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ETSU funds study of African American history museums

Contributed • Feb 7, 2020 at 3:52 PM

Over the past two decades, scholars have begun to study how African American history in the U.S. is often misrepresented or completely disregarded compared to other historical narratives. Key moments and people in African American history have often been neglected or trivialized in museum spaces.

“At the same time, some sites have challenged existing landscapes of memory and created new ones in order to produce ‘counter-narratives’ that bring African American struggles front and center,” says Dr. Candace Forbes Bright, assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at East Tennessee State University.

Bright is the recipient of a $10,000 grant from the university’s Research Development Committee to support her work in exploring the role of African American history museums and how they present race relations in the 21st century.

According to the African American Association of Museums, there are 165 AAHMs across 34 states. Many had their start in the 1960s, shortly after the height of the Civil Rights Movement, with a surge in their establishment in the 1970s.

Over the past few years, high profile African American history museums have opened. Most notable is the September 2016 opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington.

“This event offered a moment to reflect on the tensions and challenges that undergird the project of using museums to offer holistic interpretations of African American identities and histories,” Bright says. “Despite the fanfare surrounding the opening of the newest Smithsonian Museum, this project seeks to focus specifically on the work of longer-established African American history museums that have struggled over decades, often with scant financial resources, to carve out spaces for black geographies when there often were none.”

Bright’s research project will be among the first of its kind to survey the scope and breadth of how African American history and culture are presented based on regional histories, ownership types, and management philosophies at museums in different regions across the U.S.

Bright hopes that the work will capture the attention of the National Science Foundation. She and a team of colleagues were the recipients of a previous NSF grant that funded a study of plantations in the South. Seventeen public presentations and 42 conference presentations, as well as 18 journal articles, book chapters, and other types of publications, resulted from that grant. In addition, the University of Georgia Press plans to publish the results in book form this year.

In researching southern plantations for almost a decade, Bright and her collaborators have found that the stories they convey are often utopian and that the painful past of slavery and the enslaved is sometimes ignored. “Plantations could be doing a better job and be more critical of the history they are sharing,” she added.

In conducting her research on African American history museums, Bright is working with a team of scholars from all across the country. They include Dr. Matt Cook from Eastern Michigan University; Dr. Amy Potter from Georgia Southern University; Dr. LaToya Eaves from Middle Tennessee State University; Dr. Perry Carter from Texas Tech University; and Dr. Stephen Hanna from the University of Mary Washington.

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