Exhibiting American Studies

Introduction. Simon J. Bronner (Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg)

1. Exhibiting American Studies in House Museums. Caitlin Black (Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg)

2. Exhibiting the African-American Story of Atlantic City in Photographs. Cheryl Brooks (Milton Hershey School)

3. Exhibiting American Studies at Disney Theme Parks. Kathryn M. Holmes (Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg)


Simon J. Bronner, Chair and Distinguished Professor of American Studies, Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg, and Editor, Encyclopedia of American Studies online

In museums, galleries, heritage sites, and parks across the globe, visitors behold American experience on display and ponder cultural interpretations presented by curators and cultural resource managers in even greater numbers than those who read about them.  The scholarly and popular enterprise of collecting, exhibiting, and interpreting American things and images should therefore be recognized as significant application, and topic, of American Studies. In many exhibitions of artifacts, photographs, buildings, and whole landscapes in various institutional settings, curators present an interpretative narrative about the meaning of that experience and frequently accompany the displays with “catalogues” that tell stories with things and images.  Indeed, it was one such exhibition at the John Carter Brown Library that inspired Perry Miller to jump-start the American Studies movement with his paradigm-shifting essay, “Errand into Wilderness” (complete with 118 items in the exhibition), about the emergence of an American outlook (1953).  Even before the first academic program arose in American Studies, scholars noted the impact of the opening of “The American Wing” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1924). It not only signaled that American things were worth displaying and pondering, but that they invited an integrative approach to understanding them beyond art history. The “Met,” in fact, sponsored a series of “Lectures on American Art on the Occasion of the Opening of the American Wing” that should be recognized as a pivotal moment in the historiography of American Studies alongside other important exhibitions in the “American Studies Calendar” (Gene Wise’s famous “American Studies Calendar” in 1979 omitted popular exhibitions and founding of museums and theme parks in favor of pivotal publications).

More gritty as an exhibition space as well as contents was the opening of the Mercer Museum by industrialist Henry Mercer in 1916 devoted to the artifacts of everyday preindustrial life in America. More than a salvage operation in the midst of mass industrialization and immigration, Mercer’s museum conveyed concern for the loss simultaneously of community and nationhood in a changing America (Cary 1989). Studies of his pathbreaking museum consider his psychology as well as the organizational innovation of his public institution. Mercer’s historical and cultural enterprise in addition to the development of Colonial Williamsburg as a public historic site in 1928 inspired Henry Ford to create his Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in 1929 (Upward 1979). Another symbolic move to connect American Studies with exhibition as scholarly practice was the establishment of the National Museum of American History in 1964 as part of the Smithsonian Institution. A year later, the Department of American Studies was organized at the Museum of History and Technology with Wilcomb Washburn as the first chair (later his title was changed to director of the Office of American Studies). 

In addition to applying historical and cultural knowledge to ponder American culture visually and orally, American Studies scholars also analyze the institutions and organizers of exhibits as cultural brokers who influence the collective memories and worldviews of their audiences (see Alexander 1983; Kurin 1997).  Heritage Studies, Folk and Popular Culture Studies, and Museum Studies with connections to American Studies often approach exhibitions and institutions as artifacts and social frames reflecting, and affecting, the society and cultures of which they are a part, both in the United States and abroad (see Kammen 2006;  Leon and Rosenzweig 1989; Walker 2013; Wallace 1996). Thinking with, as well as about, collecting and exhibiting extends from private living room displays to massive heritage and theme parks. In all of these settings, the material as well as the forms of presentation shape a historical and cultural message that curator and audience process.  And this process is the basis for many new explorations by students of American Studies.

In this Forum, we present three perspectives on exhibiting American things and images by young Americanists. In the first essay, Caitlin Black, who brought a background in historic preservation to her doctoral studies in American Studies, suggests that the house museum can be analyzed, and used, by American Studies scholars as much more than shrines to famous individuals. She has insights into the ways that house museums frame objects of experience as well as their facades stand as statements of collective memory. Cheryl Brooks, an educator with an American Studies graduate degree at the Milton Hershey School, the largest boarding school for needy children in North America, considers the curating of private photograph collections of everyday life—snapshots often given short shrift as historical documents—to narrate localized African-American legacies that frequently do not feature other documentary and artifactual evidence. She relates her project to collect and exhibit the images of a segregated beach in Atlantic City as part of the American experience. The third perspective comes from Kathryn M. Holmes, who interprets the popular presentation of American history and life in exhibitions at Disney theme parks. In light of so many tourists from around the globe taking in Walt Disney’s vision of America in theme parks, she suggests critical examinations of not only the park as a recreational landscape, but also an experience with lessons that might be outside the awareness of visitors. The voices in this Forum bespeak an intellectual fervor for the construction and communication of American memory in addition to a location for American Studies students and scholars to work, learn, and theorize. 


Alexander, Edward P. Museum Masters: Their Museums and Their Influence. (American Association for State and Local History, 1983).

Cary, Ruth Anna. “The Mercer Museum and the Landis Valley Farm Museum: Exhibitions of Typology and Ethnicity in Pennsylvania.” Folklore Historian 6 (1989): 38-75.

Kammen, Michael. Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture. (Knopf, 2006).

Kurin, Richard. Reflections of a Cultural Broker: A View from the Smithsonian. (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997).

Leon, Warren, and Roy Rosenzweig, eds. History Museums in the United States: A Critical Assessment. (University of Illinois Press, 1989).

Miller, Perry. “Errand into Wilderness.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., 10 (1953): 3-32.

Upward, Geoffrey C. A Home for Our Heritage: The Building and Growth of Greenfield Village and Henry Ford Museum, 1929-1979. (Henry Ford Museum Press, 1979).

Walker, William S. A Living Exhibition: The Smithsonian and the Transformation of the Universal Museum. (University of Massachusetts Press, 2013).

Wallace, Mike. Mickey Mouse History and Other Essays on American Memory. (Temple University Press, 1996).

Wise, Gene. “An American Studies Calendar.” American Quarterly 31 (1979): 407-47.

Related Entries in the Encyclopedia of American Studies.

African American Visual Art
America Perceived 
American Studies: A Discipline
American Studies: An Overview
Barnum, Phineas Taylor
Cultural Resource Management
Culture and Cultural Studies
Decorative Arts
Disney, Walt
Documentary Photography and Photojournalism
Folk Art
Heritage Studies
Historic Preservation
Independence Hall
Material Culture Studies
Miller, Perry
National Parks and the National Park Movement
Peale, Charles Willson
Popular Culture
Public Heritage
Public Space
Smithsonian Institution
World’s Fairs and Expositions

1. Exhibiting American Studies in House Museums

by Caitlin Black, Lecturer of American Studies, The Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg

During the early weeks of my American Architecture course students find their initial expectations unrealized.  Instead of shuffling through slides with names and dates of important buildings, I ask them to think deeply about the relationship between architecture and the American experience. This task, inherently more complex, is also much more rewarding. Plantations become sites for understanding race, economics, and agriculture, in addition to architectural styles. Factories expose issues of women’s history and immigration, as opposed to being simple brick boxes. And the suburban house, often an already familiar space, takes on deeper meaning after analyzing songs, literature, film, and artwork about its construction, use, and meaning. As students explore how American culture is both encoded and decoded through architecture, they engage, even if subconsciously, in the process of examining architecture through the lens of American Studies.

If American Studies offers the advantage of seeing something as a whole, then its benefit as a lens for looking at architecture is particularly felt in historic house museums.  These locations straddle the divide between past and present. As synecdoches of the past, these spaces can offer insight into gender, race, ethnicity, economics, class, and a myriad of other issues. House museums reveal much about the present as well, particularly about those who strove to preserve them and those who chose to visit them. Seen as a modern artifact, they offer a material embodiment of public nostalgia, or, at the very least, a barometer for gauging changing values. The methodologies used in American Studies offer useful tools for exposing the variety of meanings and issues embedded within house museums and for integrating a seeming dissonance of perspectives into a meaningful whole.

Built in 1719, the Hans Herr House represents the oldest still-standing home in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. With its sandstone walls, central chimney, and asymmetrical façade, the house is a fine example of colonial-era Germanic architecture in Pennsylvania. In addition to offering shelter for the Herr family, the home later served as the first Mennonite Meetinghouse in the area, connecting the community and laying the groundwork for what would later become the Willow Street Mennonite Congregation. This shift in use is expressed in the building’s architecture: the Mennonite congregation added partitions to the original home, and, over time, the building’s windows were enlarged and its door was reduced in size to make the building better suited for its eighteenth-century occupants.

Fig. 1: 1719 Hans Herr House and Museum, Willow Street, Pennsylvania. Photograph by Caitlin Black.

