There’s a lot of buzz within the public history and museum fields about Franklin Vagnone and Deborah Ryan’s new book, Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums. I’d been waiting for a while to have a chance to read the book, and I finally got around to it this week. Overall the book aims to challenge standard practices at historic house museums in regards to interpretation, education, and preservation at these places, and it will definitely provoke new conversations within the field about how and why historic house museums are important for understanding and appreciating the past.
I finished Anarchist’s Guide feeling underwhelmed. While I found the book’s appendices useful for researching visitor feedback and evaluating a given site’s standard practices, I felt like most of Anarchist’s Guide’s conclusions were neither revolutionary, radical, nor original. I might expand upon these thoughts in a future blog post. Nevertheless, I do agree with one central argument made by Vagnone and Ryan that should be repeated to all house museum professionals, however: historic house museums are first and foremost about the people, past AND present, who occupy the house’s space. As Vagnone argues, “the breath of a house is the living that takes place within it, not the structure or its contents” (21). Hear! Hear!
With the National Park Service–at least among those of us who work at historic homes–there is a running joke about the dreaded “furniture tour.” You arrive for the tour and the guide that accompanies the group room-by-room focuses almost exclusively on the furniture pieces of the room and the minute details of each piece that no one will remember when the tour concludes: what year this chair was produced, what state this table came from, how thankful we tourists should be for the good museum professionals who’ve preserved all this furniture for us today. What often goes missing from these tours is the humanity of it all. Why is any of this furniture important? Who are the people who owned this furniture, and why did they buy it? What is so important about this house and why should we continue preserving it? Why should we care about this place today?
To be sure, there is an important place for material culture analyses at historic homes. A gifted interpreter can take a historic artifact and tell nuanced stories about the people who owned it and that artifact’s cultural, economic, and political history. Who built this artifact? Why was this artifact valuable at the time and why did the owner purchase it in the first place? What can this artifact tell us about the times in which its owner lived? When historical artifacts act as tools towards the end goal of better understanding and appreciating the past and the people who lived in it, visitors leave with a better sense of empathy and the humanity of the past. Conversely, tours end up becoming boring and stale when historical artifacts become ends within themselves, reinforcing the idea that the study of history is primarily one of rote memorization and filling the “empty” minds of visitors with dates and facts.
The situation at my own workplace is somewhat unique in regard to historic artifacts. At the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site we have no original furniture inside the historic White Haven estate. While the structure itself is still mostly original today, the lack of original furniture disappoints some visitors. This feeling is understandable, and by no means do I consider such a sentiment misplaced or silly. We all visit historic homes partly because we are curious to see what they look like inside, and at first blush an empty room is nothing to be too excited about. But I take pains to point out to visitors that the National Park Service didn’t choose to preserve this particular house because it was old or because of the way it was designed, but because of the people who lived in it. The house, to paraphrase Vagnone, breathes life because of the people who were there during its 170-year existence as a private residence and the people who still visit it as a National Historic Site today. If the house and its original structural elements were to be completely destroyed tomorrow, the National Park Service would continue to oversee the site and tell the stories of the people who lived there, even if there was nothing original to actually see. But if people stopped coming to the site and the house became an empty hole of nothing beyond a historic structure, what would be the point of the NPS staying to preserve the site? It wouldn’t matter if each room had an abundance of historic artifacts – no one would be there to see it.
A historic house without any people in it breathes no life. Anyone who holds a leadership position at a historic house museum ought to remember that when designing interpretive programs or explaining to stakeholders why their particular site is important and worth preserving.
In April 2009 Congress passed and President Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which aimed to promote the “dramatic growth of service and volunteer opportunities that will address key social issues.” A council called “Reimaging Service” was tasked with implementing the legislation’s Call to Service initiative and encouraging more citizens to volunteer for the federal government with tasks related to these “key social issues.” In January 2015 the council issued its final report and disbanded.
