Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Kenneth E. Foote
Timothy S. Oakes
William R. Travis
Phoebe S.K. Young
This dissertation examines how the complex geography and contested history of the American West are presented through stories told in the region’s history museums. I examine how iconic regional-scale place images are juxtaposed with more critical perspectives on dissonant historical episodes in museum exhibits, and how the spaces of museum exhibits and galleries represent places, structure narratives, and suggest new thematic and geographical connections interpreting the region. Using a series of case studies of museums in Colorado and adjacent states, I develop new methods to analyze museum exhibits as “three-dimensional narratives,” in which spatial arrangements of objects, texts, and media structure narratives that interpret and contest the past.
This research builds on cultural geographic research on how contested memory is expressed and presented, both in symbolic landscapes, and through media. I extend this work in three main ways. First, I extend research on monuments and memorials to consider how museum spaces present and contest the past. Second, I follow recent engagements between geography and narrative theory, examining storytelling as a distinct form of discourse, with its own spatial dimensions. Third, I situate this investigation amid increasing scholarly attention to heritage tourism, particularly in terms of how the “Legacy of Conquest” of the American West is made marketable to visitors.
I explore this narrative geography through three case studies: First, a detailed examination of the History Colorado Center in downtown Denver highlights how spatial narratives organize and structure museum presentations, emphasizing some thematic and geographical connections while downplaying others. Second, a comparison of six Colorado museums highlighting race, ethnicity, and labor conflict examines the “genre conventions” through which these “counter-narratives” are linked to more conventional presentations of the regional past. Finally, a comparison of the state history museums of Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming explores how state geographies are presented as foundations of civic identities.
This research contributes to the cultural geographic understanding of museums as significant venues in which cultural meaning is presented and contested, and develops new methods for understanding museum narratives geographically. Such methods can be productively applied in other heritage tourism settings.
Smith, Samuel Albert, "Space, Place and Story: Museum Geographies and Narratives of the American West" (2018). Geography Graduate Theses & Dissertations. 129.