Roy Rosenzweig & David Thelen, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life (1998). For me, one of the most important pieces of information to take away from this work is that people, in general, approach the past in relation to themselves and their families, not from a class, gender, or ethic standpoint. Americans can and do relate to major events in national history, but often through the access point of a family member or personal connection. In the afterthoughts, Thelen notes that respondents liked history museums because they could approach the content on their own terms and create their own narratives (195). My question is how one goes from encouraging people to see the connection between their personal history and, say, the WPA to understanding the connection between their history, the WPA, and the history of the stranger standing next to them in the museum. Is it even possible?
In September I attended the AASLH annual meeting in Richmond. One of the sessions I wanted to attend, but didn’t get the chance, was led by the editors of a recent work titled Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World. If you follow the link to the publisher’s page, you can read the table of contents. Although the book is focused more on the museum community and pubic history, it came to mind when I was reading the articles and essays assigned for this week.
Written history, academic history, often seems to be written with the idea of authority, either in finality or in a closed conversation. One of the apparent consequences of the “professionalization” of history1 has been historians writing and “doing” history for other historians. This is not in and of itself problematic, but it has led to an assumption that everyone speaks the same language and knows (and will follow) a similar set of rules. Citizen history changes the rules and the language.
Of course, the rules and language were never as set in stone as some would think. Historians working in museums or otherwise with the public have been aware of that, whether or not they accepted it. A curator can write clear label text, carefully construct an exhibit and educational program; there will still be visitors who ignore all the presented information, or who read what you have written in a completely unexpected way. The divergence of intended and received information can be seen as a failure, but how we react to that failure can change, in fact seems to be changing.
From my entirely self-informed understanding of 20th century educational and museum history, there was for some time an attempt to change the behavior of the visitor. The exchange of information, whether from a curator or academic historian, was one way: into the audience. The challenge which is now being voiced by some, including (I believe) the editors and contributors of Letting Go, is to start a conversation, to engage the audience in a conversation, and moreover to listen to them.
Giving voice to the non-experts is scary. How can we give up the authority that we have earned through hours of work, reading, and all those graduate classes? What if they don’t listen to us? What if they are wrong about something, or say that we are wrong?
On the other hand, listening to the non-experts is exciting. When they realize how broad and deep our knowledge is, they respect all the hours of work and reading (well, most of the time). If we listen to them, they may be more inclined to listen to us. At times, they may still get it wrong.
The main concern I have seen in citizen history, both in my own experience and in the readings, is a fear that the public will misbehave – commit vandalism, break the tool or the site. It is expecting the absolute worst behavior of people. Certainly, there will be some vandals. There will be the one person who stands on the left side of the Metro escalator, who talks loudly on their phone in the quite train car, who speeds recklessly on the highway. There will still be all the other people standing on the right, reading quietly, and driving within 10 MPH of the posted limit. We should give those people a chance.
Moreover, we should be excited to give those people a chance. They can be extremely passionate about things that interest us, or even things that do not. As Roy Rosenzweig mentions in his article about Wikipedia, the user-generated encyclopedia “offers a detailed 3,100-word article titled “Postage Stamps and Postal History of the United States,” a topic with a devoted popular following that attracts little scholarly interest.” Although not generally applicable or usually publishable, this group of wikipedians might prove helpful should a curator at the US Postal Museum run into a thorny problem.
Moreover, once a community of participants has established itself, they will help to keep down the number of vandals and troublemakers. Full disclosure: I have an account to edit Wikipedia. Just this past week I was reading an entry and noticed that someone had added “youll love these awesome deals” to one of the references. So I went in and made a minor edit. Users may have their differences, but in general I think the citizen historians are interested and excited to be included in a meaningful historical project.
