By Kasandra Fager and Emily Shaver
Imagine! Four BGSU students jamming out to Hamilton on the home way from Chicago singing about immigrants, truth, and democracy. This musical is found in any historian’s collection, but there is more to it than just a piano and a sheet of music. The silences and difficult topics that are revealed in this musical are the same themes that were revealed in our trip to Chicago. Like they say, “History Has Its Eyes on You” and we certainly took that to heart!
Over Spring Break, four history graduate students traveled to Chicago to embark on a 72-hour public history experience. Supported by the department’s student organization, Phi Alpha Theta, and BGSU’s Student Engagement Office, they visited the Chicago History Museum, the Field Museum of Natural History, and the Illinois Holocaust Museum. We may have lost our way as we tried to find the parking lot near our hotel and visited the bean in the rain, but we made it to the other side with Giordano’s deep-dish pizza in our stomachs and a new appreciation for Chicago’s history.
As a public history trip, students were encouraged to think critically about the museums and to learn how public history is applied in different facilities. We spent hours in each museum remarking on the floor layout, the accessibility of each facility, and the chosen communities and voices in the narrative. We encountered three types of public history museums: a museum that transported us back into time, a family-friendly and traditional museum, and a critical and new-aged exhibit space. Chicago may have been “running out of time” as its history quickly grew out of an indigenous and unsettled landscape, but it certainly wasn’t ready for us to come in and critically analyze its chosen narrative.
The Chicago History Museum was an engaging and interactive museum as it took us through the city’s history. We walked past a full-sized trolley and a locomotive to explore Chicago’s transportation and manufacturing background, its music scene, and its cultural communities. A few weeks ago, we learned how Chicago developed out of the Market Revolution, but we had no idea that it had such a rich and influential past. Despite the generalized knowledge that is typical of a city’s museum, we were excited to learn about the natural events, race conflicts, and transportation methods that shaped Chicago’s industrial and environmental growth. Although the museum’s Great Chicago Fire exhibit was directed towards children, we appreciated the museum’s use of color, light, and photographs throughout. This was certainly the place to learn how to best curate a story that is both inviting and critical of the national narrative. Our Saturday had a few snags, but by Sunday it was time to “Rise Up!” bright and early and enjoy a nice breakfast at the Nutella Café before taking the L-train to the Field Museum of Natural History.
We found the Field Museum to be truly “nonstop”, with expansive exhibits that would take several days to fully explore. Topics here ranged from our Evolving Planet, featuring SUE the T-Rex (the museum’s biggest attraction), to Native Voices and Stories. Though this museum is focused more on the natural sciences than history, we found ourselves “helpless” in the face of all that we could learn on exhibit writing and inclusive language. There were numerous signs around the museum discussing subaltern voices, as well as some exhibits presented in bilingual language for accessibility. One exhibit caught our eye because of its rewritten narrative. The Field Museum has the sculptures of Malvina Hoffman back on display, which were commissioned for the museum in the 1930s for their “Hall of Man” exhibit. These sculptures were utilized to perpetuate the ideology of scientific racism, categorizing people into different racial types, and attempting to prove that certain racial types were superior to others. The sculpture exhibit was de-installed in 1969 but reopened in 2016 under the title “Looking at Ourselves: Rethinking the Sculptures of Malvina Hoffman”. The new exhibit examines the sculptures in a new light, with the ideology of “unlearning racism”. The exhibit now includes interactive displays examining the inaccuracies of the original exhibit. This exhibit was particularly interesting to us because it showed us how an institution can both acknowledge its problematic past and attempt to rectify these mistakes in the public eye. In all, the Chicago Field Museum left us feeling “satisfied”, but certainly with thoughts of “What’d I Miss?” from not being able to explore all the exhibits in one trip.
After several hours of exploring natural history, we took the L-train back to the downtown area with gift shop trinkets in hand. Our next (and most anticipated) excursion was to “take a break” by having deep-dish Chicago-style pizza at the famous Giordano’s Pizzeria with BGSU History alumnus Brittany Von Kamp. Having completed her master’s degree and public history certificate at BGSU (the first class to have the public history certificate offered), Brittany provided us with lots of much-needed advice on our current positions as graduate students and how to navigate entering a Ph.D. program. She also offered her experiences with moving from small-town Ohio to big-city Chicago and how to navigate the culture shock. Speaking from the perspective of someone who was in our shoes not long ago, her advice was greatly appreciated and reassured us in our journeys to being in “the room where it happens”. Once we finished our pizza, we made our way across the street to our final excursion of the evening, the Skydeck at the Willis Tower. While this was less educational and more fun, there were interesting panels on the skyline of Chicago and the history of Willis Tower. A plus was that the views would “blow us all away”.
