Monash University

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Beyond migrant mother: exhibiting the American experience of the great depression & the 1930s.

posted on 2016-12-02, 05:45 authored by Katz, Meighen Sarah
This dissertation is an interdisciplinary exploration of the ways in which the history of the Great Depression and the 1930s has been encapsulated and interpreted by public historians through museum exhibitions. This project drew cues from both American History and Museology/Museum Studies and made use of exhibitions both past and standing, institutional archives, exhibition catalogues and curatorial interviews as research sources. It encompasses exhibitions on labour, on arts and technology, on FDR, housing and general American history. In doing so, it has employed a relatively new model for investigation of historical interpretation, one that that incorporates multiple genres and institutions while focussing on the specific decade of the 1930s. This approach is a departure from the more common practice that either focuses on a single institution or collection, or uses a particular exhibition genre, such as immigration, to explore exhibitions across a number of eras. By using a model of trans-institution, trans-genre museum analysis examining the multiple strategies of interpretation in exhibitions that share a commonality of period, the end result both broadens the discourse of how that specific period is understood, as well as the discourse surrounding historical interpretation as a whole. This project achieved three significant goals. First and foremost it created a picture of “best-practice” interpretation of the Great Depression and the 1930s within American history exhibitions between 1982 -2007, a period in which the New Deal was, in varying degrees, out of favour on the American political landscape. Second, it broadened the public history discourse surrounding several important themes of the Great Depression era. Key among these was the theme of vulnerability and the continued dominance of the paradigm of resilience within interpretations of 1930s poverty. It also considered the incorporation of media products as historical artefacts rather than just as interpretive tools, the more common focus for discussions of photographs or sound-scapes. Finally it expanded the model of examination of history exhibitions that uses a chronological rather than a thematic framework and which incorporates a number of different genres or institutional venues. While from a purely academic perspective this research is a public history study of how the history of the Great Depression and the 1930s is interpreted in the specific medium of museums, world events have broadened its outcomes. Though the project was begun before the onset of the current global financial crisis, it has taken on added importance as the economic downturn became increasingly pronounced. The popular press has, since the earliest days of the crisis, drawn parallels to the Great Depression. In light of the role the 1930s have been assigned as the foundation for a “usable past”, it becomes increasingly vital to understand the public discourse that surrounds that decade. Museums and public historians play a significant role in crafting that discourse. This project examines and illuminates the narratives regarding the Great Depression and the 1930s that have and are emerging from American museums making transparent both the nature of interpretation and the factors that contributed to their creation.


Principal supervisor

Seamus O'Hanlon

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

School of Philosophical, Historical & International Studies


Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type


Campus location



Faculty of Arts

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