Interpreting Gender and Sexuality at Historic Sites

By November 9, 2017 No Comments

This article is the first of a series reporting on the survey NCWHS conducted in Spring 2014 on “Interpreting Gender and Sexuality at Historic Sites.” Prompted by the events described below, the survey also probed some other themes in and around the interpretation of women’s history, which we will report in future posts. Here, NCWHS boardmembe rMarla Miller starts the ball rolling by sharing an expanded version of her remarks at the recent NCPH meeting in Monterey, California.

participants viewing photo at workshop

Participants brainstormed over the gender implications of a series of images of historic sites

In March 2014, I had the pleasure of participating in a session at the annual meeting of the National Council on Public History called “Gender: Just Add Women and Stir?” with Bill Adair and Laura Koloski , both of the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, Leslie Guy from the African American Museum in Philadelphia; and Cathy Stanton, a public historian whose many hats include professor at Tufts University and chair of the NCPH’s Digital Media Group.

The session emerged from a 2013 study trip to historic sites in and around Boston hosted by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage in which participants, which included Cathy Stanton, were (as the session proposal indicated “struck by the wide variety of ways they saw gender and sexuality interpreted—or in some cases, not interpreted at all.” The session would pursue some of the questions prompted by the trip, including “Where is the interpretation of gender and sexuality in 2013/2014? How do we move beyond the ‘just add women and stir’ model of gender interpretation? How do we build on the progress made at a small number of historic sites now interpreting LGBT history? What are your questions? Join us for a spirited conversation about the future of gender and sexuality at historic sites.”


The group invited me to join their session, to talk about the wider world at the intersection of women’s history and public history, a world I inhabit a good bit, since my own scholarly interest tend to converge around women’s history topic, and as director of a public history program I have a fair opportunity to observe the state of the field.  But I didn’t want my own anecdotal sense of things to drive the session; instead, I wondered how we could get a sense of “what’s going on out there.”  With the help of colleagues here at NCWHS, and Kathy Franz and Lauren Duval, with whom I’m writing a short essay we created a fairly brief survey (which, I hasten to add, was by no means scientific) that aimed to get a sense of what’s happening out there.  The survey, which we publicized through the NCWHS membership list, Twitter and Facebook, included a dozen questions. We asked about the degree to which respondents saw certain themes adequately treated across the general landscape of museum and historic site interpretation; the challenges to incorporating new insights and evolving approaches into on-the-ground museum installations and programs; and the developments in the scholarship of women’s history most important to public historians. We also asked some questions about the places where public historians and those based in colleges and universities most fruitfully exchange perspectives, and where respondents are turning to keep abreast of new work in the field.

To give a sense of the results overall:

  • We had 143 responses.
  • Just over half of the participants who reported their position were staff or volunteers of a museum or historic site; 11.5% were college or university faculty, and the remainder retired, contractors, independent consultants, etc.
  • Of the participants who identified themselves as staff of a museum or a historic site, a slight majority (39%) worked in interpretation, with the rest fairly evenly divided between curatorial or education (25%) and archives (17%) (and a handful – 6% — in administration).
  • Most were from the west (30%), New England (28%) or the Mid Atlantic (20%).

The full results of the survey will be reported in the forthcoming article; here I’d just like to share some of the data most relevant to our conference session.

participants in conversationOne of the questions we asked concerned “the degree to which certain themes in women’s history have gained traction across historic sites writ large.” To the one most relevant here, “Gender and the Body (including sexuality, reproduction, contraception, etc.),” no respondent checked “Well represented; I often find information on this subject at sites where I would expect to find it.”  Only six marked “Sometimes represented; treatment seems spotty.”  Just over 35% said “Under-represented; this is a subject more sites should address.”  And just under 56% said “Nearly absent;  I rarely find information on this subject at sites where I would expect to find it.”

