Oprah Winfrey opens exhibit at the National Museum of African American History and Culture
Oprah recites Sojourner Truth at exhibit opening
02:32 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Thomas A. Foster (@ThomasAFoster) is associate dean and professor of history at Howard University. He is the editor of “Women in Early America” and “New Men: Manliness in Early America,” and author of “Rethinking Rufus: Sexual Violence Against Enslaved Men.” The views expressed here are his. Read more opinion on CNN.

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Earlier this month, the House of Representatives passed a bill to establish a National Women’s History Museum. The announcement of the new museum immediately sparked praise on social media as long overdue. The most common criticism was not about the museum but was reserved for Liz Cheney as the only woman who voted against the measure. A handful of well-placed critiques rightfully raised concerns about how inclusive the new museum would be, a point that resonates with many women’s historians who have long been familiar with the need for the field to more evenly address the histories of women of color and of working class women.

Thomas A. Foster

The bill that passed explicitly mandates the museum “represent a diverse range of viewpoints,” apparently largely because Republican lawmakers fret about how the issue of abortion will be treated. As for the expansion of new museums reflecting the diversity of the country, last fall the House had its first hearing on establishing a Smithsonian National Museum of the American Latino, and although New York is now the likely future site of a national LGBTQ museum, one could be forgiven for wondering whether we will end up with a fractured national narrative, embodied in a segmented museum corridor along our National Mall in Washington.

I am more concerned, however, about a different museum and what it becomes in this moment – the already existing Museum of American History. As we work to recover histories of marginalized people and subjects for a more inclusive national history presented in our museums, we must also change how the Grand Narrative is told in a museum that purports to cover all of American history. For too long, for example, one of that museum’s most popular exhibits related to women’s history has been the gowns of first ladies.

Where might my own research on sexual violence against enslaved men be best understood? In the context of a museum of women’s and gender history? African American history? Sexual violence under slavery is as central to our history as the Model T – so perhaps within the American History museum is where it belongs.

Moreover, despite the names of our newer and emerging national museums, we have to recognize that Americans do not divide into neat categories. Which museum will present Transgender, Afro-Latina histories – the National Museum of African American History and Culture? A new National Women’s History Museum? A future museum of the American Latino/a? The American History Museum?

Our answer must be: yes, yes, yes, and yes. All of them must present that history and more.

Many of the Smithsonian museums are already doing so. LGBTQ history is indeed presented at the Museum of African American History and Culture and at the American History Museum. The Smithsonian Institute was founded in 1846 and takes as its mission “the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” The museums have transformed the National Mall into an educational and entertaining experience to showcase the nation’s history, its people, and their achievements. With the additions of the Museum of African American History and Culture and the Museum of the American Indian, the museums have increasingly focused on Americans who have generally been left out of traditional histories.

In some ways, this move toward additional museums mirrors the development of the study of history, in which sub-fields formed to study histories of people who had been ignored in traditional histories that focused almost exclusively on elite white men and their achievements. It also reflects the approach of “multiculturalism” that fully blossomed in the 1990s in response to the ethnocentrism of the “melting pot” of earlier generations. Multiculturalism was designed as a corrective to the failure of the melting pot to respect diversity and revere the integrity of cultures.

At the same time, the Museum of African American History was first called for in Congress in the 1980s but only opened in 2016. The first call for a National Women’s History Museum dates back to the 1990s, and here we are 30 years later with long hurdles still to clear. With the amount of time needed to pass a bill through Congress and construct a museum, once the paint dries and the doors of a brand-new museum open, will our museums only reflect dated academic and political approaches that may no longer be productive?

The impetus for forming the National Women’s History Museum is the general neglect of women in national histories – the bill’s sponsors cite examples of this ranging from a stubborn general absence in school textbooks to the fact that nine out of 91 statues in the US Capitol depict women, and that only 5% of the approximately 2,400 national monuments honor women.

As a historian of American women, gender and sexuality, I wholeheartedly agree that we need the new museums because of the continued absence of women and people of color from our national histories and our landscape of museums and monuments. As a scholar who focuses on early America, I would add that such museums must also include centuries of dynamic history prior to the 20th century.

One could imagine a time in our distant future when those museums might be renamed and given new missions. Perhaps we can envision a future National Mall with several Museums of American History all featuring the mosaic of our nation. We’re not there yet – and not by a long shot.

I have no worries about a fractured national narrative on the Mall. There is still plenty of work to do while we are in this long national corrective moment of recovering our ignored and neglected histories. The National Museum of African American History and Culture is a museum of American history. A national museum of women’s history must be one, as well.

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    Our National Mall rightly reflects our diversity and our collectivity – our unique twin strengths as a nation that for too long have been hidden behind the marble statues of generals, and the museums that once heralded the achievement of only a white elite male minority.