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perpetual struggle to properly define the terms we use to describe the work we do and the terms we use to describe the historical content we interpret with our many publics.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.


Reflections on Memorial Day and American Nationalism

Union and Confederate soldiers at the 50th anniversary reunion of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1913. Photo credit: U.S. Army Center of Military History,
A Union and Confederate soldier at the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1913. Photo credit: U.S. Army Center of Military History,

The question of when, exactly, the United States became a truly unified nation has dominated the discussions of scholars seeking to explain the origins of American nationalism. Robert Penn Warren famously argued in 1961 that the United States could not be considered a nation until the blood-spilling of the American Civil War ended in 1865. The American Revolution, according to Warren, “did not create a nation except on paper . . . [The United States] became a nation, only with the Civil War.” Others argue, however, that a nation did in fact exist before the Civil War. Hans Kohn points out that pre-war tariff policies that favored the development of American commercial interests over European ones along with a national thirst for westward expansion demonstrate that the roots of American nationhood were established well before the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861.

Regardless of when the United States became a unified country, almost everyone agrees that the Civil War altered Americans’ relationship to their nation, both politically and culturally. Even though bloody civil wars don’t necessarily bring about a stronger sense of nationalism in their aftermath, popular depictions of the Civil War in American history and memory have framed the deaths of 750,000 Americans as a necessary sacrifice for bringing together a young, fractious nation. The philosopher William James in 1910 argued that few Americans would change their nation’s history if given the opportunity: “Ask all our millions, north and south, whether they would vote now . . . to have our war for the Union expunged from history, and the record of a peaceful transition to the present substituted for that of its marches and battles, and probably hardly a handful of eccentrics would say yes.” Some contemporary historians define the nature of Civil War death in mythical terms. Charles P. Roland’s popular An American Iliad connects the American Civil War to the Greco-Trojan war of Greek mythology: “More than a century ago the American people engaged in a great sectional conflict that reenacted all of the heroism and sacrifice, all of the cruelty and horror, of the Greco-Trojan War. The Union victory . . . forever changed the course of American history and thereby of world history.”

These comments reflect a particular way of viewing the United States that conceives military action as the defining characteristic of American nationalism. Warfare, more than any other political, economic, social, or cultural factor, brings Americans together into an “imagined community” whose citizens are willing to die in battle to defend the rights and freedoms of fellow citizens thousands of miles away from their own homes.

The shocking death toll of the American Civil War demanded reflection, interpretation, and explanation from those who survived the war. To address these pressing demands of memory, Americans created new rituals they believed would maintain and strengthen the relationship between living and dead, what Union General John A. Logan described as a “solemn trust.” Although the practice of decorating graves has disputed origins, the call of Union veterans in the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) in 1868 for all communities to decorate the graves of their local Civil War dead marked the official beginning of Memorial Day in the United States.

Memorial Day ritualizes the living’s “solemn trust” with the dead by annually reserving time on the American calendar for remembering and reflecting upon the memories of those who have died to preserve the United States and its freedoms. These rituals and observances are as much for us the living as they are for the dead. Each year we take time to justify to ourselves our belief that the dead did not die in vain and that we are a better nation because of their death. We also remind ourselves of the obligations we have to our fallen friends and loved ones and use Memorial Day to speak on behalf of those people. Indeed, the dead don’t have the chance to speak on Memorial Day; we speak for the dead and mold them to fit our own visions and beliefs.

The GAR played their own role in defining society’s memory of the war by annually reminding their audiences in Memorial Day speeches of the righteousness of preserving the Union (and in some speeches the righteousness of destroying slavery). For example, Indiana veteran George W. Spahr argued in his 1893 Memorial Day speech that all Americans should be “consoled by the fact that we are no longer a doubtful confederation of States; that we are no longer a compact of colonies existing at the will and pleasure of the parties to the combine.” Above all, Spahr believed this unified nationalist spirit was born through the efforts of men whose “self-sacrifice” provided a tangible example of patriotism and love of country.

Our nation’s dead deserve a place in our collective memory and a debt of thanks that will never be fully paid. Memorial Day helps us pay a part of that debt back and reminds us of our fellow citizens who are willing to die so that we may continue to live in comfort. But lurking under our “thank the servicemen and women” sentiments lie difficult questions that this nation must continually address about the nature of military action and nationalism.

According to the historian Susan-Mary Grant:

Americans . . . have been unwilling to concede that violence rather than voluntarism played a central role in their national development. Consequently, as far as the creation of the American nation is concerned, the subject of war is approached obliquely. The American way of war, in short, is almost always presented in quasi-mystical terms that support the national idea of freedom and equality for all . . . [and] downplay the extent and the implications of violence within the nation (189, 191).

In sum, Memorial Day is often framed as a day for remembering death, but less often is it a day for remembering the act of killing. George Spahr focused on the “self-sacrifice” of Union soldiers in his Memorial Day speech, but he omitted the fact that the federal government resorted to a forceful military draft in 1863 to maintain the Union war effort. He and countless veterans were also forced to deal with the memories of wartime killing on a daily basis. As historian Reid Mitchell points out, Julia Ward Howe’s song “Battle Hymn of the Republic” includes the lyric “let us die to make men free,” not “let us kill to make men free,” a convenient side stepping of what soldiers are actually tasked to do in the military. Any reflection on the nation’s dead requires us to analyze the nature of war itself and ask why our elected leaders sometimes choose to rely on warfare to ostensibly preserve and even enhance our American democracy.

We should do our absolute best to avoid warfare in the future. Memorial Day should be a day for reflection, thanks, and critical discussion about the state our nation, but not a day for unquestioningly glorifying the military. Mississippi Senator John Sharp Williams said as much to a group of Confederate veterans in his 1904 Memorial Day speech:

No matter how bright the uniform, how loud ‘the shouting of captains,’ how splendid the deeds of valor, how inspiring the clangor of fife and drums, there is nothing more disgusting, nothing more detestable, and nothing more in the history of the world has been so dangerous and destructive as the puerile thirst for military fame and the schoolboy love for ‘glory’ and a strenuous life.

Given our questionable military interventions since the attacks of September 11, 2001, and our seeming inability to care for veterans once they return home, let us hope that this nation’s future is not dominated by constant warfare and the deaths of our best and brightest citizens. We owe it to ourselves and those who have died in service of the United States to promote peace at all times.