National Council on Public History Conference and Nashville Museums

Last week, I attended the Annual Meeting of the National Council on Public History in Nashville, Tennessee. It was a great experience – probably my favorite conference I have attended thus far. I met a lot of friendly people who are extremely excited about the work that they do in the world of public history, and I also got to reconnect with old friends and my M.A. advisor. I attended sessions on inclusivity in the National Park Service, religion at historic sites and museums, doing public history at academic institutions, defining success in public history degree programs, and women’s history in museums. The NCPH conference also offered great resources for those just starting out or new to the field – I was quite impressed. I participated in a resume workshop, went to “Speed Networking,” and attended a session on how to get a job in public history. Hopefully I will soon be able to put all I learned into action. The conference really reminded me how much I love sharing history with the public and making it relevant in the community.

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Strip of honky tonks and bars along Broadway, with Tootsies Orchid Lounge on the left, Nashville, Tennessee.

Towards the end of the conference, Mike drove over, and we went together to several local museums: the Tennessee State Museum and the Johnny Cash Museum. The Tennessee State Museum is free, and I was amazed once I started going through it at how much we were getting for the $0 admission price. It is enormous – the galleries just go on and on. The early parts of the exhibit, discussing Native Americans who lived in what is now Tennessee, are unfortunately very dated in design and content. Women are barely present in the narrative, although they appear in paintings illustrating the exhibit. Unfortunately, I would imagine that funding for updates is tight or nonexistent.

In the sections discussing later Tennessee history (primarily the nineteenth century), the creators of the exhibits do a very good job incorporating the experiences of women, minorities, and ordinary people into the overall narrative, although prominent white men still remain dominant. I felt a bit dismayed to see a huge exhibit case with multiple panels and artifacts devoted to Nathan Bedford Forrest, although the text does acknowledge his close connection to the Ku Klux Klan. Elsewhere in the museum, the exhibit includes artifacts from the Ku Klux Klan, displayed in a way that demonstrates sensitivity to their abhorrent history. They still made both Mike and I uncomfortable (as they should) and instigated a spirited debate between us about what one should do with objects associated with something so repellent – should they be displayed in a museum or excluded as a statement against their dark past? I defended the museum’s exhibition of them because I believe that it is important to know about even the most unsavory aspects of humanity’s past, not just to keep them from happening again (which is the cliché), but also to inform our understanding of our present-day world. I also think that it is authentic evidence like a Ku Klux Klan robe that will prove that such groups did exist and did commit atrocities, if such a fact ever comes into question. I certainly hope that it does not, but people have come up with challenges to all kinds of factual historical events, the moon landing being one of the most well-known.

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Johnny Cash custom Gibson J-200 acoustic guitar, displayed at The Johnny Cash Museum, Nashville, Tennessee.

Mike and I both enjoyed The Johnny Cash Museum immensely. It is a small museum that has only been open for about two years. Although I am no expert on Johnny Cash, the museum appears to do a very good job of telling his story through text, images, artifacts, and (of course) music. Early on in the exhibit, I was a bit worried that it would not do justice to the major role that faith and religion played in Cash’s life. (I had just attended the NCPH panel about how museums are often reluctant to discuss religion for fear of offending people.) But I was pleasantly surprised to find several mentions of religion in the exhibit and an entire panel and exhibit case at the end discussing Johnny Cash as a man of faith. Before touring, I was also very curious as to how the museum would deal with Cash’s drug addiction. Although the exhibit does mention it, I do think its creators could have delved into the issue and its effects on Cash’s life and relationships a bit more. I was not surprised that it is rather glossed over, given that the museum is devoted to celebrating Johnny Cash, but I think that presenting more about it would deepen the intensity of the portrait that The Johnny Cash Museum paints.

Overall, it was a great long weekend in Nashville. Sometimes I feel isolated as I am writing my dissertation and teaching online, so it was wonderful to meet so many enthusiastic and like-minded people at NCPH, as well as to wander around in a couple of new museums. I hope that this will be the first of many NCPH conferences I attend.

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