During the 1980s, American Studies as a field faced increasing criticism for “American exceptionalism,” as scholars challenged both the study of the United States as an “exceptional” or “unique” nation and the inherent limitations of nation-based knowledge. Critics of American exceptionalism focused on the myth-and-symbol school, whose scholars from 1950-1980 studied the uniqueness of the United States as a democratic nation, whose citizens relied on their self-reliance and talents for innovation to create a society that fostered tolerance, responsibility, and freedom. Ethnic studies, feminist, Native American, and gay/queer scholars argued that this ideal “America” masked the historical reality of slavery and racism, Chinese Exclusion, Japanese Internment, genocide against native peoples, economic and political marginalization of Chicano/as and Latino/as, exclusion of women from full civil and political rights, persecution of lesbians and gays, and intolerance of religious diversity. From the late 1960s onward, scholars in these marginalized fields worked for broader representation of their communities in American studies, often by contending as well that their heritages exceeded the narrow boundaries of the U.S. nation and traditionally understood.
In the 1980s and 1990s, these increasingly appeared in public history forums, as museum exhibitions and historic sites were drawn into what became known as the “culture wars,” that debated–sometimes violently–who had the right to collect, display, and interpret America’s past. Particular exhibitions, focusing on slavery, nationalism, heroism, war, ethnicity, became flashpoints for both scholarly and popular analysis of what role institutions like museums do or should play within their communities. Did they preserve or shape ideas about citizenship? Whose histories and cultures were included and excluded? And should they attempt to remain neutral purveyors of information, or become engines of activism?
This course combines the objectives of a traditional history class with field trips to museums and historic sites to encourage participants to think broadly about how U.S. history can be studied, protected and presented to the public. It is intended especially for students exploring careers in public history, or teachers interested in incorporating local resources into classroom instruction.
Students in this course will learn to:
- Locate and describe local public history resources online and on site
- Research the historiography of material culture study and its place in American Studies
- Explore the relationship between text and non-text research resources
- Compare the presentation of the past in academic and public venues
- Investigate how local histories draw upon, expand, and challenge national narratives