That, for me, is one of the best reasons to be willing to surrender a little authority, to listen as well as talk: the enthusiasm of the volunteer can restore your own energy and dedication to a project.2
- Generally used to describe the late 19th century creation of a distinct identity for historians working in the academy [↩]
- I almost wrote a long paragraph comparing this feeling to the benefit of a responsive audience for theatre actors – as compared to an empty room – but I decided to stick it in this footnote instead. Maybe later. [↩]
The readings which most resonated with me were the reports from the 2007 Working Group on Evaluating Public History Scholarship and the 2007 essay by William G. Thomas III, “Writing A Digital History Journal Article from Scratch: An Account”. They are relevant not only to the course, but to my future as a historian (academic/public/digital), and I suspect I’ll reread these over the next few years.
Even if digital history isn’t implicitly public history, I think that the recommendations of the working group for evaluating public history work create a very helpful template for digital historians. The emphasis to community engagement is in particular is worthy of attention. One, because public history and publicly-accessible digital history works are a way of engaging with the community, and can especially help foster connections between a local group and the college/university, breaking down barriers which might otherwise exist. Secondly, because I think historians sometimes forget about the communities with which they could engage; if we keep that in mind as one of the assets of our work, it is harder to neglect those ties. Continue reading »
Every year in the spring, my friends who are historical reenactors go to two events: Military Through the Ages, at Jamestown (MTA), and Marching Through Time, at MariettaHouse Museum in Maryland (MTT). Although the two events are quite different in scale and outward tone, the basic concept is the same. Groups that interpret military companies or troops from various periods come and are arranged in chronological order, and visitors can walk in whatever sequence they want, asking questions and seeing the progress (or regress, depending on your path) of military technology and tactics.
Shortly after Military Through the Ages took place, I received the latest issue of The Public Historian, one of my favorite regular publications. The issue has a wonderful interview with Ivor Noel Hume, and the following quote stuck with me:
And I have found that, with the seventeenth century, groups like the Sealed Knott Society in England, the reenactment group, they do some very good work. Someone takes an interest in shoemaking or building construction and they write little papers about what they have learned. They are just not about shooting but are deeply interested in the history and make contributions.
Among other things (which I hope to come back to in future posts) I was struck by the phrase “seventeenth century.” Other than some early colonial sites on the east coast, and Spanish sites out west, there isn’t much seventeenth century history being told in the US. Moreover, pre-seventeenth century history is most often seen statically, in museum displays, or in two dimensions on film and in print.
At this point, I think I should clarify something about my reenactor friends. One or two go to events like Military Through the Ages with 20th c. groups. A few are part of a Jacobite regiment, from the 1745 Stewart uprising. But most of the people I know are part of two groups: La Belle Compagnie, which interprets the 1380s, and Lord Grey’s Retinue, which focuses on the 1470s.
For the first time, after reading the article and my friends’ posts about their weekend of interpretation, I was struck by what a unique opportunity they offer in the US. When I was in Scotland, you could go to any number of castles or other historic sites and find people, professionals or amateurs or both, interpreting everything from the Roman era to post-World War II rationing. The picture at left is from a tournament weekend at Linlithgow Palace, a huge draw for people of all backgrounds; throughout the day this man demonstrated the process of putting on armor at the time of the Battle of Flodden (1513), and pointed out the differences between his armor, as a noble, and that of his vassal.
In the United States, I am not aware of places that offer regular access to pre-1600 interpretation for any culture (Asian, African, or European, although I sincerely hope there are some Native American/First Nations). Looking back to when I was a kid, I know that as much as I loved reading, seeing people demonstrate martial and material culture would have had a much greater impact. In fact, I know it did, because I vividly remember what living history interpretation I did see.
What it means to me is that my friends, who are by day programmers and military personnel, stay-at-home parents and bankers, are also some person’s first experience of tangible wonderful history. It might be the man demonstrating cooking, or the woman with the spindle, or just seeing the parent and children running around playing with toys appropriate to the period of interpretation. They are bringing to life a period and area of history which does not, in this country, have a physical presence, and in a way which is purposefully accessible to the public. I think that’s wonderful.
1 Ivor Noël Hume and Henry M. Miller, “Ivor Noël Hume: Historical Archaeologist,” The Public Historian, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Winter 2011): 25.
