Museums as Centers for Courageous Inquiry – A conversation with Brenda Tindal, new Executive Director of the Harvard Museums of Science & Culture


Jennifer Berglund, Brenda Tindal


Jennifer Berglund  00:04

Welcome to HMSC Connects! where we go behind the scenes of four Harvard museums to explore the connections between us, our big, beautiful world, and even what lies beyond. My name is Jennifer Berglund, part of the exhibits team here at the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, and I'll be your host. Today, I'm thrilled to be speaking with Brenda Tindal, our incoming Executive Director of HMSC. Brenda is a museum practitioner, educator, researcher and scholar who uses the platform of museums to connect with a diversity of audiences. She's coming to us from the International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina. I wanted to hear more about how and why she views museums as places for courageous inquiry, and learn about the ways in which she will guide us in asking courageous questions as we embark upon a new era. Here she is. Brenda Tindal, welcome to the show.


Brenda Tindal  01:24

Thank you so much. I'm just delighted to be here with you.


Jennifer Berglund  01:27

You grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, an ambitious curious kid who loved to debate, and in the 10th grade, you had what you describe as an awakening in your English class. What happened, and how did this incident change how you view the world?


Brenda Tindal  01:53

Yeah, so I was on the debate team in high school, and was taking an English course with one of my favorite teachers, Barbara Miller. And I remember her approaching me about the possibility of doing what's understood as interpretive debate where you interrogate literature, and in particular, she was really interested in me considering dramatic interpretation. And she said, "have you ever read this document?" And she handed me a document that was dated to 1851.  It was a speech delivered at a women's rights convention in Akron, Ohio, by a woman who is known as Isabella Baumfree, but to the wider historical public audience, she's understood as Sojourner Truth. And Miss Miller asked me, she said, "go home, read this and tell me what you think.  What do you interpret from this?" And I went home, and I read this speech delivered by Sojourner Truth. And the speech went something like this.  "That man over there said that a woman needs to be helped into carriages and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere, you see?  Nobody ever helped me in the carriages, or over mud puddles, or gives me a best place, and ain't I a woman?"  And the very question, "ain't I woman?" that Sojourner Truth asked of her audience in 1851 was a window into which I looked into and began to understand what it meant to be a African American woman, formerly enslaved person, prior to emancipation. And when I talk about awakening, I mean, it was the first time that that kind of courageous posture, that kind of line of inquiry entered my imagination as a young person. And it made me wonder why aren't we learning more about Sojourner Truth or the women's rights convention, or the many public stages that women often mounted to make important interventions? Why hasn't that been part of the civics and social studies and history courses that I've taken to date?  And it just, it made me evermore inquisitive. I wanted to learn more about women. I wanted to learn more about African Americans. I wanted to learn more about the enslaved experience or experiences. I wanted to learn more about life in the United States prior to emancipation. And so those were the kinds of questions I began to ask myself, and it just set me on fire. And from there, I knew that I wanted to constantly be, A, learning something new, but two, making interventions in the ways in which we, students of the world, encounter our history. It made me want to ensure that if I ever had the opportunity of teaching that I'm helping individuals learn more about our most iconic moments in American and global history, and to me, Sojourner Truth, since that day, she's been part of how I talk about the intersections of people's lives--race, class, gender--all of those things that make us dynamic people.  That has just been a way that I teach, a way that I learn, a way that that I ask questions.


Jennifer Berglund  05:40

You wanted to be a lawyer until you took a history class in college.  What happened? And how did this class ultimately change your career trajectory?


