My colleagues and I have been discussing strategies for creating interesting museum exhibits. Our museum suffers from many of the same issues experienced at other historic sites: too much text, broken digital technology, outdated content, and a lot of head-scratching about the best path moving forward. During the discussion a suggestion was made to include more digital content in the form of interactive video and audio exhibits. While I’m not necessarily opposed to the idea, I raised a few concerns along the way:
Digital Technology Breaks Down Quickly: From a financial standpoint, digital technology can create new roadblocks for museums. Say what you want about textual exhibit panels, but it’s fair to point out that in most cases those text panels are going to last a long longer than the fancy interactive touchscreen video you just purchased for tens of thousands of dollars. How many times have you visited a museum and you saw a video screen that wasn’t working and an “out of order” sign in front of it? The catch-22 of digital technology is that despite its fanciness and potential for meaningful learning experiences, the technology will break down, oftentimes sooner than later. Any site that invests in this technology must also invest in ongoing maintenance and eventually replacement technology.
It’s also worth mentioning that despite the allure of digital technology, there’s no guarantee people are going to interact with it in a museum space, or that the people who interact with it will get something meaningful from the experience. One example that Andrea Jones pointed out on Twitter was that the use of videotaped oral histories in museums can be isolating and “anti-social.” Digital technology can separate groups as they visit a museum and could ultimately prove to be uninteresting to visitors who either lack the time or simply don’t know the purpose of the technology. In sum, museums have to really think about the intended audience and develop a meaningful strategy behind their digital content.
It’s Too Loud in Here! Our site’s museum, as it currently stands, has no audio descriptions or videos that produce loud noise. But let me tell you, have I ever been to some loud museums before! The role of acoustics in museum exhibit design is always a hot topic within the field, and I admit that some of my hesitation about new technology comes from the potential sound consequences that could adversely affect visitor experiences. I have been to a good number of museums that had things like background audio, videos being played in a loop, and touchscreen computers with loud noises. Sometimes there are exhibits with all three and more going on at the same time. One example is the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, which I previously wrote about here. While I enjoyed the museum for the most part, many of the exhibits are way too busy with loud music, looping videos, and visual effects all going on at the same time. At times the noise around me was very disorienting and prevented me from focusing on the exhibit content. Hearing the same video ten times in a row in an exhibit does not make me want to stay in that space and learn more.
What’s Unique About Your Museum Space? I gladly admit that I am a reader. I try to read as much museum text as I can, and I like to spend a lot of time in each room/exhibit of a given museum (my wife usually has to keep me moving when we go to museums together). Not everyone feels the same, and I do believe museums should offer a variety of experiences within their spaces. But what makes museums memorable and unique as tourist destinations? It’s their collections. What will people remember from visiting a given museum? Is it the fancy technology or exhibit text they’ll remember the most, or will it be the unique artifacts and material culture that can’t be seen anywhere else? For many people, the answer will be the latter.
To be sure, I believe digital technology has a place in history museums. But I think technology has to be used in service to the museum’s most unique aspect, which is its historical artifacts. Everything has to point back to the unique content of the museum. When I do museum education programs with students, I don’t share videos or have them read a bunch of text. I have the students look at pictures and artifacts (and what I call “the big words” such as exhibit titles that help orient visitors to the museum content) as a foundation for facilitated dialogue and audience-centered education. Students can read or watch a video about history at home. But when they’re at the museum, they’re seeing content that can’t be seen anywhere else. I want to highlight the collections and use that as a guide for my education programs.
P.S. Happy 15th Amendment Day! The 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on this day 150 years ago.
I’ve been thinking about visitation to historic sites in recent weeks. I wrote a post for Muster last year about visitation trends at National Park Service Civil War historic sites, but the topic is back in the news with two articles in the Wall Street Journal and Politico lamenting a supposed decline in visitation at both Civil War sites and historic sites more broadly. I’m currently working on a new piece for Muster about what we can do to keep making Civil War sites relevant in the future, but in the meantime I went back and reread John Coski’s opinion essay for The Civil War Monitor (Summer 2018) about the state of Civil War public history. Dr. Coski is an excellent scholar and public historian. He’s also the go-to expert on the history of the Confederate flag. Unfortunately, I disagreed with almost every argument he made in this piece.
