Interpreting gender and sexuality at historic sites: What's happening out there?

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woman in mask

At a summer 2013 tour to historic sites around Boston, participants explored questions about gender, sexuality, and interpretation (and did a little gender-bending at the USS Constitution Museum). Photo credit: Cathy Stanton

On a summer 2013 study trip to historic sites in and around Boston hosted by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage in Philadelphia, participants were struck by the wide variety of ways they saw gender and sexuality interpreted–or in some cases, not interpreted at all.  As Cathy Stanton asked in her August 9 History@Work post, “Where is the next generation of gender studies in public history?” and “Is there a new interpretive landscape beginning to take shape now that we’ve made gender a more central part of public historical inquiry?”

In the wake of the trip, staff from the Pew Center–particularly Bill Adair and Laura Koloski –wanted to keep that conversation going.  Together with Cathy Stanton, they reached out to Leslie Guy of the African American Museum in Philadelphia, and to me as a women’s and public historian, and we’ll be hosting that discussion at a session at the upcoming National Council on Public History meeting in Monterey, California. There, we hope to get people talking about a range of issues, not least being, just where is the interpretation of gender and sexuality in 2013/2014? How do we move beyond the “just add women and stir” model of gender interpretation? How do we build on the progress made at a small number of historic sites now interpreting Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, andTransgender (LGBT) history? What is the future of gender and sexuality at historic sites?

But how can we learn more about what’s happening “out there,” at historic sites beyond those in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts best known to the panelists? As a board member of the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites (NCWHS), I wondered what our members would say about these questions–what’s going well, and where are the most tenacious challenges?  What should visitors to historic sites learn about women’s history, and/or specific topics in the history of gender and sexuality?  After a brief (and enthusiastic) discussion with the board, we decided to launch a survey of our NCWHS members, but inviting, too, anyone with an interest in these issues to participate.

The survey we designed is now live (and will be through March 1st), and I invite you to participate. The questionnaire asks about the state of women’s history interpretation, with particular attention to questions about gender and sexuality. There are 12 questions about the topic area (these will ask you to mention historic sites that you find especially effective, so you may want to reflect a bit on the places you find most successful before commencing the survey), with eight quick demographic questions at the end.

Click here to access the survey.

In the end, we would love to learn about programs or sites that have something to teach us all–places that have done a good job handling a tough topic, innovative programs or interpretive strategies, approaches to staff training that make the most of emerging scholarship, or other news that would be of interest to fellow practitioners.  And we would like to learn more about challenges on this front. Is it board resistance?  Staff time?  Funding sources?  Preliminary results suggest that visitor resistance is an issue: what other factors are inhibiting change?

Please consider taking the time to share your experiences and insights.  Results of the survey will be shared in a range of places, including a report from the field in The Public Historian and on the NCWHS website.

~ Marla Miller directs the Public History program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and edits the series Public History in Historical Perspective at the University of Massachusetts Press. She is a member of the board of the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites.

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