Historians to Congress: Include Us in Creating National Women’s History Museum

As plans progress for a possible national museum focused on women's history, the American Historical Association is calling for a greater involvement of historians in the conception and creation of the museum.

There’s new momentum brewing for a national museum of women’s history in Washington, DC, but some, including the American Historical Association (AHA), are voicing concern over the proposed project.

We strongly believe that any project to create a new national history museum should involved professional historians from the outset.

Legislation that would approve the creation of a bricks-and-mortar museum—currently the National Women’s History Museum (NWHM) exists as a nonprofit online entity—has been introduced in both the Senate and House, where the bill recently passed a vote by the House Resources Committee. H.R. 863, which has a growing number of cosponsors, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), is now up for a vote on the House floor.

Meanwhile, AHA is worried NWHM is not taking the appropriate steps in its push to create the museum. Chiefly, the association is concerned with the lack of involvement of professional historians after NWHM disbanded its scholarly advisory council made up of 18 women’s history historians last month.

“The association is concerned that the current administration of the 501(c)(3) organization promoting the construction of a National Women’s History Museum in Washington, DC, seems insufficiently aware of the importance of including qualified scholars in the field of women’s history in the planning process,” AHA President Jan Goldstein and Executive Director James Grossman wrote in a letter [PDF] sent to several lawmakers earlier this month.

Goldstein and Grossman also noted that, as written, the House bill does not require that any historians or museum professionals be appointed to the bipartisan exploratory commission that would study the potential creation of the museum.

“We strongly believe that any project to create a new national history museum should involved professional historians from the outset,” they wrote. “Interpreting the past is vital to democratic debate and civic life, and scholars experienced in investigating and interpreting the past should be part of that process.”

The letter came after a former member of the disbanded scholarly advisory council, Sonya Michel, alerted AHA’s Committee on Women Historians about her concerns, AHA’s coordinator of committees and meetings, Debbie Doyle, wrote in an AHA blog post last week.

NWHM President and CEO Joan Bradley Wages and legislators do not seem to think a women’s history museum needs historians, Michel wrote in an article in the New Republic: “Without them, however, historians fear that the exigencies of congressional politics and day-to-day fundraising will lead to the creation of a museum that seeks to be as noncontroversial as possible—whatever the cost to its scholarly reputation.”

In a response article, Wages wrote that as legislation has picked up steam, NWHM is more focused on advocacy and fundraising efforts rather than establishing the museum’s content.

“Let’s leave the exhibit plan, location, governance, and organizational structure up to the bipartisan congressional commission as have other successful museums, like the National Museum of African American History and Culture,” Wages wrote. “Let’s not prejudge the museum’s directors, curators, and historians, by criticizing the content they haven’t even had a chance to develop.”

In her blog post, AHA’s Doyle wrote the association will continue to monitor legislation concerning the creation of the museum.

(Library of Congress)

Katie Bascuas

By Katie Bascuas

Katie Bascuas is associate editor of Associations Now. MORE

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