The house’s history weaves together colonial-era German immigration and Mennonite religion with twentieth-century expressions of American values and identity. The Herr House served as a subject for paintings by Andrew Wyeth, who captured both the historic and regional qualities of the location. The 1970s decision to restore the Herr House to its 1749 appearance suggested nostalgia for the past, a common theme in the years surrounding the nation’s bicentennial and during a decade that witnessed great social change. A site of local significance, the decision to restore the house also revealed a desire to tell a local story of the nation’s colonial heritage. With time, the house began to tell a more complete narrative of the past, and the Hans Herr House now sits adjacent to a 2013 longhouse that displays the area’s Native American history alongside European colonial history.

An American Studies approach allows one to not only read the Herr House’s range of uses but also to see the connections between them. The house points to ways of producing and reproducing culture both in the fledgling Pennsylvania colony and in the twentieth century. It also demonstrates interconnects between immigration, religion, ethnicity, material culture, and public memory. Likewise, the interdisciplinary forms evidence often used in American Studies scholarship suggest ways that the site can be interpreted and integrated with other methods of telling history. Archaeology and material culture might stand alongside religious texts, literature, and historical documents to tell a rich, detailed story of the Herr house.

On the other side of the county from the Hans Herr House stands Rock Ford. Edward Hand, Adjutant General to George Washington in the Revolutionary War, once owned the eighteenth-century home. Like the Hans Herr House, Rock Ford is notable for its architectural features, particularly as an exemplar of the Georgian style. The two-story brick house has interior end chimneys and a central door with a fanlight and triangular pediment. The characteristic symmetry of the Georgian style is echoed in the house’s center hall plan. The house displays some rural modifications to the style as well. A reconstructed one-story porch extends around three sides of the house. The dwelling is also built into the side of a bank along a stream, a decision that allows the basement, which housed the kitchen, to be accessible from the outside.

Fig. 2: Rock Ford Plantation, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Photograph by Caitlin Black.

Rock Ford functioned as a tenant property for about a century. Tenants farmed the surrounding land, continuing the agricultural use of the property begun under the Hand family. A series of landlords owned the property during this time, and their distance to the site coupled with the transience of tenancy makes it difficult to tie the site to other key figures. In 1958, the local chapter of the Junior League took on the cause of preserving Rock Ford after a local trash company purchased the property and slated the house for demolition. Restoration of the house took place between 1958 and 1960 and emphasized the Hand family, particularly during the period between 1794 and 1802.

The house suggests dissonance in its variety of uses and meanings, but the weaving together of topics, individuals, sources, and periods of time possible through American Studies scholarship makes it possible to see this location whole. The changing economics of agriculture, from the Hand family to later tenants, offers one way to understand the property. Twentieth-century “rediscovery” of the house offers another: the apparent originality of the house, the lack of additions and the presence of Hand family heirlooms and furniture, suggests the house serves as a conduit to the past. American Studies scholarship is not only useful for its ability to described the layers of significance in this site but also for its capacity to draw on a variety of resources. Hand family history might be augmented with agricultural studies, economic history, environmental insights, literature, and archaeology.

As spaces for displaying and interpreting culture, house museums offer useful locations to exhibit American Studies scholarship. Because these sites represent a physical structure encoded with changes in use and significance over time, they offer useful tools for exploring how the range of methodologies used in American Studies scholarship might be applied. In addition, these locations offer an opportunity to apply a variety of sources to a single, physical location, demonstrating an effective outlet for the interdisciplinary approach at the core of American Studies. Additionally, disciplinary interest in connecting the past to the present offers a way to think about the significance of house museums and how that has changed over time. Using house museums to engage American Studies scholarship offers a useful and practical outlet, one that offers to reveal as much about current culture as it does about the past.


Harris, Donna. New Solutions for House Museums: Ensuring the Long-Term Preservation of America’s Historic Houses (AltaMira Press, 2007).

Levin, Amy K., ed. Defining Memory: Local Museums and the Construction of History in America’s Changing Communities (AltaMira Press, 2007)

Vagnone, Franklin and Deborah Ryan. Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums(Routledge, 2015)

2. Exhibiting the African-American Story of Atlantic City in Photographs

by Cheryl Brooks, Milton Hershey School, Hershey, Pennsylvania

John W. Mosley, a self-taught photographer from Philadelphia, left behind a trove of snapshots he took on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.  Many of them documented the everyday life along the four-mile stretch of Atlantic City’s beaches area known as Chicken Bone Beach. Chicken Bone Beach was established as Missouri Avenue Beach around 1939 for African Americans. Mosley took thousands of photographs from the 1930s to the 1960s of African-American residents of Atlantic City and visitors attracted to Chicken Bone Beach each summer. The collection of photographs includes such famous figures as the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., singer Sammy Davis, Jr., and boxing heavyweight champion Joe Louis.  The context to relate with these photographs is the racial divide in the city. In 1900, hotel owners forced black beach-goers from the front of their businesses down to the Missouri Avenue Beach south of the Million Dollar Pier. This step was taken to appease the growing number of hotel guests from the Jim Crow south. Ironically, before 1900, whites and blacks in Atlantic City lived adjacent to each other, attended the same churches and African-Americans used the beaches without restraints.