Coski contends that public historians at Civil War historic sites have tried to “make the Civil War more attractive and more politically palatable for people who have not been interested in the subject as it was taught in schools and presented at historical sites until recent decades.” While he offers lukewarm support for this goal, he cautiously warns that these efforts can go overboard and potentially alienate people who have long-supported Civil War historic sites. If “traditional” audiences stop visiting and sites continue to struggle with recruiting new audiences, the future of Civil War public history could be in trouble as popular interest in the era continues to wane.
Coski’s argument is understandable and fair, but in making the argument I strongly disagreed with his characterization of public historians and their goals when working at Civil War historic sites.
A common talking point that Coski emphasizes is that “the rise of digital technology” has played a role in declining visitation trends. People can now learn about historic sites online without visiting them, and so they simply choose to stay home. The problem with this argument, however, is that there has been no comprehensive study undertaken to prove a correlation between increased digital technology usage and decreased visitation to historic sites. While both trends can be true independently, it is not at all clear to me that one trend explains the other. Plenty of other historic sites and museums have had no problem with declining visitation. For example, visitation to art museums has experienced a slight increase in recent years, and the popular National World War II Museum smashed its previous visitation record in 2018. In fact, some argue that digital technology actually boosts visitation to museums and historic sites because people see content online and become more motivated to visit in person. This data seems to suggest something besides digital technology as the cause behind sluggish visitation at Civil War sites.
Coski continues by arguing that public historians are trying to attract new audiences by “emphasizing non-military aspects of the conflict and repudiating the Confederate side of the story.” Here again, these claims are questionable. Have Civil War sites placed an increased emphasis on the political aspects of the Civil War? Absolutely. Are many sites more willing to discuss the role of slavery in creating the conditions for armed conflict? Absolutely. But just because non-military topics are discussed more in-depth does not mean that military history has been removed from the story. Moreover, it’s not clear to me what it means to “repudiate” the Confederate side of the story. Is Coski saying that public historians are completely ignoring the Confederacy, or are they just interpreting the history in a way Coski disagrees with?
I have been to Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania Court House, and Fort Donelson over the past five years. Every single one of these battlefields discussed military history through programs, wayside markers, and museum exhibits. Gettysburg has an enormous Civil War weapons collection in its museum that rivals anything you’ll see anywhere else. Every single site told stories from the Confederate perspective. Every single site has dedicated public historians who are ready to discuss military history, political history, and Confederate history. Not a single monument has been removed from a Civil War battlefield managed by the National Park Service. I concede that the war’s narrative has most certainly changed (for the better), but when Coski asks, “what about the majority experience? What about the millions of white Americans on both sides who fought and endured the Civil War?” I just have to roll my eyes. Last I checked they were still there.
Coski then expands his discussion of Confederate history at Civil War sites by asking whether “emphasizing ‘relevance’ mean[s] the only legitimate way of studying the war will be as a morality play.” He also contends that the popular backlash to Confederate iconography is a “rejection of Civil War history that accords respect to the fighting men on both sides.” Today’s backlash against Confederate iconography, according to Coski, is unique because the “breadth and depth of anger aimed at the Confederacy, Confederate symbols, and all perceived vestiges of Lost Cause thinking” has led to “a widespread willingness to vilify anything associated with the Confederacy as ‘racist.’ Labeling is becoming a surrogate for understanding.” As such, public historians who emphasize “inclusiveness, tolerance, empathy, and an acceptance of complexity” fail to live up to their own self-defined standards by attacking the Confederacy this way.
Here again there is much to disagree with. For one, striving for relevance does not mean sacrificing historical accuracy or relying solely on emotion to win hearts and minds. Discussing Civil War era politics or the experiences of women and people of color during the war is no more a “morality play” than a narrative that focuses on sectional reconciliation or the shared valor of Union and Confederate soldiers. Striving for relevance means expanding the narrative and creating space for multiple perspectives. It does not mean sacrificing historical accuracy at the expense of so-called identity politics or political correctness.
