Amy Tyson, in The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History's Front Lines, examines the work of the living history site Fort Snelling. Tyson writes that her book "examines museum interpreters as service workers and cultural producers." (Tyson 4) Tyson, who has a PhD in American Studies, worked at Fort Snelling herself, and in a slightly similar way to Cathy Stanton (who worked as an ethnographer at Lowell NHP), draws upon her experiences as a costumed interpreter in addition to interviews with workers and archival materials. She analyzes the workings of Fort Snelling masterfully using a mix of historical, anthropological, and psychological approaches. She argues that "those who choose to invest themselves in the worksite did so because they found it emotionally fulfilling to connect with others through the medium of living history, and also because the structure of the worksite encouraged these workers to create strong self-identities (rather than collective identities) that were embedded in the larger workplace culture." (Tyson 23-24)
Tyson's book is compulsively readable and more digestible and memorable than other work we've read this semester, such as Stanton's The Lowell Experiment, Jessie Swigger's History is Bunk, and Handler and Gable's The New History in an Old Museum. Her emphasis on the emotional impact interpretive work has on employees is fascinating and studied in-depth. While Stanton, Swigger, and Handler and Gable either interviewed workers at their respective sites or used archival materials to analyze their work, Tyson makes this the brunt of the second half of her book in an effective way while relying on interviews.
The first section of her book, "Public History's Emotional Proletariat (1960-1996)" is less compelling than the second section, "Historic Fort Snelling's Front Line (1996-2006)." The first chapter, "Performing a Public Service: From Historic Site to Work Site (1960-1996)," discusses the history of the site, noting its significance for the role it played in several historic events, such as the Dred Scott decision. The second chapter, "'Our Seat at the Table': Interpreter Agency and Consent (1960-1985)" is perhaps the least interesting of all the book's chapters and discusses a grassroots collective of the Minnesota Historical Society that called themselves the Caucus. The Caucus fought against seasonal employment and lack of sufficient healthcare. Chapters that discuss these same topics were also in the work of Stanton, Swigger, and Handler and Gable, so while Tyson's scholarship on these themes is important, it is perhaps less original than the second half of her book.
Tyson finds from personal experience and from interviews with her colleagues that interpretive work has its rewards, such as having positive interactions with visitors. There are drawbacks, however, including feeling drained after work. She interviewed one employee who said he had to limit the number of activities he and his fiancee would do on the evenings he had off from work, since he was so tired and wanted time to decompress. Similar to what Swigger noted at Greenfield Village, visitors to Fort Snelling also emotionally connected to the exhibits at Fort Snelling. Tyson uses the Lois Silverman's research on the "therapeutic potential of museums" that "shows how artifacts at museums have the capacity to elicit powerful emotional responses from visitors," which leads them to share personal stories and memories. (Tyson 99) Often such responses do not relate to the didactic message museum staff wanted visitors to take away. If visitors to Fort Snelling chose to share painful memories or stories, employees tended to break out of character to listen to and comfort the visitors. This is just one example of how interpreters had to meet the needs of the visitors, often at their own emotional expense. While Swigger made sure to discuss how such interactions took away from the pedagogical purposes of the item on display or exhibit, Tyson instead focuses on the impact the interactions have on employees.
Tyson describes the games of authenticity that played out among Fort Snelling staff members and how those games impacted staff along gendered lines. The section on "Skinning the Muskrat: Performing Class and Masculinity" is particularly fascinating, as it describes how men at Fort Snelling would challenge each other to assert their masculinity in sometimes uncomfortable ways. Tyson also delves into how the testing of site employees is ineffective, as it encourages rote memorization instead of cultivating the ability to place the site in a larger historical context. Furthermore, such ineffective testing furthered the mentality that historic details are either right or wrong.
Tyson does not shy away from discussing how Fort Snelling has dealt with--or chosen not to--"painful histories," such as slavery and the violent interactions white settlers had with Native tribes. Tyson notes that the work of slave labor within the Snelling household is largely invisible, and such erasure is encouraged by a lack of recruitment of African American interpreters and the focus on the military history of the site and the daily lives of soldiers. It is left up to interpreters to decide whether or not to discuss topics like slavery, and they tend to rely on "comfort clues" taken from the visitors. The guide given to interpreters titled "African-Americans at Fort Snelling, 1820-1840: An Interpretive Guide" stated the following: "Rather than focus on the negative aspects of black life, especially slavery, interpreters should emphasize African American's positive contributions to Minnesota's history." (Tyson 155) However, such practices at the Fort changed after 2006 with the hiring of a new manager, a new program manager, three new site supervisors, and the creation of the new position of program developer. Fort Snelling moved away from first-person interpretation to a "modified third-person" method, which makes it easier to use culturally sensitive rhetoric. They also created new signs in the Commanding Officer's Kitchen, "Slavery in Minnesota" and "The Commandant's Servants," in addition to the Dred and Harriet Scott Quarters. Tyson is careful to discuss that the Fort will have a harder time addressing the history of colonialism and the destruction of Native culture and peoples.
Overall, Tyson's work is engaging and provides insight into the emotional work of public history. It is a welcome addition to the site-specific studies of Colonial Williamsburg, Lowell, and Greenfield Village.
Cathy Stanton, in The Lowell Experiment: Public History in a Postindustrial City, builds on the work of Handler and Gabler in The New History in an Old Museum. Stanton, an anthropologist, completed two years of field work at Lowell National Historical Park. She states that the subject of her book revolves around the notion of "reciprocity of disappearance and exhibition - the process by which museums, monuments, historic sites, and similar types of display not only reflect and memorialize change, but actually help to create it." (Stanton xiii) Stanton notes that museum exhibits, if analyzed as cultural performances, are produced and presented within the context of "social networks of relationship[s] that both shape its content and may in turn be affected by whatever is collected, interpreted, and displayed." (Stanton 22) Stanton's goal was to situate public historians as social actors within Lowell, a postindustrial city that has undergone significant socioeconomic and demographic changes. (Stanton 29)
Staton's discussion of the Run of the Mill and the Acre tours are particularly interesting. They both promote the progressive narrative of American history without fully engaging in the current state of neoliberalism as its seen in Lowell. The Acre tour takes visitors through a neighborhood in Lowell that is not thriving economically and where many of its residents live in poverty. Visitors to Lowell NHP are typically in the middle class, and tend to be uneasy about the tour. Rangers who lead the tour present a chronology of life in the Acre that oversimplifies migration and homeland allegiances, and also presuppose a level of cohesion and unity among the various ethnic communities. The tours do not acknowledge the unease of visitors or any conflict that may exist within the Acre neighborhood as well as limiting any encounters of face-to-face interactions with natives. The tours Stanton details in the first few chapters of her book demonstrate how the narratives of history Lowell NHP are embracing are not portraying an accurate view of what life is like in current day Lowell. Part of the reason for this is because the professional public historians employed at Lowell are more similar ethnically and socioeconomically to the visitors to Lowell than the inhabitants of Lowell themselves. These differences between the historians and residents of Lowell reinforces "insider/outsider, present/past, working class/middle class divisions." (Stanton 160)
Stanton's work in Lowell raises important questions for public historians: how can public historians accurately portray urban history without glossing over the current conditions of life in that particular city? How can public historians interpret the impacts of capitalism for their audiences? How can public historians successfully engage with the inhabitants of a city in a way that doesn't marginalize them or distance them from the history being told? Public historians need to be mindful of how the history they are interpreting is partially resultant from economic conditions that typically create economic disparities. Public historians need to tell a more inclusive version of history, and fairly represent all classes and groups of people.
