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#MuseumsandGuns: Thoughts to Start the Initative

not in my museum

Photo courtesy Kym Rice, via Facebook

This is also cross-posted to Medium.

Last week, I published an essay about the National Rifle Association’s museum, and more broadly about museums and guns, in Hyperallergic. I would love to direct you to check it out here. It was very emotional for me to write as I have a personal connection to a mass shooting, so I’m hoping this follow-up will provide a more practical how-to on some ways that we can approach this issue.

As some of you may know, I have been surveying folks about how they use guns in school programs at historic sites. This survey is available here: I still don’t have enough data to really draw conclusions from this, so please share.

As part of the NCPH conference this year in Vegas (which I will be unfortunately missing due to a family commitment) there will be “On the Fly” discussions–on topics which have gained more relevance since the call for proposals closed in June. Guns and museums is one of the topics, and is currently leading in the poll. To add your vote before April 5, go here:

This week I’d like to focus on some of the more practical concerns about guns and museums. I’ve been really fortunate that in the past few weeks as I’ve been thinking about this topic I’ve had the opportunity to engage with some really smart, thoughtful individuals. As I see it from these discussions, these are the issues at play when we are discussing guns in museums. Over the next few months I will be writing more in this space about each of this topics. I am hoping that if folks would like to collaborate and add their perspectives to topics, they can chime in on comments. Anyways, here are the issues as I see it we are talking about when we talk about guns in museums:

1- Acquisition, Collection and Display

Throughout the discussions I’ve been having on on guns and museums, I’ve noticed an overwhelming theme- the growing discomfort with the fact that guns are endemic in our collections (particularly in history museums).

modupe labodeGuns in Museums

I am not calling for us to divest ourselves from the guns in our collections. The reason that we as Americans have reached this point as a culture is because guns and toxic masculinity are such a significant part of our history. We cannot hide from this past, but we do have to think about how we contextualize this past.

Although I do not have a personal relationship with firearms and have never fired a weapon nor touched a real (not prop) gun, I know in my life visiting historic sites as a child and then as a history professional, guns and historic weaponry were so mainstream I became very blase about them. In fact, for a long time my profile picture was me smiling cluelessly next to a cannon at William & Mary. When you go to a historic site, particularly one like Gettysburg or Bull Run, guns are part of the scenery, the background.

For those of us on the education and curation side of the field, how do we contextualize weapons? Do we allow students to use replica guns in school programs? How can we display weapons in a way that doesn’t glorify them? Can we provoke without disturbing?

For registrars and collections folks, when you acquire a gun into your collection, what is your process? What makes you decide whether a gun is historically significant enough to get accessioned?

It seems in many ways that this is the area of museums and guns that has had the most research on it. There’s a symposium happening in Cody, Wyoming at the Buffalo Bill Centre in May that seems to have a very heavy collections-focus and I’m interested in hearing the chatter from that. I’ve heard some buzz about some upcoming articles in major publications around this issue, so stay tuned.

Flyer for the Arsenals of History symposium in Wyoming:

2- Embracing An Anti-Racist Narrative Around Guns in Museums

As with any issue within the colonized museum field and also within colonized American society, if we are not choosing to take an actively anti-racist position, we fall into a racist one.

I have been worried that as I’ve fallen into a role of writing and researching this topic that I’ve been neglecting the really useful museum activism, discourse and discussion that some of my colleagues who came before me brought up. In my past writing, I’ve mentioned that museums have done relatively little about mass shootings, which is true, but that doesn’t mean the museum community on a whole has not discussed gun violence. When we talk about gun control and violence and how that’s represented in museums, we need to talk about the violence by the police against people of color. We can start by diving into the work of #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson. We can also look into some of the exhibits, projects and conversations about the everyday violence that disproportionately affects people of color. After looking at these, we need to engage with the founders of these movements, curators of these exhibits, and researchers who studied the effectiveness of these projects and programs.

There has been a really vibrant public dialogue lately on how gun violence affects different communities differently, and that needs to be part of the larger conversation we are trying to engage in about guns and museums.

3- Relationships with the NRA and other gun manufactorers

Believe it or not, there are museums/cultural organizations that are tied to the NRA. As part of my initial research for a project I was doing, I tried reaching out to any organization that was listed in the NRA Foundation’s 2016 grant report. Believe it or not, the NRA has an educational foundation that doles out approximately seventy-million per year to fund “educational programs”. These include hands-on shooting programs (like the one that the Parkland shooter attended) but also programs around the history of weaponry.

Full details on grant recipients could be found at the link below. There were typical, expected ties to heritage, or as I like to say “heritage” organizations (does it surprise us that the Sons of the Confederate Veterans in Tennessee received a NRA grant)? There were some more obtuse links–for instance, a cultural organization in Minnesota runs a skeet shooting competition as a fundraiser. Last year, they were supported by the NRA. And then of course there are the exhibits, such as the one at the Rochester Historical Society, supported by the NRA.

