Happy 2020. One of my New Years resolutions is more authenticity, which is a fancy way of saying “be up front about my opinions.” I say of this to bring up the moment where authenticity was jeopardized this past week. When the National Archives blurred an image from the 2017 Women’s March on exhibit for the centennial celebration of the 19th amendment ratification, the world of historians collectively lost their minds. Then the National Archives admitted their mistake on Twitter with a response that began “We made a mistake.”
I’m not here to rehash the exact play by play, you can google all of that. This moment, instead, reminded me of what happened over break while visiting the Richard Nixon Presidential Library (an opportunity I got to have thanks to the Georgia Southern Graduate Studies program). While there with my research partner, we listened to a member of the archive staff meet with high schoolers to discuss the crucial role of the National Archives in sustaining historical memory. The Nixon Library is very transparent in Nixon’s own faults and his surveillance in the White House and, credit to them, make the research experience extremely open and helpful for all visitors. You can get on a circa 1990s computer, handle the infamous White House tapes yourself, and listen to them (or just click on the links on the website and use your 2020 technology instead). Accessibility to the history is the goal. Somewhat ironic given that the archives focus is a President who was notoriously secretive.
The archivist continued to emphasize this transparency and all was going well. The students were attentive, nodding along, taking notes. Interested in history. One student eventually asked the question we all ask in our training: “How do archivists decide what to keep, display, or redact?” I think the archivist knew this question was going to come up because he responded first with “There’s no archive police.” A statement that has stuck with me since. There are standard procedures and they send documents to the big office in D.C.; but, in the end, your job is to provide open access to state documents for public consumption as you see fit. It’s a big job, full of regulations.
This is even further complicated when expected to create exhibit spaces for these collections, like the National Archives exhibit on the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment ratification or the exhibit on the White House tapes in the Nixon Library. It was Benedict Anderson who said that museums are an extension of the state’s public education and because of this, so much responsibility is place on curators.
In previous posts, I discussed the importance of new narratives, but I am reminded that all narratives need to be upfront with their biases and be open to critique. The same is true for museum narratives. As I continue this semester, I am taking a Museum Studies course and am lucky enough to go to a conference on museums (more to come on that later) where I’ll learn invaluable skills to carry with me. So a 2020 resolution on authenticity? This developing story adds another layer- not just authenticity in my opinions but in the work I do and in the narratives I tell.