Stanton's work ends on better note than History is Bunk or The New History in an Old Museum. Stanton notes that the revised Boott Mill exhibit examines textile production and addresses the positive and negative aspects of economic globalization. The exhibit seeks to show "new Lowell mill girls" around the world, in places that are currently industrializing, and then parallels are drawn to Lowell. The exhibit also discusses worker exploitation and includes a hands-on section that uses articles of clothing to ask questions about consumer choice and profitability. (Stanton 230-231)
Andrea Burns, in From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement examines the establishment of the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago, the International Afro-American Museum in Detroit, the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum in Washington, D.C., and the African American Museum of Philadelphia. Burns writes that black museum leaders "encouraged a uniquely 'black' identity and consciousness through exhibits and educational programs, and emphasized the vital need for interaction between the museum and the local African American community." (Burns 5) These leaders drew from the notion of racial uplift as well as grounding their museums in the Black Power Movement.
In contrast to Lowell, the leaders of these museums fully understood their audiences. This is in part due to their motivations in establishing these institutions--leaders wanted their museums to be conduits to the needs of the black community, which is defined both in physical terms and as the global community that makes up the African Diaspora. (Burns 4-5) These leaders created exhibits that drew in and reflected life in the black community. at the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, staff created an exhibit titled The Rat--Man's Invited Affliction, which demonstrated a facet of everyday life in Anacostia: rats. The neighborhood suffered from a large rat infestation problem, due to overcrowded apartment buildings and poor trash collection resulting from urban renewal and governmental neglect. The exhibit boasted high attendance and news coverage both locally and nationally. The Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, unlike other museums at that time, embraced the problems the community was facing and successfully demonstrated what life was like for those within that community. Charles Wright, head of the International Afro-American Museum, wanted to ensure that the museum reached out to all citizens of the community and wanted to expose as many people as possible to black culture. To reach this goal, he worked to establish a mobile exhibit van, dubbed a "museum on wheels."
Despite the museums' success in understanding and reaching out to their audiences, these institutions were not without their problems. Burns is careful to delineate the struggles each museum went through economically. The Philadelphia Museum in particular faced many hardships, as its leaders struggled to establish the museum apart from the city's bicentennial celebrations. These museums continue to face problems to this day, so much so that the current leaders are concerned that the National Museum of African American History and Culture will deflect resources and visitors aways from their institutions. Burns's work is fascinating, and was a compelling read.
Jessie Swigger's "History is Bunk": Assembling the Past at Henry Ford's Greenfield Village is an analysis of the history of Greenfield Village, a re-created historical village based on Henry Ford's glorification of certain aspects of American history and the progress narrative. Swigger says the book "explores Greenfield Village's long history, from Ford's initial conception in 1919, to the period following his death in 1947, to its most recent moniker, 'America's Greatest History Attraction.' The extensive history of the village illuminates the fascinating dialogue that occurs between audiences and those who build and administer representations of the past." (Swigger 5) Swigger states that she chose to study the Village as opposed to studying both the Village and the Henry Ford Museum "because it better focuses the fascinating process by which the past is constructed." (Swigger 11) Henry Ford was the man who declared history to be "bunk," but "At Greenfield Village, many different constituents negotiated the meaning of the pasts on display and collectively determined which ones were bunk." (Swigger 14)
What is most interesting about this work is Swigger's careful attention to the ways in which the experience of Greenfield Village is shaped by the visitors themselves. Swigger notes "A consideration of Greenfield Village both in the context of and beyond Henry Ford demonstrates that its interpretation of the past evolved as a dialogue between a number of players including Ford, subsequent administrators, public historians, and visitors." (emphasis mine. Swigger 6) In the third chapter, Swigger uses the notes left by guides between 1934 and 1946 in the Greenfield Village Journal to analyze the ways in which visitors to the Village took the accepted narrative of the site articulated by the guides and made it relatable to themselves. (Swigger 89) Swigger found that comments generally fell into two categories: visitors asserting their authority over the past by challenging its depiction at the Village, and visitors relating objects and buildings to their personal experiences. (Swigger 91) Visitors would suggest changes, challenge the authenticity of objects, and would express dismay when objects did not conform to their views of the past. When viewing the (supposed) chair Lincoln was sitting in at Ford's Theatre, one visitor noted that she had "'seen another chair in which Lincoln was sitting when shot.'" (Swigger 92) One black visitor who has visiting the slave huts told a guide her uncle had spent his life in one of the huts at Hermitage Plantation, the same plantation from which the huts were bought. (Swigger 93)
While visitors in the 1930s and 40s tended to assert their authority over the past or relate objects and buildings back to their own personal experiences, visitors to the Village in the 1970s tended to focus on issues of consumption. In the fifth chapter, rather than looking at notes left by guides, Swigger analyzes the results of visitor surveys that were collected between 1969 and 1979. Visitors' comments tended to fall into one of seven categories: Ford, patriotism, nostalgia, appearance, overall value, education, and leisure. The majority of the comments fell into the overall value, education, and leisure categories. (Swigger 133) Visitors whose comments were put into the leisure category tended to discuss souvenirs, food quality, and comfort; these visitors wanted to experience both service and education. A smattering of visitor comments focused on the need for Greenfield Village to be more inclusive of a diverse past. Visitors who mentioned race or gender believed that the site should hire more African American guides, discuss the history of Native Americans, and took issue with the site's interpretation of women's roles. These two chapters of Swigger's work are fascinating: they demonstrate the ways in which audiences at historical sites experience such spaces, and how they take the accepted interpretation of the site and manipulate it to more closely mirror their expectations, beliefs, and views of history.
