Museum Studies Blog

Posted on June 20th, 2022 in Book Reviews, Student Work by Katelynn Sinclair | Tags: , ,

Curating America’s Painful Past, by Tim Gruenewald. Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 2020.


The United States is a place of deeply painful pasts. However, there are few prominent spaces in which these subjects are explored where they will contribute to national memory. In his 2020 book, Curating America’s Painful Past: Memory, Museums, and the National Imagination, Tim Gruenewald explores how the National Museum of American History (NMAH), the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), and the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), avoid exploring the painful pasts of the U.S. through their storytelling. While Gruenewald emphasizes the importance of curating painful pasts on the National Mall (the Mall) to incorporate them into national memory, he also shows that museums throughout the country must exhibit these painful pasts in order to heal the present. Painful pasts arise from “crimes against humanity and large-scale, systematic oppression or discrimination of the past that continues to have a significant negative impact…today” (20).  As museums increasingly become places of social justice and civic engagement, they and their staff have an obligation to exhibit painful pasts, so that the nation may remember them and learn from them. Using specific examples, images, and comparative analysis, Gruenewald compels the reader to consider how museums frame difficult histories.

Gruenewald’s work takes readers through each of the four museums, exploring the exhibition content, spatial arrangement, and national memory contributions of each museum. The introduction informs the reader of the importance of a national center of remembrance, as there is a strong connection between the past and the present (1). The first case study shows how the NMAH focuses on patriotism, freedom, and the military while avoiding “particularly painful memories of slavery or forced removal” (40). Chapter Two explores the USHMM and how it exhibits the horrors of the Holocaust while also celebrating American militarism in order to foster patriotism. Chapter Three examines the NMAAHC, a museum where one would expect to see more nuanced examinations of painful pasts, yet with exhibits like The Journey Toward Freedom emphasizes the American mythos of freedom through “an uplifting narrative of liberation” (119). The overview of the NMAI in Chapter Four shows how the NMAI differs spatially and organizationally from the other three museums, but still largely avoids painful pasts. Finally, the conclusion uses the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (NMPJ) as an example of how painful pasts can be exhibited in a meaningful way. Thus, the author shows how the Smithsonian museums focus on patriotism and freedom while avoiding difficult topics like slavery and forced removal which would implicate the United States in being perpetrators of oppression and pain.

Gruenewald places his work in the historical narrative by referring to modern events that are part of the national memory. The opening line of the book reads: “On May 25, 2020, four police officers killed George Floyd on a street in Minneapolis during an arrest” (1). Opening the book thusly ensures that readers will be able to connect the importance of collective memory to modern issues. Gruenewald seeks to show that “museums and memorials have been laggards, not leaders regarding the memory of painful past in the United States” and that while “distributed memory throughout [the] US…is crucial for changing a consensus about the past, memory sites at the center reflect the state of that consensus at present” (9). Gruenewald presents his argument effectively and directly through existing scholarship, detailed descriptions of exhibits, and comparative analysis. While the museums are described individually, the comparisons are important for understanding the museums both individually and collectively in order to understand the author’s argument entirely. Gruenewald uses the mission statements and histories of the museums as lenses through which to view the institutions’ exhibits, or lack thereof, addressing painful pasts. This creates a fuller understanding of the museums and their national importance. By describing specific exhibits and how visitors reach them, such as guests being inundated with visuals of concentration camp liberation during the elevator ride at the USHMM, Gruenewald exemplifies how museums use exhibits and physical and emotional spaces to tell stories. Thus, Gruenewald paints a clear picture of the museums, especially for readers who have never visited them, and shows how the experience as a whole contributes to visitors’ takeaways from the museums.

Gruenewald does not simply point out what is good and bad about the museums. He makes suggestions about how the museums can better display painful pasts. By describing the success of the NMPJ, he shows a clear example of a successful implementation of curating America’s painful past. Yet, Gruenewald goes further, showing what a similar success would mean to national memory if it existed on the Mall. This provides a solid, tangible example of what he desires from museums, moving his arguments from theory to practice. While Gruenewald stresses the importance of the NMAI and the NMAAHC in presenting these histories, Gruenewald recognizes that it is not their burden to bear alone, and must be taken on by the Smithsonian Institution as a whole. This viewpoint can be extended to museums throughout the country: they are important for telling the painful pasts, but it is not their job alone.

Gruenewald shows that the Mall needs to do a better job of telling America’s painful past in order to create a better present and accurate national memory. While his writing is suited to general audiences, avoiding jargon, his work can serve those entering or who have already entered the museum field as an instructional guide, showing how memory is being displayed on a national level, and what that means for the culture and history of the nation. Gruenewald’s work fits well within contemporary museum scholarship, which seeks to use museums as places of social justice, civic engagement, and places of memory and healing. Therefore, this book is recommended for all those interested in museum work, and specifically those who seek to change how America remembers its past through its museums.

Madeline Griem is a first year MA student in the Museum Studies Program at IUPUI.