I am always leery of any efforts to wax nostalgically about the past or “the good times.” We all have great memories of past friendships, relationships, and moments of happiness, but those nostalgic moments often distort our understanding of the struggles and hardships people went through in the past while at the same time giving us an unhealthy sense of fear about contemporary society’s problems. That said, it’s clear to me that our world is experiencing hard times right now. Warfare, state violence, racism, sexism, economic struggles, political deadlock, social outrage, and a loss of faith in the promise of a better future greet us at every corner of our computers and in face-to-face interactions with those around us. These sentiments seem to be especially pronounced on social media, where the proliferation of information–“likes,” “retweets,” “click-bait,” “listicles,” and an endless quantity of thinkpieces–seems to breed confusion, misunderstanding, and anger rather than enlightened discussion.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the ways public history can redirect these concerns into a meaningful dialogue that addresses contemporary problems in society through a better understanding of the past. Some would call these efforts “civic engagement,” although I am not a fan of this term (more on that in a future post).
Before we can even begin to discuss public history as a civic good, however, we must ask whether historians should engage in any efforts to facilitate a dialogue about contemporary problems in the first place. Similar debates have raged in social studies classrooms for years and are relevant to public history as well. For example, Chester E. Finn, Jr. of the Hoover Institute remarked in 2003 about efforts to promote cultural understanding in social studies classrooms that “one camp believes that social studies classes should help children feel good about themselves, be nice to others, and learn to respect all cultures, with minimal attention to traditional history, geography, and civics. The other camp holds that the schools’ job is to transmit information to children about their shared American culture, how it works, and where it came from.” Anyone who embraced the former, according to Finn, was simply practicing “pop psychotherapy” that mistakenly diagnosed “that children needed to be comforted, reassured, and admonished not to cast blame or show bias toward any group, religion, or country.” Anyone that embraced the latter was a patriotic champion of teaching American heritage and exceptionalism to the nation’s youth.
Should public historians stick to interpreting [Euro or Ameri-centric] history without political commentary or civic instruction, or should they make efforts efforts to connect their historical interpretations to the present? The answer lies partly in whether public history is reflective of a “historical temple” or a “historical forum.”
Canadian museologist Duncan F. Cameron famously argued in 1971 that many cultural institutions faced an identity crisis of “role definition.” Were they temples or forums? Most museums, historic homes, and other public history destinations at that time framed themselves as “temples.” Cameron argued that many institutions, echoing Finn’s concerns about the need for children to learn about so-called traditional history, “created [spaces] that were the temples within which they enshrined those things they held to be significant and valuable. The public generally accepted the idea that if it was in the museum, it was not only real but represented a standard of excellence. If the museum said that this and that was so, then that was a statement of truth.” These “temple” spaces, according to Cameron, were more reflective of churches than schools. We can still see this mentality in many public history “temples” today, where audiences are exposed to and expected to unquestioningly bow to the enshrined “truths” of history as defined by either the state, an academic institution, or a private bourgeois interest group.
Opportunities for questions and dialogue are rare in these sorts of places. Sociologist and historian James Loewen took a negative view of public history “temples” in his 1999 bestseller Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong when he argued that “public history . . . usually fosters the civic status quo by praising the government and defending its acts. Rarely do historic markers and monuments criticize the state. Instead, they make things that were problematic seem appropriate, ordained, even commendable” (26). The fact that many public history institutions enjoy financial backing from the state, the academy, or wealthy benefactors makes any questioning of the civic status quo difficult and inherently political. Then again, any concerted effort to ignore or silence dissent against the civic status quo is, of course, also political. Public history is as much a politics of historical omission as much as it is a politics of historical inclusion.
On the other hand, according to Cameron, some institutions by 1971 began expanding their mission statements to go beyond “simply a place where proved excellence should be exhibited and interpreted to the public.” These institutions sought to transform their spaces into local community centers and “forums” that interpreted “the immediate environment and the cultural heritage of that community” through historical exhibits and programs that sought to question the state and its actions. Cameron cited the Anacostia Community Museum in Washington, D.C. as an example of a historical “forum” where local community members were invited to participate in the process of creating an exhibit deemed relevant to their concerns with museum professionals about urban rat problems in the DC area.
Here in St. Louis I have recently taken a great interest in the efforts of the Missouri History Museum to be a community “forum” for discussing the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson. The museum hosted a “Ferguson Town Hall” meeting on Monday, August 25, and plans to host several lectures/discussions in the near future. As museum spokesperson Leigh Albright Walters recently explained, “The Missouri History Museum has always made it a point to address difficult topics. We felt it was important to have events and programming that relate to the current situation in Ferguson.”
Should the Missouri History Museum and other similar public history institutions continue to their efforts to be more like community “forums” instead of elite “temples,” or should they only focus on the transmission of historical knowledge without any civics instruction? What are some other examples of “historical forums” currently in action (such as the Lower East Side Tenement Museum)?