An expert on the history of aviation at the Smithsonian told an audience at Wright State University on March 22 that museums make a difference in society by inspiring the public to think and learn more about the past.
Tom Crouch, senior curator of aeronautics for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, said the work of historians and public historians is important today since most people learn about history from popular culture, Hollywood and the Internet, not from textbooks and scholarly works.
“Public historians are the people who really do shape the general public’s understanding of history,” Crouch said.
Crouch was the keynote speaker at Wright in Your Own Backyard: Exploring and Presenting Controversy in Public History, the second annual Public History Graduate Symposium.
He remarked that he was the perfect speaker for the symposium since, over the course of his career, “I have gone from one controversy to another.”
Crouch discussed controversial exhibits he worked on during his museum career, including an exhibition at the National Museum of American History on the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and exhibits on World War I aviation and the Enola Gay, both of which were displayed at the National Air and Space Museum.
“I always thought it was important to use exhibitions to get people to engage and to think,” he said.
Crouch, who has written or edited more than a dozen books, is a respected expert on the history of aviation and flight technology, including the lives and careers of Wilbur and Orville Wright, inventors of the first powered aircraft.
The daylong symposium was organized by Wright State’s Public History program and sponsored by the Department of History, the College of Liberal Arts and the National Aviation Heritage Alliance.
The symposium also featured presentations by Mark Holbrook, marketing manager for the Ohio Historical Society; Dawne Dewey, head of special collections and archives and director of Wright State’s Public History program; and eight graduate students.