Second, who among Civil War public historians in their professional life is going around doing nothing but vilifying the Confederacy at their workplace? Do some people get heated on social media about the Civil War? Sure. Do some people want all Confederate monuments taken down? Sure. Do some people feel like Confederate icons are intimidating and that the entire Confederate political experiment was rooted in racism? You bet. But in Coski’s telling of the story, interpretations at Civil War sites nowadays largely consist of visitors being treated to long rants from public historians about how bad and racist the Confederacy was in the interest of attracting new audiences to their sites. Public historians design gimmicky programs, share their personal views, and strip the past of its complexity as historical understanding is placed at the bottom of the food chain. As such, visitors are allegedly treated to an interpretation of the war from an “activist” perspective that is more interested in shaming than understanding. This description may accurately explain the culture of social media interactions on Twitter, but I completely reject this characterization when it comes to describing trained professionals whose job is to provide a compelling, complex, and accurate interpretation of the Civil War. Many public historians today reject the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War because it is largely inaccurate, but that does not mean they also reject a nuanced understanding of the past that acknowledges the complexities of Confederate allegiance and military service.
Here’s the thing. I don’t think the white actors of Civil War history are going anywhere. I don’t think public historians at Civil War historic sites place anything ahead of telling a good, accurate story. I don’t think anyone who’s long been a student of the Civil War should be alarmed by the fact that Civil War scholarship is expanding and changing. I don’t think a “both sides fought for what they believed in” or Lost Cause-inspired interpretation is the solution to bringing back audiences to Civil War historic sites. I don’t think complaining about identity politics today is particularly wise when for a very long time Confederate identity politics dominated the culture surrounding historic interpretation at Civil War sites.
Where we go from here is a difficult question, and I think there’s a lot more evaluation and study needed before we can start to formulate an answer. While I think Coski’s basic wish to remember the traditional audiences of Civil War history is fair, his characterizations of Civil War history and the public historians who interpret it today are badly flawed.
I recently took a historic home tour that was very fascinating and enjoyable. The house was very nice and the furniture was ornate and fancy, classically Victorian all the way through. I suspect most people go through this home and feel very much the same way I did. At the end of the visit, however, I concluded that I hadn’t really learned anything new about the people who lived at this house.
A few years ago I wrote an essay on this website contending that many historic house tours are boring because they lack a human element. Somebody in the comments section complained about “furniture tours” and stated that a sofa has never changed the world. I’ve been thinking about that comment a lot lately.
Many museums that were constructed around the turn of the twentieth century were designed to overwhelm visitors, repeatedly hammering the idea that these places and these things possessed a reverential quality that needed to be respected by all. Jeffrey Trask even points out in Things American: Art Museums and Civic Culture in the Progressive Erathat the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art intentionally limited its operating hours to keep out the mass of working class residents in the city. The museum stayed closed on Sundays for many years during the Progressive Era, even though that was the single day of the week many of those working class residents had off.
I still think a lot of historic homes operate under a similar mentality. The homes are preserved with meticulous care and designed to overwhelm and awe visitors with their beauty. These places are important because they have stuff. But the longer I work in the field of public history and the more home tours I take, the more I yearn to see what’s underneath all of this beauty. An ornately furnished historic home is very difficult to interpret because the guide must fight the urge to make it exclusively a tour of “things.” This table was built by person x and cost this much money and isn’t it just beautiful? The situation is even more complicated because many visitors crave this sort of tour and will go around asking what’s original. It’s not that historic furniture is meaningless, but that too often visitors never learn why any of it matters to our understanding of history.
At the end of the day, a tour about people is always more fascinating to me than a tour about things. As I’ve previously argued, a historic home without people breathes no life.
The National Council on Public History’s 2019 Annual Meeting in Hartford, Connecticut has concluded. The theme of the conference was “repair work,” and I’ve left the conference with a lot of thoughts about the repair work needed in my own public history work and across the field more broadly. While many of the conversations taking place were continuations of ones that took place at previous conferences, I was pleased with the vast majority of the sessions I attended and thought the conference as a whole was solid. It was up there with NCPH 2016 in Baltimore as one of my favorites. What follows below is an attempt to put my thoughts into a cohesive summary.
