Public History Interpretation and the Search for a “Useable Past”

Just before the turn of the new year the Society for U.S. Intellectual History published my review of Jeffrey Trask’s 2012 publication, Things American: Art Museums and Civic Culture in the Progressive Era. I enjoyed the book and highly recommend it for people involved with museum studies and public history. You can read the full review here, but with this post I want to briefly expand upon two points I made in the review.

One of the most important takeaways from Things American is that the “useable past” museum practitioners and public historians put on display for their audiences is highly selective. I mention in the review that “the search for a useable past is simultaneously an act of historical and omission” that is highly political. Since places like art museums must necessarily select a limited number of historical works for public display, understanding what gets left out is just as significant as what gets selected for display in telling us about the theories, assumptions, and politics of those curating these works.

Various leaders of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era all successfully conveyed the stuff of history to their audiences, but their constructed “useable pasts” starkly contrasted over a period of roughly fifty years. The Metropolitan’s Gilded Age leaders feared industrial capitalism’s technological advances, which helped produce what they considered extravagant works of Victorian-style art. To them Victorian culture represented a loss of public taste, the severing of the link between art and labor, and the decadence of industrialization and urbanization. The Gilded Age leaders responded with a conservative course of action that aimed to highlight a distant past marked by notable handcrafted works of Classical and European art. In privileging these works, the Gilded Age leaders built an honorific temple of fine art that aimed to restore their vision of good public taste and reinforce the Metropolitan’s status as a leader in the making of cultural capital in New York City.

The Metropolitan’s Progressive Era leaders also sought control of the city’s public taste and cultural capital, but they did so in a radically different fashion, embracing industrial capitalism as an opportunity to display artwork and decorative pieces that would inspire people of all classes to create tasteful home environments and prepare for modern living in the twentieth century. Equally important, these leaders privileged works of American art in an effort to establish new art traditions in the United States. Rather than displaying works of Classical or European creation, the Progressive Era leaders chose colonial-style artwork from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to convey their own messages about their belief in a progressive American aesthetic.

Scholars’ ongoing efforts to historicize museum practices and public historical interpretations reflect another important takeaway from Things American. For fields of study and practice that rely so much on historical interpretation to educate their audiences, there remains a stunningly small number of self-reflective studies dedicated to analyzing changes in interpretive practices at museums, national parks, historical societies, etc. since the late nineteenth century (I mention some recent studies in the book review). More of these studies, I think, can do much to inform the practices of those in the field by highlighting crucial debates about the philosophical and educational roles of public history in historical context. For us today I think it’s easy to look at our current “shared authority” paradigm and think that we (from roughly the 1980s on) are the first group of practitioners to seriously consider the need to make our interpretations welcoming, inclusive, and relevant to our audiences. Yet studies like Trask’s show us that many of the ideas we talk about when we discuss “engagement” today–public programming, educational programs with schools, public lectures, and traveling exhibits, just to name a few–are old hat, dating back to at least 1900. In this sense we may see “shared authority” as an evolutionary process still highly informed by past practices rather than a revolutionary process that breaks completely from that past.

It will also be interesting to see if these future histories of public history and museum studies will be undertaken by practicing public historians and museum practitioners or if they are done by academic scholars outside the field. I think one reason why many museums, national parks, and other related sites don’t have their own historical study is that public historians themselves are not always in a position to dedicate a substantial amount of time to such a project. At the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site we had an independent historical consultant who wrote a roughly 100-page 260-page history of the site’s transition to a national park in 1993, while another “historic structures report” that focused mostly on architectural history was published in 1999. These are valuable resources for the park, but neither study does much analysis of the park’s short or long-range interpretive plans or how they’ve changed over time. That study still needs to be written.