations. Some museums can experience spill-over visitation, or visitors drawn by other attractions or events in the area. A major attraction may open nearby, a new show or film may highlight a local story, and numerous other scenarios may bring new travelers and opportunities to your community. Ideally, tourism planning should be proactive and focused, so an institution is prepared to seize opportunities.

There are many things to consider as you assess the market readiness of your institution. Do you have a relevant, meaningful product? What is your reputation locally and beyond? Are you known beyond your local community? Is your staff fully ready to welcome an influx of visitors? An honest appraisal of institutional strengths and weaknesses is not just advisable but necessary.

Constant Ambassador

A “constant ambassador” is someone who recognizes that they are the public face of an institution during every visitor interaction and that it is part of their job to be kind, informative, and helpful. Regardless of role, everyone on staff must be enlisted as a constant ambassador for the site. Involve all staff, volunteers, and board members in customer service training. Whether a person is standing in a gallery or shoveling the front walk, they should know why the museum matters. All staff should also understand that visitors should feel welcome the moment they enter the grounds.

While museums are non-profit entities, some lessons can be borrowed from the corporate world. Consider the following points made by Kenneth B. Elliot, Vice President in Charge of Sales for The Studebaker Corporation in 1941.

The customer is not dependent upon us—we are dependent upon [them]. The customer is not an interruption of our work—[they are] the purpose of it. The customer is not a rank outsider to our business—[they are] a part of it. The customer is not a statistic—[they are] a flesh-and-blood human being completely equipped with biases, prejudices, emotions, pulse, blood chemistry and possibly a deficiency of certain vitamins.[i]

The ultimate fate of the Studebaker brand aside, the customer service message is clear: visitors should feel welcome. Some museum professionals regard the public as an invading army we need to defend against in order to protect resources in our care; when, in fact, everything we do is in the service of the public. Museums must always practice good stewardship, but that charge must be balanced with sufficient public access and engagement.

Philipsburg Manor, Sleepy Hollow, New York. Photo credit: Cordell Reaves

Balancing Stewardship and Visitor Experience

Preservation of the collection for future generations cannot exclude the needs of the present generation to develop an appreciation for and an emotional connection with objects or structures. We cannot assume that visitors will care about museum collections and programming if we cannot create points of relevance that resonate with them.

In historic house environments many people are still often forced to peer into rooms from a doorway behind a velvet rope. Is there a compromise that will allow visitors to have a richer experience? Has the option of putting down a runner on the floor and then roping off specific objects instead of full rooms been explored? A fantastic resource for this line of thinking is the Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums, by Franklin D. Vagnone and Deborah E. Ryan; it is an in-depth exploration of the aforementioned ideas and much more.

One of the most detrimental ideas regarding tourism and museums is that it is purely a matter of advertising. There is a myth that if an institution can simply get its name/logo/website in front of tour operators and travel writers, its visitation will greatly increase. Building awareness is indeed important, but what are you building awareness of? Is the current visitor experience engaging and meaningful? Do the offerings reflect the communities around you? Direct engagement involves sharing ideas and fostering dialogue with visitors to help them shape their own meaningful experiences.

Scrolling down the lists of museum reviews on Trip Advisor or Yelp can be an eye-opening experience. In the realm of 1-star reviews you might find the occasional irate, perhaps unreasonable critic, but you might also encounter visitors who were deeply disappointed or so completely frustrated with their experience that they felt the need to publicly vent. If your institution is being blasted on social media, you need to respond briefly to let potential visitors know that you are taking their concerns seriously. Post your response for all to see and make every effort to talk personally to the visitor who made the complaint. Be sure not to get defensive or escalate an online argument; no institution is perfect, things happen, and people make mistakes. A complaint may run deeper than the experience of one visitor. The issue may reflect a larger problem, which when addressed might even turn a potential crisis into an opportunity for growth.

African Burial Ground, New York, NY. Photo credit: Cordell Reaves

Telling Complete Stories is Good Business

The tourism market has become a diverse marketplace, and despite staffing and research limitations, there are opportunities and incentives to delve deeply into all of the stories that have influenced your site. It is easy to be completely drawn into the standard “hero narrative” and remain there. This is a limited perspective that often excludes indigenous people, people of African descent, the LGBTQ community, women across cultures, and people from diverse ethnic or class backgrounds. Take everyone into consideration, especially if a particular group has had a minor role in your story thus far; everyone has a point of view that should be taken into consideration. This is not a matter of political correctness. It is good history, and it will expand your audience.