Brenda Tindal  05:51

You know, I think as young people, we always choose professions that we think our parents will view as honorable, and having been in debate, it felt like a natural decision to sort of say, "I want to be an attorney," right? And I genuinely had interest in law, in debate, in civil and human rights, and so I saw law as an ideal vocation for a person that had those values. But in reality, and when I was sitting in that urban history course, I think this was probably my second semester of my freshman year or sophomore year, I was just so taken, again, by the vast stories that I had never encountered in all of the history courses that I taken up until that juncture.  And again, much like what happened when I encountered Sojourner Truth, I had a very similar reaction sitting in this urban history class. And it was always a new set of questions, and a new set of responses to those questions, and encountering historic figures and ideas in places that I'd never encountered. And so for me, the classroom, and the very idea of history, being a profession really struck me as an undergraduate student, that this could be a real profession, being a historian and being able to consistently ask people, students, to think about the stories that shaped American and global history in some new and different ways, and the professor Dr. Gregory Mixon, he had a way of constantly challenging his students to think more strategically and more thoughtfully and ask deeper and better questions of the narrative, of the resources, of the source itself, to interrogate them more rigorously. And for me, it was at that point, the debates that were happening in the classroom were always absolutely intriguing. And so that was yet another critical moment in my awakening in terms of the way that I think about the world and my decision to become a historian.  And not just a historian, but a public historian.  Dr. Mixon them was one of the first mentors in undergraduate to tell me, "you know, you should, think about museums as a potential place to do the work that you're interested in," and so I ended up applying for internships. And I've gotten an internship at the Levine Museum of the New South working on one of their first major exhibitions called "Courage: The Carolina Story That Changed America."  You know, it was part of lots of work happening nationally to honor and commemorate the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, and so, again, museums became another way, building on what I encountered as a high school student, building on the awakening that happened in my history courses in undergraduate, and then again, learning about museums and the ways in which they engage with their audiences and how they tell our stories in new and thoughtful ways.


Jennifer Berglund  09:10

You are leaving your job as the Director of Education and Engagement at the International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, to be with us at Harvard, which we're so grateful for. What opportunities are you leaving there? And what opportunities most excite you as our new Executive Director at HMSC?


Brenda Tindal  09:33

Oh, wow. You know, I always feel like you remain part of the communities that you live in and that you impact, and so I don't necessarily see it as me leaving the International African American Museum. I think I've come here, built a relationship with an incredible institution that is poised to be a destination for the study and exploration of global African and African American history and culture, and that is very much a professional and a personal love of mine.  You know, I am excited about what's ahead for this institution, the International African American Museum, and I know that we will continue to interface even as I take on this new, wonderful challenge and opportunity at the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, and so, in some ways, I am leaving this work in very capable hands.  This institution will be not only a museum, but a research center and a memorial, and so I've gotten to a really great juncture in the work that I've done here in Charleston, and I think there's more work to do, but there will be a beautiful institution that will be a monument to the stories that shaped this museum, so I am not leaving.  I am endowing those responsibilities on a very capable group of museum professionals who I hope will continue to be part of my professional and personal circle. But the thing that I'm most excited about, gosh, if there's one thing, I think science is so critically important, and I think that the conversations that I've found most appealing happen in interdisciplinary spaces, and so when I think about what is so exciting about the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, honestly, I think about the dialogues that the collections and the on-site, as well as the virtual experiences will provide to its audiences, and ultimately to the community of scholars, students and museum practitioners that make up this important community. I'm excited about connecting consistently with undergraduate students and faculty. One of my sweet spots is undergraduate students.  They're at a juncture where they're again asking new questions of themselves and the world that they belong to, and what an exciting opportunity to help shape their imagination, to help shape their perspective, at this critical phase in their lives, and so that's what I'm excited about--being with an incredible group of museum professionals and practitioners and scholars and students, and the community writ large, and being able to activate it in new and important ways. I'm super thrilled about that.


Jennifer Berglund  12:31

Why do you love museums?


Brenda Tindal  12:33

I love teaching, and I think museums are important conduits through which people learn and through which museum practitioners are able to teach the broad audiences. I love the classroom, but I see the museum as a platform through which we connect with multiple kinds of students and people. And so museums, to me, are really the front steps to the communities that we live in and to our audiences, and so in that regard, I see them as these real welcoming spaces for what I like to call courageous inquiry. What I do is I activate museums.  I activate museums for a diversity of audiences. And it's one of the, one of the most exciting things that I've ever done, frankly, is to work inside of museums and to work with people.  Museums are not cabinets of curiosity merely, they are sites and hubs of new learning. They encourage our visitors and our communities to learn about themselves and the larger world to which they belong, and so through interpretation, through programming, through all kinds of strategies of engagement, hat's what I mean by activating museums is that we do more than just display objects, right? We really help connect those cultural assets and stories to a larger audience.


