From a young age, Sahana Mukherjee was exposed to different versions of historical events. Mukerjee's mother ran a non-profit foundation for improving primary education. Throughout her childhood, Mukherjee spent time in different communities, regions, and schools across India. She noticed that the historical narratives in one region of India would differ significantly from the historical narrative around the same event in another region.

This “Rashomon”-like retelling of historical narratives left her with the deep impression that representations of history can be shaped and crafted to suit the message of the storyteller. After moving to the U.S., Mukherjee found her cultural identity shift from being a part of the dominant group to becoming a part of the minority group. This experience led Mukherjee to imbue her early interest in historical narratives with the lens of oppression and privilege.

Mukherjee's research examines the bi-directional relationship between conceptions of national identity and representations of immigration history present at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. One of the studies found that “participants who visited the museum were more likely to define American identity in terms of dominant group values and indicate exclusive stances toward immigration issues. The research findings suggest that “historical representations or historical sites can direct future behavior and action of those who engage with these representations.”

The connection between human psyche and museum spaces arose organically from Mukherjee's passion for visiting museums. She noticed that museum spaces were designed in a way that shaped the visitors’ “paths” through certain exhibits. While visiting United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Mukherjee observed that the space was designed in a way that “encourages [visitors] to participate in all of the narratives in the museum”. Museum spaces are designed in a way that maximizes visitors’ exposure and interactions with certain narratives while minimizing their exposure to lesser-known narratives. For instance, the audio guide at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum features audio narratives for the major exhibits but does not contain audio descriptions for the exhibits that feature critical narratives of the Ellis Island immigration experience. In Kansas City’s National World War I Museum and Memorial, the space designated to describing the events in World War I prior to the U.S.’ involvement was a separate, easily overlooked room with a single small video screen. In contrast, the section focusing on U.S.’ involvement in the war featured a huge screen and was situated in a central space.

“To what extent do visitors have the agency to decide which narratives are worth visiting? Are there certain psychological tendencies that predict what we think is important versus what we think is not [important]?”

These are the guiding questions that shaped Mukherjee's research at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. Mukherjee conducted a series of studies at the museum that explores the interplay between the museum exhibit’s representations of history and the identity-related attitudes in participants. Visitors whose conceptions of national identity were defined by assimilationist ideals tended to prefer displays that featured nation-glorifying narratives and showed disengagement from displays that featured critical narratives. The results of the study suggest a bi-directional influence in which the design of the museum space and personal preferences of the visitors work together to reinforce pre-existing beliefs.

Mukherjee hopes that this research sheds insight on how prejudiced attitudes may be perpetuated by the way nationalism is defined and portrayed through cultural representations. Rather than attributing prejudice as the innate character flaws of individuals, Dr. Mukherjee urges us to examine the systemic reinforcement of prejudiced beliefs through cultural products such as museum exhibits and history curricula.

On a more positive note, Mukherjee's follow-up research adds evidence that when critical narratives are presented in the presence of a national symbol (i.e., the American flag), participants are less likely to feel threatened and are more likely to recognize and detect current forms of injustice related to immigration issues.

“Cultural tools, such as museum spaces and history curricula, are products of human engagement and action, and may reflect the desires or beliefs of the people who created them.”

For more information on Dr. Mukherjee’s research, visit her NCID profile page. Museum spaces as psychological affordances: representations of immigration history and national identity: