Historical Sites, Museum Minute, Museums, Public History

Christmas In Museum Land

I recently read MuseumMinute which asks if  museums “sell out” when they “deck” their exhibit halls. A second blog called Peabody’s Lament says “We do it because the Christmas season is a month-long Black Friday for museums. Our visitation (and our coffers) swell. Christmas is a house museum institution.

Stuff on Stuff on Stuff. A true Victorian Christmas
This topic combines a few of my “favorite things;” christmas displays and museum displays. When I begun graduate school I was volunteering at The Henry B. Plant Museum which is a Victorian “life-style” museum in a 19thc “Moorish-Revival” hotel. It is a very interesting place and it explodes for Christmas. Imagine a Victorian parlor, filled with nicknacks, socially important future with no storage or seating value, rugs, loud wall paper, and ornate wood wood. Good. Now imagine how the people who decided that room looked great did Christmas.

{Honestly Christmas is a bit overwhelming, there is a lot of stimuli and a lot of complaining}

SO what about Christmas at museums, Peabody’s says it is great for business, Museum Minute worries that Christmas skews the museum’s mission. I agree with Peabody. Many museums, especially smaller ones, depend on big ticket events like Christmas to keep their doors open.

During Christmas people are encouraged to spend money, do things with their families, and celebrate Christmas. Celebrating Christmas is much more than buying gifts {and much less than a religious holiday, lets be real with ourselves} it is a display holiday! Museums and Christmas are a perfect pair because both focus on the beauty and cultural power of material objects. {People recognize the cultural meanings behind Pine trees indoors that are covered with glass globes and lights. It means Christmas.}

Going to a museum to see them interpret period Christmas pieces lets people understand themselves and their contemporary culture as timeless. {They had Christmas, we have Christmas, they had trees, we have trees, I really like that ornament I wonder if it is in the gift shop, it would remind of the romantic Victorians Christmas I experienced here, We are all the same!}

Christmas events at museums (in general) do nothing if not an adhere to the museum’s expressed goals of bring people closer to the past, helping them create an appreciation for the past, and teaching them about the period.

Christmas does not take place in a vacuum.Christmas in 2013 is different that 1870. A Christmas display about 1870’s Christmas in 2013 is different from the one in 2012, 1992, and 1912. We need to understand that if people come to see Christmas at museums and museums show guests Christmas it represents apart of contemporary culture. Good or Bad, it is realitiy and it is ,in some way, unique.

Christmas display events do the most to show contemporary people that they share similarites with the past. Though this is problematically simple, Christmas is a month long holiday were we are encouraged to think in problematically simple terms about consumption, display, and nostalgia. These events hurt a museum’s overall goals as  much as an exclusive, high-priced cock-tail event hurts the museum {unless someone spills a drink on a 100yr old couch..then your in trouble}. 

Each museum is a unique argument and vision of the past, Christmas functions as a way to get people in, make them acknowledge the museum’s existence, and consider at least a slice of the narrative therein.

Decking the Halls is by no means an act of “selling-out” for museums. Unless it is done at the Holocaust Museum, the world trade center or another traumatic historical site/museum, that would be extremely problematic, but everyone else, relax. You are certainly tailoring the exhibits for a mainstream audience, listening to the wants of the masses, but museums are made for the public, they reflect the public’s past and present lives. Christmas, for the past 100 or so years, has been a pretty big deal and shapes how Americans understand winter. Even if someone does not celebrate the holiday in the traditional manner, the images and iconography are everywhere. Christmas is apart of reality. If you go into a store and buy anything during this time of the year you are doing Christmas. If the store acknowledges Christmas, and you buy something from it, you are doing Christmas.

Rosenzweig and Thelen told us that people use their experiences with the past to understand themselves.[1] Catherine Camerson and John B. Gatewood told us that people seek historical sites and museums out to create a personal connection with the past.[2]  Rachel P Mains and James J Glynn explained that people often ignore academic interpretation and attach their own significance to objects.[3]  If people are looking to museums as trustworthy sites of identity creation in which they interpret displays on their own terms, through their own understandings, all year round, Christmas displays don’t change much beyond the visual. Christmas displays offer a hyper-visual version of the kinds of limitations museums face as educational institutions any other time of the year.

And people love talking about how problematic Christmas is, so it is appropriate at museums get in on this conversation.


[1] Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past (New York: Columbia University, 1998) 12. So did, Ed. Pierra Nora, and David P. Jordan Rethinking France: Les Lieux de memoire, Volume 4: Histories and Memories (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010). Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992). Eric Hobsawn, The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University, 2003). But Rosenzweig and Thelen more clearly place the understanding with in museums, which their findings show people trust the most.

[2] Catherine M Cameron, and John B. Gatewood, “Excursions into the Un-Remembered Past: What People Want From Historical Sites.” The Public Historian 22. No.3. (Summer 2000) 107-127.

[3] Rachel P Mains, and James J Glynn, “Numinous Objects” The Public Historian 15, no.1. (Winter 1993), 8-25.


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