Should Historians Make “Judgements” About the Past in their Scholarship?

I’ve been thinking a lot about a recent conversation I had with a visitor about morality and judgement in historical interpretation. The visitor was very adamant about the historian’s obligation to objectivity when interpreting the past, but his definition of objectivity was, in my opinion, far too rigid. “We have no right to judge the people of the past and the decisions they make,” he said. “At one point 97% of scientists believed the earth was flat! They were wrong, but how were they supposed to know?” The historians of today, in his view, are too emotional. They are too focused on picking winners and losers and distinguishing between good and bad. People get too worked up about the past.

There is a grain of validity in his statements. The concept of “historical thinking” emphasizes the importance of understanding historical events from the perspective of the people at the time in which the event happened rather than from our perspective today.¬†To understand why most scientists believed the world was flat requires an understanding of the scientific community’s knowledge of astronomy at that time. Who were the leading thinkers? What works of scholarship were they reading and producing? What sorts of assumptions did they make about the universe and its inner workings? Where did these scientists receive their education, and who funded their scientific research? What was the social, political, religious, and economic climate at that time? What ideologies did these scientists embrace; in other words, how did politics shape their understanding of how the world should work? And, equally important, what developments within the scientific community and the larger world led to the evolving view that the world is round?

In my opinion, however, it does not follow that historical thinking must be devoid of all judgement of the past. The flat-earth scientists were objectively wrong, after all. Historians can still offer a fair analysis of flat-earth theory while working under the understanding that such a theory is mistaken. Likewise, historians of topics like slavery, Indian removal, and genocide can offer thoughtful interpretations while making a judgement that those things are wrong.

Choices have consequences, both negative and positive. Understanding when, how, and why those choices came about is fundamental to historical interpretation. I believe assessing the consequences and making judgements about those choices is also part of the equation. One doesn’t need to look any further than their own family history to see the cracks of this “non-judgement” theory. Your own life is shaped by the decisions your ancestors made, the decisions that were made for them by others in power, and the worlds they lived in, with all the limits and possibilities that existed at a given time. You are a product of past decisions, and as such it is rational for you to make judgements about the decisions of your ancestors and what those decisions mean for your life today, just as your posterity will make judgements about your choices in life.

To avoid making any judgements whatsoever about the past–both negative AND positive–is, above all else, boring historical interpretation. The best studies make arguments and challenge me to think anew about my prior understanding of a given topic. But non-judgement also strives for an idea of objectivity that doesn’t exist. Prefect neutrality is a fiction. Claims of “bias” are meaningless most of the time because everyone has biases shaped by perception, experience, and education. When we acknowledge that all historians have their own biases, we can focus on the arguments they make rather than debating about whether the scholar is biased or not. I believe “fairness” in historical interpretation is a far better ideal to strive for than objectivity. I have my views and own experiences that shape how I interpret the past, and they shape the educational programs I create. I don’t claim to be fully free of bias, but I always strive to be fair in my interpretation and utilize historical thinking throughout the process. I think that’s all one can ask for in any sort of scholarly study or educational initiative. If I’m wrong in my interpretations and scholarship, I expect to be called out for it. ūüôā


Richard Evans on Truth, Objectivity, and the Boundaries of Reasonable Historical Interpretation

Over the past week I’ve been reading Lying About Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial by Richard J. Evans, a British historian noted for his scholarship on modern German history. The book is fantastic, a must-read for its discussions of Nazi history and the nature of historical research and interpretation.

Evans wrote the book after serving as chief historical adviser and witness for the defense team in a famous libel suit that took place in a British court in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The suit was brought on by David Irving, a now-largely discredited “historian” of World War II and Nazi history who was accused by author Deborah Lipstadt of being a Holocaust denier in a book she wrote about the topic. Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin Books UK, enlisted Evans’s help in determining whether or not Lipstadt’s claims about Irving were true and, if so, how Irving manipulated the historical record to exonerate Adolf Hitler and minimize the horrors of the Holocaust. These challenges were particularly difficult for the defense team because British libel laws assume that accusers/plaintiffs in these cases are acting in good faith, which in turn essentially throws the burden of proof on the defense instead of the plaintiff. Evans and several PhD candidates spent more than a year and half researching Irving’s works, primary source documents, and other relevant historiography, and Evans himself spent several days in the witness box during the trial.

