Earlier this month I was in northwest Arkansas for a conference and had an opportunity to visit a number of history museums while there. Those site visits included the Daisy Air Gun Museum, the Rogers Historical Museum, and the Walmart Museum (yes, they have one). I found each site charming and the people who work at these sites extremely friendly. Everyone made me feel welcomed and were glad to have me as a visitor. On the whole I enjoyed my experiences at these places.
I am a critical viewer of museum exhibits, however, much in the same way that a musician is a critical viewer of other musicians or a filmmaker critically views rival cinema. My training in museum and historical methods ensures that I can never go back to looking at museums and public history sites as objective storehouses of artifacts and disinterested facts. I view every aspect from aesthetics to text markers to guided tours in an effort to see what larger interpretive messages these places hope to convey to their viewers. Although each site covers a wide time period that in some cases goes back to the late nineteenth century, they all had a similar interpretive centerpiece at the heart of their expererince: nostalgia for the 1950s.
Nostalgia is an inherently conservative emotion in my view. It smooths over the rough edges of history’s complexities and often focuses inward on our idealized personal memories of life experiences. Nobody looks back at a bad life memory in a nostalgic way. Nostalgia doesn’t convey how things were but how we wish they were and how we wish them to be. It tries to recreate an image of a past world that can never be recreated in the present, and the inability to bring this past world alive in the present intensifies our desire to bring it back against all odds. And above all else, we use nostalgia to reclaim our innocence – to return to a time when fear and insecurity didn’t exist and when things were simpler (at least in our minds). As Alan Jay Levinovitz argues in Aeon, “it is crucial to distinguish between wistful memories of grandma’s kitchen and belief in a prior state of cultural perfection.” Nostalgia is wistful thinking about a state of perfection that never existed. And it often sells within the context of museums.
The 1950s are a particularly unique time period shrouded in more nostalgia than any other era in recent history. Each museum I visited covered different aspects of this nostalgia. Men worked hard and had jobs to support the family; women stayed home and tended to the domestic sphere; children went to school and behaved like good little boys and girls; local law enforcement always had residents’ best interests at hand; everyone went to church and prayed to the same Christian God; racial, labor, or any other form of social strife was non-existent; everyone knew their place in society and happily accepted that place without reservation. We might call this interpretive phenomenon “Andy Griffith History.”
At one of the aforementioned sites I overheard a woman ask a museum employee why there were no exhibits on the contributions of African Americans or any other minority group to the life of the people in northwest Arkansas. The employee said that “well, we don’t have any exhibits on that topic unfortunately and the town of Rogers was a Sundown town in the 1950s.” A person visiting these sites without any sort of background in the history of the Civil Rights Movement would not realize that Walmart’s growth as a company occurred as Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus supported racial segregation of public schools and the Little Rock Nine crisis occurred. Nor would many people without prior knowledge look at the Walmart museum and learn that labor conflicts have occurred frequently throughout the company’s history. The pull of nostalgia only allows for a innocent view of the period devoid of any social conflict.
I suspect that 1950s nostalgia draws people to these places because the period has been so mythologized in popular culture and many (white) people alive today remember the era in fond terms. I do wonder, however, if this approach will continue to work over the next twenty or thirty years and if places that rely on nostalgia this way will have staying power in the long run. Again, I found a certain charm in these museums, and there were certainly good aspects of the 1950s that we should remember and celebrate. We should always heed Levinovitz’s advice, however, and avoid believing that any past era was perfect. That sort of thinking is bad for history and probably bad for determining contemporary policy too.
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.
A few of us at work had an extended conversation today about a Facebook post that is getting attention and making the rounds. The post came from a concerned parent here in St. Louis who visited two public history sites that interpret Civil War history with a school group and came away unimpressed. I urge readers to check out the post. I am not sure how well-versed this person is in Civil War history or museum education initiatives, but she does a pretty good job of highlighting how supposedly “neutral” Civil War sites often end up–whether intentionally or unintentionally–downplaying slavery’s role in the coming of the war while glorifying the Confederacy and lamenting its demise. She also highlights a particularly troubling discussion at one site about Civil War gun bullets that turned into a discussion about the sorts of weapons police officers used during the 2014 events in Ferguson.
