Illustration of different kinds of people coming together as in a rally or demonstration.

Power to the People: Washington Gives Back

By Jennifer Brier, Anne Armstrong, Julie Kutruff, Erin Carlson Mast, Patricia Tuohy

Creative individuals and institutions in Washington DC have moved beyond what often comes to mind when people think of “Washington museums.” Power to the People: Washington Gives Back was a panel featured during this year’s annual conference of the American Alliance of Museums, which met in Washington DC May 26˗29. Leaders from four cultural organizations—two historic sites, a national library, and a museum—shared how their core storylines and programs respond to humanitarian challenges and strive to improve the health, well-being, and opportunities of the different communities they serve.

Jennifer Brier, professor at University of Illinois at Chicago, moderated the panel. Dr Brier runs a project called History Moves that encourages community members to think of themselves and act as history makers. She framed the session’s conversation as one about health as more than the absence of disease and how exhibitions and programming can make that understanding visible to visitors and community members. This is especially needed in a place like Washington DC where institutions have national obligations and audiences and, also, very real local obligations to address the profound and historical inequalities and segregations that exist in the nation’s capital.

Starting the Conversation: The Panelists

Anne Armstrong serves as deputy director of the National Guard Educational Foundation and director of the National Guard Memorial Museum, Archive, and Library. The National Guard Memorial Museum is situated in the shadow of the nation’s Capitol Building—a location notorious for stress and a fast pace.  Reflecting the evolution of American soldiers and their unprecedented service since 9/11/2001, Ms. Armstrong’s Museum hosts a Memorial Wall, dedicated to the Fallen. The Wall room provides the local community with a safe haven to come in out of the elements and to contemplate the sacrifices made on behalf of the nation.  In so doing, the National Guard Memorial Museum contributes to the well-being and health of the Capitol Hill community.

People touch and look at a wall of nameplates.
Visitors to the National Guard Memorial Museum respond to the Memorial Wall of the Fallen

Julie Kutruff is the Community Outreach and Partnership Coordinator for National Capital Parks-East which manages the Frederick Douglass House, in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington DC. Programs and practices at the house share the legacy of Frederick Douglass to a broad audience from all over the country however the site has been making targeted efforts to reach out the surrounding community. Ms Kutruff spoke about the dynamic changes that shaped National Park Service programming to recover and rebuild community engagement with the site.

A group of people do yoga on the lawn in front of a large house.
A community yoga program at the Frederick Douglass House

Erin Carlson Mast is CEO and Executive Director at President Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home, a historic site where Lincoln made nation-changing decisions about freedom and democracy. Mast illuminated how honest conversations about the past and present empower us to heal ourselves and the communities we serve.  Rather than presenting history at a remove, isolated in the past, the site’s programming allows the story to flow to the present. Ms Mast shared stories about several programs and exhibits that demonstrate this approach, including Students Opposing Slavery, a program that engages students from around the world, the American by Belief exhibit on immigration, and the Mission Advancement through Special Events program, all of which require diverse collaborations to succeed and support cultural health and well-being.

Patricia Tuohy is head of the Exhibition Program in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine. The Exhibition Program develops exhibitions that explore the social and cultural history of medicine and raise questions related to health as a human right. With a portfolio of more than a dozen traveling exhibitions, Ms Tuohy called attention to a recent project about how a cohort of nurse activists, working together during the 1980s and 1990s, confronted the larger medical profession’s inability to recognize domestic violence as a medical issue.

Confronting Violence: Improving Women’s Lives highlights a manuscript collection, recently acquired by the National Library of Medicine, that contains research studies, reports, published articles, letters, early publications, and presentation slides from two of the nurse activists Jacquelyn Campbell and Daniel Sheridan, and some of their cohort.

Confronting violence, six exhibition banners, installed in a lobby.
The traveling exhibition Confronting Violence: Improving Women’s Lives

This traveling banner exhibition is currently scheduled to go to 50 libraries across the country over the next several years.  When libraries host the exhibition, they will develop programming responsive to and in support of their communities’ needs. In this way, National Library of Medicine exhibitions can become catalysts for change.

Read more about the history of these activists nurses and the anti-domestic violence movement of the 1980s, in this series of posts by exhibition curator Catherine Jacquet, PhD, assistant professor of History and Women’s and Gender Studies.

Continuing the Conversation

The larger conversation with the audience following the presentations explored the different forms of historical and contemporary violence, how it is unequally felt and experienced in our present and past. There were no easy answers. Violence followed by silence, though, only exacerbates the wounds and prevents healing. The presentations gave concrete strategies from four institutions for addressing the health and well-being of communities.

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