While the case was primarily concerned with determining whether or not Irving had manipulated the historical record to promote his political agenda (and NOT whether or not the Holocaust had occurred in the first place), it proved to be an interesting one for the entire historical enterprise because it also raised important questions about truth, objectivity, and the boundaries of reasonable interpretation in historical scholarship. The entire profession, in a sense, was on trial. One journalist at the trial–responding to Irving’s claims that the memories of thousands of Holocaust survivors were subject to dismissal because of the victims’ delusional thinking and a vast conspiracy by the Jewish community to perpetuate falsehoods about the Holocaust–remarked that:

It is history itself which is on trial here, the whole business of drawing conclusions from evidence. If Irving is able to dismiss the testimony of tens of thousands of witnesses, where does that leave history? If we can’t know this, how can we know that Napoleon fought at Waterloo or that Henry VIII had six wives? How can we know anything? . . . If we start to doubt corroborated facts, how can we prevent ourselves being swallowed up in doubt, unable to trust anything we see? It might all be a conspiracy, a legend, a hoax. This the bizarre, never-never world inhabited by David Irving. Now the court has to decide: is this our world too? (195)

In the course of researching and testifying at the trial Evans uncovered instance after instance in which Irving intentionally manipulated historical evidence by selectively choosing, altering, and misquoting documents, falsified quantitative data, and relied on primary sources that were universally declared by trained historians to be forgeries and/or deliberate falsehoods. Evans presented substantial evidence suggesting that Irving had consistently argued in books, interviews, and talks that Hitler neither knew about or ordered violence against Jews during Kristallnacht or their total extermination during World War II; that gas chambers were never used to kill Jews during the war; that the figure of six million Jews killed was a deliberate exaggeration perpetuated in part by the Jewish community (Irving placed the number of Jews killed around 100,000, most of which he attributed to disease at the concentration camps); and that the bombing of Dresden by Allied forces in 1945 had actually killed upwards of 250,000 Germans instead of the roughly 25,000 that most contemporary officials reported at the time and most historians accept as an appropriate figure today. Downplaying the total number of Jews killed by the Nazis and playing up the total number of Germans killed at Dresden, of course, allowed Irving to argue that the conduct of Allied forces during the war towards Germany was harsher and more brutal than Nazi actions towards European Jews. Evans proves without a doubt in Lying About Hitler that all of these claims are absolute bunk.

The courts found in favor of Deborah Lipstadt and the defense team in 2000. She had not committed an act of libel when she claimed that Irving was a Holocaust denier, and it was determined that Irving had in fact manipulated the historical record to justify his antisemitic and racist views.

Evans neatly summarizes some of the central issues this case raised for the historical enterprise in the last chapter of Lying About Hitler. He asks two questions:

  • “What are the boundaries of legitimate disagreement among historians?”
  • “How far do historians’ interpretations depend on a selective reading of the evidence, and where does selectivity end and bias begin?”

Evans argues that while historians frame their questions from a range of perspectives and disciplinary approaches, they are obligated to read historical evidence “as fully and fairly as they can.” Using Joseph Goebbels’s diary as a case study, he asserts that it is useless to cherry-pick quotes from the diary to support an argument when another historian could pick other quotes and potentially refute your argument. “What a professional historian does,” Evans argues, “is to take the whole of the source in question into account, and check it against other relevant sources, to reach a reasoned conclusion that will withstand critical scrutiny by other historians who look at the same material . . . Argument between historians is limited by what the evidence allows them to say” (248-250). He then uses a metaphor that I find extremely convincing to reinforce his points:

Suppose we think of historians like figurative painters sitting at various places around a mountain. They will paint it in different styles, using different techniques and different materials, they will see it in a different light or from a different distance according to where they are, and they will view it from different angles. They may even disagree about some aspects of its appearance, or some of its features. But they will all be painting the same mountain. If one of them paints a fried egg, or a railway engine, we are entitled to say that she or he is wrong; whatever it is that the artist has painted, it is not the mountain. The possibilities of legitimate disagreement and variation are limited by the evidence in front of their eyes. An objective historian is simply one who works within these limits. They are limits that allow a wide latitude for differing interpretations of the same document or source, but they are limits all the same (250).

Hats off to Dr. Evans’s important work in this case, both for the victims of the Nazi Holocaust but also the historical enterprise as a whole.


What Does it Mean to Come to Terms With the History of American Slavery?

Amid the hustle and bustle of this Independence Day weekend I had a brief, interesting discussion with a person about this nation’s recent and widespread conversation about the Civil War and slavery in the United States. The person agreed with me that acknowledging slavery’s presence in America since 1619 was an important step towards a fuller understanding of our past, but he/she took issue with the calls of various media outlets, social activists, and even historical sites for people to “come to terms with America’s troubled slaveholding past.” More specifically, this person questioned the phrase “come to terms” and what exactly these organizations and people were trying to imply about the ways we should now approach our collective understanding of slavery’s legacy.