“The Sage by the Side”
The concept of facilitated dialogue has become more and more popular among public historians who regularly design public programming at museums and historic sites. For several years already there has been an increasing awareness within the field that a “Sage on the Stage” approach to interpreting history has its shortcomings. Many of us better understand and appreciate the idea that people who visit these sites have their own contributions to make within the process of fostering historical understanding. Programming that does not invite active participation and discussion among all participants runs the risk of coming off as boring, meaningless, and irrelevant. Dialogue serves as a tool to promote historical understanding while also providing space for audiences to participate in meaningful exchanges with each other and with public historians. These exchanges offer the chance for all involved to learn how the past shapes the present and to take action towards improving our world today. The National Park Service has developed its own version of dialogue called “Audience Centered Experiences,” and I’ve been fortunate to have received a number of training workshops on the concept. I have used facilitated dialogue for about four years in a range of educational programming with k-12 students with success.
Having said all of this, I have become concerned about the ways dialogue is sometimes discussed within the field. In NPS trainings I’ve gotten the impression that dialogue is something that an interpreter can jump into relatively quickly; one needs to simply organize a few questions and maybe one or two interactive activities and then the discussion will take place from there. The impression is that effective interpreters should have no problem leading a dialogue; if you have interpretive skills, you can run an effective dialogue. After all, interpreters and public historians should function as a “Guide by the Side” rather than the “Sage on the Stage.” We facilitate, not dictate.
This approach runs the risk of privileging interpretive skills over the skills of a historian. It is concerning to me, for example, that the National Park Service has an interpretation division at each historic site it runs, but that park historians are becoming an extinct job title within the agency. Simply put, I believe an effective dialogue also requires content knowledge and not simply interpretive skills. After all, how does the dialogue move forward if there’s no historical content to give meaning and direction to the process? The “Guide by the Side” perspective gives short shrift to the knowledge and expertise of those who lead facilitated dialogues on historical topics. That’s why I was thrilled when Alice Baldridge of St. Mary’s College (who is actually a scientist) mentioned at the conference that she’s embraced the concept of “Sage by the Side.” This term perfectly encapsulates my current view towards dialogue as a teaching tool. As a facilitator I want to create an inclusive space for others to share their perspectives and to think anew about the world. But as a historian with training in both historical content and methodologies, I want to use my knowledge to inform the conversation in meaningful ways. I also want to use my position to create boundaries that correct misinformation about the past and protect those whose perspectives have historically been marginalized in spaces where public history takes place. Perhaps now more than ever, public historians need to assert their skills as interpreters, researchers, and communicators of historical knowledge. We can do that while also respecting other perspectives. Nevertheless it must be stated in clear terms that facilitated dialogue is not an easy concept and takes years to training and practice to do effectively. Thinking of myself as a “Sage by the Side” speaks to the skills I’ve acquired as both an interpreter and a historian.
Several NCPH sessions I attended focused on issues pertaining to words and language. Numerous archivists talked about the need to improve meta language and tags to make their collections more accessible and inclusive. For example, Anna Harbine of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture highlighted a single image in her collection of a Native woman from the Pacific Northwest in the 1920s. The photographer and the Library of Congress categorized the woman as an “Indian Princess” and her dress as a “costume,” highlighting the perspectives and prejudices of the collections managers at the time. Harbine and others offered an important reminder that a part of making collections accessible online (and making collections more inclusive) involves using language that is respectful of the people whose photos and artifacts make up a given collection.
The point was further reinforced in another panel on historic house tours. Matthew Champagne of North Carolina State University pointed out that many sites with LGBTQ histories often avoid any discussions of sexuality and how it influenced the people who lived in a given house. When the topic is discussed, inclusive and respectful language is important given the fact that people who were LGBTQ have historically been misdiagnosed as mentally unstable and deficient. He also correctly observed that discussions about the home life of historical actors have an inherent political nature to them, and that leaving out relevant conversations about sexuality from historic home tours is a political act. Lacey Wilson of the Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters also stressed a point I’ve made on this blog numerous times about the importance of referring to “enslaved people” instead of “slaves” on historic home tours that discuss slavery.
