Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
June 18, 2024

Panel discusses MD museums, history

By NASH JENKINS | April 5, 2012

Krieger Hall served host to a panel discussion on the representation of history in the popular arena at Homewood this past Monday. The event was sponsored by Hopkins' interdisciplinary Program of Museums and Society.

Moderated by Avi Decter, the director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland, the panel consisted Kym Rice, who directs George Washington University's Museum Studies department, and Ken Yellis, a director at Project Development Systems, a Rhode Island-based private firm that facilitates the development of cultural exhibitions at museums across the United States.

Jennifer Kingsley, a lecturer in the Museums and Society program, introduced the trio by glossing their agenda and he thesis of her department.

"We are here to discuss means of cultivating knowledge and maintaining artifacts of culture," Kingsley said to the crowd in Krieger 304.

Decter commenced the discussion by both rephrasing Kingsley's comment and providing a corollary to it.

"This is a discussion of history," he said. "And history [concerns] the telling of painful tales. It is imperative that we make peace with the past."

The audience, which consisted largely of freshmen and sophomores in Museums and Society's undergraduate seminars, interjected the discussion with both questions and anecdotes, citing personal experiences in exploring history via museum exhibitions.

Decter, Rice and Yellis centered their presentation accordingly, discussing the imperative emotional fabric in such exhibitions at preeminent museums - the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, for example.

"[The Anne Frank House] is effective because it both conveys the story up close, with the actual residence of the Frank family, and also provides an objective interpretation of the events that transpired," Yellis explained.

Decter applied such examples to a broader context.

"It comes down to emotional contact with the visitor. How do we establish it?" he asked, rhetorically. "It comes down to voice - the narrative. Use the first person voice, because the landscape of history stories comes from the people."

For students in attendance, the discussion provided expert advice to supplement the lessons of the undergraduate seminars, which, through an interdisciplinary approach cross-linked with the university's Anthropology, History and History of Art departments, serve to augment an understanding of history's practical presentations.

"I came to Hopkins hoping to study history, given the prestige of the History Department here, but I knew that I wanted to find a means to apply it to the world beyond textbooks," freshman Elizabeth Arenz, a student in the seminar, said after the panel. "I took this seminar to find ways to do it. . .Today's discussion gave me an appreciation for the emotional element of history, which sometimes seems to get lost in the academic translation of things."

To such sentiments, Rice gave a nod of approval. A scholar of history and custodian of artifacts since mid-1970s - she has worked in the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library, the country's largest collections of historical documents - Rice stressed the importance of amplifying facts through personal stories and, in doing so, cultivating ideas.

"Narrative's a crucial tool," she said. "It connects the past to present day."

She went on to cap the panel's thesis by providing a metaphor for her responsibility, and that of Decter and Yellis and all other members of the curatorial field, for preserving and interpreting history.

"Through what we do at museums, we're the 'village explainers,'" she said to laughter and appreciative nods. "It's our job to take what happened and give it to the world."

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