I love these sorts of questions and can usually find an answer within my head to help advance the conversation, but I was stumped here. The tenuous intersections between past, present, objectivity, and activism all came to a head in one very complex question.

I think the question requires two separate answers – what coming to terms with slavery means for our historical understanding and what coming to terms with slavery means for our future.

The first answer, upon further reflection, is easier for me to address. Although it doesn’t happen on too frequent a basis, I’ve interacted with enough people in my years as a public historian to know that the things people say about slavery on historic plantation tours in this article by Margaret Biser reign true for me too. I can’t tell you how many times visitors have suggested something along the lines of “slavery wasn’t as bad as the historians want us to believe,” “slavery was a part of our past and we must now move on from it,” “the Civil War was fought over economics/states’ rights,” “some slaves were treated well,” etc. etc. These sorts of comments suggest that some people are still skeptical about the horrific violence of African-American chattel slavery and its all-encompassing presence in America’s economic, social, cultural, and political evolution.

“Coming to terms” in this context, it seems, simply means acknowledging that slavery’s presence in the U.S. during its early years ensured that the process of putting its founding ideals into practice would proceed from an inherently unequal starting point, one that we are still trying to rectify today. The legal right to human property was tolerated, accepted, and even encouraged for more than 75 years after the nation’s founding, and the deadliest war in American history occurred in the 1860s as the nation’s white political leadership failed to come to a peaceful agreement about what to do with slavery moving forward. Many Americans understand these truths, but there’s no doubt in my mind that “coming to terms” with this past will be a monumental undertaking for some people.

But what are the future implications for society’s coming to terms with slavery? Does it matter whether or not we acknowledge the past so that we can ensure a more just future? Does coming to terms with slavery mean historians should be advocating for policy reforms and other collective actions like peaceful protests? What can I say and not say as a professional historian in uniform speaking on behalf of the federal government to the public? These are the sorts of questions I wrestle with all the time at work, and in this particular instance I was at a loss for words.

What does coming to terms with slavery mean to you? The floor is yours.


How Sports Broadcasting Helps Us Understand the Nature of Interpreting History

"Here's a guy who's spent too much time thinking about this stuff." Photo Credit:
“Here’s a guy who spends too much time thinking about this stuff.” Photo Credit:

In his 1995 publication Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, anthropologist and historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot argues that we cannot fully understand “the facts of history” without first acknowledging the process by which a piece of information becomes a historical fact. That process, argues Trouillot, is simultaneously shaped by what evidence the historian considers to be relevant to the historical narrative and what evidence the historian believes should be omitted, muted, and silenced from the narrative:

Silences are inherent in history because any single event enters history with some of its constituting parts missing. Something is always left out while something else is recorded. There is no perfect closure of any event, however one chooses to define the boundaries of that event. Thus whatever becomes fact does so with its own inborn absences, specific to its production. In other words, the very mechanisms that make any historical recording possible also ensure that historical facts are not created equal (49).

History is largely shaped by the stories we tell about the past. To bring home the fact that those stories are constructed, Trouillot compares the historical enterprise to the act of broadcasting a sporting event:

The speech of the chronicler is akin to that of a radio announcer giving a play-by-play account of a sports game . . . The sportscaster’s account is a play-by-play description but only of the occurrences that matter to the game. Even if it is guided mainly by the seriality of occurrences, it tends to leave out from the series witnesses, participants, and events considered generally as marginal. The audience enters primarily when it is seen as influencing the players. Players on the bench are left out. Players in the field are mentioned mainly when they capture the ball, or at least when they try to capture it or are meant to do so. Silences are necessary to the account, for if the sportscaster told us every “thing” that happened at each and every moment, we would not understand anything. If the account was indeed fully comprehensive of all facts it would be incomprehensible. Further, the selection of what matters, the dual creation of mentions and silences, is premised on the understanding of the rules of the game by the broadcaster and audience alike. In short, play-by-play accounts are restricted in terms of what may enter them and in terms of the order in which these elements may enter (50-51).

