Telling, exhibiting and commemorating minority histories in the United States. U.S. museums and historic sites, and minority narratives

Olivier Maheo's picture
Call for Papers
September 15, 2021
Subject Fields: 
African American History / Studies, American History / Studies, Art, Art History & Visual Studies, Public History, Race / Ethnic Studies

Call for papers :

Workshop organized by the Institut d’Histoire du Temps Présent, UMR 8244, to be held on the 12/10/2021

Critical perspectives have contributed to the development of research on minority histories, which can be approached in two ways: on the one hand from the point of view of the domination that is exercised, on the other hand from the point of view of the experiences of members of the minority (Chassain et al., 2016). Ten years ago, a social science symposium asked: "Is minority history a marginal history?" (Laithier et al., 2008). In the United States, the ambiguous term "minority" takes on the meaning of ethno-racial minorities, because of a history of successive wave of migrations from various continents. Being part of a minority implies the inclusion in a national entity, but also refers to a status, that may be discriminated against or excluded. Alongside the national myth, which participates in the construction of an "imagined community", multiple narratives exist, either included as an aspect of the national narrative, or proposing a parallel or even adverse history (Anderson, 1986). A national myth does not necessarily exclude minority narratives, but it does involve different forms of exclusion and forgetting, which have been shown by Benedict Anderson to contribute to the construction of a 'reassuring fratricide’ (Anderson, 1986; Mylonas, 2013). We would like to question the ways in which different minorities have sought to integrate their particular histories into the national narrative, to amend it, to contest it, or even to dissociate themselves by striving for the reappropriation of their autonomous history.

Minority narratives mobilize collective memories and processes of patrimonialization and different mediations of history, notably in the school and medias. We propose to focus on one of their concrete forms, namely museums and heritage sites. Museums are indeed at the focus of political and historiographic issues in the way they articulate, or not, the narrative of minorities and the national narrative. The largest museums focus attention from this point of view: In Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian Institution's prestigious museums are located on the National Mall: the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of the American Indian, founded in 1989, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, opened in September 2016. On December 21, 2020, Congress passed the Smithsonian Women's History Act, which authorized the establishment of a National Museum of Women, proposed in 1998, and a National Museum of the American Latino, proposed in 1994. These institutions are certainly the most visible, but they should not make us forget the smaller structures, whose origins and dynamics can be very diverse.

In the framework of this workshop, we propose to explore these questions under different angles and considering different disciplinary approaches of the social sciences. The question of the mediation of history, here approached through the prism of museum institutions and heritage sites, as well as the articulation between past and present, will be our focus. Our research proposals do not claim to be exhaustive, and every proposal will be examined.

- We wish to interrogate the debates raised around American museums and heritage sites (such as National Parks): these institutions have been the stake of memorial, political and urbanistic conflicts. This was the case when they were still projects, at the time of their foundation or later when they developed museum and heritage policies. It is also possible to question the relationship of these institutions with the spaces in which they are inserted, in order to take into account the inscription of collective memories in urban and rural space. Thus, the murals tradition, particularly in Hispanic neighborhoods, can also be considered. In this respect, the articulation of different levels and different places could also be pursued as a lign of inquiry.

- Particular attention can be paid to discourses developed by these institutions as to their objectives, whether it is the willingness to integrate the minority narrative into the national narrative, to correct it, or to contest it and claim the reappropriation of its own history. Similarly, research could highlight collections and collecting policies, exhibitions and outreach programs. It is also possible to question the way in which the minority is constructed in a coherent representation, which can ignore the social, gendered, spatial or generational divides that could put the collective identity of the group at risk. The increasing popularity of historical re-enactments can also be examined.

- Finally, one could also question the diversity of the forms of narratives proposed by these museums, their approaches and their collections. Some, such as the National Immigration Museum at Ellis Island, offer a polyphonic history that emphasizes multiple narratives, while others, such as the National Museum of American History, follow a more linear, even teleological narrative. However, in 1987, this museum hosted an exhibition about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II[1]. Elsewhere, certain sites are highlighted through a staging, such as Harper's Ferry, today in West Virginia, around the military coup led by the radical abolitionist John Brown in 1859. A typological approach could be proposed.



 We encourage researchers from all fields of the humanities and social sciences (history, art history, American studies, sociology, anthropology) to submit proposals for papers in English or French.

Please send your proposal (500 words), in English or in French, possibly accompanied by images, as well as a brief CV, before the 15th of September 2021 to this address:

Name, first name, institution of affiliation, e-mail address, and a list of key words. You will present the problematic in relation to the announced title, the scientific and conceptual background in which you are situated and the methodology adopted.


Date of submission: 09/15/2021

Notification of selection: 09/30/2021

Study Day Date: 12/10/2021


Organizing Committee: Olivier Maheo (IHTP), Pauline Peretz (IHTP), Sarah Frioux-Salgas (musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac).

Contact Info: 


Maheo Olivier, IHTP, Institut d'Histoire du Temps Présent, Paris. (UMR 8244, CNRS / Université Paris 8)