Back in the Classroom


Last month, I took a little road trip down to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, to take part in the Maymester program at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU). MTSU has one of the few PhD programs in public history in the US, and Maymester provides a condensed semester (in May) that allows the program to access public history practitioners as teachers, because the abbreviated schedule fits better to real time work commitments elsewhere.

Picture of Susan Ferentinos with students

Students and I during my visit to the MTSU freedom struggles class.

MTSU Professor Louis Kyriakoudes, director of the Albert Gore Research Center, invited me to be a guest lecturer in his graduate Maymester class on “Interpreting, Archiving, and Preserving Freedom Struggles.” I commend Dr. Kyriakoudes, first, for recognizing that LGBTQ political activism falls into a larger historical trajectory of movements in support of expanded civil rights and, second, for organizing such a creative course.

The first few days began with guest lecturer Curtis Austin, author of Up Against a Wall: Violence in the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party, talking to the class about African American freedom struggles. The rest of the first week went to my visit, as I discussed the history of LGBTQ activism with students. The second week involved a field visit to various museums and archives in Atlanta, followed by a week-long digital history project the students were responsible for.

During my visit to the class, I gave the students a quick overview of the history of LGBTQ activism, and argued that scholarly writing on LGBTQ history has followed patterns that are related to various trends in the movement. I also used the recent listing of the House of the Furies on the National Register of Historic Places as a case study. The Furies Collective, which operated in Washington, DC, in the early 1970s, created much of the theory behind lesbian separatism. The historic designation of a property associated with the group marks a new phase in the government’s thinking about historical significance, and I wanted both to make the students aware of this and also to discuss with them the implications of a property associated with such radical ideas entering into a preservation program ran by the federal government.

The MTSU students did not disappoint. I am still coming to terms with how quickly LGBTQ circumstances are changing, and the subsequent ripple effects into the ways we preserve and commemorate the struggles that got us to this historical moment. So, my visit with the MTSU students was much more an exploration than a lecture. I’m happy to say that these future public history practitioners gave me a lot to think about and renewed me with their unique perspectives on the tides of political activism and the importance of the work we do to understand, preserve, and interpret these memories.

Reflecting on the American Alliance of Museums Conference


Image of buttons stating an individual's pronoun preference

Pronoun buttons at AAM, via @exposyourmuseum

In early May, I attended the annual conference of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), serving as one of eleven designated social media journalists for the event. The theme of this year’s gathering was “Gateways for Understanding: Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion,” and the social media journalists were specifically tasked with exploring this theme.

Now, I am no stranger to conferences. I’ve been to scores of them over the course of my career, and in my experience, most annual conferences pay only cursory attention to the conference theme. But this conference was different. From the moment attendees arrived, AAM sent a message of inclusion with signs stating the conference’s open policy on bathroom use (i.e., attendees could choose to use whatever bathrooms best expressed their gender identity, no questions asked) and offering attendees the opportunity to make buttons indicating their preferences for personal pronouns.

I’d estimate that at least half of the sessions and all of the keynote events were focused on Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion, exploring the topic from a range of angles including visitor experiences, community outreach, social justice work, hiring and training, leadership practices, and creating a welcoming work environment. My professional work revolves around diversity and inclusion, and yet I still found plenty of new ideas to ponder, debate, and execute.

Picture of the comment board that appeared at the conference

AAM comment board about the slave auction display, from an article at https://blooloop.com/features/aam-2017-american-museums/

About halfway through the conference, our explorations of Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion veered beyond the established program when controversy erupted over a vendor display in the Expo hall. A company specializing in creating life-like figures for museum exhibitions had brought a depiction of a slave trader and enslaved person at auction to demonstrate the company’s product. Many attendees found it offensive that such an upsetting event would be displayed in a contemporary marketplace, devoid of historical context. A lively discussion erupted throughout the conference and on Twitter (see #aam2017slaveauction). AAM staff contacted the company about attendees’ concerns and soon added a comment panel related to the slave auction display, soliciting reactions from conference attendees.

On the last morning of the conference, concerned attendees convened at the company’s booth to discuss the issue with the company owner. Dina Bailey, CEO of Mountain Top Vision, LLC, stepped in to facilitate a dialogue, which–from my perspective–created a far richer exchange.

I was happy to see a dialogue about the depiction. Hopefully, all sides gained some understanding and empathy through the process, although–judging from the Twitter feed–many were left dissatisfied with the discussion. For me personally, I felt that this issue provided a real-time example of the hard work ahead if we truly hope to build understanding and create a world that honors Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion in deed as well as word.