For some practitioners and scholars in the field these complaints are nothing new. Indeed, the National Park Service’s efforts to revise its interpretive programs to more accurately discuss the causes, context, and consequences of the Civil War date back to the 1990s when Dwight Pitcaithley was Chief Historian of the agency. But what I see at play here is a continued disconnect between the work of larger federal agencies and non-profits and the work of some smaller publicly- and privately-run museums that are operating on shoestring budgets. Many of these places are run by volunteers or by employees who don’t have the time to dig into professional development sessions or new historical scholarship. They are too busy dealing with budgets, fundraising, outreach efforts, and the daily grind of working in a museum. For example, one time a small museum owner openly admitted to me that not a single employee of his had any sort of training in education or interpretation. I rarely meet people at professional development workshops or the annual National Council on Public History conference who are coming from the small museum world, and I understand why. Mary Rizzo wrote a brief article about small museums in Public History News that further explores the challenges these small sites face.
These challenges don’t excuse teaching bad history to visitors, however.
Two other points stuck out to me in this post. Speaking about parents and teachers on the trip she mentions that “no one wanted to discuss this history and its implications on this history field trip.” That’s a pretty astute comment. Different school groups bring different interest levels with them to these sites, but it’s always tough from my end when I interact with a group where things feel artificial and everyone goes on vacation mode. I blame that mentality partly on teachers and parents who don’t prep students for these trips and partly on public historians who put together bad programs and dull presentations.
The other point I noticed was the general feeling of intimidation students felt while at these sites. “You are told to say, Thank you,” she says. It’s unfortunate whenever someone feels this way while visiting a public history site, and I’m sure there are people in this field that would say the best museum is one with no one in it. But I think we need to be ones saying “thank you” to our visitors. We don’t exist if nobody comes to our sites, and in an age of Netflix, TV, and the internet to distract us 24 hours a day, we should cherish the presence of every visitor who takes time out of their day to visit a cultural institution. And we should do everything in our power to remove any semblance of an artificial hierarchy that puts our visitors in a place of submission or intimidation. You can see how easily this occurred at the two sites mentioned in the Facebook post. Hopefully we in the Park Service can use this opportunity to check our own practices and extend a helping hand to some of the small sites in our area.
Last night I had an opportunity to speak to Dr. Jeff Manuel’s history students at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville about working for the National Park Service and interpreting history to many publics. The talk went better than I could have ever expected. The students were extremely interested in what I had to say and had many thought-provoking questions to throw my way. I also got to listen to a very fascinating discussion the students held about a project they are working on to commemorate the life of Robert Prager, a German coal miner living in Collinsville, Illinois, who was lynched in 1918 amid a wave of World War I anti-German hysteria sweeping the United States. The students discussed questions over the most useful medium for interpreting this story (historical marker, digital website, pamphlets, a documentary, etc.), what audiences they wanted to address, what tone they wanted to take (a factual recollection of the event vs. a broader interpretation of politics and violence both then and now), and what guiding questions they would utilize to inform their interpretations going forward. It was all a lot of fun.
My talk was pretty straightforward and focused on the philosophical beliefs about public history that I embrace for the work that I do with the Park Service on a daily basis. I discussed the need for understanding the importance of communicating to multiple audiences, Deborah Perry’s Knowledge Hierarchy educational framework for meeting people where they are in their learning journey, my wish to get rid of all mission statements in museums, and my “three-legged stool” for good public history work: strong historical content knowledge, an understanding of interpretive methods, and a system for evaluating interpretive programs and visitor takeaways. I also gave the students a copy of the facilitated dialogue I used when all 8th graders from the Ferguson/Florissant School District visited the park last May (I’ll discuss this facilitated dialogue more in-depth on this website next month).
