Do Public Audiences Care About History For Its Own Sake?

On January 21 Columbia University hosted a “History in Action” conference that received a lot of attention within the history community on Twitter. I was not at the conference, but I followed along online with much interest. The noted Harvard University historian Jill Lepore gave the keynote for the conference, which focused on writing for public audiences. Based on the tweets I saw it appears Lepore made a number of arguments about the state of the field today, most notably that historians have “retreated into the academy” and are hesitant to engage public audiences, that the speed by which they produce their work is “indefensibly slow,” and perhaps most provocatively:

The public doesn’t care about the past for its own sake, just about the relationship between the past and the present.

I want to address this last claim. While it’s something I might have agreed with while studying public history in graduate school a few years ago, I no longer agree with it.

The first problem lies in assuming that there is a singular non-academic audience–“The Public”–that exists for consuming historical scholarship. Public historians have argued since 2013 and probably earlier that there exists no singular public audience but many public audiences that approach history from a number of different perspectives. Students, activists, politicians, senior citizens, and other community members all bring different levels of pre-existing knowledge and interest with them when approaching historical scholarship in a book or at a public history site. If we wish to spark an interest and appreciation for history among these many publics, we must work to meet them where they are. That means working to move some people’s interest level and historical knowledge from square one to square two and other people from square nine to square ten. I think it’s great to see articles written by historians in The New Yorker and popular history books on the bestseller lists, but we need to think more broadly about the ways people consume history besides books and articles and acknowledge that the idea of “The Public” is a myth. Know your audience.

My personal observation is that many people interested in the past are interested for the sake of the past itself. Again, we have to look beyond the writing of op-eds, magazine features, and academic scholarship that can sometimes delve into contemporary issues. Why do people visit history museums and National Parks or watch history-related movies and television programming, things that get far more attention than most historical scholarship in print? One of the latest studies on visitor motivations suggests that people visit cultural sites to fulfill their identity-based needs, one of which is the desire to “escape the mundane, work-a-day world” and learn about things out of the ordinary like past historical societies. I contend that there are far more people that visit public history sites out of a genuine curiosity about the past than people who come specifically to find something relevant to the present. I am sympathetic to the idea of connecting historical interpretations to present-day issues, but we should acknowledge that such efforts are difficult to implement, often uncomfortable for both historians and audiences, and far from accepted practice in either written historical scholarship or at public history sites. The problem at many historic house museums is not that public historians are facilitating deep, thoughtful dialogues with audiences about the role of history in shaping contemporary political circumstances, but that too many house tours focus on giving “furniture tours” and offering positive anecdotes about happy slaves, benevolent enslavers, and the mythical good old days. The past is a foreign country, but it’s a country many people are still willing to travel to without the filter of a present-day connection.

Another consideration we need to keep in mind is that Lepore is an Americanist whose recent books include historical analyses of Wonder Woman and the conservative Tea Party movement, both popular subjects in recent U.S. historical memory and arguably relevant to present-day political issues and topics. But is every historian in a position to study and interpret historical topics that are so easily relevant to the present? Should Medieval and Ancient historians make their scholarship more accessible by only focusing on topics that are relevant to today? I’m just not sure how a Medievalist would respond to Lepore’s claim given that a topic like burial practices in 10th century France is going to be much tougher to relate to the present (although no less important) than the Tea Party’s use of American history to justify their movement’s political convictions and advocacy for conservative candidates in public office.

Finally, we should also keep in mind that what counts as “relevant” is subject to debate among historians and their many publics. Who in society gets to determine what history is relevant and irrelevant? Historians are not the only ones with the power to shape historical narratives and make connections to the present. What I as a historian may consider relevant to the state of society today may be dismissed by someone else as wholly irrelevant. If I wish to connect something like American slavery to present-day racism and mass incarceration, the onus is on me to craft those connections and prove their worth through a reasoned interpretation of available historical evidence. “Relevance” is not a self-evident concept.

What do you think?

Cheers

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6 responses

  1. I did not follow Lapore’s comments myself, but I tend to agree with your argument. At the risk of over-generalizing, in my experience most non-historians consume history to temporarily escape the present, help construct their own identity (esp. genealogy and national museums/sites), or to simply to educate themselves in a goal of self-improvement. Although relating historical issues to the present can enhance our understanding of past ideas and motivations, to argue that this is necessary in order for “the public” to show interest is not only over-simplifying, but just plain incorrect.