When we watch our favorite teams and individuals compete in sporting events, we rely on broadcasters to chronicle the event and convey relevant information to us as viewers. As Trouillot explains, each audience member realizes that every moment and action within the event cannot be broadcasted. An announcer may tells us about Michael Jordan’s three pointer to put the Chicago Bulls ahead in a basketball game, but that announcer may not tell us about the pick Scottie Pippen set on an opposing player that helped Jordan get open, nor will the announcer be in a position (most likely) to describe what coach Phil Jackson told his players leading up to Jordan’s three pointer, even though that talk may be just as relevant to the Bulls gaining the lead as Jordan’s actual three point shot. Sports broadcasters therefore play a dual role for audience members in which they use both evidence and interpretation to describe a sporting event. Sports broadcasters objectively report on moments and actions that are actually happening (“facts”), but they also make subjective decisions about which moments and actions are worth acknowledging, mentioning, and analyzing, and which ones can be appropriately omitted from the discussion. To report on everything in an objective manner is simply impossible. We trust sports broadcasters to tell us what’s happening, but we also implicitly trust them to determine what is and what is not important to the game’s narrative.

Historians conduct their explorations of the past in much the same manner. For example, it is a well-known and objectively stated fact that Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was killed by an assassin’s bullet on June 28, 1914. We have the evidence to prove beyond a doubt that this event occurred and that the assassination is indeed a “fact” of history. But the historian–much like a broadcaster describing a sporting event–must make interpretations along the way about the meaning and significance of the Archuduke’s death. To describe everything that happened in the world on June 28, 1914, is simply impossible, as is the impossibility of objectively defining a cohesive beginning, middle, and conclusion for explaining the story of the Archduke’s death. The historian sifting through the available evidence chooses the evidence he or she deems worthy of inclusion and what evidence can be silenced. He or she subjectively selects a starting point for explaining this story, builds the historical context for explaining moments, actions, and events surrounding the Archduke during this period, and makes interpretive decisions about the consequences of the Archduke’s death for the world in 1914 and perhaps even our world today.

As John Lewis Gaddis describes in The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (2002), the historian is at both times a scientist and an artist. He or she uses both empirical evidence and artistic skills to paint a historical landscape that tells us a story about the past. The objective historical facts of the narrative have meaning, but that meaning is shaped through the historian’s definition of the boundaries and relevant evidence to be employed in telling the story.

When someone asks for “just the facts,” they are asking for something that is literally impossible to accomplish because there is no such thing as a fact without meaning or significance. The Archduke’s death is an objective fact that cannot be disproved, but we cannot explain the meaning of that fact without providing an interpretation that is constructed by our understanding of what is worthy of inclusion into the story. These interpretations are constantly revised as new information comes to the surface and new problems in contemporary society challenge us to ask new questions about the past. History is an ongoing conversation without an endpoint that is shaped in part by objective fact and subjective interpretation. Coming to this realization helps us better understand how power structures in both the past and the present determine what evidence constitutes a relevant historical “fact” and what evidence is silenced without further mention.



Reflections on Museum Interpretation and Audience Agency

The Rudolph Stingel Exhibit at the Whitney Museum of Art. Photo Credit: Adrea Mohin/New York Times
The Rudolph Stingel Exhibit at the Whitney Museum of Art. Photo Credit: Adrea Mohin/New York Times

Whenever I get a chance to visit a museum–whether it be related to history, art, science, or even a children’s museum–I expect to be challenged intellectually. I believe the best museums are the ones with lots of questions, lots of arguments, lots of discussions, and lots of opportunities for visitors’ preconceptions about the world to be enhanced, challenged, questioned, and/or proven wrong. That’s what learning is about, right? Indeed, having lots of exhibits, artifacts, and informational labels will mean nothing if there is no effort at an interpretation.¬†The who, what, where,¬†and¬†how informational questions are important for building a foundation for learning within a museum setting, but visitors also want the¬†why questions. Why does this matter? Why are we here? Why this and not that? Why should we care? Without making an interpretive argument, museums become dull and boring. I would rather go to a museum that made terrible arguments rather than one that made no arguments at all.

University of Leicester Museum Studies professor Richard Sandell’s 2005 publication Museums, Prejudice, and the Reframing of Difference¬†points out that all too often museum professionals are hesitant to take strong positions or convey “messages” to their audiences. A range of explanations account for this hesitancy, including concerns about the possibility of museums being viewed as places of indoctrination or sectarianism, the possibility that donors and other stakeholders are uncomfortable with museum messages, and even self-doubts within museum staff about the power of cultural institutions to enact meaningful change in society.

While acknowledging that different museums have different missions, goals, and objectives to accomplish, Sandell criticizes museums that make strong claims to impartiality and objectivity. “These concerns about partiality,” argues Sandell, “are used as an excuse to avoid engaging with social issues and acknowledging that museums of all kinds . . . embody particular moral standpoints” (196). In actuality, museums that strive to make no interpretations, arguments, or commentaries about the present are themselves still making a sort of interpretation through their own silences. Rather than striving for objectivity in museum exhibits and programs, Sandell suggests that museums should strive for fairness: places that promote inclusiveness, open and honest discussion, social interaction, and understanding between different people and groups in society.