I’ve been working full-time for the National Park Service for close to two years at this point, and in that time I’ve observed a slow but evolving view on visitor interaction within some parks. Most parks, mine included, still employ “sage on the stage”-type activities like ranger-led tours of historical homes or battlefields. I think that’s totally fine and don’t see those activities going away anytime soon. But I do see a growing push to also employ “guide by the side”-type activities like facilitated dialogue that make connections to the present and, most importantly, give visitors a chance to share their own perspectives with each other and NPS staff so that all involved are simultaneously students and teachers in a shared learning experience. I think my Ferguson dialogue accomplished that, and it seems like our current staff at the park is receptive to trying that sort of thing again in the future.
There are certainly challenges with doing facilitated dialogues both logistically (time and space) and theoretically (connections between past and present are always contentious, some people aren’t interested in dialogue, historical facts and content could possibly take a back seat to personal opinions, biases, and assumptions, etc.), but I fully embrace dialogue as an effective learning method at public history sites. Some of my favorite public history initiatives, such as Connor Prarie’s “Follow the North Star” program, effectively use both historical knowledge and facilitated dialogue in conjunction with each other to spark visitors’ understanding of history and how it plays a role in our daily lives. These are the sorts of programs I would like to see at more public history sites across the country in the future.
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?
I always said, blacks need to stop bringing up slavery all the time. It was a long time ago. Why can’t they just move on and forget about it? But then they wanted to move on and get rid of these confederate statues, and I was all like, “Things that happened a long time ago are still important. You shouldn’t forget about them!”
The above quote comes from a really funny piece of satire that a friend shared with me from The Push Pole, a website based out of Southern Louisiana. Its title seems apt for the times: “Thousands of History Buffs Magically Appear After City Council Votes to Remove Confederate Monuments.” The piece is funny because it’s rooted in a partial truth about the complex and contradictory ways Americans often choose to remember their history: “Never Forget” is an arbitrary term that extends to historical events and people we care about, but when it comes to historical things we consider to be overblown or simply not worth caring about, “we need to move on” becomes the default response. (See Andrew Joseph Pegoda’s essential essay on “Never Forget” for more thoughts on the subjective nature of the term).
The taking down or altering of some public statues, monuments, and memorials honoring the Confederacy sparked a vigorous debate in 2015 about the place of Confederate iconography in America’s commemorative landscape and whether or not some of these icons–particularly the ones in places of public governance, public schools, town squares, and the like–should remain in their place of honor. The online discussion took place through blog posts, newspaper op-eds, and thousands upon thousands of comments. While some of these discussions were productive and enlightening, we were also treated to excessive and misleading cries of “erasing history” (which is a flawed argument to take when analyzing public iconography), poor analogies that compared changes to Confederate iconography to ISIS-led destruction of Middle Eastern history, and emotion-filled hysterics that often said more about the politics of the present than any actual grasp of historical knowledge. And while folks got emotionally heated about Confederate icons, other historical artifacts such as this 19th century Virginia slave cabin are being demolished or in other cases facing potential demolition in the near future, all amid the sound of near silence on and offline.
What is the point of preserving symbolic icons that commemorate historic events and people if the actual historical artifacts that act as tangible representations of these events and people go away; things like letters, historic homes, battlefields, and other material artifacts? What would happen if some of that energy expended on debating iconography went towards preserving local history, Civil War battlefields, slave cabins, historic cemeteries, material artifacts, or archival records?
You and I can write blog posts or comment on newspaper articles until our fingers break off, but none of it really matters unless we get involved in our local communities and work towards convincing our neighbors of the importance of preserving history. Contact your local officials and tell them why public funding is important for ensuring a future grounded in an honest, responsible understanding of the past. Tell them to support historic preservation efforts in your area. Tell them that it’s important to support history education initiatives in the k-12 classroom such as National History Day and humanities programs in community colleges, four-year colleges, and universities. Tell them to support local institutions like historical societies, museums, and archival repositories. Join a preservation group like the Civil War Trust or the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Go visit a nearby National Historic Site. Attend a historical reenactment. Ask questions and be willing to listen and learn about the past, even if it’s difficult and unpleasant.
