Most of the Field Museum’s collection is in the basement. There are almost 20 million taxidermied animal specimens in their collection. A few thousand are on display. Every artifact that reaches the floor represents a choice. It was chosen as an important piece of our natural history that deserves to be seen and studied. The choices we make in history class are similar. We have a certain amount of time to study certain fundamental ideas, and this race toward completion has left history curriculums with a very obvious focus. We study from the top down, learning about the people in power and now they interacted with the course of national and world events. I refer you to your standard middle school American history textbook as exhibit A.
Our class is starting a new project to build a modest museum of American history dedicated to voices less heard and people less heard. Our first investigation was women in early America. Our second was the Native American experience in the Southeast during the Seminole Wars and the removal of the Cherokee. Our next will be the experience of Africans on this continents from their arrival through the moment in 1865 when they earned citizenship and became African-Americans.
There is fundamental history to be learned here. The backdrop is the creation of our Democracy, and there are names and dates and events that should be learned so we can join the continuum of American culture. But there are choices too, and students will make choices about things our little museum should convey and artifacts our little museum might display. My contribution will be a family photograph taken in Amritsar, India around 1928 that makes me reflect on who is remembered in my own family. My grandmother is in the picture, wearing a child’s sari. Her father is there, as are the brothers and sisters who survived infancy. In the center is the woman who raised them. Everyone knows her, but not her name. She was just Aayah – maid.