Jennifer Berglund  14:06

What topics are you most interested in?


Brenda Tindal  14:10

My areas of teaching and sort of research expertise are multifold.  I'm trained in history and culture largely, and the topics in particular that have been part of my work include comparative US and South African history, but I have honed in on a project that looks at what I call "movement widows," which are women who are married to men who have been martyred during civil and human rights struggles, and that includes women in South Africa as well as those in the US. My focus has been on what many call civil rights widows and that is Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of  Medgar Evers, Betty Shabazz, widow of Malcolm X, and Coretta Scott King, widow of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And again, in graduate school, I had this aha moment as well, um, as I was, you know, really studying the civil rights canon. And looking at the ways in which the story of civil and human rights was being charted in the sort of Pantheon, right, of materials on the movement, I noticed that I wasn't seeing or hearing about the work of women like Coretta Scott King, Myrlie Evers-Williams and Betty Shabazz, and it occurred to me that they stood in the long shadow of these heroic figures. And often the way that we understand these women is through a very monolithic, narrow lens as "the widow of," as the paragon of bereavement, and if I looked at these dynamic women and began to peel back those layers, peel back that widow layer, peel back that layer of grief that has defined their social and public personas. And what I found were these women who had created lives, both political and personal, that deserved interrogation or exploration, and that were far more dynamic than their sort of social and perhaps even political performance as widows of martyred civil rights leaders. What I learned about someone like Coretta Scott King, for instance, is her long heritage of civil and human rights activism that predated meeting and marrying Dr. King. And so I really wanted my scholarship, my work, my research, to reflect the dynamic heritage that these women belong to, and for us to really, again, to make an intervention in how we understand women's contributions to civil and human rights movements. You know, in many ways, if you think about it, it goes back to Sojourner Truth.  It goes back to really wanting to look at women in particular through a much more dynamic lens, and to really make some suggestions about the contributions they've made beyond what has been part of the sort of master narrative.


Jennifer Berglund  17:17

This idea of courageous inquiry, what do you mean by that? And how do you plan to bring that belief into your new role?


Brenda Tindal  17:27

You know, I can take very little credit for framing this idea of courageous inquiry.  I really inherited that idea as a graduate student at Emory University where that idea of courageous inquiry was part of the ethos and character of how the institution understood the work that it was doing for its students and faculty in the communities that it serves. And ultimately, when I use the term courageous inquiry, I'm really talking about not simply the spirit of inquiry, I'm talking about never having a poverty of imagination, about any one topic or thing. I am talking about pairing inquiry with the courage to be on the receiving end of hard truths, and often not simply being on the receiving end of those hard truths, but being courageous enough to act on them, to reconcile, to engage in awakening, to make the world better than the way that we found it. And to me, that is what courageous inquiry is.  It is about the spirit of inquiry and the willingness to address and grapple with the hard realities of who we are as human beings. I think I'm entering the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture and the larger Harvard community at an important time where courageous inquiry, again, this act of inquiring, and this willingness to engage with those hard truths, and to act on them, seems deeply important as we navigate, you know, some critical moments and critical awakenings in the institutional history, and broadly.  You know, frankly, the country is undergoing this awakening, and so we can expect our best institutions to experience that quake as well. And so my hope is that courageous inquiry will be a centering perspective as we all grapple with, across silos, across our, you know, expansive landscape, if you will, but we will be able to be courageous together as institutions that have so much to add to the new learning that I think we're all grappling with right now, and it really is about being not simply reactive, but being proactive in the ways in which we grapple with those hard truths, and we all know museums are contested spaces, but they are spaces where even against the backdrop of contestation is where we do our best work, is where we engage in a collaboration and partnership, which is at the heart of the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, and this is an opportunity to really put that to work and to test as we look ahead. I'm so excited to be at an institution that is grappling with what I would call some of the most deeply important questions that we're all dealing with as a country, and so that's what I mean by courageous inquiry, and that's what I hope to bring to the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture is the ability to, to ask questions, new and old, and to respond.


