Doing Women’s History in Public: A Handbook for Interpretation at Museums and Historic Sites, by Heather Huyck. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2020.
REVIEWED BY SOFIA ANTILA
Heather Huyck’s guide to interpreting women’s history, published in 2020, delves into the way women’s history has been, and should be, interpreted through oral, visual, and written sources. This review will situate the book in the context of its usefulness in the field of museum studies, first providing a summary of it, followed by a review of its relevance for museum studies professionals.
The focus of the book is on the use of different resources to address the underrepresentation of women’s lives in public history and museums, addressing which has the potential to uncover new experiences and history from perspectives which have gone ignored so far. She focuses on this through her extensive sources and bibliography drawing on from the fields of gender studies, sexuality, and women’s history. Employment of sources from these fields frames her mission to situate women’s experiences in different contexts and in different places within public history, from objects to land to buildings. This is achieved through three tactics. All the tactics focus on methodologies, through which Huyck provides information and instructions on how interpret women’s history and represent them and their experiences in museums and exhibitions. The tactics provide structure to the book, as each of them are separated into their own dedicated sections, where each section focuses on different aspect in achieving higher representation of women in the field. This organization of strategies makes it accessible to a range of audiences, from individuals to institutions. Each of the chapters follows a theme, concluding with a list of tools and resources which can be consulted for further study or to employ in bringing gendered perspective into historical interpretations.
The strategies and methods to interpret history with a gendered lens and how to add these within the field are prefaced by a chapter arguing for the importance of this inclusion, as she calls it the significance of women’s history. She argues that traditionally, female, feminine, perspectives tend to have gone underrepresented or ignored despite women making up half of the world’s population. At the centre of Huyck’s argument is how the history, as told currently, is incomplete. The lack of inclusion of the experiences and presence of women distorts our accounts of the past. This denies fundamental respect to half of the population, which is another central tenet of the book: respect and recognition of women’s lives and the diversity within. The book accomplishes in creating a strong argument for the significance of examining women’s history, as well as explaining the need to conscious of the vast diversity within women. She notes how historians may have issues with female-created sources, which often are from wealthier upper class, educated women. This brings a intersectional perspective into her arguments, making it more well-rounded. The theme of respect is central to this argument as well, the author arguing how all women deserve to have their story to be told. The following quote summarises well her arguments as to why there is a lack of sources by women and why such inclusion has been difficult:
“Many women believed – and still believe – that their lives weren’t sufficiently interesting of valuable, or they were simply shy, resulting in many female writings being burned, trashed, or lost to natural causes” (p. 64).
Huyck also emphasises the importance of interdisciplinary work. Her focus ranges from historic preservation and architecture to art history, offering resources for a broad field of study making it applicable for a wide range of different museums. However, the content does feel slightly contradictory at times. An example of this is the part which explains what primary, secondary and tertiary sources are (p. 40), which seems slightly reductionist considering the book is a how-to targeted at museums, or at least people familiar with the field already, and thus seems unnecessary inclusion to the book. The book is also somewhat US centric, which might limit the applicability of it to museums outside of the States. While some of the resources are accessible from outside the US, the examples largely focus on women in the context of the US, as are the sources used in the book. Some of the resources also focus heavily on the States despite being accessible from outside the country.
The book contributes to the museum field through its in-depth framework which can be employed by a range of different institutions in the field to interpret women’s history and to understand how women’s lives have been marginalized within public history. This inclusion broadens the way museum professionals understand underrepresentation and how we can approach the inclusion of women with different tools. While the argument Huyck makes is not itself revolutionary: women tend to be underrepresented in variety of fields, that it is true for museums and public history too is not new information, she does provide concrete solutions on how to not only acknowledge the gender gap in representation but also how to go about correcting it. The book lays a foundation which institutions across fields can build on and gives a solid argument for why this inclusion and foundation is vital.
To conclude, Huyck’s work succeeds in its goal of getting the audience to think about women’s inclusion in museums and history in a different way and provides concrete steps to take to increase this inclusion. However, at times it seems simplistic, as some parts seem unnecessary considering the audience, which distracts from the goal of the book. Nonetheless, the book adds value to the field by challenging the status quo of female representation and the way we have addressed women’s experiences.
Sofia Antila is a final year MA student in European Studies double-degree program at the University of Groningen and Uppsala University. She is currently finishing a research track at IUPUI.