Part of the reason why museums (especially art and history museums) have been struggling over the past ten to fifteen years, in my opinion, is that audiences are tired of purely information-based experiences in museums. If I just want information, why can’t I look that up on Wikipedia or do a Google search instead of traveling to a museum? It is true that museums today face more competition for attention and leisure time than they did in the 1960s and 1970s. Nevertheless, museum practitioners should be working to convince society that museums are truly beneficial places (socially, intellectually, mentally, even physically) that are really worth the time to visit in person or online. This work of convincing society of the importance of museums means that practitioners and professionals need to work towards creating experiences that give audiences the ability to be active users within the museum setting, not passive visitors merely seeking objective information.

The recently deceased cultural theorist and sociologist Stuart Hall‘s analyses of culture and media production provides important insights for museum educators looking to move beyond a purely informational educational experience. Hall and many of his cohorts in the 1980s and 1990s argued that consumers of media information–whether through radio, television, or the internet today–create their own processes for understanding messages conveyed to them. Rather than being passive recipients of a static message, media audiences themselves contribute to the construction of their own messages that could be radically different from the intended message a media outlet attempts to convey. In the process of consuming media messages, people bring with them their prior experiences and knowledge of the world. They are not empty vessels waiting to be filled with passive information. Describing Hall’s “encoding-decoding” model, Sandell points out that students of media studies have shifted their inquiries from “what media messages do to people, to what they mean to them” (11).

What does this have to do with museums? Above all, it’s important to remember that visitors of museums bring with them their prior experiences and knowledge. Museum visitors use these tools to construct their own messages from exhibits and programs, just like they do with media messages. True, the intended message of a museum may turn out to be radically different from the message an audience member interprets during their experience, and these misinterpreted messages could be potentially difficult for museums that attempt to promote diversity, inclusiveness, and/or the healing of historical wounds from past injustices such as slavery, segregation, or genocide. Nevertheless, from where I stand, museums that convey messages are better than ones that convey no message. For museums that profess to be objective, everything is black or white. There is no room for discussion, no room for questions, no room for multiple perspectives or interpretations of museum messages. Look at an exhibit, get your label text information, go home. For museums that convey messages, an acknowledgement is made about the fact that museums are not neutral spaces. By promoting fairness instead of objectivity, these museums acknowledge the agency and intelligence of their audiences. Indeed, these museums enhance their own capacity for growth by understanding that museums are shaped by their audiences just as much as audiences are shaped by the museums they visit.


Museum Interpretation and the Myth of “Drawing Conclusions” from Facts Alone

Photo Credit: Wikipedia
Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Earlier this month I was provided an opportunity to write a professional book review for the scholarly journal Museums and Social Issues. I was given several choices for books to analyze and chose to review Robert C. Post’s newly published study Who Owns America’s Past?: The Smithsonian and the Problem of History. It is a decision I do not regret at all. Post–a retired Smithsonian curator who worked for the institution from 1973 to 1996–weaves primary source analysis, scholarly synthesis, and personal experiences into a well-research study on how Smithsonian exhibits have been conceived, designed, and interpreted since the institution’s founding in 1846. The book is an important read for museum practitioners tasked with interpreting the past for a public audience and for readers who believe the work of interpreting history is objective and apolitical.

One of the most important aspects of Post’s study is his analysis of the Smithsonian’s interpretation of historical events following the Enola Gay controversy of the mid 1990s (readers unfamiliar with the controversy can start with a brief Wikipedia entry and professor Edward J. Gallagher’s website). The exhibit controversy itself was part of a larger conflict of values and disagreements about divisive issues within American society during the 1990s that is frequently referred to as the “culture wars.” Curators working on the Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum attempted to ask questions about why atomic bombs were dropped on Japan in 1945, leading to cries of leftist “historical revisionism” and an unnecessary politicization of history by the institution’s curators. Speaking for many disaffected Americans, House Speaker Newt Gingrich remarked that “Americans are sick and tired of being told by some cultural elite that they ought to be ashamed of their country.” The Smithsonian, argued Gingrich, had become “a plaything for left-wing ideologues.”

Post points out, however, that politicians on both sides took umbrage with the Smithsonian’s efforts at providing museum audiences with an interpretation of history after¬†Enola Gay. Liberal Senator Diane Feinstein–herself a history major in college–echoed the concerns of Gingrich, Ted Stevens, and other conservatives by questioning the notion of interpreting history, arguing that her classes at Stanford taught her that history “was essentially a recitation of fact, leaving the reader to draw their own analysis” (268). Instead of trying to impart “messages” to museum audiences, shouldn’t exhibits be framed in an “objective” mode that allowed visitors to make up their own minds?