After a restful night at the hotel, we set out on our final excursions before leaving the city “one last time”. Our first stop was to see the Cloud Gate Sculpture in Millennium Park, famously known as “The Bean”. We know that no visit to Chicago is complete without a “Bean” selfie, so we took our photos before heading to our last museum.
“What comes next?” The final stop on our trip was the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, located just outside the city in Skokie, Illinois. The first thing we saw outside the museum was a monument to those people and nations who helped Holocaust survivors in the Chicago area, which we thought was very thought-provoking. Upon entering the museum, we went through metal detectors and bag checks, which set a sobering tone for the visit. We were then greeted by a lady at the desk, who welcomed us to the museum. She provided us with an unexpectedly nice overview of the museum and its exhibit, its history and purpose, and even questioned our intentions in visiting the museum. She even ensured that we got free tickets to their biggest attraction, the Interactive Hologram show. This was the first time we had been truly greeted by any of the museums we had visited. This showed us just how much the museum cares about its purpose, and how vigilant they have to be for any visitors that might reject its messaging. She emphasized to us that this was a genocide museum, and they would not accept any other narrative. Unfortunately, we did not catch this woman’s name, but she was a memorable part of our trip.
The Hologram show was incredibly interesting and innovative. The show started with a video on Holocaust survivor Renée Firestone’s life and story. At the end, our show’s director turned on the hologram. The hologram was a projection of Renée Firestone sitting in a chair, a video that was presumably taken during her oral history interviews. The show’s director explained that we could ask Renée questions and she would answer if possible. The small crowd of people began to ask her questions, such as what her childhood was like or how it felt seeing her brother after the Holocaust. The director would rephrase the question to trigger the hologram’s keyword phrase responses, and the hologram would answer the question. The whole display was an incredible example of how museums can give voice to subaltern stories, truly emphasizing the question of “who lives, who dies, who tells your story”. With this technology, people can tell their stories in museums with their own voices.
After the Hologram Show, we made our way back upstairs to continue through the main Holocaust exhibit. We were surprised at the volume of material that the exhibit contained, with thousands of artifacts displayed in cases or on the walls and oral history interviews displayed on video. At the end of the exhibit, we arrived at another video area, which showed a short film on genocides throughout the world and how to prevent them. Going through the exhibit, you can really see the narrative of genocide emphasized that the front desk worker explained to us. It’s dedicated to the Holocaust genocide, but it is really a warning against all genocides.
Following the main exhibit, we explored the upstairs area, which contained a Hall of Remembrance and other areas for reflection. We then made our way downstairs again to explore their Green Book exhibit. Rather than focusing on Jewish history or the Holocaust, this exhibit discusses Jim Crow and the ways that Black Americans adapted to survive in an era of intense racism — such as creating the Green Book. The exhibit takes you through different stops that were listed as safe for Black Americans in the Green Book and the different cultures that flourished there. One of the most interesting aspects of this exhibit was their interactive road trip “game”. In this game, you are playing a Black American traveling on a road trip from Chicago to Mississippi, and your family member gives you a copy of the Green Book to stay safe. As you travel, you are prompted to choose places to stop (usually one option being in the Green Book, the other is not). If you choose the Green Book options, you can arrive safely in Mississippi. This really highlights the heightened awareness that Black Americans were forced to have to simply exist during the Jim Crow era. Overall, the Holocaust Museum was incredibly interesting and well-done with many topics to reflect on.
After the Holocaust Museum, it was time to head home. We spent our time reflecting on the places we visited and the sights we saw over the weekend while jamming out to Hamilton and other show tunes. In the end, we may have traveled to learn more about public history, but we ended up reflecting on the state of the world and how America presents itself to the world. Exploring difficult topics was invaluable to our education and made us better public historians. Those that can appreciate that a nation’s history is not built on easy topics, but those that critically engage our minds with the communities that surround us. Innovation and reflection are the future of the public history field, and we are glad to be a part of its development. And we want you to be a part of it too! Next time you visit Chicago take time to critically analyze the history you see around you and remember to “put yourself back in the narrative” and tell your story.