Jennifer Berglund  20:42

I'm curious, what do you mean when you said that museums are contested spaces?


Brenda Tindal  20:47

I think that museums historically have been seen as colonial spaces, as spaces where stories are told from particular perspectives, and I think, even though museums are some of the most trusted institutions, and they're often grounded in scholarly rigor, and really thoughtful research, I do think the general publics that we hope to reach may have a different sort of appetite for the stories that we tell, and so that's how I know museums are these contested spaces.  They are spaces where the very stories that our collections are steeped in often inspire great debate, and so that's really what I mean by contested spaces.  I also mean that museums can be spaces where people can come together across those differences and have really productive dialogue. And I've seen that happen in a number of institutions that have been engaged in this idea of courageous inquiry, and that have been engaged in interfacing with broad communities and diverse audiences. People aren't monolithic, even those that appreciate and come to our museums, and the opportunity to put those varying voices into conversation with one another is one of the ways in which museums are not only contested spaces, but they become these conveners of broad debate and conversation and dialogue, and so it's both the history and the ways in which museums activate thoughtful inquiry and courageous dialogue.


Jennifer Berglund  22:27

You are coming to us at a pivotal moment in our history as an institution and as a consortium of museums in that we're in the beginning stages of facing in earnest our complex history with race, and this is in fact, not the first time you've been part of an institution facing issues like this. Describe your past experiences, what you learned, and how you expect to use what you learned to guide us as our new leader during this important time in our history.


Brenda Tindal  23:00

I've worked in a number of institutions that are experiencing awakenings and are grappling with the hard truths related to a number of topics including race and slavery. I could start with my work at Princeton University where I served as a IMLS fellow and an associate archivists working at the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library in the University Collections, as well as the Public Policy Papers, and part of the work that I did there included the groundwork for the Princeton and Slavery Project, which a number of Ivy League institutions and just institutions writ large, universities writ large, are beginning to do that important work of investigating their own histories and relationships to the institution of slavery, and so it is very courageous and very hard to admit your institutional proximity to what is understood as a very dehumanizing system. And I think our country is reckoning with that, and so, at the time, Princeton was on the cusp of really beginning to interrogate that in its collections as well as in its classrooms and on its very campus, and so that just speaks to one of my earliest experiences working with an institution that was beginning to do some important work around race and reconciliation and acknowledgement of their relationship to slavery. I would even say, you know, in Charleston here, this project, the International African American Museum, is deeply important to helping with this sort of reckoning and awakening and telling these stories, telling the unvarnished truth, but the project is also part of a community of conversations. That includes the fact that Charleston issued an apology, like many municipalities and cities have been issuing apologies for their role in slavery in the history of enslaving African and African Americans in particular, and indigenous people. And so, this very project is a singular monument in some ways to that larger debate, especially in a place like Charleston. But then, when I think about contemporary issues that are equally causing a great deal of impact in terms of how museums deal with the very concept of race, and the concept of racism, I was at the Levine Museum of the New South when a officer-involved shooting took place in the city of Charlotte, and not only was it happening in Charlotte, but it was a quite visible occurrence, and obviously, we're in the middle of that continuous reckoning with the relationship between communities and law enforcement, and where the museum was located was actually precisely where much of the protests and response to that officer-involved shooting took place. And because Levine Museum had developed a reputation for using history to build community, for being a safe space for difficult dialogues, our community in Charlotte came to the museum and said, "well, what are you guys going to do? How are you going to respond?" And one of the first things that we did within days of the protests and the upset in response to that officer-involved shooting was convened in a town hall, where we sort of provided some historical context in response to a very broad question.  As the Staff Historian at the time, one of the things that people kept saying, both in the news and in the community was, "how could this happen to Charlotte? Charlotte is progressive, shining, New South City, we're not some of the other places that have become sort of the icons of this unrest, if you will." And I said, "why not Charlotte?"  That was our response. This is our history. Let's look at socioeconomic issues. Let's look at schools.  Let's look at segregation of our neighborhoods to really think through how our city becomes a site of racial unrest, and that conversation became, really, the start of what will become K(NO)W Justice K(NO)W Peace, which was an exhibition and a community engagement initiative that really sought to give community members a space to reckon with this incredible, scary, disconcerting moment in the city's history. And we created a robust programming that was interdisciplinary, that catered to intergenerational audiences. And I don't mean multigenerational audiences. One of my goals was to get people from different walks of life in the same room with one another, having conversations across their silos, and across their echochambers. And that exhibition was a wonderful launchpad for that kind of dialogue, and it was exciting to see people who would never be in the same room together, never at the same dinner table, in conversation talking about the city's most critical issues. And to me, it's when you do that, when we can create empathy and understanding across our difference, we're getting closer to not only courageous inquiry, or not only that spirit of inquiry, but again, acting on, "how do we create a better society? How do we create a better world for all of us to live in?" And to me, we really attempted to do that work in Charlotte through the museum, and that's what I mean too by museums not being these cabinets of curiosity, where they can be both the very traditional places for learning, but they can also be these hubs for civic and civil engagement. And often communities expect their museums, more and more, to be able to convene thoughtful conversation across these echo chambers. And I hope I'm able to bring a very similar ethos and perspective to Harvard and to the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture.  I know that there is already a very dynamic community engaged in these conversations, but what would it look like to broaden our scope even more, to bring people together across their echochambers to talk about some of our most challenging and important issues?