Complete stories require the exploration of all available research resources, including the memories of former inhabitants of the site. Narratives based on the records of wealthy land-owning families are often a starting point, but we must go beyond the written record. The Lott House in Brooklyn, New York, for example, recognizes that enslaved Africans did not typically keep a written record of their experiences and employs archeological evidence to show that enslaved Africans maintained their own distinct spiritual lives.[ii] There are similar archeological finds in other portions of the state, including a coin found further north in Albany, New York, that was turned into an amulet resembling a dkinga, which shows the shape of the universe in West African cosmology.

To attract and keep a more diverse audience, your story must have depth and reflect the experiences and culture of the visitors you hope to welcome into your institution. Enslaved people’s lives were never simply about the work they did. Their multi-faceted stories reflect their unique spiritual lives, foodways, music, and folklore, among many other things. By telling a multi-dimensional story, the ability to create points of connection may result in more meaningful experiences for visitors. It may be impossible for any visitor to truly understand the life of a person living in a state of slavery, but most people will understand an enslaved person’s desire for freedom, the need to pass on traditions to one’s children, or the longing to keep families intact, safe, and well.

What are the stories that have been ignored, undervalued, and deemed irrelevant? We are not just keepers of things, we are keepers of stories, history, and culture, and a portion of our histories are intangible. In a historic house environment, the intangible history may connect to the lives of enslaved people. The idea of delving into a complex story based on research and archeological findings from a similar site and time period with little-to-no direct material culture, strikes some as ill-advised and deeply problematic. But it is in many ways an opportunity to share history that is more balanced. We must untether ourselves from the notion that we can only tell stories if we have all of the belongings of the former inhabitants. Such projects may require outside partners, research, community outreach, and expertise in order to work. Finding alternative ways to share unexplored history is complicated, but can lead to a much richer visitor experience.

While many of the examples here focus on the African-American experience, the need to tell complete stories exists at nearly all institutions that interpret history. The important thing is to dig deep into the history of the site and surrounding community to shine a light on the groups that have been misunderstood, marginalized, or omitted from our shared history and to involve outside voices and perspectives in that process. Enlisting outside partners in this process is an important step. A community partner or advisory group must have a voice; a partner with no true input is not a partner. An advisor simply there to represent a group that has no substantive role is an empty gesture.

Diverse Audiences Matter

Imagine walking into a museum to visit a museum shop to pick up a gift for a friend. The place is nearly empty, the salesperson greets you as you enter the shop and begin to browse. As you scan a shelf, you notice that the security guard who was at the main entrance is now carefully searching the book volumes on a nearby shelf. As you make your way to the other side of the shop, you notice that he follows. Is this the kind of institution that you would continue to patronize or ever recommend? The aforementioned scenario is real and likely occurs more often than many museum professionals think or are comfortable acknowledging. Museums are public spaces for all people, and every person should feel valued. When we question whether or not a visitor belongs in a museum, we do a disservice to the public and we betray our core public service duties. We should not take for granted that everyone on staff understands that these are essential values of the organization.

African Americans spend $50 billion annually on travel and leisure experiences, and they support institutions that embrace diverse messaging and interpretation.[iii] Such institutions also serve as models for other organizations. Consider the case of Whitney Plantation in Louisiana. It is the state’s only plantation-based historic site focused entirely on the lives of enslaved Africans, and its honest interpretive approach has led to consistently high visitation and international media coverage. Whitney’s success has helped turn the standard plantation narrative on its head, and other plantation sites in the region have begun to tell more inclusive stories as a result.

Connecting with Tourism Professionals

Local or Regional Tourism Promotion Agencies or Agents (TPA) or Destination Marketing Organizations (DMO) are among the most direct lines to entering the tourism marketplace. It is the TPA’s main job to promote and sell the region as a travel destination. Make an appointment to see them and share your full event calendar, offer them a tour and an opportunity to evaluate your site, and inquire about a familiarization tour (“fam tour”). “Fam tours” are specifically for tour operators and travel bloggers/writers. They are designed to serve as extended, in-person advertisements for a region and often have a specific theme. Make a case why your museum should be included on these tours; tout your uniqueness, flexibility, and ways you can connect with various themes.