With the trend towards the new social history in both the academy and in public history, Greenfield Village underwent a transformation. Guides began to discuss histories that were uncomfortable. For example, the version of Ford propagated at the site was more complete: rather than being a great man, the site emphasized that he was also an anti-Semite. The Village was rearranged in such a way that disrupted the narrative of the small-town landscape and self-made men Ford had championed in the previous decades. Firestone Farm was added, which uses living history to interpret the past. The African American Family Life and Culture program helped to tell a more complete version of the past and connect to nearby Detroit's black residents. (Swigger 167) However, it is still questionable whether a site that is denoted a "history attraction" can be seen as a site of valuable public history, and in the last chapter it seems as if Swigger would err on the side of caution. She notes that "Under Hamp's leadership, Greenfield Village moved in directions that would have resonated with Henry Ford." (Swigger 170) Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum were renamed The Henry Ford, with the tagline "America's Greatest History Attraction." (Swigger 175) Hamp announced an improvement campaign, which included the opening of an IMAX theater and a new restaurant, A Taste of History. The Village also purchased the (alleged) bus that Rosa Parks was riding when she began the Montgomery Bus Boycott. While attempting to show a more inclusive version of the past, Hamp also made changes that echo the idea that visitors are 1) customers, and 2) consumers.
We learned last week that Colonial Williamsburg is not public history. It is harder to tell with Greenfield Village. Because administrators made such strides to incorporate the new social history into their site, the Village does now tell a more comprehensive history than it did previously. However, the more recent changes at the site emphasize the Village as a place of consumption: visitors pay for admission and expect a certain narrative of the past to be told. Are any sites of public history actually doing public history? Obviously institutions such as the Smithsonian are successful at this, but they receive federal funding, and most museums do not charge an entrance fee. Will a place such as Greenfield Village ever successfully deploy public history? How can sites that are reliant upon external funding present themselves in ways other than being history attractions?
Richard Handler and Eric Gable's The New History in an Old Museum: Creating the Past at Colonial Williamsburg uses an ethnographic approach to examine Colonial Williamsburg (CW) and the ways in which it produces history. The authors conducted interviews with employees and a few visitors, and analyzed the history of CW, its historiographical approaches from the 1930s through the 1980s, corporate structure, the picketing of restaurant and hotel workers in 1991, its educational programs, and the training of its employees who are on the "front line." They are particularly interested in examining whether CW is embracing the new social history and propagating a more complete view of the past. Handler and Gable argue that "by looking at what happens on the ground in a particular place, at a particular time, we will show that social history has hardy the kind of insurgent effect its critics claim for it." (Handler and Gable 8) Throughout the text, Handler and Gable use the term mimesis "to refer to such realist or objectivist approaches to history making at Colonial Williamsburg...mimesis refers to Colonial Williamsburg's avowed mission to recreate a colonial American city as it existed in the mid-eighteenth century." (Handler and Gable 70)
The strongest chapter of the book is the final chapter titled "The Bottom Line." Handler and Gable sum up their findings and indict CW for what they see as a mishandling of the interpretation of history presented to visitors. "Mimetic realism...destroys history. To teach the public that the work of Colonial Williams is to reconstruct the past as it really was erases all the interpretive work that goes into the museum's story. It erases the choices the museum makes...and it erases the political and cultural values that, explicitly or implicitly, underpin those choices. Mimetic realism thus deadens the historical sensibility of the public...[and] destroys the utility of history as a vehicle for social criticism." (Handler and Gable 224) For Handler and Gable, not only is the mission of CW unachievable, it is also an escapist farce that does not allow for a larger comparative analysis of society and culture.
The chapters that focus on the discussion and presentation of slavery at CW are fascinating and infuriating. When taking the Other Half Tour, black interpreters lead their groups of visitors to the Wythe House and, while standing outside it, discuss the nature of sexual relationships between whites and the enslaved at CW. George Wythe himself allegedly engaged in a sexual relationship with one of his slaves, although the (generally white) interpreters inside the Wythe house deny such a relationship existed because there is no "hard evidence" to back up such a claim. This is just one way in which CW attempts to whitewash slavery. During the Christmas season at CW, Handler and Gable attended an evening at the Wythe house that attempted to show how Christmas was celebrated by whites and the enslaved. Handler and Gable note that "although slaves had a voice in this program, their actions and words ultimately served to highlight the virtues of George Wythe." (Handler and Gable 112) The focus was on Wythe, who was described by the tour guide at the start of the program as gentleman with a brilliant mind, a lawyer, teacher, scholar, revolutionary, and judge, and the program ended with Wythe discussing the problems of the institution and how owning slaves does not rest easily on his conscious. (Handler and Gable 103) It is exasperating that Wythe was not described more accurately as a lawyer, teacher, scholar, revolutionary, judge, and slaveholder. Here again is this problem of American heroes. These "great men" must be portrayed as heroic defenders and protectors of American democracy, rather than be painted in a more accurate light. Why is it not possible for men like Wythe and Jefferson to be described as patriots and slaveholders? Can we not accept the fact that these men did great and terrible things? Why must the latter half be glossed over? Also highly concerning was the flippant remarks made by some guides or interpreters about slavery. One guide Handler and Gable encountered mentioned that slaves in Williamsburg in the Revolutionary period were treated relatively well and then noted that the life of a slave in Revolutionary Williamsburg would have been much better than the life of a slave picking cotton in Mississippi in the 1840s. Such remarks demonstrate a complete misunderstanding of the history of slavery in the United States. Why did the guide feel the need to reassure his audience that Williamsburg was not a bad place to be a slave? Even through these paltry examples alone, it is abundantly clear that the new social history is not being properly channeled from CW historians to the employees who interact with visitors on a daily basis. This is a problem that has many causes, as Handler and Gable have aptly demonstrated, and the major one is that CW is a business and its pedagogical practices do not enable a deeper analysis or critique of slavery.
The current mission of Colonial Williamsburg is "to be a center for history and citizenship, encouraging national and international audiences to learn from the past through the preservation, restoration, and presentation of 18th-century Williamsburg and the study, interpretation, and teaching of America's founding democratic principles." In light of this week's book, it would be interesting to determine whether this new mission also includes more dedicated approaches to integrating new social history into the production of history at CW. At a first brief and very cursory glance, it does not appear so. Their digital project Tour the Town includes an African American experience tour, which highlights three places of interest in CW: the African American Religion Exhibit, Great Hopes Plantation, and Peyton Randolph House. Nowhere in the short description of the Peyton Randolph House does it describe the slaves who worked and lived there. There is mention of outbuildings ("A full complement of outbuildings stood to the north (in back), including a two-story brick kitchen, a stable for 12 horses, a coach house, and a dairy") but there is no discussion of the enslaved. Similarly, the description of the Peyton Randolph House on the CW website, from which it seems likely the information for Tour the Town was taken, mentions the outbuildings but not the slaves. It is oversights like this that work to silence any larger discussion on slavery at CW. Despite blacks making up half of the population of Williamsburg, any discussion of their history is still relegated to the margins.