In order to move the field forward, we have to use inclusive language that is respectful of historical actors and people of marginalized groups today.
Repairing Relationships and Trust
Several sessions and the Public Plenary in particular asserted the importance of trust in building relationships between public history sites and partner organizations. The public plenary focused on the establishment of Coltsville National Historical Park in Hartford, and what Coltsville might be able to accomplish in providing history education and some sense of hope for a better future among community members in Hartford. In a community plagued by gun violence, poverty, and a lack of opportunity, several Hartford residents in the plenary expressed their wish to see Coltsville become a space for dialogue, education, and safety. I found it interesting to see so much hope placed into Coltsville, which came off to me as a subtle criticism of current historical sites in the city that have not acted as places for dialogue, education, and safety to many community members. Keeping in line with the theme of relationship-building and developing trust, I wonder if NCPH will do anything to follow up with Coltsville and the Hartford community moving forward.
Several attendees I spoke to afterwards complained that the expectations were being set too high for the National Park Service. After all, there are currently only two employees at Coltsville and little funding to go around, making any sort of outreach or educational initiatives very hard to pull off. This critique is fair. Any effective relationship between the NPS and the residents of Hartford should be based on fair expectations about what the NPS can deliver for the community and what the community can do to help the NPS. Empty promises will only lead to a fractured relationship and broken trust that would take a long time to heal. Nevertheless, I appreciated NCPH Executive Director Stephanie Rowe’s tweet reminding us that the plenary was about the wishes, hopes, and dreams of the community and not what public historians want. The point was made when an audience member, citing the Sandy Hook massacre, suggested during the plenary that Coltsville should focus on the actions of white men who committed acts of mass violence using guns rather than violence among African Americans in inner city communities. The Reverend Henry Brown forcefully responded by arguing that this line of thinking implied that the issues of poverty and violence within Hartford’s African American residents were secondary, and that this community could be forgotten within the narrative of gun violence as public historians chose narratives that suited their own interests. Point taken.
On the last day of the conference, I co-facilitated a working group with Allison Horrocks of the National Park Service about Freeman Tilden’s 1957 publication Interpreting Our Heritage in the 21st Century (you can learn more by visiting this website Allison and I built about this topic). I noted during the session that Tilden conceived the field of interpretation in gendered terms. He emphasized the importance of “interpreting the whole man,” celebrated “heroic” male soldiers who fought in the American Civil War, and generally assumed that men were the ones leading educational programming at cultural sites. Today the gender dynamics are completely reversed and women serve as important leaders within our field. The full-time staff at the NCPH central office are women, the majority of conference attendees were women, and most sessions I attended had panels that were majority-women or all women. I applaud these developments.
That NCPH is run by women does not make it immune to issues of sexual harassment and violence, however. On the first night of the conference I witnessed inappropriate sexualized comments from a man that were promptly reported to NCPH. On the last day of the conference a well-known scholar who presented at the conference announced on Twitter that she had left the field after years of sexual harassment from a prominent public historian who had previously won awards and held a place of high prominence within the organization. This abuse was enabled by the inaction of numerous other professionals who were aware of this person’s behaviors but turned a blind eye to them. I believed these complaints immediately when I read about them and so did a court of law, which ruled that a financial settlement was due to the complainant.
This year’s conference featured a session about sexual harassment in public history and a discussion about the Me Too movement. The NCPH Code of Conduct was also recently updated to take a firmer stance against sexual harassment, and the organization sent an email to all members after the conference pledging its willingness to do as much as possible to offer support to victims and prevent these sorts of behaviors from occurring the future. I applaud all of these efforts, but the events of NCPH 2019 highlighted the fact that more is needed to be done.