Think beyond the borders of what has traditionally been done and begin to consider what else can be done. Arts, culture, and history connect many different subjects. If the tourism marketplace includes food tours, then offer a history-related program exploring the foodways of your site. Consider a talk on what we can learn from dining and cooking scenes in art. Whether the topic is architecture, wine, or something else, dig deep within the knowledge of your staff and collection to tell a new story. Be forthright and make it clear to the TPA or DMO that you want them to visit and assess your institution. Accept the feedback, listen to their plans for further thematic tours and events, and suggest ways your institution can join in. Whether it is as a star attraction or a smaller supporting attraction, take the opportunity.

Choosing the right partner is not purely a matter of shared heritage; reputation, resources, and reciprocity are equally important. The same logic applied to choosing a board member or advisory group member can be applied to potential partners. Diversifying your organization at all levels is a critical concern. Does the prospective partner recognize that the organization needs to represent everyone in your community? Do this partner’s practices align with your core values? Does your partner have resources you lack regarding staff, facilities, or current offerings that will make programs attractive to diverse audiences? Establishing a relationship that works in tandem for both parties is critical to creating a sustainable partnership.

Investment and Return

There are few paths forward that do not involve shifting scant resources. Most institutions are not going to make a few changes and see their attendance double in two years. The benefit of taking your museum into the tourism marketplace is not solely a matter of increased visitation. Museums help raise the quality of life in communities and promote economic development—more businesses, more jobs, and rising property values. Restaurants, boutiques, and coffee shops all benefit from rising visitation. Local elected officials want to be associated with economic development and increased tourism. These relationships have the potential to yield benefits such as in-kind donations and increased media visibility. Most important may be the good will generated in your own community. The same new content that may draw an audience from abroad may give locals a reason to return or visit for the first time.

The important thing here is to keep moving forward. Remember the words of Star Trek Captain Jean Luc Picard, “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose.” Failure is part of the process; do not get discouraged. Evaluate, retool, and try again. There are all sorts of external factors and pressures that impact the tourism industry, many of which are beyond your control. Trying new things means accepting that there will likely be a mixture of both failures and successes. Failure is only final if you stop trying to move forward.


[i] “Interview with Kenneth Elliot,” Printer’s Ink, Vol. 197 (1941).

[ii] H. Arthur Bankoff, Christopher Ricciardi, and Alyssa Loorya, “Remembering Africa Under the Eaves,” Archeology 54, Number 3 (May/June 2001).

[iii] Fabiola Fleuranvil, “Black Travel Dollars Matter,” Huffington Post, May 23, 2017.

Suggested Readings

Hargrove, Cheryl. Cultural Heritage Tourism: Five Steps for Success and Sustainability. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield/AALSH, 2017.


~ Cordell Reaves is Historic Interpretation and Preservation Analyst, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation.

Historic House Museums

Paul Revere House, ca. 1900, showing local children and Filippo Goduti, the proprietor of the cigar company that rented space in the building from 1898-1901. Photo credit: Paul Revere House.

History museums of all types are facing the reality of a society where the meanings of inclusion, diversity, access, and equity are changing; the fact is, audiences are changing, too. The challenge of attracting and welcoming increasingly diverse audiences has proven particularly difficult for historic house museums, which have long been criticized—often with good reason—for having outdated, narrow, and static interpretation. According to an influential critic, the primary reasons people dislike house museums are that they present interpretation that lacks a connection to the present and feature stories of people who have nothing in common with most contemporary visitors.

Public historians and museum professionals have long known that historic sites need to be willing to change their structure, programs, and services in response to the changing needs of their communities. Yet, many have struggled to make these necessary institutional transformations. Encouragingly, solutions to these challenges lie within the very nature of house museums. Rather than focus on what is wrong with historic house museums, this essay explores the potential that house museums hold for telling new stories while making older, familiar stories more inclusive and relevant.

Opportunities for New Interpretations

Historic houses offer a broad canvas for the consideration of a variety of themes and for experimentation with new interpretive techniques. They provide the unique opportunity to share compelling stories in the most intimate of spaces, the home. They can, if allowed, reflect the lives of the many rather than just the privileged few.