Edward Linenthal's The Unfinished Bombing: Oklahoma City in American Memory is a cultural analysis of the bombing of Oklahoma City and the ways in which survivors, victims' families, the community, and nation as a whole dealt with the aftermath and details the memorialization process. Linenthal argues that the bombing "sparked a crisis of American identity in which much was at stake. Discussion about what it 'meant' had little to do with Oklahoma City and everything to do with American worlds seemingly threatened by the bombing. It would continue to resonate richly and contentiously in the culture." (Linenthal 27) Linenthal notes that the story of Oklahoma City is told through three different narratives. The progressive narrative seeks to transform the image of Oklahoma City and spur a revitalization of the city through acts of civic reconstruction. The redemptive narrative springs from religious communities and their struggle to use sacred resources to respond to the crisis, and generally includes affirmations of the human spirit. The toxic narrative is one in which the bombing is characterized as unfinished; this narrative focuses on the bombing itself and the way the bombing impacted minds and bodies of those who witnessed it first-or second-hand. (Linenthal 41-43)
Linenthal describes the ways in which the bombing was the impetus for the formation of new social relationships and groups, how Americans as a nation coped by using their grief to transcend differences that divide the county, and the debate over what should be done with the Murrah building. One of the most fascinating chapters in the book is the final chapter that discusses the creation of the Oklahoma City Memorial. The process of memorialization that occurred at Oklahoma City is "symbolic in the history of public memorialization" because it included over three hundred people and was consciously designed to be therapeutic in nature. This particular memorial process "served as an ingeniously designed model of community consensus building." (Linenthal 229-230)
In Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero, Marita Sturken picks up where The Unfinished Bombing left off, and her work draws on and adds to Linenthal's work. Tourists of History "explores the complex intersection of cultural memory, tourism, consumerism, paranoia, security, and kitsch that has defined American culture over the past two decades and the ways that these cultural practices are related to the deep investment in the concept of innocence." (Sturken 4) She defines the term "tourists of history" as a "particular mode through which the American public is encouraged to experience itself as the subject of history through consumerism, media images, souvenirs, popular culture, and museum and architectural reenactments, a form of tourism that has as its goal a cathartic 'experience' of history." (Sturken 4) Sturken's argues "American culture's relationship to memory and mourning can be defined as a tourism of history." (Sturken 12) Tourists of History demonstrates how Americans use cultures of consumerism and kitsch as a means to provide feelings of comfort and safety after traumatic experiences, which helps to restore their sense of innocence. This sense of innocence is fundamentally misleading and displaces any sense of blame away from those same Americans seeking comfort.
Sturken supports her argument by laying out her theoretical framework in a fascinating first chapter that juxtaposes the culture of consumerism in America with notions of comfort, innocence, and security. She engages well with Linenthal's work in the second and third chapters, and teases out the most significant portions of his scholarship and weaves them seamlessly into her own argument. According to Sturken, the progressive narrative is the narrative that ultimately triumphed in Oklahoma City, as the community was able to come together successfully to create a moving, therapeutic monument to the victims in a relatively short period of time. In the third chapter, Sturken discusses the execution of Timothy McVeigh and how it contributed to an overlapping spectacle of death and grief.
In the final two chapters, she comparatively analyzes the events of 9/11 to those of Oklahoma City. The fifth chapter discusses the efforts to rebuild lower Manhattan and the efforts to create a 9/11 memorial. Unlike Oklahoma City, there was not a broad consensus on the best way to construct a memorial. The progressive narrative did not triumph in Manhattan the way it did in Oklahoma City. The debates over the best way to memorialize the victims of 9/11, and to a lesser extent, the debates over the Oklahoma City Memorial, are case studies in the idea that memorialization is not about the past but about the present.
Similar to Linenthal's assertion in The Unfinished Bombing, Sturken notes that Ground Zero became a site of cultural memory production that created narratives of redemption and innocence. Sturken's work adds the narrative of innocence to Linenthal's preexisting three narratives. It would be interesting to examine the narratives that com out of other traumatic events in recent American history, such as the Columbine or Virginia Tech shootings, for example. Would the narratives that arose from those events be comparable to Sturken's and Linenthal's? How would they differ, since Oklahoma City and 9/11 were perpetrated by domestic and international terrorists?
The impact Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial on memorialization efforts in America is readily evident in both The Unfinished Bombing and Tourists of History. The Oklahoma City and 9/11 memorial committees were concerned with identifying and naming each and every victim, and ensuring they would be recognized and remembered. As a result, the Oklahoma City Memorial and 9/11 Memorial have the names of all victims integrated into their memorial designs. At Oklahoma City, the names of the victims were carved into empty chairs, which were meant to embody the presence of absence. At the 9/11 memorial, the names of those who died at the WTC (both in the 2001 and 1993 attacks), the Pentagon, and on flight 93 are inscribed into the marble columns that form the beginning of waterfalls placed in the footprints of the towers. In addition, almost immediately after the disaster, visitors came to both sites to leave trinkets and objects, and at Oklahoma City they kept a part of the chain-link fence as a part of the memorial. Visitors to both memorials leave objects at the site, reminiscent of what visitors started and continue to do at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The shift in the American monumental landscape towards that of monuments honoring victims--whether it be victims of domestic or international terrorism, or a largely unpopular war--has been cemented in American culture through these three significant memorials.
John Bodnar's Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century and Kirk Savage's Monument Wars: Washington, DC, the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape both take on the tasks of discussing the ways in which public memory shapes Americans' commemoration of wars and significant national events. Bodnar seeks to focus on "the creation of public memory in commemorative activities celebrating America's past and the dramatic exchange of interests that are involved in such exercise," and notes that the "shaping of a past worthy of public commemoration in the present is contested and involves a struggle for supremacy between advocates of various political ideas and sentiments." (Bodnar 13) In the first chapter Bodnar makes an important distinction between two different forms of cultural expressions: official and vernacular. The official cultural expression originates in the concerns of cultural leaders or authorities at all levels of society who are interested in social unity and seek to promote a nationalist or patriotic culture. (Bodnar 14) The vernacular cultural expression represents an array of specialized interests, which are intent on protecting values and restating views of reality derived from firsthand experience in small-scale communities. Vernacular expressions seek to convey what social reality feels like rather than what it should be like. (Bodnar 14) He then spends the rest of his book discussing the "tension between official and vernacular memory and how it was resolved in commemorative events." (Bodnar 20)
Savage's Monument Wars is a well-written piece of scholarship in that it contains a well-stated thesis that is continually emphasized and connected to the evidence in addition to being being engaging and accessible to multiple audiences. The idea of vernacular and official cultural expressions are echoed throughout Savage's work. The initial plan for the Mall, constructed by Pierre L'Enfant and in step with the ideology of the Federalist Party, intended to use public monuments as a way to develop the city and justify the expansion of the nation. L'Enfant wanted statues of Revolutionary War heroes to line the Mall as symbols of moral exemplars for citizens of the young nation. The monumental core was meant to create a sense of national unity and pride in the nation. In this way L'Enfant was championing an official cultural expression that promoted nationalist ideals, the triumph of the state, and sought to create a collective memory. Savage and Bodnar both discuss the debate over Maya Lin's design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. One reason for the backlash to her design is that it does not recognize soldiers as heroes but as victims. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was designed to be therapeutic for visitors and for the nation. Because the memorial did not propagate a purely official cultural expression--one the worked to unify the nation under a didactic monument that honored soldiers as heroes--those in power made changes to the monument to make it more closely resemble an official expression. A flagpole and statutes of three servicemen were added in a small copse of trees close to the memorial, and an inscription was added to the memorial itself.