Obtaining more info about volunteers for the National Park Service and encouraging more people to volunteer for the agency was one of the goals of Reimaging Service. (Department of the Interior Sally Jewell’s “Play, Learn, Serve, Work” initiative has also worked towards this goal). In June 2014 Reimagining Service issued a report about NPS volunteering that included this opening paragraph:
In an age where resources only seem to dwindle, it is encouraging to see one resource on the rise: volunteers in national parks. The National Park Service (NPS) increases its volunteer numbers and the hours served annually, continuing a positive trend.
It’s been a well-known fact among NPS employees and visitors to the agency’s sites that there has been a remarkable increase in the presence of volunteers at sites throughout the country. A friend and fellow NPS employee who recently went on a trip through Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wyoming reported hardly any front-line rangers in uniform greeting visitors or leading interpretive tours. Two years ago I visited three Civil War battlefields in Virginia and saw one ranger in uniform during the entire trip. There are probably many reasons for the increased volunteer presence, including more people who are retired and anxious to help out their local parks. But it also seems that such trends are reflective of government austerity measures that seek to eliminate budgetary costs incurred through paid full-time and seasonal employees.
It’s probably a taboo and controversial question to ask, but are more volunteers in national parks truly a “positive trend” for the future of the agency? Do museums and historic sites more broadly benefit from more volunteer help? Who benefits from an increase in volunteering within public history sites, and who is hurt by the process?
It should go without saying that volunteers are crucial to the operations of countless museums and historic sites, and the volunteers I work with on a daily basis at my place of employment are wonderful people who sacrifice their free-time to help out our modest operation. We should all thank our volunteers. But our thanks should not preclude institutional leaders from considering the extent to which volunteer help can and should be utilized and when a particular job requires the skills of a paid employee. As Elizabeth Merritt of the Alliance of American Museums points out, the fair market value of a museum/public history job is very much in flux and is further complicated by the fact that so many people are willing to do such work for free. Institutions can abuse their ability to rely on volunteer help. An over-reliance on volunteers runs the risk of keeping competent workers out of the field or underemployed, preventing people from disadvantaged backgrounds who cannot afford to work in a volunteer capacity from breaking into the field, and devaluing the labor of public historians, particularly front-line employees who specialize in education and interpretation. It is one thing for an institutional leader or supervisory public historian with a stable full-time job to applaud the increase in volunteer labor at public history sites, but one can see how a young graduate student or new professional might see such a development as troubling and disenchanting.
I do not propose that all volunteer positions at a given historic site or museum should be replaced with full-time employees or that an increase in volunteer help is a wholly terrible development. Volunteers enhance museums and historic sites in countless different ways, and in most circumstances volunteers are the most enthusiastic boosters for supporting public history sites in a local community. But I do think there are potential negative consequences that come with increased reliance on volunteer labor, and the field as a whole needs to be more introspective about the role of volunteering and the establishment of a fair wage for public history work. I am lucky to have a stable full-time job in the public history world doing interpretation and education, but what happens when I leave? Will my spot be filled by a volunteer in the future? I know of too many instances in which that scenario has played out, and I can’t help but be worried about future employment opportunities for the many talented people who are trying to break into the public history field and support themselves with a stable job. Similarly, there are many volunteers who would love to obtain paid employment but find themselves unable to do so.
When at all possible, we need to be paying good work with good pay.
As a fairly recent MA graduate of a public history program who is in the early stages of a professional career in the history world, I admit that how I think about the evolution and future of the public history field is largely shaped by my own limited experiences as an interpreter and educator on the front lines of history. The questions I face on a daily basis revolve around issues of acquiring historical knowledge within my field of study (19th century U.S. history), communicating that knowledge to many diverse publics, and playing a role in creating visitor experiences that stimulate intellectual curiosity and an appreciation for the National Park Service and the study of history more broadly. I was trained in graduate school for public history employment through a mix of public history and museum studies courses, and I believe that training has served me fairly well so far in my career. But I acknowledge that my training and work experience has not tackled what might be described as the “business side” of public history: financial budgets, staffing, administration, mission statements (which I hate), boards of directors, endowment funds, and much more. I personally don’t think that’s a bad thing because we should be trained as historians first and foremost, but there has been a great deal of recent debate within the field about graduate training for public historians and whether or not more of these business-related concerns should play a larger role within the public history curricula, either through coursework or internships.