For those who want to engage further with these issues:

  • Check out the Twitter hashtag #aam2017slaveauction to learn more about various reactions to the display
  • Read Seema Rao’s blog post, “Seven Action Steps Post- #AAM2017SlaveAuction #AAM2017
  • Look through the session recordings and handouts from the conference to find materials on various aspects of the conference theme
  • Read some of Dina Bailey’s writings, which appear in larger volumes that are also relevant to the topic:
    • “The Necessity of Community Involvement: Talking about Slavery in the 21st Century,” (co-written with Richard C. Cooper) in Interpreting Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites, edited by Kristin L. Gallas and James DeWolf Perry (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015)
    • “Finding Inspiration Inside: Engaging Empathy to Empower Anyone,” in Fostering Empathy through Museums, edited by Elif M. Gokcigdem (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016)

American Alliance of Museums Announces Social Media Journalists for MuseumExpo 2017


On Sunday, May 7, 2017, museum professionals from across the country will convene in St. Louis for MuseumExpo, the largest annual gathering of people working across the spectrum of museums (art, history, science, children’s, etc.). The conference is organized by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and offers various tracks to help attendees hone in on the information they most need; evening events provide an array of networking opportunities; and the expo hall offers a mind-boggling array of goods and services for the museum community.

The organization is piloting a new program at this year’s meeting, and has selected eleven people from across the museum profession to serve as social media journalists. I’m excited to announce that I am part of this select group, whose purpose is to build a bridge between conversations taking place at the conference and those tuning in through social media. The AAM social media journalists will also be creating a series of blog posts reflecting on these conversations once the annual meeting has concluded.

Face of the 2017 social media journalists

The theme of the 2017 conference is “Gateways for Understanding: Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion in Museums,” and we social media journalists will each be exploring the ways the theme plays out in the conference presentations and events. We each bring a unique perspective to the task, having worked in a variety of museum positions and representing a range of genders, generations, ethnicities, sexual identities, and interests. For my part, I’ll be paying special attention to the theme’s implications for historical organizations and for LGBTQ and women-focused interpretation and inclusion. I will mostly be reporting via Twitter, with some additional comments via my professional Facebook page and posts on my website blog.

The event runs May 7-10, 2017. You can follow along on social media at #AAM2017 and follow the AAM social media journalists specifically at #AAMSMJ. If you’d like to follow me directly on Twitter, you can do so at @HistorySue (tweeting as myself) and @NCWHS (tweeting items relevant to interpreting women’s history, under the auspices of the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites).

Find out more about the other AAM social media journalists here. And see you in St. Louis!

Upcoming Webinar with the American Association for State and Local History


Rainbow Flag painted on old wood plank background

 

On Thursday, May 4, 2017, at 3:00 pm eastern time, I will be partnering with the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) to offer a ninety-minute webinar on “Interpreting Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History at Museums and Historic Sites.” This workshop will be based on my book by the same name, which was published as part of AASLH’s series “Interpreting History.”

Since it would be difficult to condense the entire book into this format, I will be focusing the webinar on initial interpretive planning, including:

  • Deciding if the time is right for your organization to interpret LGBT history
  • Trust building
  • Approaching the sources
  • Conceptualizing your story

The webinar is $40 for AASLH members; $65 for non-members. It will include a sixty-minute real-time presentation and up to thirty minutes for questions and discussion, along with ongoing access to the webinar recording and a discount for 30 percent off the purchase of my book Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic Sites. Registration remains open until the start of webinar, but registering early will help us plan appropriately.

Making LGBTQ History American History: A Public Conversation on Stonewall National Monument and Beyond


Flyer advertising the event

All the details about this talk.

In 2016, President Barack Obama designated the Stonewall National Monument in New York City to commemorate the 1969 Stonewall Uprising, which sparked the modern LGBTQ rights movement. This month, I will be moderating a public conversation with Joshua Laird and Beth Savage, who in different ways have both contributed to the preservation and recognition of this site as an important part of the history of the United States.

As a National Park Service employee working on the National Register of Historic Places in the 1990s, Beth Savage was involved in the nomination of the Stonewall Inn to the National Register, which made it the first property related to LGBTQ history to receive this federal recognition. Now, nearly twenty years later, the site has become a part of the National Park Service, and Joshua Laird, as Commissioner of the National Parks of New York Harbor, oversees the stewardship of this historic site. During our public discussion, I will be interviewing the speakers about their experiences with this landmark historic site as well as the changes they’ve observed in the public’s understanding of what constitutes the national past. We will then welcome audience members to ask their own questions and participate in the conversation.

