Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Student Narratives and Public Memory in Museums

Image credit: Matt Buck, Wikimedia
By Cynthia Wallace-Casey, PhD
University of New Brunswick

I would like to draw your attention to a history education symposium coming up on December 1 in London (England) at the Institute of Education. This seminar series brings together three international scholars to explore what young people know about the past and their sources of knowledge.

Dr. Jocelyn Letourneau, of Laval University (Quebec), will discuss a pragmatic approach to teaching history, intended to move students “outside the thinkable they’ve been accustomed to in living in a particular society and being subject to its broad representations.”

Dr. Arie Wilschut, of the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, will focus his discussion on the Dutch national historical consciousness, in particular, “we” versus “they” perspectives when talking and writing about the past.

Dr. Stéphane Levesque, of the University of Ottawa, will discuss the function of narration in orientating a community (and the individuals who share a membership in that community) within the context of time and nation.

All of these presentations speak to historical consciousness as a reflection of the present. Indeed, as historian E. H. Carr (1990) once wrote, history is “an unending dialogue between the present and the past” (p. 55). In this sense, we “see” the past within the context of our present.

As Letourneau has pointed out, it can be initially difficult for students to step outside of the narrative to which they are accustomed, and to “see” the past from a different societal perspective. In this sense, while shared narratives can serve to orientate individuals as members of a community, they can also serve as blinders. My own research focused upon narrative constructs in a community history museum. Over a period of 14 weeks, an entire class of seventh-graders explored the use of evidence and sources in the museum.

The promise of historical thinking in museums rests with enabling students to interact with museum narratives, using more than pre-existing “mythistoires” (Létourneau , 2014) as their single point of comparison for validating or denying historical claims (Husbands, 1996; van Boxtel, 2010; van Drie & van Boxtel, 2008; Létourneau, 2014; Nakou, 2006; Trofanenko, 2008). As Jones (2014) and Savenije et al. (2014) have found, when museum collections are used simply to support a particular narrative claim (rather than reflect critically upon that claim), students in this age group accept the authority of the museum, while selectively adapting portions of the narrative to reinforce their own pre-existing understandings of the past. In this way, they re-interpret and rationalize portions of the museum narrative to accommodate their own world-view.