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Student Narratives and Public Memory in Museums

Posted by Cynthia Wallace...
16 November 2015 - 9:46pm


I would like to draw your attention to a history education symposium coming up on December 1 in London (England) at the Institute of Education. This seminar series brings together three international scholars to explore what young people know about the past and their sources of knowledge.

Dr. Jocelyn Letourneau, of Laval University (Quebec), will discuss a pragmatic approach to teaching history, intended to move students  “outside the thinkable they’ve been accustomed to in living in a particular society and being subject to its broad representations.”

Dr. Arie Wilschut, of the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, will focus his discussion on the Dutch national historical consciousness, in particular, “we” versus “they” perspectives when talking and writing about the past.

Dr. Stéphane Levesque, of the University of Ottawa, will discuss the function of narration in orientating a community (and the individuals who share a membership in that community) within the context of time and nation.

All of these presentations speak to historical consciousness as a reflection of the present.  Indeed, as historian E. H. Carr (1990) once wrote, history is “an unending dialogue between the present and the past” (p. 55).  In this sense, we “see” the past within the context of our present.

As Letourneau has pointed out, it can be initially difficult for students to step outside of the narrative to which they are accustomed, and to “see” the past from a different societal perpective.  In this sense, while shared narratives can serve to orientate individuals as members of a community, they can also serve as blinders.  My own research focussed upon narrative constructs in a community history museum.  Over a period of 14 weeks, an entire class of seventh-graders explored the use of evidence and sources in the museum.

The promise of historical thinking in museums rests with enabling students to interact with museum narratives, using more than pre-existing “mythistoires” (Létourneau , 2014) as their single point of comparison for validating or denying historical claims (Husbands, 1996; van Boxtel, 2010; van Drie & van Boxtel, 2008; Létourneau, 2014; Nakou, 2006; Trofanenko, 2008).  As Jones (2014) and Savenije et al. (2014) have found, when museum collections are used simply to support a particular narrative claim (rather than reflect critically upon that claim), students in this age group accept the authority of the museum, while selectively adapting portions of the narrative to reinforce their own pre-existing understandings of the past.  In this way, they re-interpret and rationalize portions of the museum narrative to accommodate their own world-view.  

As counter-balance to this phenomenon, van Boxtel (2010) has recommended that scaffolding tools be adopted to enable students to “critically question and evaluate how the past is represented… in order to deconstruct invented traditions and recognize historical inaccuracies or simplifications” (p. 59).  By adopting a Material History Framework for Historical Thinking, students participating in my case study de-constructed the narratives they encountered in the museum, and thus came to understand the constructed nature of historical narratives.  In turn, their narrative re-constructions, although limited by the parameters of the museum collection (and artifact accession records), were source-specific, and did not reflect the narrative expectations of the museum.  Although isolated, and seemingly disconnected from the museum’s "official" narrative, the individual (or "vernacular") “little narratives” (Rowe et al., 2002) that students created became (seemingly) personal links to the community history museum.

I think these findings speak to the important role history museums play in formulating – and re-formulating – the historical narratives that shape our lives.  As Dr. Peter Seixas has argued, intellectual empowerment rests with shifting the axis of power away from the “makers of the message,” into the hands of students themselves (Seixas, 2001, 2005, 2012; Seixas et al., 2008).

For those fortunate enough to be able to attend the upcoming (December 1, 2015) symposium in London, I invite you to share your thoughts with us on Facebook. I also look forward to hearing and reading more about this important scholarly discussion.


Carr, E. H. (1990).What is history?, 2nd edition. London, England: Penguin Books.

Husbands, C. (1996). What is history teaching?: Language, ideas, and meaning in learning about the past. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Jones, C. (2014). Frames of meaning: Young people, historical consciousness and challenging history at museums and historic sites. In J. Kidd, S. Cairns, A. Drago, A. Ryall, & M. Stearn (Eds.), Challenging history in the museum: International perspectives (pp. 223 – 234). Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Company.

Létourneau, J. (2014). Je me souviens? Le passé du Québec dans la conscience de sa jeunesse. Quebec : Groupe Fides.

Nakou, I. (2006). Museums and history education in our contemporary context. International Journal of Historical Learning, Teaching and Research 6(1), 83-92.

Rowe, S., Wertsch, J., & Kosyaeva, T. (2002). Linking little narratives to big ones: Narrative and public memory in history museums. Culture & Psychology 8(1), 96-112.

Savenije, G, van Boxtel, C. & Grever, M. (2014). Learning about sensitive history: “Heritage” of slavery as a resource. Theory and Research in Social Education, 42(4), pp. 516-547.

Seixas, P. (2001). Review of research on social studies. In V. Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of research on teaching (4th ed.),(pp. 545-565). Washington,D.C.: American Educational Research Association.

Seixas, P. (2005). Historical consciousness: The progress of knowledge in a postprogresive age. In J. Straub (Ed.), Narration, identity, and historical consiousness (pp. 141-159). New York: Berghahn Books.

Seixas, P. (2012). Progress, presence and historical consciousness: Confronting past, present and future in postmodern time.  Paedagogica Histórica 48 (6), 859-72.

Trofanenko, B. (2008). More than a single best narrative: Collective history and the transformation of historical consciousness. Curriculum Inquiry 38(5), 579-603.

van Boxtel, C. (2010, August 25). Experiencing the past outside of school. Towards a theoretical framework for heritage education. Paper presented at the 21st International Congress of Historical Sciences, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

van Drie, J., & van Boxtel, C. (2008). Historical reasoning: Towards a framework for analyzing students’ reasoning about the past. Educational Psychology Review, 20(2), 87-110.


Image: By mattbuck (category) (Own work by mattbuck.) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons