“History doesn’t change”

Recently I went down to south-west Florida to visit my grandfather, who lives in one of the many retirement communities in the area. He said “We’ll do whatever you want,” and I said “Hey, let’s check out the local history museum.” My grandfather admitted he’d never been, despite having been in the area for over a decade, and away we went. It was a very nice County Museum, with a small static exhibit in the administrative building and a nice collection of pieces and small buildings in the outdoor area/garden.

We went to leave, and said we would be back. The woman who was working the desk at reception/gift shop area said “Well, everything here will be the same – history doesn’t change!”

I just nodded, but her statement bothered me. True, the actual facts of history are, at this point, static. What happened does not change. Our understanding of it, on the other hand, does. Their exhibits included topics such as the Seminole, slavery and escaped slaves, and the logging of the cypress forests. How those topics are presented today are not necessarily how we would present them 15 or 30 years ago; who knows how we will interpret them 15 years from now? Scholarship certainly changes. Public history changes, too.

I know that this is a small county museum, which is part of four museum sites operated by the county museum administration. They don’t have a large staff, their budget is definitely small. They may have limited opportunities to change their exhibits, even if their administrators (whoever they may be) wanted to do so. To me, however, saying “History doesn’t change” is to say “this place is static, only worth seeing once, because it and history are only worth a single walk through.” Museums and history deserve second looks, because you never know what you might discover that you missed before.

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2 comments

  1. I feel guilty that my initial reaction to this is that it is hilarious. Small museums are well known for (even identified by) their aging exhibits, and I myself can imagine myself making such a comment if I was having a particularly bad day.

    Good comments though — I really like your quickie summary of all the implications of such a statement.

    I like to imagine that her seemingly tossed-out, pithy comment is intentionally designed to provoke exactly the kind of reaction you’ve had. I think she’s a genius. Or an idiot. Hard to say.

    1. Thanks. I think it’s possible her statement was more commentary to an (apparently) unsuspecting audience (I don’t like to walk into a museum and say “I’m a museum person, too!” so she had no idea who her listener was). It is definitely the sort of comment you make when you’ve been advocating for a new display or extra money and the funders can’t understand why you need to change the museum when ‘history’ doesn’t. Oh, well…

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