One long-ish comment that I found particularly valuable in marking the degree to which museums struggle with these issues (and of course the survey was anonymous, so I can’t supply an attribution for these insightful remarks) observed “I’m surprised how absent this topic is from national museum rhetoric, especially when there’s so clearly a strong current of ignorance displayed by our very leaders The International Museum of Surgical Science History in Chicago is a fabulous museum, where we saw a 19th century recreation of a leg amputation, artifacts, and artwork about the human body. However, the female anatomy was completely absent. I left wondering ‘what was childbirth like in the past?’ ‘How did women handle their periods?’ In a place that deals with blood and organs so vociferously, you’d expect them to not shy away from such questions.”

More than one respondent pointed to the excellent recent article by Susan Ferentinos and Ken Turino in the Fall 2012 History News, “Entering the Mainstream: Interpreting GLBT History” (cited with other useful literature in a bibliography posted by the New England Museum Association, available here) which explores something more pernicious: policies that expressly prohibit the interpretation of sexuality at historic sites. The authors cite Pendarvis, operated by the Wisconsin Historical Society – a collection of nineteenth-century buildings that immigrant miners had constructed in the community of Mineral Point.  “The site has an unofficial ‘If Asked, Will Tell Policy,’” the authors noted, “and makes no attempt to conceal the fact that the men lived together for over forty years and were partners in every sense of the word.” The site reports that “the men’s sexuality is not a separate theme or topic of the site’s interpretation, but if someone asks it is important to ‘give them an honest answer.’  The article notes other places, too, that will field questions about sexual orientation, but won’t raise them.

In our survey, we tried to break the topic of sexuality down into subcategories, to get a sense of what feels “safe” to most site, and where the silences are.    Looking specifically at pregnancy/childbirth/midwifery; birth control; transgender/cross-dressing/gender passing; same sex love and affection; and crime and illegal activities, we asked which of these topics were currently interpreted at the respondents’ sites. Unsurprisingly, pregnancy, childbirth and midwifery had the largest response, and birth control the smallest, though none of these topics (except for pregnancy) had as many as 5 responses.  We also asked whether these topics could and should be interpreted at these sites. Again, perhaps to no surprise, the biggest gap here was on the topic of birth control.

We also asked about barriers to change, as well as “potentially controversial subjects.”  Responses here seem to suggest that the biggest issues include the limited time staff have to research these stories (which suggest an area of fruitful collaboration between sites and nearby colleges and universities). Adding women here and stirring,” one respondent confessed; “we tell stories of women but lack sufficient expertise to explore the gender- and policy implications of those women’s stories.”

Second, respondents felt resistance not so much from visitors (though there was some of that) or board members, but docents.Internal resistance can be particularly strong, it seems, around reproductive rights, suggesting that the national tension over this important subject is playing out in microcosm.  In our conference session, this point led to a lively conversation about the need for thorough and thoughtful docent training when sensitive subjects (of any kind) are concerned; front line interpreters need to be fully prepared when leadership wants to introduce challenging themes into the interpretive mix, and there can be no shortcuts if an institution really wants to see success.

On the subjects of Transgender, Same-Sex love, and Crime/Illegal activities, respondents reported grappling with the lack of evidence they felt they needed to ground interpretation, or noted that though stories in and around these themes might be present at their sites, they are not central to the site’s interpretive mission.  One response observed that,  “While not part of my specific site, there is a complete lack of representation of same-sex love and affection throughout the park service.”

Book jacket, Sex Among the RabbleWe also wanted to get a sense of how sites were dealing with the big, collective epiphanies that have reshaped women’s history as a field, asking “What, in your opinion, are the most important developments or themes in the historiography of women’s history in the past ten years? [a big and thorny question, yes; we are hoping here to identify the key insights or advances that strike you as most important — the concepts, questions and insights that are most essential to understanding the field.]”  Here, the most common answers (again, given a small and unscientific sample) included “Intersectionality” — that is, the idea “that women (or anyone) have multiple axes of identity at any one time, that centering women’s experience changes other categories of analysis — labor, for example, or politics, or even periodization” as well as “intersections between gender ideals and sexuality on the one hand, and concepts of citizenship on the other” (citing work by Clare Lyons and Margot Canaday).  The expansion of interest in material culture got mentioned here, as did the importance of “Transnational feminism [that is, the]impact of women migrating all over the globe, importance of theories of sexual performance and diverse sexual identities in challenging definitions of male and female, sexual norms, marriage, etc.”

