Lauren Obermark’s new book explores the value of museums in rhetorical education – UMSL Daily

Lauren Obermark, associate professor of rhetoric at UMSL, published her first book, “Engaging Museums: Rhetorical Education and Social Justice,” this month. The book examines how museums tackle uncomfortable subjects that inspire visitors to confront traumatic events and work for a better future. Additionally, Obermark discusses how they can be used as a model for rethinking rhetorical education. (Photo by August Jennewein)

As a graduate student, Lauren Obermark visited the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City as part of a classroom exercise.

At first, she wasn’t sure what influence the museum would bring to her master’s degree in language and literature. However, as the tour progressed, she was impressed with how the exhibits engaged visitors in discussions of the difficult subject.

“When I went to the museum, I think seeing how they presented the information and asked people to engage with this historically violent event and consider the implications for the present was really inspiring,” said Obermark, associate professor of rhetoric at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

This experience inspired Obermark’s first book, “Engaging Museums: Rhetorical Education and Social Justice.” The book examines how museums tackle uncomfortable subjects that inspire visitors to confront traumatic events and work for a better future. Additionally, Obermark describes how they can be used as a model for rethinking rhetorical education.

She said it was exciting but somewhat surreal to finally release something that had been in the works for 10 years.

“In a way, it’s surprising that other people are able to read it,” she said. “I’m so thankful it found a good home with a publisher that works hard to promote it and share it with people.”

Published in April by Southern Illinois University Press, the book features case studies from three museums: the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, the National World War I Museum and Memorial, and the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum.

The featured museums tackle what Obermark called “almost impossible” to discuss topics: slavery, war and domestic terrorism. Yet each institution has found ways to encourage visitors to think more deeply about these questions, including prompts for discussion, audio tours, and replicas of physical spaces where visitors are invited to linger and wonder. engage in a reflective dialogue.

“It’s a book about those museums in a way, trying to honor the work that museums do in their communities,” Obermark said. “More broadly, it’s a book about how we could all overcome our own discomfort to address those topics we don’t want to talk about – usually social justice topics.”

These are familiar topics for Obermark, whose research interests center on social justice, disability justice, disability rights, and ways to engage publicly on these issues. With museums, she saw an opportunity to translate their work into the classroom as a teacher of rhetoric and writing.

“One of the big lessons I see from museums that I think affects every class I teach is that they refuse to avoid difficult subjects,” she said. “They can’t because it’s part of the story, and evidence-based historical storytelling needs to address difficult topics. It must show you what happened in the trenches during the First World War. He must bring this into the museum, otherwise the museum does not do justice to history or contemporary visitors.

She added that difficult conversations are necessary if people are to participate in the slow and steady work of social change. They are also crucial for informed citizenship and participatory democracy.

The possibility of exploration was another aspect of museums that Obermark valued. She noted that learning, as well as conversation, is not always a linear, step-by-step process.

Obermark concludes “Engaging Museums” with a call to leverage collective memory as an educational tool in the classroom and public institutions. This process, which Obermark says should be ongoing, will often be messy, uncomfortable, and will require mistakes and retries. This is true in museums as well as in university classrooms.

“It seems to me that the most important aspect of this book, in the present moment, is to think about how we can use memory,” Obermark said, “how we remember and educate people ethically. about difficult things like slavery and terrorism, how we inhabit this history and also connect it to the present, catalyzing memory for social change.

Those interested can read more and purchase “Engaging Museums: Rhetorical Education and Social Justice” at http://www.siupress.com/books/978-0-8093-3851-1

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Angela C. Hale