Taylor Stoermer of Harvard University is one public historian whose writing I look to for a broader perspective on the state of public history today. His extensive background in public history in both interpretation and administration is noteworthy, and his website The History Doctor is a regular read for me. I now find myself musing quite a bit on his most recent essay on public history training and employment practices.
Stoermer argues that there are too many public history PhDs in the field*, that the training for these graduates is too theory-based and “almost everywhere privileged over practice,” and that, amid a lack of full-time permanent positions for new graduates within the field, public history institutions have and will continue to evolve towards the “gig economy” business model that has been embraced in many corners of the broader business world.
I have thoughts.
Since graduating in 2014 and observing the struggles of many colleagues who can’t find gainful employment in public history, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are simply too many public history programs in existence and, more importantly, too many programs that are not being honest about the realities of the poor job market for public history employment. Does there really need to be more than 100 public history programs throughout the United States and Canada when the few full-time job opportunities in the field are offering only $30,000 a year? As I have previously stated on this website, there needs to be a realization within the academy that public history is not going to fully alleviate the shortage of academic history jobs by providing gainful “alternative” employment in public history for graduate students who can’t find an academic job. Moreover, while I believe that every academic history department should employ at least one scholar with public history experience, we should not expect all history programs to be in a position to train and help students find work in public history. Whether or not students are pursing an MA or a PhD is less of a concern to me as the fact that there are simply not enough jobs to go around for all of us. We are fighting for crumbs.
I have previously outlined my thoughts on theory vs. practice here. I am strong believer in the idea that good practices come about through a thorough understanding of theory. Practice without theory doesn’t exist. Claims of “too much theory” in public history education beg the question of what theories are most integral to good practices.
Stoermer outlines how a “gig economy” would function in the public history world as follows:
With 40 percent of the American workforce set to be freelance within the next four years, public history might already be well ahead of that curve, which poses as much promise as peril. The successful organizations that I’ve seen have already embraced that trend, seeing its potential. The best example is a historical society with a tremendous collection and exceptional vision that employs no full-time curator, historian, or education director. The most important long-term bases are covered (registrar, membership coordinator, etc.), but it otherwise reaches out to experts as needed. Need to catalogue a collection of 19th-century landscapes? Hire a guest curator whose expertise is 19th-century landscapes, rather than forcing a full-time curator, whose background might be in 17th-century stoneware, into a role for which he or she is not prepared. Want to put together living history programs to connect with guests about local events during the American Revolution? Bring in an experienced producer of such programs to establish the interpretative ground rules and set up a usable operations template . . .
The result is a leaner, more flexible, and more accountable budget and, more to the mission-oriented point, fresher and more active programming in which the occasional staff can introduce perspectives gleaned from related experience elsewhere. The core full-time staff provide consistency and vision, while freelance experts inject cost-effective knowledge, skills, and insight. Another exceptionally effective organization follows a similar route, bringing in special program providers as needed, rather than increasing the level of FTEs for positions that might not be sustainable. Again, the proof of such an approach is in the clear health of those institutions.
From a financial perspective, the gig economy makes sense. But in my view, this model will only hurt young public historians trying to break into the field. For one, I take issue with the idea that curator, education director, and historian positions don’t constitute long-term interests for historic sites. A historical site with administrators, registrars, and membership coordinators, but no one that’s a content expert? Is that really the best path forward? I understand the idea of consolidating positions so that someone may jointly be an education director and historian, but fully outsourcing these jobs will lead to young public historians who work from project-to-project barely scraping by without health insurance or benefits. It will lead to more part-time, temporary, and seasonal job openings and fewer full-time permanent openings. It will lead to project-based jobs similar in nature to adjunct teaching with no upward career mobility. It will lead to historical sites relying on college students, internships (many unpaid), and volunteers to cover the bases and cut costs. It will lead to less historically-informed programming at historic sites (who on staff will fact-check the work of the outsourced historical consultant? Who at these sites will be able to explain why their historical site is worth preserving if they don’t actually understand that history?). It will lead to the continued devaluing of our labor. It will reinforce the idea that when public history institutions experience financial difficulties, educational and historically-trained staff should be the first to go.
