Jody Shipka proposes that the current way of teaching composition, with its formulaic style and rules to be followed, disguise the process of writing and is rarely useful outside the academy. She envisions compositions that are not limited to texts, but incorporate other semiotic devices, and allow the composer to point up and closely examine the processes that affected how the composition was created. After reading Towards a Composition Made Whole , I was struck by that parallels between what is considered rigorous in traditional composition classes is similar to the formulas museum professionals use to create museum exhibits.1)Shipka, Jody. Toward a Composition Made Whole. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011.
This assignment presumes that the goal of the public history student/professional is to challenge “master narratives,” many of which were created in the 19th century literary imagination and therefore were created most often by white propertied men, or the women who benefited from those men. Racial minorities, poorer women, and the illiterate were left out. What can we do with material culture to challenge museum-goers armed with understandings handed down from master narratives?
As Julia King points out in Archaeology, Narrative, and the Politics of the Past: The View from Southern Maryland, the presence of material culture items vs. the ordinary texts academic historians have long used is not a magical solution that will call up a documentable “truth.” Instead, even archaeologists and museum professionals are enthralled by master narratives, and often just prop them up with material culture objects.2)King, Julia A. Archaeology, Narrative, and the Politics of the Past The View from Southern Maryland. Chicago: University of Tennessee Press, 2012. This problematizes Shipka’s notion that by simply adding semiotic devices beyond mere text necessarily makes a composition more whole. In fact, it the case of museums, material objects can add an air of legitimacy to an accepted narrative that is not nearly as simple as it seems.
Roy Rosensweig and David Thelen found in The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life that museums are the most trusted way for Americans to find out about their history.3)Rosenzweig, Roy, and David P. Thelen. The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998. Part of this stems from an Enlightenment notion that objects represent a truth that can be revealed with sufficient examination and categorization.4)Conn, Steven. Museums and American Intellectual Life, 1876-1926. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. But part of it has to do with people feeling a personal connection with the objects themselves and their own family stories. Much of this connected feeling stems from the fact that the master narratives against which many have constructed their family identities (think enterprising and tough pioneers coming to this country for religious freedom or economic opportunity) are rarely challenged in museum exhibits.
In fact, as Robert Post points out in Who Owns America’s Past?: the Smithsonian and the Problem of History museums, specifically the National Museum of American History, have been under increasing pressure to toe a political line that seeks to further ensconce the master narratives into the American historical consciousness.5)Post, Robert C. Who Owns America’s Past?: The Smithsonian and the Problem of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. And smaller museums, desperate for funding and visitorship also lean toward safe, familiar themes in their exhibits.
The assignment is this: choose five to ten objects around which to create a museum exhibit that attempts to upend a master narrative. The objects do not necessarily have to be unusual or unique, or to have belonged to a famous figure. Contemporary museums are using everyday consumer objects in their exhibits, and you can too. Digital objects are also objects and can be used as well. Long texts should be avoided, as museum visitors rarely read long descriptions. You will be expected to present your project to the class. Also, write a 1500-word essay addressing the following questions: How does your exhibit challenge a master narrative? What are the difficulties in attempting to challenge the assumptions of museum guests and/or other museum professionals? Was altering the narrative difficult for you personally? How would your chosen retelling affect funding? Whose story gets told in your version and whose is subsumed?
Whitney Plantation is an example of a public history site which upends the expected narrative.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||Shipka, Jody. Toward a Composition Made Whole. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011.|
|2.||↑||King, Julia A. Archaeology, Narrative, and the Politics of the Past The View from Southern Maryland. Chicago: University of Tennessee Press, 2012.|
|3.||↑||Rosenzweig, Roy, and David P. Thelen. The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.|
|4.||↑||Conn, Steven. Museums and American Intellectual Life, 1876-1926. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.|
|5.||↑||Post, Robert C. Who Owns America’s Past?: The Smithsonian and the Problem of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.|