If you live in a community where a statue, monument, or memorial is currently garnering controversy, read up on relevant scholarship about the historical event being commemorated and why a symbolic icon was erected to preserve the memory of that event. Honestly consider whether or not that symbolic icon should remain in a place of honor in your community. If town hall meetings or other events are taking place about the history in your area, go to them. Listen to the perspective of other community members and express your own thoughts as well. Work towards becoming an active member of your community and an advocate for history.
If 2015 marks the beginning of a renewed conversation about history and memory in American society, let us use 2016 as a starting point for a renewed effort towards advancing the importance of supporting, preserving, and educating people about the history that is all around us. Get off the message boards and get to work in your community.
Cheers to a great new year.
I have not been blogging as much as I typically do as of late. Part of the reason is simply the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, but I’ve also been working on a few projects for next year that I’m pretty excited about. One such project is my participation in the National Council on Public History’s Annual Meeting in Baltimore, Maryland, in March. This will be my third NCPH conference and I’m thrilled to be in the program again. I don’t have a lot of time or money to attend many conferences on an annual basis, but the NCPH meetings are totally worth it for the chance to meet and interact with some of the best scholars and practitioners in the public history field.
I was fortunate enough to be accepted as a discussant in a working group about race, violence, and protest in historical context. The description for our session is as follows:
“Interpreting the History of Race Riots and Racialized Mass Violence in the Age of ‘Black Lives Matter'”
The rise of the “Black Lives Matter” movement created new contexts for the public history of race riots and racialized mass violence of the past. This working group brings together practitioners involved in interpreting this historic theme. Our goal is to explore the impact of these new contemporary contexts through a sustained dialogue between public historians, community members, and activists, which will result in a sustainable, innovative, and collaborative project.
At this point I view myself contributing to the conversation from the perspective of an educator who often discusses racialized violence in the nineteenth century with visitors and–less often but more frequently in light of recent events–the complex politics of civil war memory today. More specifically, I hope to discuss some strategies I employed in talking about these topics with eight graders in the Ferguson-Florissant School District earlier this year – what worked, what didn’t, and what I’m thinking about as we prepare to work with the district again next May. Other presenters will be coming from a more academic and/or activist background, so the working group will be composed of thoughtful people with diverse skills and perspectives for discussing these topics. I’m looking forward to the conversation.
Stay tuned. Cheers.
A few weeks ago my supervisor requested that I brainstorm some ideas for commemorating the National Park Service’s 99th birthday on August 25. The goal of this project–whatever form it might take–was to raise awareness of the agency’s ongoing Find Your Park campaign and spark enthusiasm about the Park Service’s past, present, and future as it approaches 100 years old.
I decided that creating a small, temporary museum exhibit in our Visitor’s Center could be an effective way of grabbing our visitors’ attention. I envisioned the exhibit playing out in three different phases: one focused on the origins of the National Park Service, one focused on the creation and restoration of our park (Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site) and one area dedicated to visitor feedback through an open-ended question and comment cards. With helpful input from my friend and colleague David Newmann we made the exhibit a reality. Although we don’t have exhibit design backgrounds and neither one of us ever created a museum exhibit from scratch before, we created what I think is a pretty neat display. I also learned an important lesson about keeping things simple when creating museum exhibits, especially if you’re looking to solicit feedback from visitors.
In the visitor feedback section of the exhibit I wanted visitors to reflect on their past experiences at National Parks and, by extension, use their memories and those of other commentors to think about their next adventure at a park. David came up with a great question for addressing this challenge: “What is your favorite memory at a National Park?”
We printed out small comment cards with the Find Your Park logo on them and wrote a one paragraph description explaining why we think National Parks are important. We put David’s question at the bottom of the page with this one paragraph description. It looked like this:
We noticed after a few days, however, that not a single visitor had taken the time to write a comment. Were people not interested in talking about National Parks or leaving comments at the exhibit?