A new, redesigned Enola Gay exhibit was completed in 2003 at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Fairfax County, Virginia (Pictured above), an annex of NASM. Post asserts that planes at the Udvar-Hazy Center–more than eighty of them, including a McDonnell Phantom, a Grumann Intruder, a Dash-80, and the Enola Gay itself–did not require much in terms of “enhancement,” i.e. interactive displays or exhibit text. At the Center, “dramatic artifacts were everywhere, and the only thematic touch was the lightest imaginable, a few topical groupings,” according to Post (263). Visitors, it was believed, would be emotionally moved and inspired to “make up their own minds” about these historical artifacts without much interpretation.

Post provides the exhibit text for the redesigned Enola Gay exhibit at the Udvar-Hazy Center on page 264 of Who Owns America’s Past:

Boeing B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay

Boeing’s B-29 Superfortress was the most sophisticated propeller-driven bomber of World War II, and the first bomber to house its crew in pressurized compartments. Although designed to fight in the European theater, the B-29 found its niche on the other side of the globe. In the Pacific, B-29s delivered a variety of aerial weapons: conventional bombs, incendiary bombs, mines, and two nuclear weapons.

On August 6, 1945, this Martin-built B-29-45-MO dropped the first atomic weapon used in combat on Hiroshima, Japan. Three days later, Bockscar (on display at the U.S. Air Force Museum near Dayton, Ohio) dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan. Enola Gay flew as the advance weather reconnaissance aircraft that day. A third B-29, The Great Artiste, flew as an observation aircraft on both missions.

– Transferred from the U.S. Air Force

Post continues by stating that “this spare text was followed by the specs: wingspan, length, weight, speed, horsepower, ordnance, armaments . . . the size of the crew (twelve men) and manufacturer (Martin Co., Omaha, Neb., 1945), and finally a mysterious unexplained number: A19500100000.”

No interpretations . . . just the facts. Just the way Gingrich, Feinstein, et. al. wanted it. What did Post think of this exhibit label? I quote him at length (taken from 264-265):

A handout for the press preview and the opening claimed, “this type of label is precisely the same kind used for the other airplanes and spacecraft in the museum. Its intent is to tell visitors what the object is and the basic facts concerning its history. Over the twenty-seven years of its existence, the museum has carefully followed an approach which offers accurate descriptive data, allowing visitors to evaluate what they encounter in the context of their own points of view.”

NASM could have done better. With some of its artifacts, there had been no single “approach” over the years, nothing of the sort . . . With the Enola Gay at the Udvar-Hazy, it was remarkable how unhelpful–how unfactual–the label was, even on its own terms. Why did it find its niche in an unexpected theater of war? Of what tactical import were the speed and power? The range? The pressurized compartments for the crew? Why no defensive weaponry? How did it happen that a Boeing plane came from a different manufacturer in Omaha? How many B-29s were there, anyway, and how much did they cost?

Nobody could spend any time in the vicinity of the Enola Gay without realizing that people did want to know more, often quite a bit more, and–unless they happened to be with a forthcoming docent–they did not know how to fill in the¬†blanks.

Indeed. By stripping the Enola Gay of its historical context, its human agency, its politics, its deadly impact, and even its facts, the Smithsonian left its visitors without any substance in which to make up their minds about. Nevertheless, the initial controversy in the 1990s and the Enola Gay’s¬†subsequent re-purposing in the early 2000s point to the enormous challenge of creating museum exhibits that meet the needs of different groups and identities in a postmodern society, exhibits that profess to speak on behalf of all Americans. Should the Smithsonian deliver only facts and answers, or should they also include questions, messages, and interpretations as well? If the institution has an obligation to educate and not just celebrate, shouldn’t an effort be made to provide causes, context, and consequences to help visitors “make up their minds” about the tough stuff of history?


History is an Act of Creation

So the internet world has blown up today with a shockingly terrible Fox News interview of a professor of religion who wrote a book about Jesus Christ, but happens to be Muslim. Here it is:

Rather than exploring the content of Reza Aslan’s book, the interviewer questions why a Muslim would take an interest in studying Jesus Christ and the history of Christianity.¬† She also brings in a question from some sort of online chat (around 6:55 in the video) equating Aslan’s study of Jesus to a “biased” Democrat studying the actions of Republican Ronald Reagan. In both instances, apparently, a hidden agenda underlies these scholarly works because of the author’s affiliations outside of the scholarly realm. In sum, they are not “objective.”