Savage notes that the increase in monument creation in the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries was "localized, the product of specialized constituencies rather than mass national campaigns or federally sponsored programs." (Savage 78) Monuments were sponsored by groups of political elites, ethnic organizations, and civic and private associations. Despite the proliferation of monuments resulting from this vernacular cultural expression, these monuments would never form the monumental core for the nation as they were disparate and spread throughout the city. Savage remarks that the periphery of the Mall, rather than the core, became the place "for the projects of 'ethnic' groups and other 'lobbies' that somehow lacked the credentials or the desire to be...fully 'American.'"(Savage 210)
Savage's work also echoes that of Trouillot's in the silencing of various histories. Savage notes that after the Civil War the Park Commission wanted to demolish the residential areas along Missouri Avenue and Main Avenue. These areas had an infamous reputation and were described as slums of filth and crime. The residents that were displaced were not provided provisional housing, and they had no say in the plan. Savage writes: "The residents of these two areas experienced a double erasure, first of their neighborhoods and then of their history." (Savage 172) Similarly, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial only includes the names of soldiers who died from hostilities or accidents in the combat zone, not those who died from Agent Orange or suicide. In this way, the memorial inadvertently silences the sacrifice of some soldiers and makes their death seem less meaningful.
In addition to Trouillot, touches of Blight's strands of Civil War memory are also present in Monument Wars. Savage notes that monuments created to commemorate the Civil War were centered around the theme of reconciliation. The best example of this is the Lincoln Memorial. The memorial was not allowed to be overtly triumphal, as the funding bill needed to pass Congress and gain the approval of white southerners. Slavery is never explicitly mentioned at the memorial site; it is not Lincoln the emancipator that is being commemorated but Lincoln the unifier.
There are multiple sections of this book that stand out as particularly fascinating: Savage's discussion of the spatial turn and the shift from a focus on grounds to public space; his analysis of the Lincoln Memorial; the move from hero monuments to victim monuments; and the Mall being used as a site of protest rather than a site of unity as originally intended by the designers. Savage's discussion of the Holocaust Museum is compelling and warrants more attention. He writes: "The Holocaust Memorial, too, is supposed to help produce an outcome: 'never again.' But the question remains how the memorial can transform the passive suffering of individual visitors into determined collective action, or how to move from reflection to intervention." (Savage 287) This theme of museums as warnings, rather than serving a therapeutic or didactic purpose, is fascinating. Much more could be said on this topic, and the September 11 Memorial and Museum would make for an interesting comparative study to the Holocaust Museum. As he spent so much of the book focusing on the Washington Monument and then spent several pages on the Lincoln Memorial, his treatment of the third major monument on the core, that of Thomas Jefferson, is rather cursory in comparison. Much could have been said about the design of the monument and the debate over what role slavery should or should not have played in this commemoration of a president and slaveowner.
This week's readings focused on places of conflict, namely, battlefields and massacre sites. Edward Linenthal's Sacred Ground: Americans and Their Battlefields utilizes a case study approach to examine Lexington and Concord, the Alamo, Gettysburg, Little Bighorn, and Pearl Harbor. His book "is about the process of veneration, defilement, and redefinition that have characterized public attitudes towards America's most famous battlefields." (Linenthal 1) Linenthal sees battlefields as sacred spaces imbued with religious connotations that preserve and protect the memories of war and the sacrifices of those who fought. (Linenthal 3) The sites are "symbolically transformed," and visitors to such sites are looking for "environmental intimacy in order to experience patriotic inspiration." (Linenthal 3) The forms of veneration Linenthal identifies are patriotic rhetoric, monument building, physical preservation, and battle reenactment.
Linenthal notes that he chose those five places particularly because they "function as sacred centers in several ways": each place is a "center of power" and places where power will continue to be contested. The sites are "places where the struggle for ownership, for the right to alter the story, is a vibrant part of the site's cultural history." (Linenthal 215) Linenthal's conclusion attempts to bring the five (what could have been disparate) pieces together and connects them through their similarities. As stated, they are places of power and places where power is contested; they are places where the national narrative is defined, particularly by who is included and who is excluded; they are sanctified sites where purity should be maintained; they are places of reconciliation, and sometimes, of protest.
The notion of maintaining the purity of a site is particularly interesting, and comes up often throughout Linenthal's book. He notes that many are concerned about modern development encroaching on the Alamo and defiling its sanctity. Many believe that it is impossible to imagine what the Alamo was like at the time of the battle because much of the original mission is no longer extant. The owner of the former Remember the Alamo Theater and Museum goes so far as to suggest to those who want to visit the site in a "pure" state to travel three hours outside the city to visit the Alamo that was constructed for the 1950s John Wayne movie. (Linenthal 69) The sanctity of Pearl Harbor was also mentioned. Some visitors to the site felt that the presence of Japanese tourists defiled the space, despite these places also being sites of reconciliation. Others balked at the idea of establishing a restaurant near the boat launch that takes the visitors to the Arizona. Maintaining a sacred site's sanctity and purity from development and modern infrastructure reinforces the religiosity of the site. Most visitors want to be able to come to the site and experience it as it was during the battle.
It would have been helpful to have a slightly longer introduction and conclusion to more fully tie the five case studies together. The first chapter on Lexington and Concord is not as fully developed or cohesive as the rest of the case studies, and is rather dry. The themes Linenthal brings up are much more prevalent and easy to discern in the final four case studies. Linenthal's book could be updated with a few new case studies, as it was originally published in 1991. Linenthal would, most likely, have insightful thoughts about the 9/11 memorial and museum, for example.
