NCPH Book Award: Reflections from Susan Ferentinos

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Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic Sites (Rowman & Littlefield) Cover shot courtesy the author

Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic Sites (Rowman & Littlefield) Cover.

I decided to become a professional historian in a campground in Ohio in the summer of 1994. I was spending the day lounging at my campsite, reading About Time: Exploring the Gay Past, by Martin Duberman, when his essay “’Writhing Bedfellows’ in Antebellum South Carolina: Historical Interpretation and the Politics of Evidence” got me so fired up that I decided it was time to go out and do what I could to bring the past to the people.

True story, though I was to discover soon enough that my knight-in-shining-armor conception of public history was deeply flawed. Twenty-some years later, I think we all understand how much richer historical understanding can be when built collaboratively rather than delivered from on high. All the same, I still carry the memory of the strong, emotional reaction I had the first time I read that article, which describes Duberman’s difficulties in accessing and publishing some lusty letters between men of the Old South. It had taken me quite awhile to realize my love of history, and, now that I had found it, I felt it strongly. My journey to the historian’s life took so long because the stories I could relate to weren’t part of the usual telling of the nation’s past. Women chafing under gender expectations, regular folks fighting for what they believed in, people yearning for those they were forbidden to desire–none of these topics made an appearance in my public-school history classes. And then, even after I’d found them, here was Duberman’s essay telling me that such stories were often hidden or suppressed.

I am pleased to announce that much has changed in the twenty-five years since About Time was published. But the fact remains that same-sex love and desire is still often left out of the stories we tell about the US past. The American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) realizes this. When the organization was launching its new book series Interpreting History (in coordination with Rowman & Littlefield Publishing), the series editors and publications staff made the decision to produce a book on interpreting Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) history in the first year of the series. They approached me about doing the project, and thus Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic Sites was born.

We intended the book to serve as a starting point for museum professionals interested in accessing the queer past but not quite sure where to begin. It includes an overview of LGBT history in the United States from the colonial period to the present; plenty of examples from the field; and a discussion of issues to consider when planning interpretive efforts on this subject.

Colleagues assisted in these tasks by contributing thoughtful and candid case studies. Jill Austin and Jennifer Brier described their process in developing the Chicago History Museum’s Out in Chicago exhibit. From creating staff buy-in to approaching collections to deciding how deeply to discuss sexuality, Austin and Brier recount their efforts to create an exhibit that resides at the intersection of queer experiences and urban history.

Kenneth C. Turino presented a range of interpretive strategies being used at three historic house museums owned by Historic New England. Beauport, the home of Henry Davis Sleeper, openly discusses the designer’s homosexuality. The Codman Estate, which interprets five generations of the Codman family, does not include Ogden Codman, Jr.’s interest in other men on the standard tour, due to time constraints, but the site explores the subject through special programming. Finally, interpretation at the Sarah Orme Jewett House is in transition, as staff explore the best ways to present the nuanced issue of female partnerships in the late nineteenth century.

The book’s third case study, written by Kyle Parsons and Stewart Van Cleve, shares a model for a Summer History Immersion Program designed to introduce high school students to both college-level historical research and the LGBT past. This innovative youth program is a collaborative project between the Minnesota Historical Society and the University of Minnesota libraries.

As for me, I grew so much during the process of writing this book. As a historian, I discovered the unique pleasure of writing a historical synthesis (400 years in 73 pages!), and I reveled in getting to immerse myself so deeply in one historical subfield, after years of working as a generalist. As a scholar, I was challenged when asked to go outside of my historical comfort zone and discuss the events of the very recent past, and then to go further, into current events that were unfolding as I wrote! As a practitioner, I embraced the charge to seek out innovative projects and investigate them, and I was touched, again and again, by the passion people bring to this work and the willingness with which they shared their experiences so that others might benefit.

Since publishing Interpreting LGBT History, I have worked with numerous museums interested in collecting queer objects, interpreting a range of sexual and gender expressions, and reaching out to LGBT communities. It feels like a groundswell is happening, and I couldn’t be happier. For too long, queer voices have been silenced, and historical organizations play a vital role in rectifying that situation. I can personally attest to how powerful it is to find others like you in the past. My pre-professional dreams of being a knight in shining armor may have been naïve, but I can still play a role in opening museum doors and facilitating meaningful conversations about the queer past. We all can.

~ Susan Ferentinos is a public history researcher, writer, and consultant, working on projects ranging from LGBT interpretation in museums, to project management for historical organizations, to graduate education reform. She currently serves on the Local Arrangements Committee for the 2017 NCPH Annual Meeting and as chair of the Committee on LGBTQ History and Historians for the American Historical Association. You can follow her on Twitter at @HistorySue and visit her on the web.

Editor’s note: This post continues the [email protected] tradition of honoring winners of NCPH’s annual awards.  Susan Ferentinos is the 2016 winner of the NCPH Book Award. This award is for the best book about or growing out of public history published within the previous two calendar years.

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