Sharing Authority is More Difficult Than You Think

Michael Frisch’s advocacy of oral history as a tool for breaking down institutional barriers in history represented an important paradigm shift within the fields of public history and museum studies in the 1990s. Twenty years later, the concept of “shared authority” is now regularly taught in public history programs around the world and embraced by many cultural institutions seeking to highlight multiple historical perspectives. Rather than solely relying on the expertise of trained professionals to interpret and represent all voices of the past in public spaces, cultural institutions such as museums, historical societies, community centers, and libraries now actively seek the input of local community members in a shared endeavor towards interpreting the past. Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello goes farther by tying shared authority in museums to promoting social justice causes and stronger communities in the present.

This need to share cultural authority is particularly acute in the United States, where public funding for cultural institutions is rapidly drying up. According to Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski, editors of Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, “the country’s growing ethnic diversity and its economic crises have pushed museum leaders to recognize that the field’s traditional business models need to be revamped. Instead of taking public support for granted, museums are desperate to prove their worth to outside partners, voices, and interpretations” (11). Indeed, if cultural institutions are receiving public funding for their endeavors, shouldn’t the stories they tell reflect the communities of the people who contribute their tax dollars to these institutions?

I am an advocate for sharing authority and believe that history is best viewed through multiple perspectives. Recent examples of sharing historical authority are abound. City Lore’s City of Memory allows residents of New York City to contribute their own stories and memories onto a community map. From 2006-2009, the Minnesota Historical Society hosted an annual “Greatest Generation” festival that included an annual film competition; this competition included the opportunity for community members to create ten-minute films about friends and loved ones they knew who witnessed and participated in World War II. Even places like the Indianapolis Children’s Museum have embraced sharing authority. “The Power of Children” exhibit at the Children’s Museum encourages students to learn about the stories of extraordinary children in history and then write comments sharing their own views on racism, intolerance, sexism, and social equality. These comments are then posted on a wall for others to see in the museum.

Sharing authority is an important step forward for public historians and their work with public audiences. Nevertheless, I think it’s important to take a couple steps back and proceed with caution before jumping onto the “shared authority” bandwagon without considering the ramifications of what exactly it means to be “sharing authority.” The term, in my opinion, has become so dominant in scholarly discourse as to become a buzzword in the same way that words like “curation,” “preservation,” and “digital humanities” are sometimes bandied about without unpacking the actual meanings we attempt to convey when we use these words.

What factors should we consider when we talk about sharing authority? I propose the following considerations:

Collecting Stories: This factor is probably the most obvious when considering the term “shared authority.” “Collecting stories” can include oral histories, the creation of spaces within cultural institutions for people to write comments, comment boxes on cultural institution websites and blogs, or asking indigenous people and other groups to collaborate with a museum in creating historical exhibits.

Gathering Funds: As public funds for cultural institutions dwindle, institutional leaderships increasingly rely on private corporations and individuals to help subsidize the cost of creating exhibits, websites, public programs, and conducting oral histories. Robert Post’s fine book Who Owns America’s Past? The Smithsonian and the Problem of History points out that corporate donors to the Smithsonian over the past fifteen years have sometimes tied their funding for exhibits to demands that their company be interpreted in a positive light. Post points out, for example, that Trans World Airlines (TWA)–in one final push to stay afloat financially before later declaring bankruptcy a third and final time–donated funds to finance the Smithsonian’s 150th anniversary celebration exhibit in Washington, D.C. TWA donated its funds to the Smithsonian’s “Corporate Partners Program,” and, according to Post, the final exhibit included an “adventuresome infomercial” promoting a positive interpretation of TWA’s history (x).

In this instance TWA expected the Smithsonian to “share authority” in interpreting their own history. This tenuous relationship raises serious questions about the practice of giving positive interpretations to the highest bidder. It also demands that we consider the interests of those donating funds to cultural institutions. How might donors ask for cultural authority in interpreting their own vision of the past, and what stories are they looking to promote? We should always consider the potential tension between sharing authority with underrepresented/impoverished groups and asking for funds from private donors who may have their own conception of interpretive history. Look no further than Kenneth E. Behring for an example of a philanthropist with his own goals of historical accuracy. Behring donated money to the Smithsonian in the early 2000s while also demanding that multicultural history be removed from the National Museum of American History in favor of a “real” American History that promoted American democracy and a narrative of “progress.”

Providing Access: Once the stories are collected, how do public historians go about sharing and providing access to these stories? Simply putting stories online does not mean that everyone will have access to those stories. Jean-Pierre Morin of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada reminded us at the NCPH 2014 Annual Meeting that many indigenous tribes in Canada do not have ready access to the internet. When internet is available, it’s usually at the speed of a dial-up connection. (I also agree with Jennifer Guiliano, who argues that public history and digital history are not interchangeable terms). We should always consider how to best provide access to the stories we tell. I personally am a huge fan of the Philadelphia Public History Truck, which travels to communities around the city and offers residents the chance to share their own historical artifacts and stories at the truck.

