About the Project
In 2017, Unvarnished was awarded a prestigious Institute of Museum and Library Services National Leadership Grant. This virtual exhibit and its teachers’ resource guide are the result of an almost five-year journey from 2017 to 2022 undertaken by a learning community of five museums and one cultural organization. Together, we crossed the northern and western US to convene at each location and learn from thought leaders, scholars, and each other, dig into archives, and listen to community members share their experiences.
Unvarnished was conceived, developed, and directed by Naper Settlement, an outdoor history museum in the Chicago metropolitan area administered by the Naperville Heritage Society. As part of an extensive community engagement process, the museum expanded its mission from a nineteenth century settlement story to an inclusive history leading up to today’s Naperville. Now the fourth largest city in Illinois because of significant population growth and demographic change, the museum set out to learn how that happened. What were the factors that took the community from being an essentially all-White population in the mid-twentieth century to a resident population that is now 32% people of color? Was Naperville unique or part of a pattern of change?
For many, it feels like history is changing and that can be uncomfortable. Historiography is what happens when new information and perspectives broaden our understanding of the past and its connection to the present. Often, it is a case of making room for stories that were not as broadly told as they should have been. History organizations constantly receive new information. It might be a new document, artifact, or oral history. We research to learn more about our communities and how they connect to regional and national narratives.
Undertaken at a time when museums and historical organizations are taking a deeper look at the stories they tell and the histories they represent, the cohort members needed to ask themselves similar questions. Why did it seem like only southern museums were challenged to account for legacies of racism? What would it look like if a group of organizations worked closely together to uncover their own histories of systemic exclusionary real estate practices and sundown town legacies? How could their narratives be broadened to share histories previously not widely known, to create opportunities for understanding and community conversation?
Of utmost importance was having organizations of all types and sizes, in the northern and western US, at different points in their journey of wanting to share more inclusive histories. In addition to Naper Settlement, the participating organizations are; African Heritage Incorporated in Appleton, Wisconsin, a cultural organization whose members represent and share the history and culture of Black people in northeastern Wisconsin; Brea Museum and Historical Society in Brea, California, a small local history organization; Oak Park River Forest History Museum, a small suburban history museum located next to Chicago’s western border; Ohio History Connection, a large state-wide organization headquartered in Columbus ; and the Noah Webster House and West Hartford Historical Society, a mid-size local history organization.
The local spotlights share histories that unfolded over our time together. We know that in five years we have only scratched the surface. So much more work needs to be done connecting our communities to people and histories previously marginalized. With a project focused on exclusionary housing practices and sundown town legacies from the 1890s to today, entire histories are still waiting to be told, such as the impact of Indian Removal and immigration stories including changes in immigration law that are only hinted at in this exhibit. We want to encourage EVERY community to expand its local story so that their WHOLE history is represented. We challenge you to explore the unvarnished history of your community.
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