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Social History in Museums: A Handbook for Professionals.

This is an excellent collection of essays that addresses both the theory and th practice of social history in museums. Written by British museum professionals skilled in social history, this volume contains ideas and information that can be applied to American history museums. Indeed, such a complete work has yet to appear among titles relevant to American institutions. The most reflective work to date, History Museum in the United States: A Critical Assessment, appeared i 1989 and contains essays by the handful of well-known supporters of the field.(1) The paucity of collected works by practitioners of social history in American museums says much about the present state of social history in our museums. American history museum professionals and social historians who intend to work in museums can learn much from our British colleagues.

Arranged in five sections, this handbook explores the intellectual framework of social history and its application to history museums. Ideas generated in the opening section infuse later analyses of the study of objects, including methodology, practice, and interpretation, and provide insight into how materia culture relates to the larger historical questions that interest social historians. Concise chapters give sensible advice, cover ethical issues important to the profession, and raise interesting questions about the practice of social history in museums. Bibliographies at the end of each chapter direct the reader to additional sources. This volume would be an excellent text for th growing number of increasingly sophisticated museum studies programs in America universities. Moreover, it could serve as a primer for history museum professionals who have not had the kind of training or experience represented b the authors here.

The essays argue that social history provides a meaningful intellectual framework for museum work, but caution that it should be applied in a broad form. Trite phrases such as "history from the bottom up" or "history of ordinar people" fail to capture the interpretive subtleties available through social history which can enliven historical inquiry in museums. Attempts to limit social history to the study of domestic life threaten to return museums to the "pots and pans" history that emerged during the Colonial Revival. Unfortunately too many American history museums continue to reflect this perception of America's heritage in their collecting practices and exhibit interpretations. Domestic life can be a useful, and popular, conceptual framework for understanding any given period. Social history allows museums to broaden their interpretations of their collections to include family relations, gender roles, aging patterns, kinship networks, and community relationships. A richer and mor complex view of the past emerges with social history and the professionals contributing to this book recognize this.

Museums are collecting institutions and the majority of this handbook focuses o this central function. Among the critical assessments offered about the state o museums today is one from Mark Suggitt, Assistant Director for Curatorial Affairs of the Yorkshire and Humberside Museums Council: "Museums were too object centred, too keen to build up big collections as a form of museological machismo, while lacking the staff and the will to document them properly." (30) Suggitt has acknowledged the decaying condition of collections in historical museums throughout the world. Museums are full of stuff. The problems are legion: staff does not know what comprises their collections; object records ar inadequate or missing; and often the staff has limited expertise to analyze and discuss objects in historical context. Collections documentation would address these shortcomings, but this time-consuming work is costly and attracts only meager funding from the public or government.

Nonetheless, documentation forges the relationship between objects and historical context. Context moves objects beyond curiosities, their nineteenth-century museum term, and into modern nomenclature. Objects--or material culture, the inclusive term now popular--are visual representations of the past, but must be viewed within a framework that explains and does not just exhibit. John Rhodes argues that interrogation of objects integrates "form, function, and meaning." (101) For him museum work is object-centered and object-driven. This protocol differentiates the social historian in the museum from the social historian in the academy.

Stuart Davies establishes this dichotomy in the book's first chapter and the topic reemerges in other essays. For Davies and others, museums are not researc institutions and are exempted from "the frontiers of knowledge." (9) This suggests that to a certain degree real research exists outside the domain of th museum and rightly sits in academia. Conventional as this idea may be, reasons for encouraging research within the museum exist. Research generated internally helps formulate and direct the intellectual mission of the institution. Traditionally museums state their mission as one to collect, preserve, interpret, and educate. Unfortunately this credo lacks an analysis of the museum's intellectual framework. A more sophisticated understanding can emerge from internally generated research. Furthermore, questions posed and research conducted by outside scholars do not become fully integrated into the museum's collections. To an important degree, the museum staff remains aloof from the process. Thomas Schlereth, one of America's foremost scholars of material culture and museums, has suggested that academic historians should become curators rather than the usual pattern of curators trained incidently in history.

Certain themes and problems common to all museums emerge from these essays. For example, the fascination of local, regional, or national history museums with the heroic image transcends boundaries. John Bodnar exposed this figure to American audiences in Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century as he discussed the preservation of America's past.(2) Among museums in all countries is the growing trend toward history as a product and museums as a tourist attraction. The Disney World syndrome has touched museums world wide.

The essays here provide a thoughtful and lively exchange about social history and social history museums. Britain's tradition of active dialogue about histor and its application is evident in the numerous organizations and publications providing effective and constructive forums. American museum organizations in large measure continue to discuss museum management rather than the substance o how to do history in the museum setting. Increasingly American academic historians have developed contact with history museums and reviews of museum exhibitions now appear in prominent academic journals. The field continues to press for a stronger relationship between social historians and social history museums.

Marilyn Zoidis Carnegie Mellon University


1. Warren Leon and Roy Rosenzweig, eds. History Museums in the United States: A Critical Assessment (Urbana, 1989).

2. John Bodnar, Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century (Princeton, 1992).
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Author:Zoidis, Marilyn
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1994
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