I do not propose to have concrete solutions to these issues. I am more interested in listening, learning, and doing whatever I can to offer support rather than talking. I simply hope that practitioners in the field take proactive steps to police their own behaviors (and those of others) and provide support to victims of sexual harassment, abuse, and predatory behavior. For women in the field who work in a public-facing role, the problem is twofold. Much like other service industries, many public historians must contend with the culture of their workplace and the culture of visitors who come into these sites with their own standards of decency, not all of which are good. Even if a staff is fully trained and prepared to combat sexual harassment among colleagues, a visitor can come in and treat staff terribly and do so without consequences if the rest of the staff doesn’t police the situation. Every day at historic sites around the country there are programs taking place where a single individual is taking a tour with an interpreter who could possibly face harassment and predatory behavior from that visitor. Strategies should be implemented at every cultural site that ensure all staff are placed in safe situations when interacting with members of the public and other colleagues.
Our field is not perfect, and NCPH 2019 highlighted the fact that we must do more than simply repair the narratives and content of our programming. We must continually strive to repair ourselves, our practices, and the workplace culture within our field.
I am a member of a Facebook group called “St. Louis, Missouri: History, Landmarks and Photos.” As the title suggests, it’s a fun community where people can share pictures, thoughts, and reflections on the city’s history.
Or so I thought.
Someone recently shared a photo of a blackface performance from the 1920s in Webster Groves, a well-to-do area just outside the St. Louis city limits. After all, the photo is historic and it depicts something that is a part of St. Louis history, whether we like it or not. One would think the photo meets the standards of this group. But alas, the commenters had a firestorm. Why is this outrageous photo being shared?! Why do we have be exposed to this painful history? Why do we have to talk about the bad parts of St. Louis history? As one critical commenter later stated, “Sorry, I joined this group for history and vintage photos, architecture and STL neighborhoods – NOT for any ‘enlightened exchange’ [about the political aspects of history.]” The photo was quickly removed by administrators.
Listen, I get it. We don’t always have to harp on the bad parts of history and for the most part this group is one of the few positives experiences I get from using Facebook these days. But when the controversial aspects of history are removed from the overall story, it is better to simply call the group “St. Louis, Missouri: Landmarks and Photos.” If you enjoy looking at old photos but not studying the people, culture, and context of the time in which the photos were taken, you are engaging in nostalgia, not history.
One might wonder why people interested in a Facebook group such as this one wouldn’t want to learn more about the larger context of the city’s history, but I would contend that many of the blackface photo’s critics were precisely not interested in learning about or having a discussion about history. They are there to practice nostalgia. They are there to talk about their personal childhood experiences and re-live the good old days before the neighborhood went into “decline.” They want to see fancy old homes and neighborhoods but don’t want to discuss the humans who built them or the humans who live in those areas today. To talk about the experiences of, say, an African American who endured the pain of Jim Crow, segregation, and racial discrimination during the “good old days” is nothing but a distraction and an effort to make the past political. Anything outside of mainstream history is a controversy. Please leave out the enlightened exchanges!
(I also note that the some of the same critics who objected to one blackface photo on a social media page because it was “painful” were demanding a few years ago that the St. Louis Confederate Monument remain in Forest Park “because it’s history.”)
This experience reinforced the importance of Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen’s 2000 book The Presence of the Past. After surveying 1,500 people the authors concluded that the foundation for historical understanding starts with the personal. As they discuss in the introduction, “people assemble their experiences into narratives that allow them to make sense of their personal histories, set priorities, project what might happen next, and try to shape the future.” The challenge for historians, therefore, lies in working with their many publics to demonstrate how fitting personal experiences into a larger context–using an entire body of evidence to make an informed interpretation about the past–is how history is created.
The advent of social media and the internet as a whole has been a double-edged sword for historical understanding. On the one hand, people now have an almost limitless access to information. The contents of the past–letters, diaries, newspaper articles, historical photos–can be found with great abundance in places like the above Facebook group. On the other hand, are we really learning anything new? What do people do with the knowledge they acquire at these places? Do they go to the local library to check out a book about St. Louis history, or does the information contained in a particular post evaporate as soon as the viewer logs off of Facebook? The internet can be a place of knowledge accumulation, but it can also be a place that is quite the opposite. I suppose this is all to say that I hope historians and public historians will someday collaborate to research and publish a new edition of The Presence of thePast for the digital era.
