Whose History Are We Bringing to Life?

ALHFAM defines itself as “An Organization of People Who Bring History to Life.” But whose history are we bringing to life? Our organization is overwhelming white. Can we truly bring history to life, all of it not just the pretty parts, when our membership and the living history field is a mass of shinny white faces? The entire interpretation field, especially costumed interpretation, suffers from a lack of diversity. I have my opinions, but as a white woman, my thoughts are just a guess. And does my opinion matter? When I first started in the museum profession over 40 years ago, diversity was honestly neither encouraged nor welcomed. As a whole, the field was locked into telling the history of rich white men. A lot has changed, but we have a long way to go. History is often not a picture of an idyllic life. We can’t shy away from the violent and awful stories: If we do, we do a disservice to history, our audience and ourselves. We need to become safe places for the discussion of difficult history.

As James Baldwin wrote, “all our terrible and beautiful history can seem like it binds us down, that we are doomed to an unimaginable unreality. I prefer to believe that the day is coming when we will tell the truth about it—and ourselves. On that day … we can call ourselves free men.”

Earlier this year, in response to the civil unrest sweeping across the United States and spreading around the globe, the ALHFAM board issued a statement in response to the Black Lives Matter movement.

The Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums stands in solidarity with black communities across the globe in saying, Black Lives Matter. They mattered in the past; they matter now, and they will matter tomorrow. No one should ever be made to feel less or live in fear because of the color of their skin. We ask our member institutions to guard against institutional and structural racism and to continue to teach the difficult parts of history to challenge preconceptions and to increase awareness. As an organization, we have been complacent in not actively reaching out to diverse populations to find ways to support their professional growth and encourage their participation and leadership within the organization. Looking to the future, we seek input from new voices as work begins to address our organizational weaknesses.

Now we need to back up those words with actions. We should be judged by what we do, and not solely on what we say. We are reaching out to ask others to help us figure it out. The ALHFAM board wishes to encourage BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) interpreters, so all people of the past become visible. We need to hear voices from outside our current circle. If you are a BIPOC interpreter, museum professional or volunteer, we would love to hear from you. What can ALHFAM do for you? How can ALHFAM be more inviting to BIPOC interpreters? If you left the interpretive field or decided not to enter the profession, are you willing to share your reasons? How could ALHFAM have helped?

Help us become the organization you need us to be. You can reach out to any ALHFAM board member or contact me directly.

Kathy Dickson is director of Museums and Historic Sites for the Oklahoma Historical Society and currently serves as the ALHFAM vice president.

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