The public face of history: the New Western History from the academy to Southwestern history museum exhibits
This study examines history museums in Arizona and New Mexico to determine whether New Western History themes are prevalent, twenty years after the term was conceived. Patricia Limerick is credited with using the expression in the 1980s, but she had to promote the concept frequently and for many years. There was resistance to changing from the Frederick Jackson Turner thesis of looking at the frontier as an expansion from the East, even while others were already writing more current historiography.
Limerick’s four “Cs”—continuity, convergence, conquest, and complexity—took a view of the West from the West, worthy of a separate perspective. These themes also allowed historians to reflect on what was happening locally, how and why various people were interacting, how there was less of a benevolent imbuing of European culture on Native Americans than there was a conquest of indigenous people, and how resource extraction created complex situations for all living things. While scholarly works were changing to provide relevant material based on these themes, museums were receiving thousands of visitors every year and may have been providing the Anglo-centric view of events or creating more inclusive displays. Label texts could have been either clarifying or confusing to a history loving audience.
Three types of museums were visited to determine whether there was a difference in display based on governing body. National Park Service sites, state sponsored institutions, and local city-based museums served as the study material. The age of the existing long-term exhibits ranged from brand new to fifty-one years extant. As important to the use of New Western History themes as the term of the current exhibit was the type of governing body.
Monographs, essays, and museum exhibits are all important to the dissemination of history. How they relate and how current they are to each other creates an opportunity for both academic and museum professional historians to reflect on the delivery systems used to enlighten a history-loving public.