But financial support was not just the only way museums were partnering with the NRA. During the week immediately after Parkland, there was buzz on museum Twitter the NRA certified staff at Colonial Williamsburg’s period-accurate gun range (yes, read that last portion of that sentence again). I found a lovely article from NRA family about the gun range:

Even if your museum is not partnering with the NRA, I was surprised when I started working for small local history organizations that it’s pretty standard practice that when working with reenactors that we as institutions buy them gunpowder for black powder demonstrations. So that means that we as institutions are having financial transactions with the firearms industry.

When interacting with the firearms industry in any sort of transaction, what does your institution think about/value/how do they decide which firearms company to work with?


4Using Guns in Interpretive Programs

This is the topic of another post entirely and one I will write once my survey has a bit more traction on it, but it’s something that is worth discussing. To prep for fully engaging in this discussion, I’m hoping folks will answer in the comments (or go over and take my survey here)

Some questions to get institutions and individuals thinking: Is your museum using guns in programs? What is your goal in using guns for interpretive programs, and how do you assess that these goals are being met/ How are you prepping the audience for this? Are you using guns for historic programming at community festival? Do you give visitors an “opt-out”? How do you get just beyond the spectacle of the bang and move into actual interpretive messages?

5-  “18th Century Laws, Twentieth Century Weapons”
I can’t say how many protest signs, Tweets, etc. I’ve seen this on recently.

Often the work we do as public historians is self-driven. We are the ones who are making the connection between the past and the present, trying to help the public see that. In this case, our work is reactive to a public cry. The public is bringing an observation about history to us.

How can we not seize this moment to educate? Military historians, weapons historians, Constitutional scholars….what a moment it would be if you specialized in that field. What a moment for us all to seize to educate, to bring forth the complete narrative, to draw contexts.

5- Displaying Parkland and other shootings

I recently read an article about the fate of all the objects left behind at Marjory Stone Douglas high school, and it highlighted for me one of the ways that museum professionals can assist in helping the Parkland community heal.

We have skill sets in collections management, in interpretation, in preservation. We are all strapped for cash and supplies, but maybe we have supplies around our office that we can donate or lend to the Parkland Historical Society, or other organizations that are working to tell this story (ie cases that we’re no longer using, mounts that we ordered but came in the wrong size etc). As interpreters and educators, maybe we can volunteer our time and our skillsets to help prepare curriculum, share articles around the issue of preserving/honoring sites of tragedy, and to help with facilitated dialogue or other techniques.

6- Safety: The Nuts and Bolts of this Conversation

Another conversation on the side of this is how should museums best plan for incidents involving guns and mass shootings, were the worst to happen and a gun violence episode occur in our museum and our community.

For us who work in museums and parks with large open spaces, what is your plan? Do you have a plan? For those in small museums with no security presence, is everyone down to volunteers aware of what the plan is?

And for larger museums with security, is your security armed? If so, how did the decision to arm security get made? Did you consult with communities who may have concerns about armed law enforcement?

7- Individual Versus Institutional Discussion

While it’s great to be publishing and reading on this issue, I would like to see some sort of toolkit that is put together not just by one person, but by a collective of public historians, that can frame and guide museum professionals in approaching guns in their own work.

I have organized really large-scale museum conversations before, and I have no doubt in my skills and abilities to organize #MuseumsandGuns the same way that I’ve organized other cross-institutional movements. But a project like this takes a lot of work, and I simply don’t have time to do this without any compensation.

Every time I am asked to speak or write about Day of Facts, I always make sure to hit home the point that while Day of Facts was a huge success, it wasn’t a success because we as individuals were able to orchestrate it, but because institutions with staff and money devoted resources to it. Institutions speak through their public-facing channels but also with how they chose to allocate their limited resources, and while individuals can push institutions to do better and be more relevant, only institutions can make this choice. It’s a beautiful that in the 21st century individuals can raise our voices and fight with collective power for institutions to do better, but it’s just not sustainable. So if this is a movement in the field we’d actually like to continue, both individuals and institutions need to get on board.

With this, I’d like to close with some direct calls to individuals and institutions:

  1. Individuals:  if you’d like to work with me on writing and studying more about these issues, please comment below. There are several ways, if folks are interested, to continue this work: by establishing a working group, by publishing on this issue, by working with museum organizations to make toolkits or self-assessments for institutions. I am diametrically opposed to asking people to do work with no compensation, so if someone is interested, I hope we will be able to work together to find places we can freelance or try to build some sort of business plan or just try to figure out a way that we can do this that’s equitable and compensated.
  2. Institutions: If you’d like to work with me on this in some capacity, please find me on Twitter or LinkedIn. If I am too busy I would love to refer you to other public historians, museum professionals and scholars who are interested in working on this issue.

I am still thinking about how I’d like to see this movement move forward in a way that’s sustainable, sensible and helpful to organizations, so I welcome all comments and suggestions.

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