My latest essay for the Journal of the Civil War Era’s blog went live last week. I wrote about gift shops at Civil War historic sites and the urgent need for memory scholars to analyze the ways these spaces shape visitor experiences at historic sites. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback so far and I hope the essay will lead to a more sustained and substantial dialogue on how gift shops can better serve the mission of a given public history site.
I have a lot of other exciting writing projects and upcoming presentations going on at the moment and I’ll let you know about those initiatives in a future post. For now, enjoy the above essay and let me know what you think in the comments section.
My first post as a regular contributor for Muster is now up. With this essay I wanted to take a look at the question of whether or not erecting monuments to the “heroes” of Reconstruction would do anything to improve understanding of the era. I also discussed some of the work taking place at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site to educate teachers in the St. Louis area about Reconstruction. Enjoy!
There have been a number of prominent Civil War historians who’ve stepped into the Confederate monument debate over the past month. A roundtable in Civil War Times offers some interesting commentaries from some of the heavy hitters, including William C. Davis, Gary Gallagher, and Lesley J. Gordon. Historian Caroline E. Janney also jumped into the discussion with an op-ed in the Washington Post. She argues that empty pedestals are “void of meaning all together” (a dubious claim that Kevin Levin questioned here) and that removing Confederate monuments erases and does a disservice to the past. American society needs Confederate monuments because “they force us to remember the worst parts of our history.”
To be sure, Janney is a wonderful historian whose work shows up in my own scholarship on the Indiana Grand Army of the Republic. But I think her perspective on the need to preserve all Confederate monuments regardless of context is mistaken. The assumption in this piece is that American society has forgotten (or runs the risk of forgetting) the history of the Civil War if these monuments are removed. This too is a dubious claim. Historians must be careful when they discuss a society’s “collective memory” of the past and think critically about whose voices they privilege as representing that collective when they propose to speak about it.
In the case of Confederate monuments, arguing that these icons “force us to remember the worst parts of our history” necessary requires us to ask: who in society has engaged in forgetting? Who needs a reminder about the Confederacy and the causes of the Civil War? What specifically do these monuments force us to remember about the past? Why have some people failed to remember the history of the Civil War despite the presence of these monuments for 100 years? What are we to do with monuments like the Liberty Place Monument in New Orleans that deliberately distort what happened in the past?
I thought about some of these questions during a recent visit to the Missouri History Museum to see a new exhibit on the history of the Civil Rights Movement in St. Louis. At one point in the exhibit there is a large board with three questions and a table with pens and sticky notes. Visitors are encouraged to answer these questions and place their sticky note on the wall:
I love these feedback walls in museum spaces, and I like the questions posed by the exhibit here. But that first question on the left–“Why has so much of St. Louis’s civil rights history been overlooked?”–contains an implicit bias when it assumes that the city’s residents have in fact overlooked this history. In reading a few comments it became evident that many responders questioned this assumption. Of all the times I’ve been to the Missouri History Museum, this exhibit was the first one in which a majority of museum-goers were African American. And the ones leaving comments strongly asserted that they hadn’t forgotten that history. We were there. We are still fighting for our rights. We can’t forget what happened to our loved ones. We can’t forget history that so explicitly speaks to the core challenge of our lives and experiences as African Americans in this country. These comments were perhaps the most educational aspect of the whole exhibit.
So it bears repeating: who in society has forgotten the history of the Confederacy and the causes, context, and consequences of its short existence? The answer might be uncomfortable for those bent on defending all Confederate monuments regardless of context.
To be clear: my position on this topic has been consistent in that I disagree with a one-size-fits-all approach for addressing Confederate or any other type of public iconography, and I think some icons will inevitably stay while others will go. Read recent essays I’ve written here and here for more of my thoughts on these discussions.
Over the past week historians have been debating the merits of using historical analogy to educate lay audiences about the messy circumstances of our current political moment. Moshik Temkin started the discussion with an op-ed in the New York Times decrying the “historian as pundit” persona that, as can be seen above, has gotten attention within the online realm (not all of those essays were written by historians, but you get the point). Temkin expresses worries about “the rapid-fire, superficial way history is being presented, as if it’s mostly a matter of drawing historical analogies,” which in turn simplifies, trivializes, and downplays the significance of both past and present-day events. Conversely, many historians on my Twitter feed reacted negatively to Temkin’s piece, arguing that we must meet people where they are and that analogy provides opportunities for historians to demonstrate changes and continuities in American history.
