Museum leaders discuss “translating difficult histories” at Curry School

At the University of Virginia on Tuesday, leaders of two of America’s most-visited museums shared ideas for promoting inclusion and respect by educating people about difficult aspects of history.
Sara Bloomfield, director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and Kinshasha Holman Conwell, deputy director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, joined faculty at UVa’s Curry School of Education and Human Development for a discussion of contemporary history education.
In his opening remarks, UVa President Jim Ryan said Americans generally struggle to have conversations about difficult topics such as racism and inequality.
“Talking about history with our students is one way to begin having those conversations,” he said.
Ryan said learning about the past also can make students believe they can bring about change in their own lifetimes.
“When you start to look at what happened in the past, you realize that it happened through choices that individuals made,” he said. “It’s easy to think that what happened in the past was inexorable, but it isn’t if you look at it closely.”
Bloomfield said individuals must consider their responsibilities as a member of a society before exercising this power and agency.
“Individuals always have more power than they think. But that power exists within a social framework,” she said. “That power can build social solidarity or break it down. If we don’t start thinking about what our role is in [that framework], we are kind of doomed here.”
Bloomfield said social media has proven to be a dangerous tool for distributing propaganda and falsehoods. She said museums and their historical artifacts are still functioning as apolitical arbiters of truth.
“There is something about seeing that real [artifact] that helps people have a connection to individuals and events in the past,” Bloomfield said. “As the internet gets bigger, and ‘fake stuff’ gets bigger, I hope that real thing gets more and more precious.”
Conwell said creating exhibits about slavery at the National Museum of African American History required extensive research, as well as courage. She said some consultants advised the museum to devote minimal attention to the subject.
“Some people said, ‘Leave it alone. There will be a [separate] slavery museum,’” she said. “But we did it, and it’s at the core of what we do today.”
Stephanie D. van Hover — chairwoman of the Curry School’s Department of Curriculum, Instruction, and Special Education — said standardized testing can stifle nuanced and memorable lessons about history in public schools.
“You have to take these really complex, difficult histories and put them into bullet points that are taught and tested,” van Hoven said. “They are supposed to be the minimum … but to prepare students for high-stakes tests, teachers often have to focus on the bullet points.”
Derrick P. Alridge, a professor at the Curry School, reflected on his interviews with black teachers who worked in South Carolina during the civil rights movement. He said some of them incorporated contemporary African-American magazines such as Ebony and Jet into their lessons.
“They introduced students to this concept of ‘living history’: the idea that history was taking place around them; that it wasn’t something that was disconnected from their lived experiences,” he said.
Alridge is director of the Center for Race and Public Education in the South. The center was established by the Curry School in 2017 to support research on the historical and contemporary experiences of African-American students and other students of color in the South.
“Translating Difficult Histories” was moderated by Bob Pianta, dean of the Curry School, and sponsored by Bank of America.
Bank of America recently announced a $1 million donation to the Curry School to launch a program designed to help teachers increase racial, religious and ethnic tolerance.
Catherine Bradshaw, associate dean at the Curry School, said in a statement that a team of faculty will use the funds to develop “practical and effective research-based materials that teachers can use to increase tolerance and respect across multiple grade levels.”
Charlottesville School Board member Amy Laufer attended Tuesday’s panel discussion. She said the U.S. history textbooks currently approved by the Virginia Department of Education are not adequate for teaching students about the contributions of ethnic and religious minorities in American history.
“We have to demand that our textbooks include minorities and women,” Laufer said. “Those people participated in our history, and kids need to know the impact of their actions, as well.”