It turns out that poor design on our part was wholly to blame for the lack of visitor feedback. David came up with a great idea to remedy this problem: simplify the design and give our question a prominent place within the exhibit. Make the question so big that you couldn’t avoid it.
Almost instantly after putting this sign up, we started getting feedback.
While it’s important to have an area on this table to explain why National Parks are important, we inhibited visitor interaction by writing our question in too small a font and burying it underneath a substantial body of text. Not everyone wants or needs to read such an explanation to understand what’s going on here. The question “What is your favorite memory at a National Park?” easily conveys what we want visitors to do. Putting the question front and center while leaving our explanation on the left side of the table allows for more visitor comments while also letting visitors who want to read further do so at their convenience.
So…keep it simple when designing museum exhibits!
This past weekend I took note of a couple thought-provoking blog posts worthy of mention here. Both essays argue that public historians at National Parks, museums, and state/local historical sites need to find ways to use their resources and respond to last month’s Charleston massacre. Christopher A. Graham is trying to find examples of small museums and Civil War sites engaging in some sort of interpretive dialogue about Civil War history and memory in the aftermath of Charleston without much luck. He offers some thoughtful ideas on simple programs these places could embrace for discussing these topics and expresses his wish to see “small museums…wading constructively and imaginatively into this conversation about the Confederate flag.” Kevin Levin echos similar sentiments in calling for public historians to “get out there and do what you are trained to do.” He, like Christopher, is looking for examples of innovative programs like the one John Hennessy recently offered at Fredricksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park. There are currently no comments with any specific examples on that post, so it looks like his readership has not found any noteworthy interpretive programs either.
I am in general agreement with these posts. The national discussion taking place about the Civil War’s enduring legacy offers a ripe opportunity for public historians and Civil War history sites to enter themselves into an important and highly visible conversation. I would only slightly push back against Kevin in that plenty of public historians at Civil War sites understand their responsibilities as interpreters and care a great deal about “getting out there.” We’ve been out there plenty, actually. In the aftermath of the Ferguson unrest, for example, we at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site here in St. Louis “responded” in May by hosting every 8th grader in the Ferguson-Florissant School District over a two-week period at the park to discuss slavery, the Civil War, and U.S. Grant’s presidency. I pushed the envelop even further by designing a short ten-minute facilitated dialogue in our museum about the ambiguous nature of the term “justice” and how racism affects our own contemporary society. While our park hasn’t yet formulated a program specifically connected to the Charleston Massacre, it’s not as if we stopped talking about these issues once the Ferguson kids went back to school. Our urgency to wade into these discussions has not diminished one bit and we’ve been having plenty of them with regular daily visitors to our site this summer.
It seems safe to say, however, that many Civil War sites including ours can do more to connect past with present through interpretive and educational programs. This shortcoming challenges us to ask tough questions about the purpose of public history in communicating accurate, thought-provoking interpretive histories to diverse audiences of all types. Kevin asks what public history sites are doing “to help their communities make sense of the relevant history behind our ongoing and very emotional discussion about Civil War memory.” That’s a good question, but we can also flip it to ask what local communities are doing to help their public history sites tell accurate, inclusive histories of the Civil War. Are the board members, museum directors, front-line employees, and volunteers that run a given public history site committed to fostering dialogue and a sense of community in their localities, or are they simply committed to placing fancy artifacts devoid of context on display for admiring cultural elites? I want to move Christoper and Kevin’s challenge to public historians upwards towards the people who employ these professionals at their institutions.
While I am still in the early stages of my public history career, I have thought much about the underlying values and philosophies needed to run a truly innovative public history site. I can think of at least three qualities for building a solid foundation at these places:
Vision: I know of and have visited a privately-run Civil War museum that explicitly states in its mission statement a desire not to debate or interpret the causes of the Civil War. The mission, they explain, is to pay homage to the soldiers of the war “without bias to either side.” Is it a surprise to anyone that this museum or ones like it don’t play any sort of public role in a larger dialogue about the Civil War and contemporary issues in Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, or elsewhere? It is a surprise that public historians at these sites lack any sort of institutional support to develop programs in response to current events and are often told not to discuss them with visitors? Is it any surprise that many history museums that prioritize uncritical candle-making activities and Blue-Gray gala balls face declining attendance numbers?