Given the session’s interest in gender, we also asked about focus on gender history v. women’s history. Here, respondents demonstrated that conversations on this front are by no means over:  Certainly one of the most important developments in the recent historiography of women’s history has been the use of gender–in conjunction with race and class–as a category of analysis,” one response said;  “Museums and historic sites offer an excellent opportunity to integrate these new ways of thinking about historical developments with information about the actual lived experiences of women in the past.” Another wrote “Women’s history is not a separate subject of study. I hate the term women’s history. It shouldn’t exist. Most young historians don’t use it, they just do it. Museums should be doing the same.” Still another said “[I] am quite concerned when I see gender history used to teach masculinity and to avoid women’s history– ouch! Am delighted to see more use of tangible resources to research women’s history.”

We also wanted to know “Where are the places (literal and virtual) where historians based in the academy and those based in historic sites most fruitfully exchange information? What conferences, publications or other venues have been most productive or seem most promising for this conversation?”

Here, the main theme was one of disconnect.  H-women got several shout-outs, though in the main, people felt that the conversation between university and college-based historians and public historians in the field had stalled. “This is a tough one,” one respondent wrote, “although I think there is huge potential for all of us interested in women’s history to be leaders in showing the importance of interchange between academic and public historians / historic sites. For me, the NCPH (National Council on Public History) has been absolutely critical in making these connections, both the conference and History at Work blog (less so The Public Historian only because I don’t keep up as well as I should with any journal).” This same respondent added that “Unfortunately, it seems to me the Berks and other women’s history venues are not as open to thinking about place and interpretation but I hope that is changing. . .  I have been thinking a lot about this question myself and whether it will be better (strategically? intellectually?) to create new organizations / venues or try to infuse existing ones with more cross-pollination. Perhaps a combination, and continuing to raise the profile of the NCWHS.” “That’s the problem,” claimed another; “there aren’t those exchanges very often. I hope your project can jump start the discussion of creating more.” “I still see house museums as an incredible untapped resource for serious women’s history and social history,” another added, “And this needs to happen in all house museums, not just those mentioned here that celebrate women.” The most pessimistic reply came from the respondent who said “ Honestly, I haven’t “exchanged information” with the academy since grad school. I believe that in order for the academy and public historians (especially at small sites like mine) to better open up a conversation the academy needs to come down to our level more.”

Lastly, we wanted to know how people were keeping abreast of new developments in the field, and in scholarship in particular.  Was social media making a difference?  Not to our participants.  The only source of information deemed “essential” by a majority of respondents was “academic monographs.” Professional journals remain “very important” – as do public talks.  All of the professional organizations we mentioned were found to be “somewhat important” by most respondents, with two exceptions: the Berkshire Conference, and National Association of Interpreters.  Blogs and websites also came out in the muddy middle.

In response to the query “Which social media outlets are most important to keeping current your knowledge of the field?,” oddly enough (since the survey was mainly advertised via social media), all five of the venues we asked people to comment on  (Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Linked-In and Pinterest) were deemed “not important” by the small number of people (38) who even replied to this question.  Some 10% found Facebook “essential” and 2 said that of Twitter (had I answered the survey myself, my additional vote here for Twitter – which I do find to be essential in my own work, as @MarlaatUMass) — would have raised number to 3).

Where does this all leave us?  At the moment, to no one’s surprise, we can see that there is work to be done in expanding the ways historic sites engage subjects of gender and sexuality.   We can also see that the silo that separates historians based in the academy from their partners in museums and historic sites need to be dismantled; there simply must be more and more genuine exchanges between professionals engaged in these issues if we’re to see a difference in the way everyday audiences experience historic sites.  These are important subjects, ones we hope that NCPH and NCWHS will continue to take up in the coming year.