Fig. 3: Chicken Bone Beach, Atlantic City, New Jersey, c. 1950s.  Photograph by John W. Mosley.  Courtesy Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University.

The unpublished photographs and untold story of Chicken Bone Beach offers a case study of acultural history in America during a pivotal transition. African-Americans living in Atlantic City created a unique lifestyle while dwelling in the midst of a “resort area.”  Atlantic City experienced its economic success in America due to African-American residents who assisted in building the infrastructure and serving tourists.  Chicken Bone Beach became the most frequented beach in Atlantic City and attracted African-American celebrities, civic leaders, athletes, entertainers and visitors from around the United States during the years of the 1930s through the 1960s.  It also served as a destination for white Americans who made statements about being anti-racist and groups who were rejected at other beaches such as hippies and gays.

Fig. 4: Installation of “Chicken Bone Beach” at the 2nd Floor Gallery, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, February 5, 2016.  Photograph by Cheryl Brooks.

I chose to exhibit the photographs of John W. Mosley in the Second Floor Gallery of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, because I believed the images had a way to provoke feelings in humans that written words could not capture by themselves.  Every visitor would be free to interpret the allure of the visuals without any bias.  As an African American person too young to experience what America was like before the Civil Rights Movement, I assumed that life was difficult for African-Americans and struggle, failure, and sadness became a way of life for blacks.  An exhibit such as Chicken Bone Beach shares a part of American history that has been underpublicized in mainstream media, museums, and classrooms. Most images from the period characterize racism, inequality, and protests as Blacks experienced frustration in the struggle for freedom. The photographs from Chicken Bone Beach demonstrate Atlantic City residents who achieved success and gained economic power through entrepreneurial activities. African-Americans marketed Chicken Bone Beach and the Northside as a tourist attraction for other blacks throughout the United States. Several pictures also show that in spite of segregation, social harmony existed between races. 

According to the owner of the Second Floor Gallery, Lawrence Knorr, the Chicken Bone Beach exhibit has been well received by visitors and was granted a thirty-day extension by Temple University, which loaned the photographs. During my visit at the opening, I heard interesting dialogue about the fashion and music of the era of the photographs. Spectators seemed surprised when they realized they were looking at a photo of Martin Luther King Jr. in polka dot shorts. I also met a woman from Harrisburg who used to go with her friends to Chicken Bone Beach in her twenties. She is now in her seventies. During our conversation, I realized that she was unaware that the beach was segregated.
An audience viewing the Chicken Bone Beach exhibit becomes aware that there are many layers of history in our society that possibly remain undocumented.  The photographs taken by John W. Mosley imply that those in power demonstrated racism in a passive manner. Some visitors of Chicken Bone Beach were unaware that African-Americans were forced to socialize at that location.  Exhibits allow us to assemble the fragments of the truth of any history.  At a time in America where it may have been more difficult for an African-American to get a publishing company to distribute a positive story about his race, the pictures taken by John W. Mosley convey a narrative.  Words alone neglect to show the look on a proud father’s face holding his children, the laughter and giggles of college students building a pyramid in the sand, or twenty women of all ages lined up as beauty pageant contestants in the city that created pageantry in America, and yet banned them from participating.  Americans deserve to see for themselves that African-Americans proudly embraced Atlantic City as their own town.

3. Exhibiting American Studies at Disney Theme Parks

by Kathryn M. Holmes, Lecturer of American Studies, The Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg

In 1950, the United States government denied Walt Disney’s request to host a visit by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to Disneyland in Anaheim, California. Disney’s disappointment stemmed, in his own words, from his inability to show the Soviet Premier his own fleet of submarines. The jocular nature that Disney displays while voicing this personal narrative does not diminish the significance placed on Disney’s desire to present his version of America to the Communist leader. Disneyland and the other Disney theme parks contain exhibits that portray a Disneyfied version of America. With millions of viewers from all over the globe annually going to the parks, their interpretation of American culture merits scrutiny in, and as, American Studies scholarship.

Fig. 5:  “The American Adventure” at Epcot, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida, 2016.  Courtesy Kathryn M. Holmes.

