"Doing Women’s History in Public"

RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage reviews books, reports, new periodicals, databases, websites, blogs, and other electronic resources, as well as exhibition, book, and auction catalogs pertaining directly and indirectly to the fields of rare book librarianship, manuscripts curatorship, archives management, and special collections administration. Publishers, librarians, and archivists are asked to send appropriate publications for review or notice to the Reviews Editor.

Heather A. Huyck. Doing Women’s History in Public: A Handbook for Interpretation at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2020. Paperback, 247 p. $39.00 (ISBN 9781442264175).

 When Stephen E. Weil said, “Whatever worthiness a museum may ultimately have derives from what it does, not from what it is,”[1] he summarized the essential purpose of all curated exhibitions, no matter how minor or major an institution may seem. In Doing Women’s History in Public: A Handbook for Interpretation at Museums and Historic Sites, Heather Huyck uses her extensive experience in the field of public history to acutely focus Weil’s philosophy on culling both materials and narratives that visually and interpretively explicate the essential and pervasive permanence of women in time. Huyck’s credentials fortify her as a powerful voice in this self-ascribed mission, as well as sustaining the integrity of her writing through the panorama of her longstanding career. Her MA in Cultural Anthropology and PhD in American History led her not only to an academic field of study, but also to the fieldwork and diverse involvement in practical public history that make for the basis of her knowledge. With leadership roles with the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites, the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands, as American Studies faculty for the College of William and Mary, and as a long-standing Park Ranger/Historian for the National Park Service, Huyck supplies an authentic voice to her work.

In the past, women’s lives as themes were at risk of being less fully represented, which opened up an enormous field of potential for providing resources that begin to unlock the rich prospects of doing women’s history in public. Some work on women’s studies is rising to the surface, which is where Huyck comes in again: she provides a bibliography on women’s history and sexuality. Huyck’s writing functions as an endeavor toward respecting the solid pieces of these places in public history: the objects, the ephemera, the buildings and land—firmly making intellectual junctures to prospective meaning in the world of women to an everyday visitor.

Huyck’s Handbook elucidates an indoctrination into the importance of what could be called evidence of presence for women. She then expounds on three principles: “Knowledge Base,” “Tangible Resources,” and “Interpretation,” as both material- and method-driven tactics toward successful means of representing women in museum exhibits and programs. While the book’s framework seems to presuppose a hierarchy of approach, it can be read out of order or used as a reference for individual topics. Huyck prefaces this material with “Significance,” or, her take on why women’s history matters; the key point of which is the stark fact that while women have remained roughly one half of humankind’s population, attention to their lives and activities in the public record have been traditionally overlooked or marginalized. In and of itself, this academic insistence, which weaves its way into each subsequent portion of the handbook, anchors the author’s narrative.

The next part, “Knowledge Base,” while thorough, reads like a primer of understood research methods in higher education. Standard primary resources such as diaries, correspondence, scrapbooks and ephemera are duly noted, along with oral histories, photographs and government documents. Secondary publications such as newspapers and contemporary online repositories of digital content are mentioned. Most of this information would not be a revelation to a museum curator; notwithstanding, it is reassuring to reframe the value of archives and special collections as they apply to a living product—an open exhibition. More to the point is the marriage of the act of discovery of one of these often small, overlooked threads in the form of an artifact that knits together the entire soul of the curator’s message. Here is where Huyck provides a myriad of specific examples from her own knowledge and experience, citing numerous historic sites and museums that used one recipe, one antique photograph, a textile or a small archive, to tether an entire visitor experience.

Huyck repeats this approach in “Tangible Resources.” Whether a landmark, vase, or entire garden, spaces and objects are the meat and potatoes of museum inspiration, and Huyck pays lavish attention to the female aspects of architecture, environment, landscape and made pieces of antiquity. Again, her suggestions for further inquiry fall back on the familiar in American Studies, but Huyck draws parallels of women’s experience in the details. She reiterates the tactile aspects of places where women would have been and things that women would have encountered as a means to reproduce a past life or event for a program attendee. Huyck also reminds the reader of the uniqueness of identity and the religious, racial, and sexual differences that characterize women in history as much as the women of today. This section of the handbook makes the most use of Huyck’s expertise in public history and parks and breaks down these specialized niches for the prospective curator. While each chapter in each part of Doing Women’s History concludes with extensive, well-documented notes, “Tangible Resources” includes 22 pages of both print and online resources, as well as notations on actual visits made by the author herself to sites referenced. The thoroughness and care with which she applies her passion for the topic will carry the reader through the more pedantic and less revelatory givens such as “legal framework” and “preservation.” That is not to say that these concepts should not be covered in a curator’s guide; rather, that curators in the field would be aware of the sources. Huyck also peppers her chapters with occasional photographs and tables that succinctly refer to the examples of doing women’s history that she yields in her prose.

In part four, “Interpretation,” Huyck shares her two most overarching insights into the matter of ascribing preponderance to doing women’s history in public. She states, “We need to change our asymmetrical relationship from experts to visitors to a mutual relationship” (p. 194). This is definitely a trend in the medium to smaller museums; curators are more and more accessible via in-person, hands-on programs or online events on platforms such as Zoom. Here special emphasis is necessary for how women’s history deserves equal footing in this new, flattened hierarchy of museum professional and prospective patrons. The way to begin to correct this imbalance comes in Huyck’s second observation: “We need to emphasize that historic women’s lives and experiences are part of the core story that makes our places so important” (p. 195). This, naturally, is in its general form, the challenge of all museums: finding an audience, and convincing said audience to “show up” for what curators are “giving” them—in other words, membership attendance. Huyck’s passion for women’s history in public places is a good stepping-stone for institutions to take responsibility for enacting the ongoing female chronicle of ubiquity as opposed to viewing “women’s place” as a secondary role.

While these are not earth-shattering conclusions, they serve as support statements to the backbone of contemporary museum and public history pulpits. The fact that much of the information compiled in Huyck’s handbook may be review for the experienced professional does not take away from its worth as the glue for the various parts of her thesis. Huyck’s handbook does bear limited scope in primarily Americana as its cornerstone for content. Future works, whether by Huyck or others who ferret out intersections between women’s history and museums, would hopefully explore global religions and movements, along with diverse demographics across the world map. Huyck relies on a technique of rallying optimism in her prose to encourage networking and solidarity among curators in the quest for doing women’s history in public. This attitude of celebration would then, hopefully, be subsequently communicated to patrons. It is indubitably a teacher’s characteristic and personifies Huyck as such: while on paper, her assertions are tireless, they hint at a dynamic individual whose enthusiasm would be better communicated in an in-person course or public forum. Doing Women’s History would be the required reading for that more lively exchange with the author: a necessary essential to the next exciting part of the journey of curating women’s collections. — Rochelle Theo Pienn

[1] Stephen Weil. (2000, September 6-9). Beyond Management: Making Museums Matter [Keynote address]. 1st International Conference on Museum Management and Leadership—Achieving Excellence: Museum Leadership in the 21st Century INTERCOM/CMA conference, Ottawa, Canada. https://app.pch.gc.ca/ac/intercom/beyond.html