Is there room to argue that both sides of this argument are a little bit right and a little bit wrong? I think so.
I do not agree with Temkin when he suggests historians should avoid appearances on TV and “quick-take notes” in a news article. Nor do I agree with the argument that we should leave analogy solely to the non-historian pundits. There are limitations to both TV and newspaper articles since they offer only small tidbits and soundbites for expressing a particular viewpoint, but they do offer historians an opportunity to demonstrate the value of the past in shaping the present. For example, my friend and fellow public historian Will Stoutamire contributed some wonderful insights into this article on the history of Arizona’s Confederate monuments. Last I heard that particular article had been viewed something like 70,000 times over the past month. Not bad! Likewise, I agree with Julian Zelizer when he argues that:
Historians have an important role in unpacking key elements of the ways that institutions operate over time to make sense of big trends and broader forces that move beyond the particular moment within which we live. We can’t become so blinded by our concern for particularity and specificity and nuance that we lose site of the big picture.
At the same time, however, is Temkin incorrect when he suggests that we should be wary of poor historical analogies? Is he wrong when he asserts that we should remind our audiences that a similar event or person from the past does not lead to a similar outcome in the present? Can we conclude that some of the above historical analogies are trite and unhelpful? Are there better questions we can ask about the past and how it has shaped the present? Is their room to sometimes discuss the past on its own terms without resorting to comparisons with the present? I was struck by a recent article from a senior English major who, in discussing national politics in the classroom, warned that “if authors are only worth reading insofar as they inform modern phenomena, then the entire English canon is of mere antiquarian interest and can be summarily dismissed.” If you insert ‘history’ for the word ‘English,’ do we run into the same problem by downplaying huge swaths of history that don’t have an explicit relevance to current politics?
A huge shortcoming of this entire discussion, of course, is that public historians and the work they do are completely left out of the conversation. Here’s the thing. Public historians work in small spaces all the time; spaces that are more often then not much smaller than the ones academics use. We don’t get sixty minutes for lecture, 400 pages to write a book, or even a New York Times opinion piece. We get ten minute introductions, tweets, short Facebook posts, museum exhibits that are often viewed for ten seconds or less, and other educational programming of short duration. Both Temkin and his critics leave this important work out of their discussion.
So here’s a strong middle ground from which to argue. Historians should always strive to meet people where they are in their learning journey. They ought to embrace opportunities to give talks, speak on news shows, be quoted in a newspaper article, or write op-eds for a media outlet with a large platform. At the same time, they ought to use historical analogies responsibly and within the context of highlighting the importance of studying history. The past itself is interesting on its own terms, and sometimes it’s okay to discuss it without resorting to a comparison with Donald Trump. And perhaps academic historians can learn a thing or two from public historians about conveying complex historical subjects into clear, accessible interpretations of the past to a wide range of audiences.
The National Council on Public History published an essay of mine about monument removals at National Statuary Hall on their History@Work blog earlier this week. Regular readers will see familiar arguments that I’ve been making about the role of historical iconography for quite a while on this blog, but in the essay I wanted to focus specifically on what I think is a great example of a dynamic, ever-changing commemorative landscape that has been modified quite often. By exploring changes at National Statuary Hall, I hope to complicate the idea that monument removal automatically constitutes “erasing history.” I also hope to demonstrate that Americans have been removing monuments ever since their country’s founding, and that such removals are actually a natural byproduct of a society’s changing values and evolving understanding of its history.
Please give the essay a read if you get the chance. Although I have written a lot on this particular topic, I believe this is probably the strongest, most definitive argument on where I stand on this issue. So far I’ve gotten largely positive feedback and even the popular historian and blogger John Fea featured it on his website.
I also owe a debt of gratitude to Christopher Graham and Nicholas K. Johnson for reading a draft of the essay before it went online. Thank you!