Pathways to Democracy? Museums as Radically Inclusive Civic and Cultural Spaces

Endorsed by the OAH Committee on National Park Service Collaboration and the Oral History Association

Friday, April 16, 2021, 12:00 PM - 1:30 PM

Type: Roundtable Discussion

Tags: Museums; Public History and Memory; Social and Cultural


Historically, museums have been exclusive rather than inclusivedefining their publics in narrow rather than broad terms. This roundtable will consider whether and how museums can be pathways to democracy. Roundtable participants include museum professionals, archive builders, and public historians whose collective work demonstrates possibilities for how museums can be a public good, creating potential pathways to democracy and civic engagement. At the same time, participants acknowledge museums are imperfect instruments, and democracy is an imperfect and unfinished project. Can museums help visitors understand the cultural and global contexts in which democracy is both deeply valued and deeply contested?

Session Participants

Chair and Panelist: Margaret Salazar-Porzio, Smithsonian National Museum of American History
Margaret Salazar-Porzio is a Curator of Latina/o History and Culture in the Division of Home and Community Life at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. In this role, Salazar-Porzio has co-curated an exhibit on American cultural identity and immigration called Many Voices, One Nation, which opened in June 2017. She is editor of the exhibition book, Many Voices, One Nation: Material Culture Reflections on Race and Migration in the United States (Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 2017), named one of CHOICE’s Outstanding Academic Titles for 2017. Dr. Salazar-Porzio also spearheads other projects including the community collecting and exhibition project ¡Pleibol! In the Barrios and the Big Leagues / En los barrios y las grandes ligas (opening October 2020). Prior to joining the Smithsonian Institution, Salazar-Porzio earned her M.A. (2008) and Ph.D. (2010) in American Studies and Ethnicity from the University of Southern California. She served as an Associate Research Scholar and Lecturer at the Center for Institutional and Social Change at Columbia University Law School and received grants and fellowships from the Guggenheim, Rockefeller, and National Science Foundations.

Panelist: Mariah Hope Berlanga-Shevchuk, Five Oaks Museum
Mariah Berlanga-Shevchuk is the Cultural Resources Manager at the Five Oaks Museum in Portland, OR. In this role, Berlanga-Shevchuk cares for the museum’s collection and archive of approximately 100,000 cultural heritage items and oversees the guest curator program, which decentralizes the museum's authority in favor of community members so that the stories of the region are told authentically and equitably. Previously, she served as Associate Curator at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes where she curated a community collecting and exhibition project afroLAtinidad: mi casa, my city (opening February, 2020). While earning her M.A. in Museum Studies, Berlanga-Shevchuk focused on the impact culturally specific museums have on the communities they serve; the research culminated in an educational program that provides at-risk eighth graders with age-appropriate methods of activism. As a museum professional, she seeks ways to incorporate more social justice and social practice into her work, as well as methods to make museums as inclusive and accessible as possible.

Panelist: Erin M. Curtis, Lucas Museum of Narrative Art
Erin M. Curtis is a Los Angeles-based historian and curator who currently serves as a member of the founding curatorial team of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. Previously, she was Senior Curator at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes and Assistant Curator at the Skirball Cultural Center. Erin was a Smithsonian Institution Predoctoral Fellow at the National Museum of American History and has held positions at other museums and institutions, including the experience design firm Local Projects. She holds a PhD in American Studies and an M.A. in Public Humanities from Brown University as well as a B.A. from Pomona College. Erin is the award-winning co-author of ¡Murales Rebeldes! L.A. Chicana/Chicano Murals under Siege and has contributed chapters to Eating Asian America: A Food Studies Reader and American Chinese Restaurants: Society, Culture and Consumption. She also hosts a weekly radio show in Los Angeles.

Panelist: Rosa Elena Ficek, University of Puerto Rico-Cayey
Rosa E. Ficek is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and Research Associate at the University of Puerto Rico at Cayey. Her work brings together ethnographic and public history methods to explore the intersections of technology, environmental change, and empire in Latin America and the Caribbean. She directs the Hurricane María Archive, a digital project that documents the impacts of the disaster in Puerto Rico with community participation. She has authored essays in journals such as Current Anthropology, Transforming Anthropology, and the Journal of Transport History, and her work has been funded by the Social Science Research Council, Wenner-Gren, Mellon, and Ford Foundations. She holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of California-Santa Cruz and a B.A. in Spanish and Anthropology from Cornell University.

Commentator: Sharon M. Leon, Michigan State University
Sharon M. Leon is an Associate Professor of History at Michigan State University, where she specializes in digital methods with a focus on public history. As a result, Dr. Leon often is pursuing many research tracks at once. Currently, she is at work on a digital project to surface and analyze the community networks and experiences of the cohort of people enslaved and sold by the Maryland Province Jesuits in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Simultaneously, she is building a major methodological project on doing community-engaged digital public history. Dr. Leon received her bachelor of arts degree in American Studies from Georgetown University in 1997 and her doctorate in American Studies from the University of Minnesota in 2004. Her first book, An Image of God: the Catholic Struggle with Eugenics, was published by University of Chicago Press (May 2013). Prior to joining the History Department at MSU, Dr. Leon spent over thirteen years at George Mason University’s History Department at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media as Director of Public Projects, where she oversaw dozens of award-winning collaborations with library, museum, and archive partners from around the country. She continues to serve as the Director of the Omeka web publishing platform.