WBRM Director tackles difficult history in new book

Quinn Welsch


Sometimes there is a natural aversion to difficult history.

Julie Rose

Our initial reaction to historical subjects that are painful can sometimes lead us to block them out of our heads entirely.

This might be even more true in a region that is dotted with historic plantation homes reminiscent of a time when humans were bought and sold as property followed by a bloody war fought on American soil.

Overcoming this resistance to these difficult histories in a way that is natural and informative is the premise of West Baton Rouge Museum Director Julie Rose’s newest book, aptly titled “Interpreting Difficult History at Museums and Historic Sites.”

Rose described a period shortly after graduating from LSU with a doctorate, when institutions, especially museums, were being called out for not accurately representing a history of slavery enough.

“My big question was why,” she said. As she put it, the museum guides were taught to provide their guests with a generic idea of slavery in the national sense by using a local angle.

“Why is the story of the big house and the planter family being told for centuries and we’re not hearing about the enslaved families?” she asked.

Throughout her research, Rose came up with her methodology for interpreting some of these difficult histories – what she calls “commemorative museum pedagogy.”

“What I was able to find was that people who are going to learn something or face something really horrific and sad, or even shocking, will turn away. There is a certain type of resistance,” she said.

Being in a museum, a place for recreation makes that resistance more profound, she said. Yet, that resistance is key to understanding the material. It is also one of five other Rs in her book.

The first R is reception, or the moments that a museum visitor enters a museum or exhibit that might be difficult for some audiences, which can include slavery, war, genocide, mass oppression, or other traumatic historical events, she said.

The second R is repetition, which provides that visitors ask questions of the tour guide, go back to previous artifacts and connect the dots, she said. Then comes reflection, which is the point when a visitor immersed in a difficult history reaches an understanding.

Finally, there is reconsideration, which is the ultimate goal of the institution, Rose said. the visitor has an understanding and is somehow changed, socially, politically or personally.

“Reconsideration was really important. For someone to be moved, to have active empathy, to show they have learned something, they have to demonstrate that they care,” she said.

The pedagogy is not linear, she said. Rather, visitors can receive, resist, reflect, repeat, reconsider in a number of patterns, sometimes even at much later times after visiting the museum.

The goal is to use the five Rs as a guideline for exhibits and museum guides to design their galleries and ultimately to educate their visitors in the best way, Rose said.

“It informs our narrative, our exhibit design, how I’m going to train the staff,” Rose said. “It’s an internal psychic experience, but by using these other theories I feel like I’m able to help the museum community interpret difficult histories, because they can be stymied.

“Interpreting Difficult History at Museums and Historic Sites” can be found on Amazon.com and on the publisher Rowman & Littlefield’s website, rowman.com.

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