There are two points I’d like to make regarding this line of thinking:

1. History is an analysis of the past from the eyes of “Participants” and “Observers”: I’ve had interesting discussions with people regarding who gets to study who in history. For instance, a friend once told me that I couldn’t truly understand the South or the reasons why the Confederacy attempted to secede from the United States because I lived in the Midwest, not the Deep South. Similarly, I’ve heard an argument from a person who shall remain nameless and locationless who recently argued that Whites could never fully understand the plight of Blacks in American History, thus they should not be hired to work at museums and other public history sites that focus on African American history. I also remember taking an undergrad class on Native Americans in America that provided thought provoking arguments about Whites in the 20th Century who attempted to assimilate themselves into Native American culture, but were seen as “frauds” by those who had spent their entire lives enmeshed in that culture.

Such arguments are extremely problematic for many reasons. For one, it suggests, for example, that only Germans can study Adolf Hitler, only Italians can study Christopher Columbus, and only White Southerners can study Jefferson Davis. Secondly, we should remember that history is an ongoing conversation that is constantly up for revision and discussion between all people. We can split everyone into two groups: Participants are people who live in a culture and observe events firsthand. They provide future generations with perspectives, viewpoints, and primary source documents (diaries, journals, newspaper editorials, etc.) that give us unqiue perspectives about a particular time period. Observers are people who do not live in that culture. They live in different cultures and time periods and observe the past from a distanced vantage point. Yet their role in history is equally important. Observers study past cultures and attempt to provide a context for explaining why things happened the way they did. They then use that context to interpret primary sources documents and provide us a sharper perception of the past. Reading a diary from so-and-so in 1850 may help us understand the past to a certain extent, but historians give new us new ideas for understanding that diary and provide us the tools to understand that diary within the larger scope of history. In sum, we need the perspectives of both participants and observers.

I wholeheartedly agree with Eric Foner, who argues that history is owned by “everyone and no one” and that “the study of the past is a constantly evolving, never-ending journey of discovery.”

2. We are all biased. Get over it: Unfortunately, the term “bias”–much like the popular buzzword “political correctness”–is too often used to shut down the arguments of others without actually engaging with the content of those arguments. By calling Aslan’s work on Jesus Christ “biased” because of his Muslim background, we fail to acknowledge that a Christian writing about Jesus Christ is biased as well.¬† When we call the now-deceased Howard Zinn “biased” and use that as a justification for keeping his left-leaning books out of the history classroom without engaging in a discussion about the contents of Zinn’s work, we sometimes fail to see how others are writing textbooks for history classes that have their own set of presumptions and biases.

This is not to say that Aslan and Zinn are wholly right or wrong or that their critics are wholly right or wrong. The point is that we need to learn about their own personal beliefs AND address the content of their arguments rather than throwing out meaningless words that are used to silence dissenting opinions. History is an act of creation, and for that reason it is written, studied, analyzed, interpreted, read and contested by people who observe past cultures while being inherently biased by their role as¬†participants in our world today. Participants of today’s world who write about more recent history (the Cold War or the fall of the Berlin Wall, for example) also carry their own set of biases as well. While objectivity is indeed a “noble dream,” it is just that. A dream.

I applaud Reza Aslan for his judicious and patient explanation for why he wrote a book about Jesus Christ. What do you think?


Reflections on the Future of Civil War History, Part 3: The End of “Political Correctness”

Other posts on the conference: Part 1, Part 2, Part 4, and Part 5

One of the panels that I was unable to attend at the conference related to the training of seasonal interpreters and historians in the National Park Service. However, I heard quite a bit about it on Twitter and through my friend Bob Pollock at Yesterday…and Today, who did in fact attend this panel. The following thoughts are exclusively my own.

Apparently there was a bit of contention during the panel regarding the question of “opinions” and whether or not National Park Service staff should share their own personal views with visitors to their sites. One of the panelists mentioned that he never shares his opinions to visitors at Harpers Ferry National Historic Park. The gentleman stated, in sum (and again, correct me if I’m wrong) that if a visitor asks him whether or not John Brown was right, he avoids answering the question and instead asks the visitor what he or she thinks. This is done in order to maintain “objectivity,” “neutrality,” “fairness,” and “avoid politics,” supposedly.

