The Necessity of Historical Thinking in Museums

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By Elisabeth Tower

Museums today acknowledge that their visitors are learner communities and that those learner communities bring with them knowledge and authority about the past.  This may take the form of personal memory, family heritage, past learning or experiences.  Further, learner communities may have their own evidence about the past and may bring different lenses to the interpretation of that evidence.  The struggle for museums has not been to acknowledge that this authority about the past exists within its learner communities.  Rather, the challenge lies first with getting learners themselves to acknowledge and assert their own authority in or with the museum, and second for the museum and learner to navigate these shared authorities between and amongst them.

Museums hold an enviable position in the public eye of being one of the most trusted sources of information about the past.  Do we betray that trust by continuing a pattern that allows learners to believe that there is only one true account of the past, held by the museum?  Too often, a museum learner, upon hearing conflicting accounts of the past, will turn to me, as a representative of the museum’s authority, and ask, “but how did it actually happen?”  For a long time, museums have cherished this role and preserved their ‘expert mystique’, but this leaves interactions with learners shallow and often defeats the museum’s learning goals.  Museums become overshadowed by other leisure pursuits or resented as dogmatic.  Museum displays become read as gospels rather than as secondary sources and learners are left feeling irrelevant in the process.

If learners aren’t looking for me to tell them the “real truth” about a historical event, they are often challenging me with their own account, therefore assuming that the interpretation presented by the museum must be false.  I see this as a bit of a welcome backlash to the above case.  In this example, learners have discovered, acknowledged and valued their own knowledge but they are still conflating ‘history’ with ‘the past’ and ‘event’ with ‘account’.  Learners are struggling to negotiate what they see as conflicting truths. Often I encounter these conflicts when someone has a memory that doesn’t align with something presented in the exhibition at the museum.  This is not to say that museums are infallible and never make mistakes, but rather to say that often there are explanations for why the accounts of the past seem to be in conflict that do not necessarily equate to one of them being wrong.  In this case, the opportunity for dialogue and learning experiences exist, but the barrier of conflict is a difficult one to overcome.

Both interpreter and learner are left in an awkward relationship of either unhealthy codependence or hostile conflict and where the key area of conversation centres on authority dynamics and not the process of history.  These interactions have left history museums stagnating while their counterparts in science and natural history have become more successful.

What is needed to bridge the authorities is a shared language: one both participants in a conversation can use to negotiate what is being discussed and to make appropriate arguments and comparisons; one that values both contributions and provides a structure for conversation.  In this scenario the conversation can be rich enough as to allow new learning to emerge (both for museum and learner).

Historical Thinking provides this shared language and structure.  It gives learners tools to unpack the difference between the past and an account and allows them to work together, with the museum, to create and reconcile accounts by following and examining the six concepts laid out by the Historical Thinking Project.  Fundamentally what this does is allows learners to join the museum in meaning making about the past and allows learners to engage with the doing of history.

There are many ways that museums can begin to incorporate Historical Thinking:

  • In existing exhibitions, a non-invasive (and very inexpensive) way of introducing Historical Thinking includes creating and distributing booklets that visitors can use to self-guide through the exhibition to help them read the exhibition as a secondary source.
  • A slightly more costly way to integrate Historical Thinking into existing exhibitions is to create sub-layers of interpretive text that include ongoing Historical Thinking questions.
  • Augmented reality also affords opportunities to layer Historical Thinking questions or examples right over existing exhibitions.  This can even include additional documentary or oral evidence or other accounts for negotiation and discussion.
  • Historical Thinking tours can be designed to teach learners about how to read and question the exhibition as well as to explain to learners the behind the scenes process of creating an exhibition.  A description of one such example can be found here.
  • Historical Thinking concepts can be used as a foundational interpretive strategy when designing exhibitions.  One example would be to include conflicting accounts with tools to negotiate it right in the exhibition or to provide many layers of evidence and ask learners to construct their own facilitated accounts.  Another example would be to construct an exhibition in the model of the Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History using Historical Thinking.
  • Historical Thinking can form the basis of programming – for example junior historians clubs or special achievements that can be earned and rewarded when visiting museums.
  • Using participatory museum methods that encourages learners to use museums in non-traditional ways and encourages them to be a part of the museum rather than apart from it.  More on participatory museums can be found here.  Participatory methods work to not only facilitate conversations between the museum and the learner, but also between learners.

The possibilities are endless for incorporating historical literacies, historical consciousness and Historical Thinking in museums.  More importantly, this incorporation is necessary in order for museums to meet their learning mandates and in order for history museums to intrigue and catch the interest of their learners.  Museums can position themselves as leaders in inquiry-based humanities education that fosters critical thought and is of value to learners across disciplines and contexts.

Elisabeth Tower is the Education Manager at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.

This week ActiveHistory.ca is running a series of 11 essays marking the end of the Historical Thinking Project. Click here to see a list of all the papers published during this theme week.

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