    1. Well stated, Ashleigh, and I fully agree with your observations.

  2. I agree. History sites do a terrible job (places like Connor Prairie are the exceptions that prove the rule) at knowing the audience. Actually, I shouldn’t say knowing because that way leads to anecdotes like Lepore’s (well earned, though), or some tour guide who has personally witnessed transformation in her audience. What I should say is that we don’t research our audience. Don’t know about your agency, but the sites in my area don’t collect any information and don’t ask visitors why they visit. Walking through the door is all that is needed.

    I wonder what the public history world would look like if we had the same view of their audience as science, art, and children’s museums have? I’m not all that familiar with the literature, but no one refers to anything other than Rosensweig and Thelen’s findings, if anything, and that’s not really about museums and sites. (That book needs a second edition for the digital/social age, doesn’t it?) Falk and his cohort (Serrell, Sheppard, Rand, etc.) are a resource that historic sites—in my experience—pay no attention to. That’s a shame for a number of reasons, not the least of which because a systematic study of history-only audiences would greatly alter Falk’s museum visitor typology. I think it would bring the weight of visitor interest away from identity reinforcement and more toward content interest. e.g. Falk says visitors often have little interest in the content of specific museums, they just want to go to a museum because their identity is “museum-goer.” (Oversimplifying here.) That’s an operable way of thinking about history audiences, but I suspect (with no proof!) that history museum audiences do go because of exhibit or site content moreso than audiences that chose art/science/children’s museums. Similarly, Falk makes a compelling case for overlooking demographic/race in categorizing visitors. I wish I could go with that, but I think race is an undeniable factor in decisions to visit history museums and sites (particularly CW sites in the south.) Until the point we know better, though, I’m sticking with Falk’s typology.

    Which is a longer way of saying the same thing you already said!

    So, am I missing some visitor research literature? What should we employ visitor research methods to find out? Whatever that is, with data in hand (not the personal observations of sages) we can more confidently approach ways of effective meaning-making and relevancy.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Christopher.

      “Don’t know about your agency, but the sites in my area don’t collect any information and don’t ask visitors why they visit. Walking through the door is all that is needed. ”

      Unfortunately that is also the case with the National Park Service too. Every July we get a batch of fill-in-the-blank “Please rate the cleanliness of the facilities”-type surveys from the people in Washington, D.C., and we give out between 10 and 15 surveys to visitors every day for the entire month. Almost nothing about visitor engagement or analysis of interpretive programs and museum content. is included in the survey. What is included in that survey is pretty much the only data the folks in D.C., the Midwest Regional Office in Omaha, and the Park itself uses to assess our work. Unfortunately it’s my understanding that there are many federal regulations about data collection that will apparently make it very tough for us to do much else. I’ve suggested that we at the very least put together a summative evaluation for school and senior groups to fill out after taking a trip to our park.

      “Falk and his cohort (Serrell, Sheppard, Rand, etc.) are a resource that historic sites—in my experience—pay no attention to.”

      I agree 100%, and the only reason I know of them is because of my exposure to them in museum studies courses. They were never mentioned in my public history courses. I also agree that we need an updated version of “Presence of the Past” for the digital/social/dialogue age.

      “So, am I missing some visitor research literature? What should we employ visitor research methods to find out? Whatever that is, with data in hand (not the personal observations of sages) we can more confidently approach ways of effective meaning-making and relevancy.”

      I agree that we need more visitor research literature. Not too long ago a friend sent me an article from the Journal of Tourism and Cultural Change by Thu Thi Trinh, Chris Ryan, and Jenny Cave, “Evaluating Heritage: Tourists and Holiday Visits to Heritage Sites,” which analyzes hundreds of visitor interactions at cultural sites in New Zealand. The authors conclude that “most visitors to heritage sites are not significantly influenced by strong education-style motives” (17). If you can’t find the article on EBSCOHOST or the like I can send you a copy of the article.

      1. Got it. Cool. Thanks for the ref.

        Didn’t Imperiled Promise bemoan the lack of effective visitor research. I remember something about the reliance on an “Idaho model” of surveys..???

        I didn’t learn any of this in my program either. Everything I know about research came from my rather randomly joining the Visitor Studies Association and attending their conferences for a number of years in the early 2000s. From what I can tell, it’s still rather haphazardly taught in public history programs.

        1. Awesome, glad you found the study. I haven’t read Imperiled Promise in a while but I do remember some mention in the report of more evaluation and visitor research within the Park Service. We need it. And yes, I do think this topic is often haphhazardly taught if at all in most public history programs.

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