The event will be held at 6:00 p.m. on Friday, April 21, 2017 at the Westin Hotel in Indianapolis. The talk is free and open to the public, and will also serve as the plenary event of the National Council on Public History Annual Meeting. If you are unable to make it in person, you can follow along on Twitter at #ncph2017 #plenary.

For more on the designation of Stonewall as a national monument, watch the video below.

 

“Interpreting the Queer Past” at Mathers Museum, March 3


I will be giving a talk entitled “Interpreting the Queer Past” at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures on Friday, March 3, 2017 from 4:30 to 6:00 pm. The Mathers Museum is located in Bloomington, Indiana, my home base, which makes this talk especially exciting for me, since it’s been a number of years since I gave a talk in my own town.

“Interpreting the Queer Past” is aimed primarily at a general audience, with a little content that will be most relevant to other museum professionals. I will offer a snapshot of the various ways museums are introducing LGBTQ stories into their programming, then consider what we can learn from these efforts as museums move forward with this topic. There will be plenty of time for discussion as well.

If you do make it to the talk, please come up afterward and say hello!

 

Poster for the talk

History Exhibit Opens at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater


Picture of exhibit

Exhibit opening at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater in Bloomington, February 3, 2017

Last week, an exhibit I’ve been working on for a number of years opened at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater“A Thing of Beauty and a Joy Forever”: The History of Bloomington’s Community Theater recounts the history of a nearly-century-old venue just off the downtown square in Bloomington, Indiana. Today, the building is known as the Burkirk-Chumley Theater, a six-hundred-seat performing arts venue that has played a significant role in the revitalization of downtown Bloomington over the past fifteen years. Before that, the building housed the Indiana Theatre, an 1,100-seat movie palace built in 1922.

The designer and the researcher in front of an exhibit panel.

Jennifer Hottell (right) and I in front of the opening panel of our exhibit.

 

The roots of the current exhibit go back about ten years, when I conducted preliminary research into the history of the building, which is part of the Bloomington Downtown Square National Register District. From this project came a much more basic exhibit designed to answer some common questions from visitors about the history of the theater, which–after a period of decline–was renovated to reflect its 1930s heyday as part of its conversion into a contemporary performing arts hall.

A few years ago, the theater received funding from Indiana Humanities to conduct further research into two aspects of the Indiana Theatre’s past: the desegregation of the theater in the 1940s and the immigrant history represented by the Indiana Sweet Shop, a candy store housed in one of the building’s storefronts, which operated for over sixty years. The effort involved the expansion of the original history exhibit to include both the new research and more of the original research than made it into the first exhibit.

I was brought on as the project historian, performing documentary research, conducting oral histories, and creating the text for the ultimate exhibit. Jennifer Hottell, a Bloomington-based graphic designer, joined the team to reconceptualize the visual presentation of the information. The final result–incorporating my research, Jenn’s design, and oversight and input from the Buskirk-Chumley’s executive director Danielle McClelland–is a multi-media exploration of this theater, Bloomington history, and the movie palace era in general. It will be on permanent display at the Buskirk-Chumley until the theater’s hundredth anniversary in 2022.

One of the exhibit panels.

The exhibit panel discussing the theater’s desegregation.

The technology panel of the exhibit.

The exhibit panel exploring the changing technology of showing movies.

Year in Review: 2016


As is my habit at the end of the year, I took a few minutes this morning to reflect on the past twelve months–to note the achievements and ponder how to make next year even more productive and full of joy. (Happily, when you love your work, those two goals tend go hand in hand!)

Personally and professionally, for me, 2016 was great. I reached a number of milestones, expanded my client base, and began applying my expertise to a wider range of historical endeavors.

Perhaps the most exciting news of the year was that my book, Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic Sites, won the 2016 book award from the National Council on Public History! It was such an honor. And, coincidentally, for the next few days, the book is on sale at the publisher’s website. You can save 35% by using the code RLWEB3516.

In other publication news, the National Park Service released its LGBTQ Heritage Theme Study, to which I contributed (and about which you can read here). I published a book review (and just submitted another one!) in CHOICE and an exhibit review in The Public Historian. In addition, I published three articles:

This year, I also co-facilitated a learning lab–“LGBTQ for Me and You”–at the PastForward conference, the annual gathering of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Speaking at this conference is by invitation only, so it was an honor to be invited. In addition, this past year I served on the plenary panel of the Hoosier Women at Work conference; presented at the American Association for State and Local History, The Future of History Graduate Education, and the Organization of American Historians conferences; and gave talks at the University of Massachusetts, IUPUI, President Lincoln’s Cottage, and the Van Abbemuseum.

