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Examining History: My Winter Term Project

January 31, 2020

Why do history museums exist? What power do they hold as cultural institutions and ‘gatekeepers’ of the past? How can museums show historically marginalized groups’ histories, and who should this history be for? These questions, among others, were central in my first-ever Winter Term project, which dealt with the ways in which museums frame and interpret history. We had readings and in-class discussions to prepare for visits to different museums near Oberlin, and our final project was to put our observations into practice by designing a panel and display case for a famous woman alumna! Here are some of the awesome museums we visited and a bit about the work we did in the archives: 

Oberlin Heritage Center (Oberlin, OH): 

 I hadn’t yet had a chance to visit the OHC before this trip, so I was very excited! We went on a tour of the beautiful main house, called the Monroe House after one of the owners, James Monroe, and went on a behind-the-scenes look at the archives and collections area. I especially liked how the staff was trying to connect the specific history of the house to Oberlin’s broader abolitionist past and focus on more obscure or marginalized histories. For example, when we visited the preserved schoolhouse, the tour guide talked about Magru, an African girl who was enslaved on the famous Amistad (on which the African slaves rebelled and seized the ship from their captors) and who lived and learned in Oberlin for three years. 

A photo of the three buildings the OHC owns [taken from their website, http://www.oberlinheritagecenter.org/visit/tour].
A photo of the three buildings the OHC owns [taken from their website].

 

Rutherford B. Hayes Museum and Presidential Library (Fremont, OH):

A photo of the bronze-colored bust of Hayes in the room that was the original museum.
A bust of Hayes in the room that
was the original museum.

This was an interesting museum because it has a tension between being a ‘shrine’ to Hayes (the 19th U.S. president who is best known for ‘selling out’ Reconstruction) and wanting to promote more unknown narratives. The original museum really does look like a shrine to Hayes, which makes sense considering that his son was the one who started the museum as a way to cement his father’s legacy as a great leader. But the museum is also doing much more to bring in previously neglected stories, such as those of Hayes’s formerly enslaved African American servants or his wife, which I really appreciated. 

 

Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History (Detroit, MI):

A photo of a text panel in the Wright Museum, reading "We Will Make Away! Topics to be addressed: Resistance & Rebellion, Underground Railroad, Abolition!"
A text panel in the Wright Museum about
African American resistance to slavery.

This was probably the biggest museum we visited: it took about 2 hours to go through the main exhibit, which was a complete history of African Americans, starting at different tribes in Africa and ending with modern communities in Detroit. Given the sheer amount of history the museum covered, they did a very thorough job and definitely created a sense of African American progress in the U.S. and Detroit over time. However, I thought that the Wright Museum could have talked much more about ongoing issues that African Americans continue to face, such as systemic racism, rather than just focusing on the progress that has been made since slavery. Discussing the perseverance and agency of African Americans throughout history and against modern racial injustice, especially in Detroit, could have been a more powerful way to end the main exhibit. 

Kent State May 4 Visitors Center and Memorial (Kent, OH): 

A photo of the Ohio historical marker for Kent State.
The Ohio historical marker for Kent State.

Despite being very small, this was a fantastic museum about the May 4 shootings at Kent State, during which the National Guard shot and wounded or killed students protesting President Nixon's Cambodia Campaign. The museum designers, some of whom are student survivors and witnesses of the May 4 event, really tried to bring in multiple perspectives of this still controversial event. For example, in addition to commemorating the four students killed on May 4, the exhibit also used quotes from those who defended the National Guard’s actions, meaning that visitors could interpret the exhibit in a balanced way. This is important, especially because, within the Kent community, the events of May 4 are still emotional and heavily contested, so the museum didn’t want to be seen as forcing visitors to accept a certain narrative. Being on the actual site of the May 4 shootings also gave the Visitors Center a power of place that really added to the sense of this event’s relevance today. Overall, this was probably my favorite museum that we visited!

Final Project: 

A black-and-white photo of Ruth A. Parmelee, the Oberlin alumna on whom my group chose to focus.
Ruth A. Parmelee, the Oberlin
alumna on whom my group
chose to focus.

For our final project, we took everything we learned from visiting these wonderful museums and designed a display case and a text panel for one famous woman alumna, which will be part of an upcoming exhibit in Mudd (Oberlin’s main library). I got to use the Oberlin College Archives for the first time to find materials to display and it was so cool to be able to page through all those really old papers! My group’s alumna was Ruth A. Parmelee, who was a doctor in Turkey and Greece during the First and Second World Wars. Ruth helped thousands of refugees and provided first-hand accounts of the Armenian Genocide (which, like the Kent State shooting, is still emotional and controversial today), but she was also worked under Christian missionaries, which often promoted Western imperialism in places like the Middle East. 

A photo of my group's display case in the Oberlin College Archives
My group's display case in the Oberlin College Archives. 

It was definitely a challenge to discuss Ruth’s accomplishments and her sometimes questionable beliefs together, but visiting the museums above and seeing how they dealt with controversial history helped a lot. Altogether, I loved doing this Winter Term project and I will definitely never look at history museums the same way again!

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