Within the first year of getting my job, a Job In My Field (history), I learned that some people would not call me a historian. Apparently there has been a divide between historians who work in museums, for the Park Service, etc. and those who are professors in universities and colleges; put more succinctly, public historians and academic historians. Some (but not all!) academic historians do not think that public historians are “real” historians, either because we tend to work on one project or era for a discrete period of time and then move on, or because of some reason I have yet to divine.
At first I was offended, then philosophical. It does, after all, raise the question of who is a historian, of what work or effort earns one that title.
You see, I am a hobbyist reenactor. I’ve never done a juried show, but I love hanging out with my friends who do them on a regular basis. For those who are unaware, many historic reenactment shows which are open to the public, such as Military Through the Ages in James County, Virginia, have judges who come through and rate the various groups (at least, that’s my understanding). These groups are self-policing, with every item that the public can see vetted by members of the group who have done extensive research. My friends belong to these groups, but almost none of them have day jobs which give them the title “historian”. They’re editors, writers, programmers, project managers, and human resources directors. But are they not also historians?
There are also people who act as the voice of history for an area, an organization, a nation. My father has been involved in internet and networking since the 1970s, and he has met some of the most influential people in its history. He can tell the story of the trials and tribulations of academic computing, and he has preserved relics from those early days (albeit only as many as he has space to store). My Grandfather, who I wrote about in my last post, made a point to go and talk to teenagers and young people about his experiences in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, which for them was decidedly history.
There are archivists, special collections librarians, librarians of all kinds, elementary school teachers, neighborhood council members, all manner of people who engage in the activity of researching and interpreting history for themselves and others. At what point does one transition from a person who does history to a historian? Is there even a difference?
I don’t have an answer to those question – I’m not sure if I want one. I will likely revisit the question, at least to explore the work done by my friends who voluntarily wear layers of wool in the heat of Virginia summers to bring the distant past closer. But I welcome the comments of those who read, as long as you’re civil.
Recently I went down to south-west Florida to visit my grandfather, who lives in one of the many retirement communities in the area. He said “We’ll do whatever you want,” and I said “Hey, let’s check out the local history museum.” My grandfather admitted he’d never been, despite having been in the area for over a decade, and away we went. It was a very nice County Museum, with a small static exhibit in the administrative building and a nice collection of pieces and small buildings in the outdoor area/garden.
We went to leave, and said we would be back. The woman who was working the desk at reception/gift shop area said “Well, everything here will be the same – history doesn’t change!”
I just nodded, but her statement bothered me. True, the actual facts of history are, at this point, static. What happened does not change. Our understanding of it, on the other hand, does. Their exhibits included topics such as the Seminole, slavery and escaped slaves, and the logging of the cypress forests. How those topics are presented today are not necessarily how we would present them 15 or 30 years ago; who knows how we will interpret them 15 years from now? Scholarship certainly changes. Public history changes, too.
I know that this is a small county museum, which is part of four museum sites operated by the county museum administration. They don’t have a large staff, their budget is definitely small. They may have limited opportunities to change their exhibits, even if their administrators (whoever they may be) wanted to do so. To me, however, saying “History doesn’t change” is to say “this place is static, only worth seeing once, because it and history are only worth a single walk through.” Museums and history deserve second looks, because you never know what you might discover that you missed before.
Spent today having good conversations and listening to good conversations at THAT Camp. The twitter buzz on the camp hashtag (#thatcamp) has been pretty busy; one of the points which kept coming up in twitter was how conversations kept coming back to tools more than implementations. My thought, in the final session I attended today, was that we have such diverse audiences (end users). Attendees include art historians, academic historians, public historians, librarians, grad students, costume designers, archaeologists, english professors, &c. The way we want to use the tools we’re brainstorming about are myriad; and of course once we launch the tools, the users will take them in totally new directions.
This makes the conversations more challenging, but the end results all that much more interesting.