While most historic house museums have become known for the tenure of a famous person or prominent family, or as examples of the work of a particular architect or representation of an important style or period, they possess much greater interpretive potential. These structures were built by people (native born, enslaved, or immigrant); they served as workspaces for owners and workers (enslaved or domestic); and, they provided a safe place where closeted lives were lived openly. They were the stage for many of life’s most poignant moments and relatable themes: birth, death, illness, education, foodways, and celebrations. Within the familiar context of living spaces, inhabitants from a wide range of economic situations and backgrounds moved in and out over many years. Although it is easy to fall into the trap of allowing interpretation to be held hostage to the legacy of one person or architectural feature, it is important to explore interpretive options that go beyond the expected. The prospect of doing so is intrinsically exciting and motivating for many public historians and museum professionals. However, if the promise of access to more compelling stories is not incentive enough, or the challenges seem too great, perhaps a more self-serving argument will make the case: interpretation and programming that resonate with a wider audience are simply good for business. Many museums have experienced improved attendance as well as buy-in from the community as a result of efforts to make interpretation and programming more inclusive.

Models of Inclusive Interpretation

There is no question that this sort of change, whether modest or dramatic, takes initiative and commitment. The good news is that more and more house museums are making the effort to reimagine and expand their interpretations; they are striving to find more inclusive stories to share the stage with “the elephant in the room” of the famous family or the institutional tradition of “the way things have always been done.” What follows are some examples of how organizations have changed the dynamic.

From its inception, President Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, D.C., focused on making the past relevant to visitors. Its mission to “reveal the true Lincoln and continue the fight for freedom” is carried out in its interpretation, programs, and exhibitions, all of which seek “to inspire visitors to take their own path to greatness, and preserve this place as an authentic, tangible connection to the past and a beacon of hope for all who take up Lincoln’s unfinished work.” In this way Lincoln, the person, is transformed from a distant, romanticized hero into a call to action. Programs are offered that explore themes of injustice, division, and the importance of leadership. For example, an exhibition titled “American by Belief” introduces the public to the little-known fact that Lincoln championed policies that offered immigrants a chance to succeed based on the promise of the country’s founding principles.

For some time, the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, Connecticut, has been using its historic house to present and consider themes related to social justice. Its mission — “to preserve and interpret Stowe’s Hartford home and the center’s historic collections, promote vibrant discussion of her life and work, and inspire commitment to social justice and positive change”— makes the structure a container of ideas and thoughts rather than just a receptacle for interesting objects and famous figures. Through a significant reinterpretation effort and a reimagined tour that is described as “a conversational interactive tour where you can participate along with your guide,” all the house has to offer—stories, personalities, artifacts, and Victorian Gothic architecture—is used to promote discussion among visitors about social issues that resonate today. In this way, Harriet Beecher Stowe and her famous novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, have been transformed into even more effective tools for exploring the connections between past and present.

Another example of a dramatic shift in interpretive focus is the former Royall House Museum in Medford, Massachusetts. This high-style Georgian mansion was known as one of the finest colonial-era buildings in New England and it was precisely for this reason that the few hundred people who visited the house each year came. The interpretation was centered on the architecture of the home and the lives of the Royall family, loyalists who amassed great wealth in the triangular trade. The most compelling part of the story was the discussion of the lives of loyalists in New England where patriot stories generally rule.

What wasn’t discussed was the fact that the property included the only remaining slave quarters in the northern United States or that the Royalls were the largest slaveholding family in Massachusetts. The museum is now the “Royall House and Slave Quarters.” This name change alone alerts visitors that the story now gives equal weight to both the wealthy loyalist family and the enslaved Africans who made the Royalls’ lifestyle possible. The shift in perspective has transformed interpretation at the site and, along with programming relating the past to current issues, has helped the museum become more relevant and inclusive and has widened its audience considerably. In some ways, confronting the realities of slavery and the slave economy is more surprising in the North than it is in the South. Yet it is a crucial topic to explore and share with visitors.

Strategies for Implementation

Sound simple? Not in the least! When an organization like the Royall House Museum and Slave Quarters embraces the “what if we look into these other stories” epiphany, the true work has only begun. After much debate the museum’s board undertook a strategic planning process that resulted in a new mission and a new name. Careful consideration was given to how to make the case to board and staff, accomplish the necessary research, involve community stakeholders, and finally, how to prepare staff and volunteers to deliver these new stories to a surprised, or even resistant, audience.

What strategies should you employ to begin the process of making your historic sites more meaningful to all people?

Consider all the residents and consider the issues.

An initial step is to begin to give equal value to all the knowable moments in the long history of the home you run: How many families have lived or worked there? Who built the house or worked on the grounds? How might their stories be added to the current interpretation? What are the topics that meet your mission and are relevant to and can benefit your community? It was not a hard stretch for the Paul Revere House to begin shifting its interpretation by re-imagining one room as a reflection of the first owner of the house, a wealthy merchant in seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century Boston who had at least one enslaved person supporting his lifestyle. Moreover, in the over 100 years after Revere’s departure from the residence, the house served as home to owners, workers, and tenants, many of whom reflected the change in the neighborhood as immigrant populations came into Boston’s North End and rented or acquired property. The stories that unfolded at the site during the mid nineteenth century included those of a single woman named Lydia Loring who supported herself through real estate deals and taking in boarders, and later, the Wilkies, an Irish couple, who ran the Revere House as a boarding house for sailors and had a saloon on the first floor.

In addition, for each resident it is important to consider what was going on in the neighborhood, the country, and the world at the time. How might themes, such as economic fluctuations, war, political or ethnic conflict, slavery, women’s rights and roles, LGBTQ rights, religion, and education, allow you to seamlessly expand your story and relate to how we view the same topics today? These avenues provide additional hooks to engage visitors in ways that go beyond the story of one house, person, collection, or architectural style. This type of analysis also offers different lenses through which to consider the life of even a well-known resident. 

Involve your stakeholders and community.

If you are thinking of making a bold change or just a small one, it is imperative to work with your community. Arrange for opportunities to invite community members and key stakeholders to engage in open discussions about your ideas and to solicit their input before any plans are set. You may find you are overlooking some local sources of information, you may have inadvertently and unnecessarily stepped on some toes, or you may discover that rumors about what you are considering may be spreading and causing unwarranted concerns. Early buy-in from informed constituents may help you make the changes you seek. Or, if there are serious concerns or challenges ahead, it is far better to be prepared to address these issues than to be blindsided later in the process.

The Haymarket Project features photographs of the market, vendors (pushcarts and shops), workers, and customers collected over the course of an entire year to document the market. Oral histories reflect the stories of longtime vendors and more recent immigrants who have created a wide-ranging cross-section of cultures at Haymarket. Alyssa “Sina” Chhim came from Battambang, Cambodia, in 1982. She began working at stands and later a shop in the market. Sina got her own stand in October 2014. Photo credit: Courtesy Historic New England

Cultivate meaningful partnerships.

Partnerships, if mutually beneficial, can show that your historic house is sincere about being more open to new ideas and welcoming to new audiences. Since one-time deals rarely produce deep and sustainable institutional change, working with other organizations in the community is essential. Historic New England regularly engages with diverse groups through its Everyone’s History program. One such effort, the Haymarket Project, involved a series of short films, an exhibition, and a publication, which documented the outdoor market’s rich immigrant history. Interviews with longtime Italian vendors, newer vendors from more recent immigrant groups, and customers, along with photographs—all collected over the course of a year—revealed the daily life at the market, changes over time, and the challenges of encroaching development. Through walking tours, which include many of the vendors telling their own stories, this partnership has endured beyond the initial programs.

Research, research, research.

Once you know what story or group you want to explore, you will need to do the necessary research. You may find that suddenly you are seeing things that you missed. A cone of sugar displayed innocently on a table in a kitchen is, of course, evidence of the owner’s sweet tooth but is also evidence of the impact of the slave economy in Paul Revere’s Boston.

Artifacts have multiple layers of meaning depending on what questions you ask. Collections, photographs, and archives have, in some cases, been subject to bias in how they were cataloged, so every effort should be made to look for information in unexpected places.

Jennifer Pustz, author of Voices from the Back Stairs, suggests including the stories of people who are underrepresented in written sources. She advises starting with what little is known and documented about the person in question and being honest about what is not known and why that might be (privacy, social class, etc.). Research about an individual or individuals can, with care, be supplemented with generic information that is appropriate to the period and area.

At Historic New England’s Beauport, the Sleeper-McCann House in Gloucester, Massachusetts, researchers used other sources, such as oral histories, to interpret LBGTQ history when pertinent records did not survive. Where possible, reach out to the descendants of the people, including servants and workers, who called your property home. You will most likely see them surprised and then thrilled that you care about their family story. The Revere House reached out successfully to the family of F.A. Goduti, who ran a cigar store in the house, after one of his relatives recognized him in a photograph in a display.