I would love to be proven wrong. I’m often asked to provide advice to current grad students since I was one of the fortunate ones to find a full-time job right out of school, but I simply don’t know what to say without being a pessimist who must preface my comments by saying that “the job market is really bad right now.” My current job, as is the case for many other jobs in the broader business world today, is as much attributable to luck and who I know as much as any talent I may have for doing public history. So it goes.
*Update: To further clarify my position on public historians pursuing PhDs, I don’t see it as big a problem as Stoermer does. I don’t even think there are too many public history PhDs out there right now. I think it’s great if a public historian chooses to pursue their PhD. Pursuing a PhD and furthering one’s education, regardless of discipline, is a worthwhile endeavor. All I am suggesting in this essay is that there is a supply and demand problem in public history employment, and that there are a lot of graduate students out there–MA and PhD–that are fighting for a very limited number of jobs in this field. We choose to pursue this education and career track at our own peril, and there are reasons for pursing a graduate degree besides getting a job. But I also believe that public history program directors are obligated to do their homework in understanding the field’s employment numbers and being honest with their students about what to expect when they’re ready to join the workforce, whether that be in an academic setting or within the public history world.
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.
In my time blogging at Exploring the Past I’ve gone on a sort of mini-crusade against conventional understandings within popular media about millennials’ relationship to digital technology and the ways they acquire knowledge. See here, here, and here for examples. Common arguments in this discourse include the belief that millennials acquire knowledge about the world in fundamentally different ways than older people; that old, conventional mediums of learning such as reading books or visiting museums are of little interest to millennials; and that we educators must fundamentally overhaul our approach to working with young students. We must embrace “disruption” in order to unlock the potential of young people. In the teaching world you might hear about the incorporation of digital technology in the form of iPads, computers, and ebooks as a way of making classes more hands-on and interactive, whereas in the public history world you might hear some vague jargon-y gobbledygook about “engagement” or “meeting the needs of a new generation” to get them to visit museums, National Parks, and the like.
I don’t buy into the “disruption” hype that says we must dismantle everything and that we must completely do away with books, textbooks, or lectures (although I agree that educators can and do abuse the lecture medium to their students detriment). The logic of “disruption” fits into a long history of what one scholar describes as “giddy prophecies” about new developments in media technology. Thomas Edison predicted in 1922 that “the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and . . . in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks.” Similar prophecies have been uttered in recent years about floppy disks, CD-ROMS, and computers.
Well, it turns out that at least a few traditional educational mediums are resilient. A forthcoming study by linguistics professor Naomi Baron asserts that 92 percent of students and millennials prefer print books over ebooks, and that print publications still play an integral role in educational classrooms regardless of grade level. It turns out that print publications still have an important educational purpose nearly 100 years after Edison predicted their eventual demise. Furthermore, millennials actually read more than older adults!
Don’t get me wrong: I support the implementation of digital technology in both formal and informal learning environments, but I’ve always believed that such implementations need to be done with an understanding that these mediums are merely tools. They need to be used carefully towards a larger goal of making our students critical thinkers who ask good questions and demonstrate sharp, analytical thinking. If an “interactive” activity doesn’t accomplish these goals, then it’s worthless in my view. Rather than debating whether or not digital technology should play a role in education (it can and should), we need to discuss what approaches with digital tools work and which ones don’t. And again, the end goal is key. I believe Sam Wineburg is mostly correct when he asserts, with regards to the history classroom, that:
I don’t think that a history class should be about things such as . . . making cute posters, or about making history “engaging.” It’s about getting students to think rigorously about the evidence. Fun is okay, but I would rather have them hate the class and come out of the class having the skills needed to be good citizens than having them enjoy themselves.
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.