When I wasn’t writing or speaking, I was consulting, and 2016 saw me begin working with a number of new clients. They include:

I look forward to writing more about these projects in the new year! I also did some pro bono consulting with the Congressional Commission on an American Women’s History Museum, which recently submitted its report to Congress and the President of the United States.

Finally, during 2016 I began to stretch myself a bit intellectually. Although much of my work the past few years has focused on women’s history and LGBTQ interpretation in museums, I am in the process of reaching out to encompass other areas of expertise. I served as acting executive director of the National Council on Public History for three months this past summer, and I am currently working on multiple historic preservation projects as well as an article on the history of sexuality more generally (that is, beyond LGBTQ expressions).

What a year! I can’t wait to see what new adventures 2017 brings along.

Special Guests a Priority at Van Abbemuseum


Photo of the Van Abbemseum

The Van Abbemuseum, photo by Maurizio Pesce.

Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking at the Van Abbemuseum, a contemporary art museum in Eindhoven, Netherlands. My talk was part of a larger day-long symposium on “Special Guests,” and the audience was comprised of museum professionals from across the Netherlands and northern Belgium.

Explanation of the “Qwearing the Collection” program at the Van Abbemuseum.

It is fitting that the Van Abbemuseum should be the host for this kind of event, as they have made a consistent effort to welcome a range of visitors, who may or may not experience the museum in the usual ways. I first heard about this museum because of their “Unforgettable Van Abbe” program aimed at people with Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, the facility is equipped with a robot that provides access to the museum for visitors who are homebound.

The museum welcomes others as well. Near the entrance desk, there is a “Toolshop” where visitors can select various means “that offer a new perspective on the exhibition.” Tools include “hearable architecture,” “inhaling art,” and “the collection through kids’ eyes.” Another tool is the Van Abbe’s “Qwearing the Collection” program, where guests are invited to wear clothing that provides a queer interpretation of the art under view, as well as a queer glossary of terms that visitors may not already be familiar with.

I fully embraced “Qwearing the Collection,” because it provides a two-fold glimpse into queer experience. The program most obviously does this by interpreting part of the collection with a queer eye, pointing out the subtle critiques of normative gender roles and sexual expression that might normally escape the average visitor’s notice.

Me, sporting my queer interpretive kimono, Van Abbemuseum

The program also queers the visitor experience by allowing folks to encode themselves in queer and flamboyant ways. Although I don’t normally “read” as LGBTQ to strangers, at the Van Abbemuseum I was able to swish around the collection in a “Qwearing the Collection” kimono and bright yellow scarf. Those who did not know about the program just thought I was odd; those who did know about the program understood that, by wearing these accessories, I was signaling my interest in a queer point of view. This led to numerous conversations with strangers and a special-club nod across a gallery from another visitor wearing this program’s accoutrements. In this way, the “Qwearing the Collection” props mimicked the experience of being part of a semi-secret subculture, where members adjust their appearance in ways that may not be understood by mainstream society, but serves as a signal for others who identity with the same subculture that you are friend, not foe. Brilliant!

My time at the Van Abbe, along with the other innovative museums I visited while in the Netherlands, were a breath of fresh air for me, providing so many new ideas on museum practice. I look forward to pondering my experience further and applying what I learned in the Netherlands to my projects here in the states and elsewhere.

 

Government Report on LGBTQ History


lgbtqcover_sm_3In October, the National Park Service released what may be the first federal report on the history of LGBTQ communities. LGBTQ America: A Theme Study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer America was funded by the Gill Foundation and completed under the auspices of the National Park Foundation. Its purpose is to provide cultural resource managers and historic preservation professionals a framework for understanding this history and guidelines for identifying and preserving historic properties related to these experiences.

I am honored to be a co-author of this groundbreaking work, contributing the chapter on “Interpreting LGBTQ Historic Sites.

The LGBTQ Theme Study is part of a larger park service initiative to “tell all Americans’ stories,” which has involved a variety of efforts to preserve and interpret sites related to underrepresented communities within the U.S. A summary of the agency’s efforts in regard to LGBTQ history is available here.

In addition to the theme study, the park service has also recognized multiple properties related to LGBTQ history, designating them as National Historic Landmarks or adding them to the National Register of Historic Places. The agency is also partnering with HistoryPin to gather crowdsourced information on additional LGBTQ historic sites.

***

The views and conclusions contained in this document are those of the author and should not be interpreted as representing the opinions or policies of the U.S. Government. Mention of trade names or commercial products does not constitute their endorsement by the U. S. Government.

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