Gender: Just Add Women and Stir

This post is part of a series from Loyola public historians attending NCPH 2014.

We’ve all seen it.  When museums, historic sites, and textbooks realize they need to address gender, the go-to response is to “just add women and stir.”  Sprinkle in a few “great women” to go with the great men or specifically talk about the women who lived in a historic house…usually only when you enter the kitchen.  The traditional male dominated history isn’t challenged in any way.  It’s still the same story, the same narrative, the same interpretation of the site, but now women have  been “included.”

The first panel I attended yesterday morning at NCPH 2014, “Gender: Just Add Women and Stir,” sought to challenge this standard trope.  The facilitators, a number of whom were from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage in Philadelphia, had taken a study trip in 2013 to historic sites in New England to observe how gender and sexuality were interpreted—or not interpreted—at these sites.

Rather than a traditional panel where the audience is talked at, we immediately began an activity.  The panelists had placed scenes from historic house museums around the room and asked the audience to interpret each room in terms of gender and sexuality.  At first many participants seemed hesitant to imposing any sort of interpretation on these sites.  How were we supposed to interpret gender and sexuality based solely on images without any context?

As someone who attempts to be aware of assumptions and stereotypes based on gender and sexuality, this felt like an exercise in reifying useless categories and stereotypes.  What makes a room, or aspects of it, “masculine” or “feminine?”  Are we talking about 19th century views of masculinity and femininity or 21st century views?  Since societal views about these things aren’t static, but have in fact changed tremendously, there is considerable difference.

As far as interpreting sexuality goes, well there’s all sorts of trouble there.  The living room at the Gropius House in Lincoln, Massachusetts, for instance totally said gay stereotype to me.  Not gay, mind you, but gay stereotype.  I have no idea who used or designed this living room, and I can’t make any sort of judgements about their gender, let alone their sexuality based simply on an image of the room.

The image used in the session was a different angle, but you get the idea.
The image used in the session was a different angle, but you get the idea.  Photo courtesy of

Continue reading “Gender: Just Add Women and Stir”


Keep Calm and Carry On

Cross posted from From Auschwitz to Skokie where I discuss my recent trip to Poland to study Jewish history, heritage, memory, and the Holocaust as well as my work with the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie, IL.

Keep Calm and Carry On

On September 29th the Illinois Holocaust Museum opened its newest temporary exhibit, Keep Calm and Carry On: Textiles on the Home Front in WWII Britain, a traveling exhibit from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.  The exhibit explores the use of textiles during the war years, specifically propaganda scarves and government regulated clothing, to tell a story of rationing, propaganda, and patriotism.  The final sentences of the introductory panel beautifully sum up the thesis of the exhibit: “During a decade of extreme hardship and deprivation, these bright colored scarves and smart fashions were enlisted in the battle to keep spirits high.  Beauty — in measured amounts — was not frivolous, it was a patriotic duty.”  Utilizing a broad range of artifacts from textiles and furniture to fashion magazines and oral histories, this brightly colored exhibition provides an upbeat and invigorating contrast to the somber permanent exhibit of the museum.

Upon entering the exhibit the visitor is confronted with a fairly open floor plan: panels and artifacts are, for the most part, along the walls while the middle of the space is taken up by a rectangle of moveable walls, each side of which features a different film while a larger-than-life portrait of Winston Churchill presides over the entire space.  This floor plan allows the visitor to easily move between the different sections of the exhibit, each of which fits into the overall narrative, but can also stand alone.

Continue reading “Keep Calm and Carry On”

Historic Preservation in Poland

Cross posted from From Auschwitz to Skokie where I discuss my recent trip to Poland to study Jewish history, heritage, memory, and the Holocaust as well as my work with the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie, IL.

Historic preservation is an important aspect of the work that many Public Historians in the United States do.  So important, in fact, that my program requires all Public History students to take a course on historic preservation, which I took last semester.  Ask me about the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, particularly Section 106, and I can bore the pants off of you with information about the federal government’s role in historic preservation.[1]  Then, of course, there are all the state and local regulations that impact historic preservation efforts as well.

There are multiple theories of historic preservation about what we mean when we use the term “preservation” and what goal we should have in mind.  There are three main schools of thought:

1. Restoration to a former state

2. Preservation in the current state

3. Adaptive reuse

Continue reading “Historic Preservation in Poland”

Project Projects: Test Fit, Not Your Average Art Exhibit

The Kurokawa Gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago is a unique and unusual setting for an exhibition.  As both exhibition space and as a transitional area between the Art Institute’s Modern Wing and the Impressionism Galleries this gallery is a busy thorough-fare populated more by patrons on their way to the popular Caffé Moderno than by those willing to stop and study an exhibit.  Many exhibitions would find themselves at a disadvantage placed in such a highly trafficked space, but Project Projects: Test Fit, an exhibition designed by the New York-based graphic design firm Project Projects on display until April 28th, is not like most exhibitions.  Using reproductions of objects from the Art Institute’s permanent collection, this exhibition seeks to comment both on the traditional curatorial process and on how museum exhibitions are designed.  Rather than suffering from the fact that the majority of visitors will simply glance at a few of the pieces and neglect to read the text in the labels, Project Projects: Test Fit embraces this inevitability and uses it to its advantage.  The average visitor will enjoy experiencing Project Projects: Test Fit for its visually striking images while the engaged visitor will appreciate the exhibit for its witty, thought-provoking, and at times poetic label text.

The visitor does not approach the Kurokawa Gallery from the side in a way that would provide an obvious beginning space for the exhibitions housed there; instead, the visitor first sees the middle of the exhibition space.  Rather than place the introductory text panel in this middle area directly in front of the opening onto the gallery space the designers chose to immediately confront their visitors with some of the most visually engaging pieces in the exhibition.  The view of these images provokes interest and discussion on the part of the visitors whether or not they read the accompanying labels.  With the intentional selection of images and design of labels throughout Project Projects: Test Fit, the visitor, whether she engages with the image alone or the image and the label in combination, will invariably be prompted to consider larger issues than simply the aesthetics of the images shown.

The view upon entering the Project Projects: Test Fit exhibition
The view upon entering the Project Projects: Test Fit exhibition

While Project Projects: Test Fit has the ability to encourage all visitors to engage in a deeper way with the material on display, the real engagement occurs for those visitors who take the time to read the labels throughout the exhibition.  Continue reading “Project Projects: Test Fit, Not Your Average Art Exhibit”