Archeological collections and reports along with newly initiated investigations provide important information. Excavations at the Royall House Museum and Slave Quarters proved a treasure trove for reinterpretation, while similar investigations at the Paul Revere House provided insight into the lives of the immigrants who called the property home during the nineteenth century. Find ways to include interns in new research. Over the years the Paul Revere House has not only encouraged interns to do research on the various immigrant groups that lived in the neighborhood, but also published their work as articles in its newsletter.

Seek assistance.

If the topics that emerge take you into unfamiliar territory, seek the assistance of trusted scholars or museum colleagues. Be mindful to include Native American scholars or specialists if you are researching your site for connections to indigenous peoples. The same holds true for research pertaining to racial, ethnic, sexual, and class identities as well as religious groups.

If board members, staff, or volunteers don’t understand the value of fleshing out the stories connected to either your famous moment or lesser-known episodes, include them in the process. Use strategic planning to explore the opportunity to reach new audiences with a new vision. Reach out to other house museums that have had success in making changes and ask for advice.

Build staff and board buy-in.

It is important to ensure that your board and staff reflect the community you serve. This kind of change requires institutional will. To involve people with your historic site, you may need to first show good faith by taking some programmatic risks in order to convince your community that your organization is truly embracing change. We are not saying this is easy and it does take time. In addition to including different racial and ethnic groups, welcoming new voices to the board or staff also means being more cognizant of age, gender, sexual orientation, and/or people with differing abilities. There are resources out there to help; MASS Action, is a central point for resources, learning, and communication between institutions engaging in promoting diversity, inclusion, equity, and accessibility. Its toolkit offers resources for use in creating greater equity within the museum field.

Visitors respond to seeing diversity in staffing. This shows that the organization reflects multiple perspectives and is open to a range of ideas. Historic New England advertises staff positions and internships in both traditional outlets and non-traditional sources. The organization offers paid diversity internships to students of color to encourage them to pursue careers in the field by promoting the program to schools and universities with substantial populations of historically under-represented and underserved students.


If historic house museums want to be relevant, inclusive, and diverse, they need to diversify their boards and staffs and work closely with their communities. House museums need to step back and look at the stories they are telling and the ones that remain unexplored. Whether at the Paul Revere House, where many of the changes have been real but subtle; or the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, where a change in interpretive techniques now invites discussion; to the major change at the Royall House and Slave Quarters, which now gives equal weight to the interpretation of the enslaved population and the wealthy loyalist family: all have produced richer, more compelling stories. These varied tales of human experience offer visitors from all walks of life, ethnic backgrounds, educational levels, and lifestyles a way to see themselves in both the lives of the famous and of the less well known. 

Suggested Readings

van Balgooy, Max A., ed. Interpreting African American History and Culture at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield/AASLH, 2015.

Bench, Raney. Interpreting Native American History and Culture. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield/AASLH, 2014.

Ferentinos, Susan. Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield/AASLH, 2015.

Forum on Historic Site Stewardship in the 21st Century. National Trust for Historic Preservation. 2007. https://forum.savingplaces.org/viewdocument/introduction-the-call-for-a-nation.

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

LGBTQ Heritage Theme Study. National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/subjects/tellingallamericansstories/lgbtqthemestudy.htm.

Pustz, Jennifer. Voices from the Back Stairs Interpreting Servants’ Lives at Historic House Museums. Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2009.

Rose, Julia. Interpreting Difficult History at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield/AASLH, 2016.

Turino, Kenneth C., and Max van Balgooy, eds. Reinventing the Historic House Museum, New Approaches and Proven Solutions. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield/AASLH, 2019.


~ Kenneth C. Turino is Manager of Community Partnerships and Resource Development at Historic New England and Nina Zannieri is Executive Director of the Paul Revere Memorial Association.


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 www.webaccessibility.com 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. http://www.artbeyondsight.org/mei/.

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). http://dsq-sds.org/article/view/3761/3276.

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. https://www.nps.gov/tps/how-to-preserve/preservedocs/preservation-briefs/32Preserve-Brief-Accessible.pdf.

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. https://macaccess.org/rescources/working-document-of-best-practices-tips-for-making-all-visitors-feel-welcome/.

Smithsonian Accessibility Program. “Smithsonian Guidelines for Accessible Exhibition Design.” https://www.si.edu/Accessibility/SGAED.


~ 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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