The impetus for thoughtful interpretive programming starts with a vision from the top. That vision should offer support to public historians by giving them space to experiment with new methods for communicating history to public audiences. That vision should also embrace a willingness to challenge visitors with programming that checks their prior assumptions. Public historians, however, can only do as much as their employers (who often come from non-history/education backgrounds) are willing to let them do.
Opportunity: The National Park Service is currently suffering from an $11 billion maintenance backlog. Reduced budgets and financial shortfalls since the government shutdown in 2013 and the 2008 recession have led to fewer rangers in uniform and reduced services in maintenance, law enforcement, park administration, and interpretation/education. Long-tenured employees are retiring and their jobs left unfilled. Some parks have almost no front-line staff and rely on volunteers to greet visitors and lead interpretive tours. Full-time, permanent jobs are scarce. It’s a dream of mine to become a park historian at a national park like John Hennessy someday, but I have no idea how to pursue that path because I’ve never seen a single posting for a park historian job in my whole time with the agency.
The NPS is but one example of a public history institution currently facing serious financial challenges. The Park Service and other public history sites at all levels often preach the importance of relevancy, diversity, and inclusion in their hiring practices, but such ideals are meaningless if there are no opportunities to establish a stable career and a livable wage to support yourself. While I realize that many sites must find ways to cut expenses and stay in the black, it always worries me when I see a lot of volunteers running the show at any given public history site. It’s not that I don’t value their contributions – far from it. But public historians don’t spend thousands of dollars for their education (and for internships that are often unpaid) to be volunteer museum docents for a living. Pay your interns. Invest in your employees with full-time jobs if at all possible. Do your best to pay your public historians and museum workers a living wage and offer them fair benefits.
Professional Development: Interpreting history requires specific skills and intensive training. A facilitated dialogue, for example, is not just a Q&A session with a sage on the stage. It requires the work of someone who has been trained to create structured conversations based on relevant questions that push participants to share their thoughts and experiences in a free exchange of ideas. Organizing a dialogue around a controversial topic like the Confederate flag is not something just anyone can easily do. How do you get a supporter of the flag and a person who finds the flag offensive into the same room talking with each other in a civil manner? It’s as tough as it sounds.
To repeat, while I value the volunteers who do so much to keep our Civil War sites running on a day-to-day basis, the process of creating an interpretive program, educational lesson plan, or facilitated dialogue often requires the skills of a trained professional who has the time and skills to put together such a plan. That means the professional’s employer must be willing to buck up for resources and training to aid the development of those programs. I have been fortunate enough to have some really wonderful training sessions with the National Park Service in facilitated dialogue and interpretation, but I know that many other public historians don’t have the luxury of getting any training once they join the workforce. We can’t expect these professionals to offer John Hennessy-like programs if they don’t have the training, resources, or support to put together such programs in the first place.
Finally, Aleia Brown’s article on museum practices and the Confederate flag is also relevant to this discussion and also worthy of your time.
I am always leery of any efforts to wax nostalgically about the past or “the good times.” We all have great memories of past friendships, relationships, and moments of happiness, but those nostalgic moments often distort our understanding of the struggles and hardships people went through in the past while at the same time giving us an unhealthy sense of fear about contemporary society’s problems. That said, it’s clear to me that our world is experiencing hard times right now. Warfare, state violence, racism, sexism, economic struggles, political deadlock, social outrage, and a loss of faith in the promise of a better future greet us at every corner of our computers and in face-to-face interactions with those around us. These sentiments seem to be especially pronounced on social media, where the proliferation of information–“likes,” “retweets,” “click-bait,” “listicles,” and an endless quantity of thinkpieces–seems to breed confusion, misunderstanding, and anger rather than enlightened discussion.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the ways public history can redirect these concerns into a meaningful dialogue that addresses contemporary problems in society through a better understanding of the past. Some would call these efforts “civic engagement,” although I am not a fan of this term (more on that in a future post).