Do Public Historians have the authority to share the stories of disaffected cultural groups? As Teresa Bergman points out, sharing historical authority has its limits. How do we maintain a sense of historical professionalism and a dedication to accurate history while promoting inclusiveness? Who gets to make the final decision in what gets included in the final draft of an exhibit, project, program, or website? Are museums, historical societies, and libraries truly for everyone, or should certain perspectives (such as the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War) fade over time and get left behind? Who owns history, and who gets to speak on behalf of the past?

“Sharing authority” means doing more than collecting stories and exposing historical silences. It also means working with donors who may have their own interpretive agendas, providing access to the stuff of history both on and offline, and working to ensure that the public stories being told are truly reflective of the communities that are doing the storytelling.


History, Journalism, and Sharing Authority

At work today there was an interesting discussion regarding the media coverage of the tragic Boston Marathon bombings. Some people expressed great outrage at the fact that so much misinformation has been thrown out by the major media moguls (especially CNN) and it was suggested that the general public and their interactions on social media (specifically Twitter) were to blame for perpetuating much of this misinformation. Every person thinks they’re a reporter now. Professional training is unnecessary to “report the news.” As a result, these attitudes have led to a genuine distrust and loss of authority in the journalistic profession, perhaps even a loss of the “truth” of journalism. It was also suggested to me that back in the day there were only four TV stations, all staffed by professional journalists that always “double checked” their sources before reporting.

I couldn’t help but think of how relevant this discourse over journalistic authority is to the field of history. We are having the same discussions about the proper relationship between professional historians and the general public. I wholeheartedly agree with those who say that anyone can “do history,” but to what extent should people receive some sort of formal training in historical methods, if at all? With the preponderance of tweets, blogs, and websites about history that are created by non-professionals on a daily basis, how do professional historians maintain some sort of authority or “legitimacy” in this rapidly expanding information age? Should they fight to maintain authority? Do professional historians even matter anymore (did they ever in the first place?) How do we balance the desires to share our expertise and achieve historical accuracy with the goal of ensuring that all voices and perspectives are heard when looking at the past?

The concerns about misinformation expressed in the first paragraph are real and legitimate, but we will never return to the days of only four TV stations, nor was there ever a time when the media ever got their “facts” completely right. Looking at the field of history, it is more and more evident to me that the professionals should use their expertise to empower non-professionals with the tools to conduct their own explorations into the past using the best historical research methods. I have no clear answer as to the best practices for “sharing authority” with the public, but I am really taking Kevin Levin’s observations on the changing nature of historic interpretation to heart. In this passage Levin referred to interpretations at Civil War battle sites, but these words go far beyond the battlefield interpretation. To wit:

Public historians (broadly speaking) should be pleased with where they find themselves right now, given the history of interpretation at Civil War sites, but we would do well to remember that any claims to authority vanish on the interwebs.  The amount of time visitors spend at historic sites and museums with intelligent and qualified guides pales in comparison with the amount of time spent online.  What I would like to see in the coming years is for public historians and museum educators to shift their focus somewhat from content delivery to the teaching of skills that assist people in the gathering and assessment of historical content, especially online.  Empowering history enthusiasts at historic sites and museums and through their websites must include finding creative ways to teach how to properly interpret a primary source and how to evaluate the historical content of a website.

I am not for a moment diminishing the importance of place or the power of the connections that visitors forge at historic sites such as Gettysburg.  If anything, I am trying to reinforce its importance.  What I am suggesting we need to acknowledge is that the learning process of visitors begins long before stepping foot on a historic site and will continue long after the stories told fade away.  That process has become more and more for the average reader much more difficult to navigate owing to the democratization of history that has taken place as a result of the revolution in digital technology.  As history educators we need to rethink what it means to do public history or what it means to serve the public.

Well said.

Jon Stewart, Public Historian? Maybe? (Part 2)

About two weeks ago I wrote a post in which I chimed into the discussion about whether or not Jon Stewart could be considered a “public historian.” Long story short, I agreed with a poster named Erik Greenburg who commented that “a public historian should be someone grounded in the arguments, practices, and habits of mind of an academically trained historian,” which meant, in my estimation, that Stewart would not meet that standard. I clarified that one doesn’t need to be academically trained to “do history,” but that they should make an attempt to understand the methods and ways in which historians “think historically.”