At the opening of Disneyland, Walt Disney told reporter Hedda Hopper, “There’s an American theme behind the whole park” (Gabler 2006, 499).  While this statement certainly holds some truth, there are particular areas that were cultivated to explicitly present various aspects of America. This Americaness can be viewed explicitly in areas such as Main Street, USA (located in all Disney theme parks except for Shanghai), Liberty Square, Frontier Land, Disneyland’s New Orleans Square, and Epcot’s American Adventure. Disney, and his “imagineers” (portmanteau of engineer and imagination) designed these spaces as the personification of American exceptionalism, something that Walt Disney himself extolled in his testimonies before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947.  These carefully cultivated spaces sought to create an experience that was simultaneously orderly and magical, and innocent yet ambitious. These qualities also characterized Disney’s personality.  This perfect sense of control has been compared by Disney historian Neal Gabler as “a modern variant on the City on a Hill of Puritan dreams” (2006, 499).

Nowhere is this vision of America more apparent than in the various versions of Main Street, USA. Founding editor of the Encyclopedia of American Studies Miles Orvell stated, “In Disneyland, all roads lead to Main Street” (2012, 41). This references the cosmogony of the park itself, which requires all visitors of Walt Disney’s utopian theme park to enter through Main Street U.S.A. The gingerbread shops lining the paved brick road welcome each customer, serving as an indicator that, no matter what stress or turmoil may exist outside of the park walls, inside is a place where A guest’s dreams can be realized. Disney described the area as such: “Main Street, U.S.A. is America at the turn of the century—the crossroads of an era…Main Street is everyone’s home town…the heartland of America” (Trend 2013, 96). Main Street was designed in part after Disney’s childhood hometown of Marceline, Missouri combined with designer Harper Goff’s hometown of Denver, Colorado. According to Orvell, it embodied a “safe and public space in its material form” and featured “the architectural types that we associate with a nostalgic and idealized representation of small-town America” (Orvell 2012, 39).

Fig. 6: “Main Street, U.S.A.” Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida, 2016. Courtesy Kathryn M. Holmes.

Other American exhibitions in Disney parks were constructed under the same sanitized and nostalgic paradigm. Liberty Square (Disneyland) and the American Experience (Epcot) contain attractions featuring animatronic historical figures that laud American progress while ignoring the more negative events and figures of America’s past. The Hall of Presidents highlights Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Barack Obama as flawless leaders who embody American exceptionalism. The American Experience follows a similar pattern but adds in other historical figures, such as Mark Twain. Each exhibit rewrites American mythology to sidestep controversies and shameful events. This idyllic version of history would lead critics to later condemn the park as suffering from, in Neal Gabler’s words, “the tragedy of perfection—that in seeking perfection Walt seemed to drive out anything human and real” (2006, 498).

Liberty Square blends into Frontier Land on one side and New Orleans Square on the other. Both spaces seeking to represent real American locations while filling them with imaginary characters. Disneyland promotes nineteenth-century New Orleans as a place where patrons, according to advertisements, “can celebrate Mardi Gras all year round.” Wrought iron balconies, jazz bands, and restaurants featuring jambalaya and mint juleps on their menus are scattered among The Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean attractions. Patrons can also expect to see characters from the Disney animated feature The Princess and the Frog (2009). This intermingling of history and fantasy serves to bolster the mythologized American past while promoting the Disney brand.

American Studies critics are quick to condemn the commercialization and sanitation of America’s history in Disney’s theme parks. However, this particular construction, as demonstrated by the Khrushchev example, was created to exhibit a particular image of America: the exceptional nature of American democracy manifested in its different cultural landscapes. The mass audience that daily visits these particular exhibits and the conscious control by “imagineers” (and previously Disney himself) over what and how are displayed warrants their notice by American Studies scholars.


Gabler, Neal. Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination (Vintage, 2006).

Kammon, Michael. Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (Vintage, 1991).

Marling, Karal Ann. Designing Disney’s Theme Parks: The Architecture of Reassurance(Flammarion, 1997).

Nadel, Alan. “1955, Disneyland: ‘The Happiest Place on Earth’ and the Fiction of Cold War Culture.” In The Edinburgh Companion to Twentieth-Century Literatures in English, ed. Brian McHale and Randall Stevenson, 126-36 (Edinburgh University Press, 2006).

Orvell, Miles. The Death and Life of Main Street: Small Towns in American Memory, Space, and Community (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2012).

Trend, David. Worlding: Identity, Media, and Imagination in a Digital Age (Routledge, 2016).