Combined with Linenthal's Sacred Ground, Ari Kelman's A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek provides a sixth case study of a place of conflict. Kelman notes that his book is a "study on the collision of history and memory, of past and present, at Sand Creek." (Kelman x) He details the process, as well as the conflicts, of discovering and preserving the site in Colorado where American soldiers killed Arapaho and Cheyenne Native Americans. Kelman aptly discusses how the narrative of what happened (what Trouillot would label as historicity two: "that which is said to have happened") at Sand Creek had been constructed as a "battle" as a part of the Indian Wars but has more recently been rightly redefined as a massacre. Kelman relies on three perspectives to provide a historical background of the massacre: John Chivington, the perpetrator; Silas Soule, a witness; and George Bent, a survivor. He weaves between the historical perspective and the contemporary, interdisciplinary efforts of the National Park Service and Native representatives to find and memorialize the massacre site. Ultimately, Kelman's book is "the story of how a diverse group of people worked to bridge cultural divides in order to find and remember a misplaced massacre." (Kelman 43)
While complementing Linenthal's selected case studies well, Kelman's book is might be a bit too lengthy. Perhaps the parts where the landowners were bickering with the National Park Service on purchasing private property or reading about the ignorance of non-Natives who cheerfully celebrated when finding Native remains was simply frustrating to read about. However, it did seem that the book could have been shorter and edited to be more pithy. Kelman's weaving of the past and present was not always done smoothly, and his recounting of nineteenth century events could have been better integrated into the narrative. Despite these flaws, the account of the struggle over Sand Creek is both enlightening and troubling, and details a process important in public history: reclaiming the narrative to promote and propagate a more "correct" version of history; finding and memorializing a massacre site that allows Americans and Native Americans to come to terms with historical events; and working together with historians, archaeologists, Native Americans, employees of the National Park Service, and the general public to commemorate the massacre.
This week, David Blight's Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory was paired with Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory, edited by James Horton and Lois Horton. Blight examines the relationship between race and reunion in America during Reconstruction and the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He is particularly interested in dissecting the oppositional memories that emerged in post-war America and how those memories conflicted or blended with public memory. Contending that race was "the central problem in how Americans made choices to remember and forget their Civil War," Blight attempts to show "three overall visions of Civil War memory [that] collided and combined over time." (Blight 2) The reconiliationist vision was formed by the "process of dealing with the dead from so many battlefields, prisons, and hospitals;" the white supremacist vision included "terror and violence [and] locked arms with reconciliationists," and created the Lost Cause narrative of the war; and the emancipationist vision was "embodied in African Americas' complex remembrance of their own freedom." (Blight 2) Ultimately, according to Blight, the "forces of reconciliation overwhelmed the emancipationist vision in the national culture... the inexorable drive for reunion both used and trumped race." (Blight 2)
Blight is not fully successful in proving his thesis. Race and Reunion reads more as a narrative of the decades following the Civil War than an analysis of collective memory in America during that time. He would have been more successful in elucidating his argument had he connected his evidence back to his overarching thesis. The ideas he puts forward in his introduction are certainly interesting and plausible, but he does not analyze his evidence in terms of memory and the competing visions of the Civil War often enough for his argument to truly be understood by the reader. His lack of analysis and emphasis on narrative make what could have been a fascinating topic seem mundane. That being said, it is a compelling read and is a great refresher on the history of the post-Civil War decades.
The pairing of Race and Reunion with Slavery and Public History is certainly complementary. Blight's inability to fully demonstrate how the reconciliationist vision of the Civil War overshadowed the emancipationist vision is understood with a reading of this collection of essays edited by Horton and Horton. The editors described their collection as discussing "some of the struggles of historians and public history presentations to deal with race, slavery, and the public memory of slavery." (Horton and Horton x-xi) As the authors of these essays show, it has certainly been a great struggle--one that is not yet over--to integrate a discussion of slavery into public history.
The essays that were particularly thought-provoking were James Horton's "Slavery in American History: An Uncomfortable Dialogue" and Joanne Melish's "Recovering (From) Slavery: Four Struggles to Tell the Truth." These articles revealed how reconciliationist visions have trumped emancipationist visions of the Civil War. In Horton's piece, he notes that public historians must address the general public's ignorance of slavery, and discusses the history of slavery versus how that history is taught in public schools. He also describes how historic sites are working to revamp their interpretations to include slavery. It was not until the 1990s that the Gettysburg battlefield mentioned slaves or slavery, and when Roger Kennedy began work on integrating that history, he received a significant amount of backlash from southern heritage groups. Melish's piece discusses how four different historic sites worked to add slavery to their interpretations of history. The John Brown House, My Old Kentucky Home, Brown University, and the First Rhode Island Regiment did not go far enough in their attempts. The John Brown House put up a plaque acknowledging that John Brown amassed his fortune from his ventures in the slave trade, not as an "entrepreneur," and created a pamphlet discussing slavery. At My Old Kentucky Home, docents were given a sentence or two to say to their tour groups that touched on slavery.
Blight's book and particularly the essays in Slavery and Public History illustrate how dire the situation in America is regarding the inclusion of slavery in a nationally accepted narrative of our collective past. It should be acceptable for public historians to engage with the public in ways that they do not expect or do not want. Sometimes public historians should strive to make their audiences uncomfortable in pursuit of creating a more inclusive narrative. If one of the responsibilities of public historians to create an informed public, then they will have to include a more comprehensive history of slavery. If such efforts makes the public uncomfortable, then so be it. The leaders at historic sites wield tremendous power in their positions, and should use that power to integrate slavery into interpretations of American history. They should certainly make greater efforts than simply placing a plaque or creating a pamphlet on the topic.
The ideas of Trouillot were echoed in these readings. In Silencing the Past, he notes that the historical narrative is rife with silences. Blight shows how those touting reconciliationist or white supremacist visions successfully silenced empancipationist visions of the Civil War, and Horton and Horton's essays demonstrated how that silencing has continued to the present day. In Blight's article, "If You Don't Tell it Like it Was, It Can Never Be as it Ought to Be," he writes: "Historians study memory because it has been such an important modern instrument of power." (eds. Horton and Horton 25) Trouillot would mostly agree with this statement, except he would say that memory is not a modern instrument but one that has always been prevalent in the creation of the historical narrative. This week's readings emphasized the extent to which those who voice a reconciliationist vision of the Civil War have been successful in smothering the voices of those who embrace an emancipationist vision.
These readings spurred a personal reflection of my own experiences visiting historic sites. On future visits to such places I will actively note how slavery is or is not incorporated into the narrative. The readings also made me realize how powerful such a reconciliationist vision of the Civil War can be, and continues to be, in America and in public school education. I was taught in my primary schools that the Civil War was fought because of slavery and state's rights. That the Lost Cause notion of state's rights being one of the primary motivations for war was still being taught--and perhaps continues to be--in primary education in the late decades of the twentieth century is astonishing and reveals just how much work public historians have ahead of them.
One of my professors last semester asked my class if we thought the issues of race and gender are overstated. I do not think race and gender cannot be overstated until they are no longer seen as "issues," and until people of color and minority groups such as women are afforded equal rights and opportunities as the dominant groups in society. The readings this week reinforced this belief and, on reflection, will make me analyze more deeply how slavery is presented in public history sites and how I, as a public history practitioner, can work to create a more inclusive, and perhaps uncomfortable, narrative.
In Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, Michel-Rolph Trouillot critiques the ways in which history has been constructed by those who tell it. Trouillot writes that his book "is about history and power" and "deals with the many ways in which the production of historical narratives involves the uneven contribution of competing groups and individuals who have unequal access to the means for such production." (Trouillot xix) There are two competing notions of history: the story of history ("that which is said to have happened"), and reality ("that which happened"). The two commonly accepted ways of dealing with the ambiguity between these two notions are the philosophies of positivism and constructivism. The former "emphasize[s] the distinction between the historical world and what we say or write about it" while the latter" stress[es] the overlap between the process and narratives about that process." (Trouillot 4) Trouillot eschews both of these philosophies and wants to look at the ways in which history is constructed outside of those dichotomies.
Trouillot notes that humans are active in the production of history in three different capacities: as agents, actors, and subjects. It is the capacity of subjects that is most problematic for Trouillot, who states that "the capacity upon which people act to become subjects is always part of their condition." This subjective capacity makes humans fully historical by "engag[ing] them simultaneously in the sociohistorical process and in narrative constructions about that process." (Trouillot 24) Ambiguities aside, Trouillot chooses to embrace the subjective capacity of peoples and instead focuses on the process of historical production.
Trouillot argues that silences enter the process of historical production at four moments: "the moment of fact creation (the making of sources); the moment of fact assembly (the making of archives); the moment of fact retrieval (the making of narratives); and the moment of retrospective significance (the making of history in the final instance)." (Trouillot 26) He asserts that "any historical narrative is a bundle of silences, the result of a unique process." (Trouillot 27) He defines silence as "an active and transitive process... Mentions and silences are active, dialectical counterparts of which history is the synthesis." (Trouillot 48)
Throughout the text Trouillot ruminates on what he terms historicity one and historicity two. Historicity one is "the materiality of the sociohistorical process" which results in historicity two, which is "future historical narratives." (Trouillot 29) These two historicities are the result of power production and the creation of facts and sources by those wielding power and authority. He notes that facts are never meaningless--they become facts only when they are made meaningful--and that facts are not created equal. The creation of facts cannot occur without the simultaneous creation of silences. (Trouillot 29)
His chapters on Sans Souci, the Haitian Revolution, the celebrations of Columbus, and the proposed Disney historic theme park explore these silences further. In the chapter on the Haitian Revolution, in which he explores the relative dearth of historiography on the subject and argues that the Revolution has been ignored by scholars because there was no ontological frame of reference for people to comprehend the event (it was actually unthinkable), he outlines two tropes. These tropes, the formulas of erasure and banalization, have been employed to silence the Haitian Revolution. Taken together, these formulas ignore the sources that discuss the Revolution (erasure) and then trivialize them and empty them of context (banalization). (Trouillot 96) This is just one example of how Trouillot dissects and contextualizes the silences created by human actors and illustrates how the past has been constructed unevenly.
While the entirety of Trouillot's work is applicable to public history, the final chapter spoke most to the implications silences have on historical work done for the public. While discussing a proposed Disney historic theme park, Trouillot notes that the "value of a historical product cannot be debated without taking into account both the context of its production and the context of its consumption." (Trouillot 146) A historical source must be evaluated both in terms of how it was made, the circumstances that might have affected its creation, and how it is being viewed years later. In this way, history and the consumption of history by the public should be a dual process: historians need to understand and contextualize how and why this source or product was created as well as help the public to understand why they are viewing the source or product in the way that they are doing so.
One small critique of Silencing the Past is that it is descriptive and not prescriptive. Trouillot does not include a plan of action for moving forward and working to uncover and correct these silences. It is entirely possible that Trouillot's ambition was only to point out and define the silences and the various ways in which they enter and impact the narrative. Perhaps the best recourse is simply to be aware of these silences and ask what stories are not being told. By doing so, we can be active practitioners in creating a more robust narrative of the past.
Ultimately Trouillot is concerned with power: how it is used and who is wields it, how this power results in the silencing of some histories but not others, and the ways in which power impacts and constructs the dominant narratives of history. Our Western historiography remains incomplete without attempting to recover these silences. As historians and public historians, we must be aware of these silences and work to remedy them while remaining educationally skeptical about our dominant narrative of history. We must also be aware of how these silences impact the public we are seeking to engage.
In Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History, Denise Meringolo responds to the efforts of public historians and academics to define public history. She uses the establishment of the National Park Service as a lens through which to argue that public history did not emerge in the 1970s but rather was a movement that began decades prior when historians began to work in the public sector for the federal government. Meringolo writes: "This book seeks to challenge received wisdom regarding the professionalization of public history and argues that the effort to define public history will be improved by examining its emergence as a multidisciplinary government job." (Meringolo xxvi) Her goal in writing is to "illuminate the cultural roots of the work we now call 'public history' so that we may more fairly and accurately define and critique it," and examines "the process by which federal workers began to conceptualize the protection of landscapes and artifacts as valuable public work." (Meringolo xxix)
Meringolo fundamentally disagrees with the common perception that was articulated by the authors of last week's readings who argued that the public history movement began in the 1970s as a subfield and methodology of history as a discipline. Meringolo takes issue with this notion because, by articulating public history as an offshoot of the academic discipline, it "leaves us with an incomplete understanding of the challenges historians have faced in the public sector for decades." (Meringolo xxvi) Public history "evolved, consciously and unconsciously, through trial and error as government workers began to put history to work for the public." (Meringolo xxvi)
The public that federal workers seek to engage with has a larger and broader scope than articulated by the authors of last week's readings. For public historians who work for the federal government, the public is not simply a target audience they seek to engage with through exhibits, but rather includes "civic space, government funding, political constituents, and, more broadly, the citizens for whom the government works." (Meringolo xxvi) Meringolo notes that public history was originally practiced by men who were not professionally-trained historians, but were archaeologists, professors, businesspeople, and scientists. These men who shaped the emergence of public history became historians as a consequence of their work in the National Park Service and other federal agencies. By acknowledging this, Meringolo actively embraces and promotes public history as an interdisciplinary field. Meringolo seeks to describe the beginnings of public history as a public service. (Meringolo xxviii, xxxii)
Meringolo's work is significant to public history because it broadens the understanding of the foundation, history, and evolution of the field. While it is an engaging read, there were certain aspects of the text that could have been expanded. The history of public history as a public service seems to be entirely white and male. As this is only the beginning of my foray into a greater understanding of public history, perhaps it is the case that public history's origins are of great white men, but this seems suspect.
In addition, in various chapters throughout the book, Meringolo briefly touches on the gendering of preservation work. In the first chapter, she notes that historic preservation in the early to mid nineteenth century was seen as women's work and an extension of the domestic sphere. She discusses the purchase of Mount Vernon by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association in 1859, whose members hoped that the purchase and upkeep of the site would help preserve the Union. In the second chapter, Meringolo writes that in the postbellum era, women who worked in preservation participated in the redefinition of national unity as a privilege of whiteness. In the South, women worked to preserve the remains of life in the Old South and promoted the Lost Cause. She notes that the "hard" work of academic history was seen as masculine while the "soft" work of preservation was relegated to women. By discussing this gendering of the work of preservation further, she could have had a thoughtful analysis of the impact of gender on public history and the perception of gender roles in public history.
