Challenging the Exclusive Public Historian

A statue of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in Baltimore, Maryland. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A statue of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in Baltimore, Maryland. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I have just returned from the National Council on Public History’s 2016 Annual Meeting in Baltimore, Maryland. I had a really great experience overall. It included attending many thought-provoking sessions and working groups, contributing a small part to my own successful (I think) working group panel, mentoring a graduate student about to enter the field, receiving news that I will now be co-chairing the NCPH Professional Development Committee for the next year and, above all, time to reconnect with old friends and make new ones in the process. I have attended the past three NCPH meetings and can say that participating in this network of scholars and practitioners has a sort of familial quality to it. No other history organization has made me feel so welcome or given me so many opportunities to present my scholarship to a knowledgeable and expanding membership base.

The theme of this year’s conference was “Challenging the Exclusive Past.” In thinking about the big themes conveyed throughout the meeting my thoughts are evolving around two important takeaways.

The first takeaway reinforces the importance of being a literate public historian. What I mean by this statement is that we in the field must enter into a perpetual struggle to properly define the terms we use to describe the work we do and the terms we use to describe the historical content we interpret with our many publics. What does it really mean to “engage” with an audience? What does a “welcoming” and “inclusive” museum look like? What does a successful “dialogue” with audiences look like? How do we define “community,” and how do we serve the needs of those defined communities while acknowledging that no one community has a uniform relationship with the legacy and meaning of the past? How do we describe historically-ignored topics like slavery, Indian removal, and racial violence with language that is historically accurate and respectful to communities today? These are the types of questions that dominated my thinking as I went from session to session during the conference.

The second takeaway is that this conference was in many ways an extended meditation on the meaning of “public” in the term public history. Most notably I met several attendees who described themselves as community organizers in their work as public historians. Collaboration has always been a central tenet of public history practice, but this particular conception of the term as a form of community building and public service forces us to view collaboration as not just groups of historians working together on history projects for their own benefit but groups of historians working together with communities to meet their needs and to help tell their stories about the past. This idea is important to keep in mind because our collective voice as historians and scholars is only one voice (and often a pretty small one) within a community’s relationship to the past. One conference attendee explained it by saying that “a historian’s voice is not everyone’s voice.”

People will blog, participate in online discussion forums, share history-related memes on social media, and create history podcasts whether or not public historians are there to mediate the experience. People will visit museums and national parks in their own way and form their own takeaways about historical iconography whether or not public historians are there to write historical markers or do interpretive programs. People who don’t visit public history sites will find other ways to preserve and tell their stories and will do so without worrying about our perspective or influence as historians. The ability to shape powerful historical narratives about the past rests largely in other places besides the institutional structures that public historians are employed to do their work. If we construct a definition of public history that excludes the importance of community from its lexicon, we will fail. If we engage in discussions about interpretation, narrative, and the historical process through a language of exclusion that includes only public historians, we will fail. If the people who work at public history institutions don’t look like or reflect the values of the communities in which they work, we will fail. If we don’t take the “public” in public history seriously, we will fail. If we don’t constantly strive to meet people and communities where they are, we will fail. Perhaps the real theme of NCPH 2016 isn’t so much “Challenging the Exclusive Past” as much as “Challenging the Exclusive Public Historian.”

There is no one path for meeting people where they are. I saw a number of good practical examples at play in the sessions I attended. One session included Liz Covart, whose popular history podcast Ben Franklin’s World does a really nice job of highlighting not just historical content but also the ways history functions as a method and process for making sense of the world. Another session on museums and civic discourse included a number of museum professionals who challenged me to think more about the historical legacy of exclusion that has pervaded many public history institutions. Revamping historical interpretations to be more inclusive will not automatically bring new audiences to these sites if we don’t extend an extra hand for outreach or place them in a position of power within the institution’s hierarchy. The history of these institutions matters a great deal and shapes perceptions about whether or not these places are truly for everyone. Yet another session on the Brooklyn Public Library highlighted a program called “Culture in Transit” that aims to digitize and archive the family photos and memorabilia of local residents. Library employees go out into the community with mobile scanning technology, scan residents’ materials and assist them with filling out metadata/consent forms in multiple languages, and then return the materials to residents along with digital copies on flash drives. When I talked to one of the library’s employees about any follow-up interactions with these residents after the community scanning event, she stated that many people felt more connected to the library and came back to do further research using its resources. That right there is public history with a focus on community building and organizing.

For better or worse, discussions about all of these sessions on and offline have been overwhelmed by what happened at the last session of the conference, which focused on the role of public historians in interpreting Confederate monuments. The tone of this discussion was a marked contrast to the spirit of the rest of the conference. I don’t wish to repeat everything that occurred during the session in this essay. You can see the tweets here and a Storify here on what happened along with a thoughtful response from Kevin Levin here. I do want to point out a few things, however.

One of the problems of this session was that it was largely framed around questions of race and racism in contemporary society, yet the participants were four white historians who really had nothing new to say about communities’ relationship to Confederate iconography (the exception was Jill Ogline Titus, whose talk was largely based off this good article she wrote in July). One attendee astutely pointed out that it was the only session where some participants talked about books they wrote and bragged about institutional affiliations they held as a way of claiming authority on this topic. There was much talk of establishing context, historical markers, counter-monuments, and dialogue about Confederate iconography, but nothing in terms of public historians meeting people where they are in this discussion. The only people I see really taking historical markers and counter-monuments seriously are public historians, and I have yet to see any sort of comprehensive study confirming those mediums as effective tools for historical understanding. As Levin mentioned on Twitter, “what I want to better understand is how I can best serve communities struggling with what to do with Confederate iconography” (emphasis mine). Hear hear. I am struggling with what I can do to aid the St. Louis community’s own discussion about the Forest Park Confederate Monument and would love to move beyond the “historians talking to other historians” model that has been demonstrated at both NCPH and AHA conferences this year. In this regard I want to draw attention to the work of Elizabeth Catte and Josh Howard, both recent public history graduates of Middle Tennessee State University, who have been working on the front lines at MTSU in an ongoing controversy about a campus ROTC building named after Nathan Bedford Forrest.

I had a great time at NCPH this year and look forward to next year’s meeting in Indianapolis. Thank you to the NCPH staff and committees for putting together such a great conference year in and year out.

Cheers

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7 responses

  1. Thanks for a thoughtful post Nick. I read the tweets on the Confederate Monuments session and many reflected your concerns.

    1. Thanks for reading the tweets, Pat!

  2. […] of the Twitter comments on it here. Attendee Nick Sacco has a thoughtful post reflecting on it here. Kevin Levin has some very useful comments […]

  3. […] other reflections about the NCPH conference, I’ll direct you to recent posts by Nick Sacco, Joan Zenzen, and Chris Graham. NCPH will soon distribute other links, so keep an eye out for […]

  4. […] work.  Some of these conversations were summarized in blog posts by my working group colleagues, Nick Sacco and Elizabeth Catte, and you can check out the Twitter hashtags #ncph2016 #WG4 for Tweets from the […]

    1. Hi Patrick,

      I have indeed had the chance to read Dr. Stoermer’s essay, and I might be posting my thoughts on the topics he brings up in that essay here in the near future.

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