Accompanying Gallery Guide text


By Kacie Lucchini Butcher

“Everything worthwhile is done with other people.”
–Mariame Kaba

Historical research is often a solitary endeavor. When you hear the word historian, you probably envision a researcher sitting alone in the archives poring over paper documents or an old book. Maybe you picture someone sitting at a computer fastidiously working on the newest manuscript. If you have a particularly active imagination, that person might even have elbow pads sewn onto their tweed blazer.

In theory, the field of public history aims to be collaborative (the word public is right there in the title), but even the best public historians can fall into the easy habit of working alone. From my first day as the director of the Public History Project, I fought this impulse. At an institution as big and as siloed as UW–Madison, it was intimidating to get a lay of the land and to figure out whom to collaborate with. It would have been simpler—easy, even—to design, organize, and research this project alone. But the Project was founded to tell a broader history of UW–Madison, one that encompasses all members of this community, and to create materials that would engage all people in our campus community. How could we possibly do all of that alone?

Right around the time the Project began in fall 2019, I saw a quote from activist and educator Mariame Kaba. It read, “Everything worthwhile is done with other people.” For such a simple sentiment, it struck me then (and still strikes me now) as deeply profound. Beyond my personal feelings about the quote, history—here at the UW and elsewhere—supports Kaba’s assertion. Some of the greatest innovations, the most impactful legislation, the most radical organizing movements, came from individuals working together.

The main themes of this exhibition center on the histories of discrimination and exclusion alongside the resistance movements started to oppose them. But there’s also a more subtle theme to be found: community. The stories in this gallery highlight that some of the most important changes to this university have happened because people have come together, formed a community, and worked collectively to change this institution.

It is my belief that history—researching it, studying it, learning it, reckoning with it—is inherently collective. It is the thing that affects us all and shapes all of our experiences. It is why I always approach my work in collaboration with others. It is why the Public History Project was shaped to be deeply collaborative from day one. Though this exhibition comes after years of tireless work from students, faculty, staff, and community members, it is not the end of our work. As an individual reading this guide, I hope you’ll join our collective work. There is more to be done—more research, more learning, more reckoning—and it is the type of work that needs to be done together.

How will we reckon with the truths in our past to create a better future?

Curation Statement

By Taylor L. Bailey and Adriana Arthur

Curation is a unique process. We as curators know the position we occupy is a special one. The details and materials that we research are often sacred to the communities they come from, and so the ways in which we interact with them as scholars requires a level of consciousness and respect. A significant amount of care went into the curation of Sifting & Reckoning, and every single choice was made intentionally. The most important thing to our curation team was to maintain the safety and integrity of both the history and the people who have been most vulnerable to the harm and violence that exist within that history.

What became clear to our team throughout our curation process of “sifting and winnowing” was that the exhibition presented a rare opportunity. Those who have been too often discriminated against in society, silenced in collective memories, and marginalized in historical archives could now have their stories and pain validated and their resistance recognized. We felt it was important to capture the complexities of the people who traverse this campus, expose the violence and vulnerabilities of being on campus for those who are marginalized, and celebrate the ways in which they build community, seek liberation, organize, and mobilize for change.

There is an abundance of stories that deserve and need to be told. Yet, our team faced the structural limitations of an institution this large. The university has existed for nearly 175 years, and countless people have lived, worked, and studied here. Our mission to document the history of marginalized communities only amplified the challenges we faced. Archival collections of UW–Madison, though extensive, are lacking in the documentation of nonmajority communities. Historians, student researchers, and community members have worked diligently to document and share these histories of the UW. Even with all of the stories told here, we know that more research needs to be done.

Knowing that not every story could be highlighted, our team struggled with a moral question—if a story isn’t told here, does it get told at all? This question highlighted for our team the importance of a continued commitment to researching and understanding the history of UW–Madison. Though every story could not possibly fit on the gallery wall or in this guide, all stories are crucial to reckoning with our past to build something better—together. Reckoning must be an active process that we engage in with the past, in the present, and for the future. Each story asks us to do so.

Language Statement

Language is an ever-changing thing. What was important to us as curators of this exhibition was to use language that was appropriate for the current intellectual context and understandable to our various visitors. Our team meticulously researched the meanings, usages, and scholarly debates behind many words, phrases, and stylistic choices.

For some terms, we felt confident in our decisions. You will see that we chose to use the word incarceration instead of internment when talking about Japanese American people during World War II. According to Densho, a grassroots organization focused on documenting the experiences of those Japanese American people incarcerated, terms like internment and relocation centers, though seemingly innocuous, are not accurate and fail to convey the harsh conditions and forced confinement of these facilities. You will also see that we’ve chosen not to hyphenate the term antisemitic. Not only has this been updated in the Associated Press Stylebook, but according to the International Holocaust Remembrance Association, the hyphenation and capitalization of the word semitic legitimizes a form of pseudo-scientific racial classification that has been thoroughly discredited because of its association with Nazi ideology.

For other terms, we had robust discussions. We had many conversations about our use of the words marginalization and minority. While the word minority was commonly used on campus for decades, to our team it denoted an amount of people, not a coherent classification of a group of people or their experiences on our campus. Instead, the intentional use of the word marginalized signified, to us, a conscious effort to recognize power structures of inequity and disenfranchisement faced by certain communities.

You will see language in this exhibition from historical documents and materials. This language is sometimes offensive. Even though it is a common practice for historians to quote exactly from primary sources, in some cases, we removed quotes entirely to avoid using racial slurs or epithets. In other cases, we paraphrased primary sources to represent new understandings.

We also had conversations about stylistic choices. We chose to capitalize the word Black when discussing people with African ethnic and ancestral lineage to respect the specific cultural significance. Yet, we made the decision to lowercase the word white after hearing from academics, community members, and others that capitalizing it would be centering whiteness in an intentional stylistic way. We do, however, capitalize all specific ethnic and cultural groups, regardless of race, where appropriate. We acknowledge that there are many valid viewpoints in the case of stylistic choices, and our position on these and other stylistic choices as curators and researchers is not fixed.

We tried to be as intentional as possible in writing this exhibition. As language and culture change with the times, it is inevitable that some of the language used here will eventually become outdated and could be replaced with more appropriate phrases and words. We as curators embrace this as a natural and welcomed part of public history, museum curation, and the learning process more generally.

In conclusion

“True resistance begins with people confronting pain … and wanting to do something to change it.”

—bell hooks, MA’76

As we fearlessly sift and winnow through the university’s past, many hard truths emerge. We also find hope, and the ever-present possibility of change for the better. The university has changed in many ways across its history, often because members of the campus community have demanded it.

We believe that reckoning with our history can lead us to a better future, and that unless we acknowledge and learn from our past, we cannot move forward together. The future is not yet written. What happens next is up to us.

The UW–Madison Public History Project was made possible with support from the Office of the Chancellor using private funds.