Jennifer Berglund  29:37

So I'm curious, where does science fit into all this? Because you are going to be the Executive Director of the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, and you've got the culture down.  Where does the science fit into all that?


Brenda Tindal  29:53

Well, you know, I think that science, like so many other disciplines, is critical to how we understand ourselves, to how we understand the world. And I don't have to necessarily be the expert on science.  We have a phenomenal group of museum practitioners and scholars who are the experts in their respective fields, and my hope is that I can bring my expertise as a museum practitioner, as a public historian, into conversation with all of the brilliance and rigor of the larger team.  I truly believe in collaboration, and I truly believe that it is in collaboration, cross disciplinary, interdisciplinary science, and the humanities, and the many other disciplines that make up our universe and our learning ecosystem. I think that's where some of the best work is unveiled, and so science is at the heart of the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, and my hope is to bring my prowess as a historian into conversation with the brilliance of the scientists and scholars that have been driving this work at the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. I think this is such a critical moment for understanding the ways in which science informs history and the social world, and so the opportunity to figure out how do we illuminate that even moreso than what is already being done is the thing that kind of sets my heart on fire about being the next Executive Director of this important consortium of museums. My own philosophy around museums and being a museum practitioner and being a historian, I had the pleasure of working as a graduate researcher and working in collections at Emory, and I worked on the Alice Walker Papers when they were acquired by the Rose Library.  I remember we were organizing and beginning to file things away, and we ran across this little sticky note that was written in Alice Walker's longhand, and it said, "people are known by the records they keep. If it isn't in the record, it will be said that it did not happen. That's what history is--a keeping of records." And my hope is that the records that we keep, the records that we continue to grow, the stories that we tell, the perspectives that we bring to the table, will help us tell a much fuller, more dynamic story about the human spirit, and I truly believe that the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture is in the vanguard of that.  I am coming with my own set of experiences and perspectives, but I am also joining a community that has already done some amazing and important work, and so the work that we build and grow and record together will extend the legacy of the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, and I am just thrilled to have been invited to be part of this community and to help it be its best and most brilliant self.

Jennifer Berglund  33:20

Brenda Tindal thank you so much for being here. This has been just fantastic and we are so incredibly excited to have you with us as our new Executive Director.

Brenda Tindal  33:33

Thank you so much. I am just excited and thrilled and honored.

Jennifer Berglund  33:44

Today's HMSC Connects! podcast was produced by me, Jennifer Berglund, and the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. Special thanks to Brenda Tindal for her wisdom and expertise. And thank you so much for listening! If you'd like today's podcast, please subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Podbean, or wherever you get your podcasts. See in a couple of weeks!