Civics for Life

The Museum as Civic Space, with Dr. Anthea Hartig

July 06, 2023 Civics for Life
Civics for Life
The Museum as Civic Space, with Dr. Anthea Hartig
Show Notes Transcript

What is the museum’s role in society? How does – and can – the museum function as a civic space? Dr. Anthea Hartig, the first woman director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, recently sat down with Civics for Life to briefly discuss these and other questions

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Liam Julian:

Welcome to an O'Connor Institute and Civics for Life conversation with Dr. Anthea Hartig. I'm Liam Julian with Civics for Life. Dr. Hartig is the director of the National Museum of American History. Before that, she led the Western Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the California Historical Society. So welcome. Thank you for spending time with us.

Dr. Anthea Hartig:

Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

Liam Julian:

Yeah. So, so interesting when we talk about the purpose of museums. There are several. People can go to have an experience with art or an encounter with mastery, but we think about the classical origins of museums, and the Romans especially, collecting objects about a culture to tell a story. And it occurs to me that the museum that you now lead is maybe the primary example of this in the country, if not the world.

Dr. Anthea Hartig:

Exactly. Well, thank you for those classical references, Liam. And you think about American history as one of the longest running of the Smithsonian collections. So it's not the oldest museum, but it has some of the very first collections that were brought in, and I like to joke, if it's not a critter or an airplane, chances are good. It ended up in American history, right? From the history of printing, to the history of medicine, from musical instruments, to kind of the remarkable political, military histories, cultural histories, social histories. So it's an amazing honor to do that, to collect, and to think about the original meaning of the word curate, or curate if you were in early modern Britain, and that means to take care of, right? So a curate was a pastor who took care of the soul, and then of course curators take care of the objects that tell our stories of who we have been.

Liam Julian:

Yeah. Yeah. So it's, I mean, it's a really, it's a civic mission.

Dr. Anthea Hartig:

Very much so. 

Liam Julian:

The question though, right, comes, you're telling a story, you're telling the American story. 

Dr. Anthea Hartig:

Stories.

Liam Julian:

Stories. That's the question. You can do this by yourself.

Dr. Anthea Hartig:

No, no, no, no. It's much more fun to do it with you.

Liam Julian:

Yeah, but that's the question, is whose story, you know, and how do you make sure that anyone that comes into the museum feels that their story is being told there?

Dr. Anthea Hartig:

Right. So the kind of the art, and craft, and science, and of course the humanity of museum work revolves around that very question, is whose stories are we telling? Who sees themselves reflected in our work? And you do that really by understanding what is omitted from the historic record. So the importance of oral histories, like the ones that the Institute have completed, can fill in some of those blanks, right? And then many cultures, of course, do not have the deep bench of materials that help us then form an object-based collection. So we think about the ways in which we tell those stories through both others' eyes, but also then trying to get that first voice interpretation as well.

In the case of Justice O'Connor, we're so fortunate in that we have multiple museums, but especially American history has some of her most cherished objects that she so lovingly gifted, the Smithsonian. So what can we learn about the judicial robe she took from Arizona, right, to be her first judicial robe? A woman of the West recycling her own robe, hemming it, of course, to skirt length for the first time in the history of the court. And what can we say about her as her deep devotion, of course, to civics and civic engagement and civic learning, and understanding, as she did, the importance of that civic participation? She is the three branches of government, right? She understands then how those are woven in together, as I like to say, into the tree of liberty.

Liam Julian:

Yeah. Yeah, it's interesting. In many ways, museums, as you're pointing out, have become sort of our civic spaces.

Dr. Anthea Hartig:

Yeah, there's a neutrality there.

Liam Julian:

Yeah. Universities some extent, but that's enclosed. That's sort of an enclosed environment. To what degree do you see your mission at the institution that you run as being to foster a place to have that civil discourse?

Dr. Anthea Hartig:

Well, that's a wonderful question. So our new mission is empowering people to create a more just and compassionate and informed future by interpreting and sharing and collecting the past. So giving people those spaces, especially since the Smithsonian, as a public-private partnership, doesn't charge admission, and literally anyone can come in, and about three to four million people a year do come in, and then last year, about 12 million people engaged with us online, it is a kind of a great equalizer. We could be standing next to each other. We could be from very different places in our lives and have very different community and familial experiences and backgrounds. We could be standing next to each other looking at Lincoln's top hat the night he was killed at Ford's Theater. We could be focusing on an object and on a story that then, I think, kind of helps unite us in understanding our past. 

And so I do think that as convening spaces and as civic and civil spaces, it's interesting to see what happens to people when they come into your museum, like a courtroom.

Liam Julian:

I have a way I walk. 

Dr. Anthea Hartig:

There's a museum walk. There's kind of a museum posture, probably, but there also may be kind of a museum attitude, right, where you come in and you think, I am here, so I am someplace different. And I feel that when I walk into the chambers of the Supreme Court, which I've been so honored to do, when I walk into one of our storage rooms that the public doesn't get to go into, or when I'm down on the floor with a bunch of somewhat rowdy eighth graders who are coming from all over the country to learn about American history in what really is, I think, one of the nation's largest history classrooms. It gives me that same sense of both appreciation and gratitude, but also that kind of sense of hope, right, that you see people who are willing and open to learn and who have come together in a space like the Smithsonian.

Liam Julian:

Yeah. It's so interesting because we're talking about physical things, physical spaces, physical objects. Dr. Hartig started her role in February of 2019, right?

Dr. Anthea Hartig:

Yes.

Liam Julian:

And so a year later, all of a sudden, physical spaces and physical objects, you had to make a major pivot there. And I wonder if what you learned in terms of both the benefits, the possibilities, and also the limitations when it comes to museums in the virtual space.