After my blog post, another person, Brown University professor Steven Lubar, commented with the following words:

Let’s think about a “big tent” definition of public historian. Limiting it to “someone grounded in the arguments, practices, and habits of mind of an academically trained historian” leaves out some of the best and most interesting work – and makes for a pretty boring field. It says, do history our way, the academic way, and then we’ll keep you in our club. What if we defined it to include community historians, enthusiastic amateurs, popular writers, genealogists? [I have argued that it does] We academically trained historians might learn a lot – as well as reach a larger audience. If our goal is to encourage the public to use the past to think about the present and future – I think that’s a fair definition of the purpose of public history – then we want to include all (or at least most) of those folks… It’s about ends, not means, and certainly not about technique, practice, or (above all!) being able to write in a really boring way.

So it appears as if Jon Stewart may in fact be a public historian, at least under Lubar’s definition, which is a very good one. These comments challenge my prior assumptions and it appears as if I may have been incorrect in my original assessment. I wholeheartedly agree that one goal of public history is to encourage the public to use the past to think about the present and future and have argued as much on this blog. The larger ideal Lubar is attempting to convey is one of “shared authority,” the act of historians exploring the past with non-historians, making sure to collaborate on projects in order to present as many perspectives and experiences as possible. Again, I’m all for this. Yet I am having a really tough time accepting the practical consequences of Lubar’s definition and, by extension, what it means to have “shared authority.” I suppose the rub is that while we’re both advocating for an emphasis towards the end results of public history, I think a more responsible understanding of the means, especially the technique and practice behind it, is required in order for us to make the end results more meaningful.

If I were creating an exhibit at a museum about American Indians/Native Americans, I would do my very best to create stakeholders in my project by having a wide range of voices, perspectives, and experiences on display, and I would be exploring the past with these people, sharing authority and creating a dialogue from which we could hopefully bring about a better understanding of past actions, events, and leaders in history. Yet at the end of the day, the finished product that will be put on display for the public has my name on it. More than likely I will have to make vital cuts and changes to the project in order to make it flow better considering the financial and time constraints that I’ll have to deal with, and I will have to possibly cut out certain voices, perspectives, and experiences that I don’t think would work within this interpretive framework. I will have to exercise authority. I will share as much authority as possible, but I will most likely have various moments during the creation of my project in which I will have to exercise an authoritative decision, because I am the one who received the academic training and skills to see the project through to its fruition, and in most cases these authoritative decisions are made by academically trained professionals when creating exhibits. There is no such thing as a pure experience in “shared authority,” at least not to my knowledge.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I believe in sharing authority with all people when making history, regardless of academic training. However, my “big tent” is different from Professor Lubar’s. My “big tent” is welcoming to anyone who wants to come through and engage in dialogue with professional or non-professional historians. We share information with each other, and in many cases the non-academics will change the structural framework of my “big tent” and the ways in which professional and non-professional historians look at the past. The tent will always be moving (think of a nomadic Indian tribe, for example), but when we find a temporary spot in which to ground our tent, we will always tie it to ground with the basic idea of trying to “think historically” and all that entails. That idea is our base. Lubar’s “big tent,” it seems to me, isn’t a tent at all. It’s an open field with no distinctions, a sort of relativist framework in which everyone’s views and perspectives are carried with equal weight and no one has authority. We don’t share authority because no one has any authority in the first place.

If Lubar is correct, which he very well might be, then I want to know why I’m going to graduate school in the first place and why people like him are still convincing people like me to go to school and financially support people in his “club” with tenured faculty positions at prestigious universities that produce “boring writers.” I mean this with all due respect to Dr. Lubar and many of his colleagues. I am hoping to perhaps be just like them someday.

I think it’s one thing to have a nice, idealistic vision about the way history should be. My last post was highly idealistic. I am an idealistic person, for crying out loud! But we have to work hard to understand the circumstances in which we practice the craft of history, and that involves thinking rationally about the means we can use in order to reach the end goal of creating a richer understanding of the past. When I give my idealistic views on how things should be, I try to do so while acknowledging the impracticality of some of those ideas. If I can be a public historian just by “confronting politicians with inconvenient truths about the past,” then I may as well stop going to school and go look for politicians to haggle, I suppose.

A very smart classmate of mine suggested that we should ask Jon Stewart whether he thinks he’s a public historian. That’s a lot better than my poor attempt to answer for him. However, I think the larger lesson I’ve learned from this experience is that I still have problems defining what it means to have “shared authority” in history and what that could mean for my professional career. I’m actually scared to a certain degree; I went to graduate school partly so that I could take a more authoritative role in creating a history that I think makes the world better a place for us living today and for those who will inherit our world. I’m still learning how exactly to go about doing that in a way that is responsible, honest, and fair to people of all shapes, sizes, colors, genders, and academic credentials. I hope more intelligent people like Steven Lubar can challenge me to work harder towards that goal.