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Film: The Old White Guy Problem

Daniel Neff
Curator, 
Fairbanks House Museum

Hi, I’m Daniel Neff, I’m curator at the Fairbanks House Museum in Dedham, Massachusetts. Yeah, so, OK, 1637, it’s the oldest wooden structure in North America, eight generations of the Fairbanks family lived there. So today I’m going to be talking about old white guys, or specifically old, white, upper class, cis-gendered straight males and what to do about them.

First, the elephant in the room, I’m at least three of these things. I’m here because I think it’s important that part of this conversation comes from within. They say history is written by the victors, for centuries those victories went to old white guys. Only recently have histories about everyone else started getting the attention that they deserve but there are other people far more qualified to talk on that matter, many of them right here. Rather, I want to talk to you about what we should do with these old white guys. They’re not going anywhere, they’re far too great to the narrative, [unintelligible 0:01:03.5] probably be upset if I didn’t say anything about Thomas Jefferson.

So how can we make old white guys work for us? A large part of the issue is that early historians put these old white guys on a pedestal. In cases like Jefferson, they’ve also been deified. We must depict our historical figures as people rather than demi-gods. The biggest obstacle with old white guys is that our idealised masculinity is horribly out of date, clinging to a past ideal of man as warriors, hunters and sole providers that has long since lost all relevance and usefulness. At the Fairbanks House, we have been trying to move the focus. Why does this not work? There we go. At Fairbanks House we’ve been trying to move the focus away from traditional old white guys’ accomplishments and towards family home life and community.

In their book, The 49% Majority, Deborah S David and Robert Brannon outlined four ways of being traditionally masculine. We’ll take a look at each of these and talk about how museums can help change the narrative.

No sissy stuff. We’re always told that white guys are stoic, stern, sometimes even cold and detached, we’re meant to be impressed by a lack of emotional response. We need to stress that these men cared about their families, that they had a passion for what they did.

The big wheel. Success is good, where it becomes problematic is in a need to be the most successful, the attitude that second place is first loser. However, there are ways to measure a man other than his prosperity and power. We need to redefine success from what they did for themselves to what they did for others. Was he a good father? Did he give back to the community? Did he leave the world a better place?

The sturdy oak. Machismo, swagger, chutzpah, whatever you want to call it, man had to exude it. Masculinity is all about image, wouldn’t we be hard pressed to find a portrait of Washington where he doesn’t look like a badass? Even on the dollar bill, he looks like he’s giving you the side eye. He’s saying, “Yeah, I could take you.” But we shouldn’t just talk about the times old white guys got it right and looked cool doing it, they, like everyone else, learned more from their mistakes than their successes.

Give ‘em hell. History museums, historic houses and even art museums are full of weapons, armour and portraits of men in uniform, the old white guys that can kill their fellow man are held in the highest regard. Museums can help by taking the focus off of military achievements and concentrating on other parts of old white guys’ lives. As an example, I give you Ammi Palmer Fairbank, here are two ways to present his story.

The GI Joe. Was on the Union side in the Civil War, he fought in 16 battles, he was the first lieutenant in the Ohio 12th Artillery. Or the real person, he was a carpenter and machinist, he lived in Ohio with a wife and three children, oh, and he also fought in the Civil War. Roughly the same amount of information but taking the focus away from military service, we create a much more complete picture.

And I think that is the answer to our big question, what to do about the old white guy problem? Take the focus off the white guys when it should be on someone else. When the focus is on old white guys, make them human, make them real, represent them in a way that doesn’t perpetuate more traditional ideas of masculinity. And remember that all people, old white guys included, are more than a list of achievements. By changing the way museums present information, we can show the problem with focussing on old white guys and then we can offer an alternative. Thank you.

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