Before we can even begin to discuss public history as a civic good, however, we must ask whether historians should engage in any efforts to facilitate a dialogue about contemporary problems in the first place. Similar debates have raged in social studies classrooms for years and are relevant to public history as well. For example, Chester E. Finn, Jr. of the Hoover Institute remarked in 2003 about efforts to promote cultural understanding in social studies classrooms that “one camp believes that social studies classes should help children feel good about themselves, be nice to others, and learn to respect all cultures, with minimal attention to traditional history, geography, and civics. The other camp holds that the schools’ job is to transmit information to children about their shared American culture, how it works, and where it came from.” Anyone who embraced the former, according to Finn, was simply practicing “pop psychotherapy” that mistakenly diagnosed “that children needed to be comforted, reassured, and admonished not to cast blame or show bias toward any group, religion, or country.” Anyone that embraced the latter was a patriotic champion of teaching American heritage and exceptionalism to the nation’s youth.
Should public historians stick to interpreting [Euro or Ameri-centric] history without political commentary or civic instruction, or should they make efforts efforts to connect their historical interpretations to the present? The answer lies partly in whether public history is reflective of a “historical temple” or a “historical forum.”
Canadian museologist Duncan F. Cameron famously argued in 1971 that many cultural institutions faced an identity crisis of “role definition.” Were they temples or forums? Most museums, historic homes, and other public history destinations at that time framed themselves as “temples.” Cameron argued that many institutions, echoing Finn’s concerns about the need for children to learn about so-called traditional history, “created [spaces] that were the temples within which they enshrined those things they held to be significant and valuable. The public generally accepted the idea that if it was in the museum, it was not only real but represented a standard of excellence. If the museum said that this and that was so, then that was a statement of truth.” These “temple” spaces, according to Cameron, were more reflective of churches than schools. We can still see this mentality in many public history “temples” today, where audiences are exposed to and expected to unquestioningly bow to the enshrined “truths” of history as defined by either the state, an academic institution, or a private bourgeois interest group.
Opportunities for questions and dialogue are rare in these sorts of places. Sociologist and historian James Loewen took a negative view of public history “temples” in his 1999 bestseller Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong when he argued that “public history . . . usually fosters the civic status quo by praising the government and defending its acts. Rarely do historic markers and monuments criticize the state. Instead, they make things that were problematic seem appropriate, ordained, even commendable” (26). The fact that many public history institutions enjoy financial backing from the state, the academy, or wealthy benefactors makes any questioning of the civic status quo difficult and inherently political. Then again, any concerted effort to ignore or silence dissent against the civic status quo is, of course, also political. Public history is as much a politics of historical omission as much as it is a politics of historical inclusion.
On the other hand, according to Cameron, some institutions by 1971 began expanding their mission statements to go beyond “simply a place where proved excellence should be exhibited and interpreted to the public.” These institutions sought to transform their spaces into local community centers and “forums” that interpreted “the immediate environment and the cultural heritage of that community” through historical exhibits and programs that sought to question the state and its actions. Cameron cited the Anacostia Community Museum in Washington, D.C. as an example of a historical “forum” where local community members were invited to participate in the process of creating an exhibit deemed relevant to their concerns with museum professionals about urban rat problems in the DC area.
Here in St. Louis I have recently taken a great interest in the efforts of the Missouri History Museum to be a community “forum” for discussing the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson. The museum hosted a “Ferguson Town Hall” meeting on Monday, August 25, and plans to host several lectures/discussions in the near future. As museum spokesperson Leigh Albright Walters recently explained, “The Missouri History Museum has always made it a point to address difficult topics. We felt it was important to have events and programming that relate to the current situation in Ferguson.”
Should the Missouri History Museum and other similar public history institutions continue to their efforts to be more like community “forums” instead of elite “temples,” or should they only focus on the transmission of historical knowledge without any civics instruction? What are some other examples of “historical forums” currently in action (such as the Lower East Side Tenement Museum)?