Dr. Anthea Hartig:

Sure. So no one's really prepared to lead through a global pandemic, right? You rely on your instincts and your colleagues and your supporters and your fellow leaders to chart a path forward. And museums are very place-based organizations. So we completely changed the way in which we approached museum curation and historic collecting, and tried to keep people safe, right? And then tried to document things as they were happening, as they were happening rather.

And so I like to say, to use a 19th century or 18th century metaphor, that I think all of us who live through, especially 2020, but also into 2021 and 2022, but let's just take that first year. It felt like we were in the grist mill of history, like we could feel history happening. And so I like to say that we document the grist and the mill equipment, right? So that you try to get a sense of the totality of what we were experiencing as Americans and of course, joined globally in a pathogenic way, but also I think in a global community. So it challenged the very way in which we work. And we relied in a way more on people's trust, it's like, will you save that for us? Will you save that mask? Will you save that, the first vial of the vaccine that was given? Will you kind of hold that? And I like to think now in hindsight, that we brought more people kind of into the curation moment.

Liam Julian:

Okay. 

Dr. Anthea Hartig:

Because oftentimes they would say, I'd like to give this to the Smithsonian. We go through our process. We accept that into the collection, but it's a very kind of face to face, I'm meeting you, you have this object from Arizona, I'm interested in collecting it. And so the pandemic interrupted all of that, but I think it brought us closer together to individuals who were understanding their own role in history that we all have to play.

Liam Julian:

And going forward, the sort of what you learned from that, as far as bringing the museum's collection to people virtually, what are the things that you want to continue doing? What are some things that you tried that you felt as a museum didn't work as well?

Dr. Anthea Hartig:

Well, I think it depends on which part of the pandemic and then which part of the broader kind of digital landscape that we're talking about, but like the O'Connor Institute, online education for so many became so critical as we moved first and pivoted to really beefing up our programs for teachers and for parents or for students who all of a sudden were learning online in a structured way far more than they had. So we certainly made a lot of adjustments there.We also realized that teachers in particular were not looking for something they had to spend half an evening from their precious hours, from 9 p.m. to midnight and kind of curating themselves.

What they really wanted was our help in saying, this is a unit on the constitution or this is a unit on the civil rights. So it was more kind of about helping them package online teaching tools. And then, of course, we also worked very hard in our own neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. and across the nation to realize that many students, of course, didn't have Internet access. So we did a lot more printed material that we distributed locally. We had shared pickup points that teachers could come in the D.C. public schools to pick up in private schools as well. And so we learned a lot about how the discrepancies of our society, of course, then were reflected in access to education.

Liam Julian:

Yeah, that's so interesting. The museum as a civic and civil space is sort of, there's a tension in the sense that it wants to be relevant, but yet it wants to also, I think, have a certain remove from whatever is happening immediately in society because it wants us to have a perspective on that that's historical. So how do you navigate that?

Dr. Anthea Hartig:

It's a wonderful question, right, especially now when a lot of the conversation is about presentism, right, about how we judge the past through the lenses of the present. And I think that we can avoid those conversations by really thinking about the ways in which our roles as stewards of the American experience rely sometimes on our swiftness, like if we don't collect that, it will be gone because it's very ephemeral, or especially in the digital space that is only born digital. It has no physical manifestation. So thinking about our responsibilities there, but then also having that, both kind of the courage and the caution to think when do we cross those lines, right, into going against our core mission, right, of that empowerment, right, focusing on the audience, focusing on the people instead of focusing on ourselves. And that's a challenge, as historians and curators, you know, love to talk about their own scholarship and their own interpretations, and we rely on that, but it's mediated through objects and then really, I think, produced and created with respect for the communities that we're working with and that we're documenting, right, and really kind of honoring the fact that we're kind of in this for the long game, right?

Liam Julian:

Yeah, yeah. 

Dr. Anthea Hartig:

We know that if we don't collect that, 2,500 years, 250 years from now, that the nation's kind of collective memory will be poorer for it.

Liam Julian:

Yeah. Yeah, that's so interesting. You know, it's funny because, you know, your institution certainly, American museums also just generally are very different, I think, in many cases than their European counterparts. European museums, in many cases, were established with a collection that already existed from imperial.

 

Dr. Anthea Hartig:

Right. Sure. They're highly imperial. Yeah. 

Liam Julian:

But when we talk about American museums, it really is a civic enterprise. Everything is donated to you or someone gives you money to go, funds to go and buy these things, right? So it really is a community. It is very different. 

Dr. Anthea Hartig:

It's still kind of a nation-states museum, right, if you think about that. It's on federal land and with federal appropriations that are, you know, matched by private dollars. But I think you're right. There is that kind of remarkable gift that, you know, the bastard son of an English lord, James Smithson, decided that if his only heir died, that he would give his fortune to the very young United States. I mean, the United States was kind of barely crawling in the 1830s. 

Liam Julian:

And he had never visited the United States, is that right?

Dr. Anthea Hartig:

Never been. It's incredible. But he believed that, I think he believed that if he had been born in the colonies or then the young republic, that he would have been treated differently.

Liam Julian:

Yeah. Right.

Dr. Anthea Hartig:

That his, it would have been less about his peerage and more about his person. And less about, you know, his birth status and more about his capacities. And so. And then, you know, thinking of that gift and really creating an institution that's devoted to the increase in diffusion of knowledge is a wonderful touchstone. If we're ever lost in our mission at the Smithsonian, you just have to think, increase diffusion of knowledge. Just keep on repeating it, you know, and it, it informs so much of what we do.

Liam Julian:

Yeah. That's great. Dr. Harding, thank you so much. For spending some time with us.

Dr. Anthea Hartig:

Oh my goodness. Thank you. This has been great. Thanks to the Institute and one of the women I admire the most in the entire span of United States history, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.