I believe this is wrong on several fronts. First, it assumes that objectivity is something that can be achieved, which is false. We are our biases through and through, and our participation in the world of 2013-a world much different than the one in 1863–biases our observances of the world of 1863. As Howell and Prevenier remind us on page 109 of their magisterial work on historical methods, the most vocal proponents of “objectivity” are oftentimes the most biased of all.¬†Leopold Von Ranke, one of the first “modern” historians of the 19th Century, strove to recreate the past “as it actually occurred.” However, “appearing only to recount the events concerning the powerful men on whom [the Rankean historians] narratives almost inevitably focused, they in fact implicitly endorsed even the most outrageous of their characters’ actions–murder, pillage, deception. Ranke himself also regularly betrayed his own biases in his prose, displaying his anticlercism with every paragraph he wrote about the history of Christianity,” which was a reflection of his views on religion in the 19th Century.

So much for that.

Second, there is a tension underlying how much authority NPS staff should exert on their audiences. The concept of “shared authority” has dominated the public history discourse for a while now, and I support it to a certain extent, but at what point is it appropriate for a Park Ranger to share their opinions and expertise about a topic? We must remember that many people go to National Parks to not only experience the sights and sounds of the park, but to learn about history from a trusted authority, the National Park Ranger. At some point the Park Ranger has to help guide the discussion along and share their thoughts on a given topic, in my opinion. At the end of the day we’re not discussion moderators, we’re historians. That doesn’t mean we dominate or eliminate the discussion, but it means we guide it towards our own specific ends, which is in itself political.

Which gets me to my third point. There is simply no way to avoid politics. By choosing not to make an opinion on something, I am making a political decision. I am choosing to maintain the status quo and implicitly support the interests of certain power bases that are typically the source for calls to objectivity. Once again, let’s go back to the Civil War Centennial (1961-1965). The dominant interpretation of the war during that time centered on reunion and honor. Both sides were right, former enemies became brothers. In order to avoid “controversy” and “politics” while maintaining “objectivity,” any discussion of slavery or the causes or consequences of the war were avoided. However, rather than objectively recreating events as they occured, these interpretations were instead subverted by powerful forces who sought to promote American Nationalism, an escalating war in Vietnam, and the maintenance of racial segregation in the South. Furthermore, former Superintendent of Gettysburg National Military Park John Latschar acknowledged at the conference that site interpretations at the battlefield for a long time advocated the “lost cause” interpretation of the war, which argues that the Confederacy and ONLY the Confederacy was right. That’s not objective.

It’s not so much that I take issue with this person’s refusal to answer a question about John Brown. Rather, I take issue with the idea that an avoidance of all personal opinions somehow keeps a person’s hands clean from the muddy terrain of politics or that it somehow eschews controversy. Well, as the centennial shows us, even when you work really hard to be “objective,” controversy still calls.

All of this should also indicate that I do not believe in the idea of “political correctness.” The term is used by those only interested in stifling discussion and not addressing complex social topics with evidence and forthright honesty. Once again, during the centennial it was not “politically correct” to talk about slavery. Less frequently was it mentioned during that time that discussions about both the Union and Confederacy being right was also a form of “political correctness.” Likewise, we often heard in the 1990s (and today still) that people who use terms like “African-American,” “Asian-American,” or “Caucasian,” were engaging in “political correctness” or that politicians who use those terms were pandering to a certain demographic.¬† Less frequently mentioned is that terms like “Wetback,” “Jap,” “Hun,” “Guido,” and “Redneck” are also terms of “political correctness” that have been used by politicians to pander to certain demographics.

The future of Civil War History, in my opinion, will require an acute awareness amongst public historians that their interpretations are going to be political no matter what. We have a limited time in which to educate our audiences about the past. We will necessarily have to pick and choose what we decide to talk about. If I’m creating an educational program for a school and I have to choose between teaching the students how to churn butter or teaching them about slavery, I must be cognizant of the fact that I am making a political decision if I choose to teach the kids how to churn butter, especially if I’m looking to do so in order to avoid “controversy.” Likewise, if I choose to teach them about slavery, I’ve made a political decision as well. I think we all need to do a better job of being aware of this reality. All National Parks and their staff are “political” and they all deal with “controversy” related to their interpretations. I think the best way to avoid “controversy” is to demonstrate a level of transparency with audiences by stating your interpretive goals upfront and being frank about your mission as a site. If you don’t want to answer a question about John Brown, that’s fine, but make sure to explain why without making some sort of vague platitude about being “objective.”

Is there a point in which NPS staff should avoid expressing their opinion? Absolutely. But if I’m working at a Civil War related site and I am asked to share my professional opinion on a Civil War related topic (i.e. was John Brown right?), I think it should be acceptable to share my professional opinion because I’ve been trained to interpret the past. There might be other non Civil War opinions that I might be able to share as well. It just depends.

By the way, I think John Brown’s course of action (violence) was wrong, even if his goals were well-intentioned.