It is also curious that Meringolo chooses to stop her discussion of public history in the 1930s. There is hardly any discussion of the history of the field in the 1940s, 50s, or 60s. By extending her scholarship further, she could have created a more robust history of public history created and practiced by federal workers.
One of the more interesting sections of the text is the final chapter "Park Service Diggers: Public Historians and the Problem of Status" because it delves into a discussion of class, power, and authority. By the 1930s, National Parks were no longer simply destinations of the wealthy as a growing middle class acquired more disposable income and leisure time. FDR's Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes was concerned that the meaning of the parks would fundamentally change with the rise of visitors of the "limited class." Despite these concerns, "tourists were consumers of America, and purchasing power gave them a measure of cultural authority." (Meringolo 132) Thanks to the New Deal, more than three million unemployed workers signed up with the Civilian Conservation Corps, and they became workers and tourists at National Parks. They performed archaeological excavations and practiced collection management, and were able to take educational classes. Meringolo notes that "in this interdependent, dialogic relationship, a constituency of the working class exerted some influence int he evolving work culture of public history." (Meringolo 143) In addition, there was concern over "the extent to which tourists could shape their own experiences in the parks," which "raised questions about the legitimacy of the authority exerted by park staff." (Meringolo 143) To remedy this, museums, guides and educational experiences created a "buffer between experts and audiences, [which limited] the kinds of dialogue that could shape the meaning and value of park landscape." (Meringolo 151) This discussion of class, power, and authority is reminiscent of last week's readings. The concern over audiences' shaping their own experiences and exerting their own authority seems to always be met with a negative backlash in which public history practitioners attempt--and often succeed--in promoting their own views and experiences as the "right" views and experiences, thus limiting the engagement between the public and practitioners.
The readings for the first week of class focused on the establishment of public history as a methodology, debates surrounding what constitutes public history, the roles and professions of public historians, debates over the definition of “public” and the various ways public historians must engage with that public, the contributions of public history to the discipline, and the founding and establishment of the National Council on Public History.
The definition of public history and its contribution to the discipline are one way in which the actors in these texts represent their work and the significance of the field. Robert Kelley, in the 1978 article “Public History: Its Origins, Nature, and Prospects,” defined public history as “the employment of historians and the historical method outside academia.” (Kelley 16) Three years later, however, in “Whose Public? Whose History? What is the Goal of a Public Historian?,” Ronald Grele asserted that “those of us who work in the field have not clearly defined what it is we do, why we do it, and why it is an alternative to other forms of historical effort.” (Grele 41) Charles Cole noted that there was still no explicit definition of public history in the 1994 article “Public History: What Difference has it Made?”
Grele attributed the origin of the public history movement to “the thought that ‘maybe’ historians could be useful in policy formulation,” (Grele 41) although other scholars have attributed its beginnings to more engaging and noble pursuits. Howard Green, in the 1981 article “A Critique of the Professional Public History Movement,” argued “it is this contradiction between a crisis in academic history and a boom in popular history that helps account for the rise of a public history ‘movement.’” (Green 164-165). Green also asserted that public history “is an attempt to recapture for the academy a place in the public arena.” (Green 165) Other authors argued that public history was the result of the new social history movement, which champions the history of the individual rather than the formerly glorified political history and the “great man” theory of history.
Grele noted that “the task of the public historian…should be to help members of the public do their own history and to aid them in understanding their role in shaping and interpreting events.” (Grele 47-48) In the same vein, Howard argued that the main task of public historians should be to bring awareness to the ideas of Marx and Carl Becker, respectively, that “people make their own history” and “everyone is a historian.” In addition, public historians should “help people find their own histories…and aid them in understand their roles in shaping and interpreting events.” (Green 169)
The importance of the public and effectively engaging with the public is a topic of great debate among the authors of this week’s readings. Kelley conceded that in public history, historians have to answer questions posed by others rather than creating scholarly inquiry themselves. Grele noted that historians have always had to answer to a variety of publics, and detailed the specific audiences historians have engaged with previously. In Katharine Corbett and Howard Miller’s article, “A Shared Inquiry into Shared Inquiry,” published 2006, they state that “the operant word in ‘public history’ is public… public history requires a genuine commitment to engage.” (Corbett and Miller 37)
Power and authority are negotiated in different ways in the field of public history as discussed by the authors of this week’s readings. The authors who best discuss power and authority are Corbett and Miller. Public historians that are new to the field and previously practiced their craft in traditional academic settings should understand the notion of shared authority. Corbett and Miller discussed shared authority in the context of oral history interviews and stated that the “interviewer and interviewee share ownership of an oral history because they share agency in its creation.” (Corbett and Miller 20) The authors noted: “Sharing authority is a deliberate decision to give up some control over the product of historical inquiry.” (Corbett and Miller 20) In addition, they asserted that since public history is situational and messy, the “essential element is agency: the key questions for practitioners are who has legitimate power, who is willing to share it, and under what conditions?” (Corbett and Miller 38) In order for power and authority to be negotiated to the most advantage of both historians and the public, then both actors must equally share power and authority.
Public historians have power only if they can effectively work with the public they are attempting to engage, and that public often wields its own authority and power in ways that are sometimes unexpected. Corbett and Miller described Meet Me at the Fair, an exhibit on the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, designed with the intention of inquiring into the ways in which that event continued to permeate the history of the area and civic identity. The exhibit creators expected and hoped to provoke a discussion of the ways in which people “rehearse” the past. Visitors, however, did not analyze the event in the ways in which the exhibit creators had hoped. “Visitors walked in with all the authority, and kept it… [they] controlled the conversation.” (Corbett and Miller 36) The authors noted that despite their efforts to have the public engage with the theme of public memory and the World’s Fair, “visitors left as they had come, chatting about collectibles that reminded them of the glorious summer when St. Louis was the center of the world.” (Corbett and Miller 36) This idea of shared authority is a challenging one for traditionally trained historians to grasp, as such historians are used to asking their own questions and not seeking to engage with a public that is outside of the academy. In public history, historians have to accept and work with a public that often wields significant power and authority. But the opposite also holds true: the public also has to accept and work with a historian that is both used to and commands power (in terms of their institutional position) and authority (in terms of their academic credentials). To be effective in their engagements with the public, public historians must align themselves with a version of social roles based on claims of equality.
Taken together, the majority of this week’s readings form a historiography of the field of public history: the beginnings of the public history movement, the evolution of what constitutes public history and what public history means, the impact of public history on the historical profession, critiques of public history, best practices, and the creation and then assessment of the National Council on Public History and its accompanying publications. While the readings were comprehensive, it would be useful to read a more recent assessment of the field—something similar to Charles Cole’s 1994 article “Public History: What Difference has it Made?”