When historians engage in debate about the nature and importance of their work, does the public care?
This year, historians are talking about whether the creation of large, clear narrative stories about the past is a useful and even ethical exercise. The concern is that these stories create a possibly false sense of progress, and that they often leave out the histories of the marginal and dispossessed. In addition, they are talking about how we think about the past – can we fully understand, or render judgment on, the ethics and motivations of past individuals from our position in the present? And should we care about making history relevant to today’s issues? The intersection of historical practice and anthropological thinking that is evident in these debates is an interesting and very current development.
The Newport Historical Society takes a position on these issues, and it does so from its perspective as a history organization whose role is to present scholarship in a meaningful way to the public. We believe that narrative is essential – that there is no public history without storytelling. However, we think that broad and understandable narratives, while they do simplify, do not need to ignore aspects of the communities and institutions that we study and wish to discuss. In other words, Newport’s history has a narrative arc that includes the stories of women, sailors and the enslaved as well as George Washington and Ezra Stiles.
In thinking about “presentism,” which is the practice of interpreting the past through the lens of how we think today, we suggest that people in the past are both like us and unlike us. We cannot truly understand their motivations and moral decisions entirely based on our own thought processes. Even now, cultural differences can create great changes in how people think about their lives and the choices available to them. Add a couple of hundred years to the mix and the possibilities for difference are acute. But, we can approach understanding by examining the details of an individual’s life, by reading the documents that he or she may leave behind, and by attempting to see life through his or her eyes. Information that helps us do this for Newport’s past resides at the Newport Historical Society in almost overwhelming detail and quantity.
Finally, we do care what historians think about their work and the way they interact with each other and the public, because these understandings shape the way historians choose and conduct their work. Are they collecting data? Or are they interpreting and creating understanding? Whether the historians who work in our collections create meaning or databanks, we will continue to take their work to the public, which will involve collating, preserving, and interpreting. As we do so, we will take the perspective that an effort to develop an inclusive and cohesive picture of the past holds great usefulness to today – without forcing direct analogies to the present.
An example can be found by looking at Newport’s early commitment to religious tolerance. Certainly Roger Williams and John Clarke sought religious liberty, but there is evidence that they also wished to find a way for a religiously diverse world to live without conflict. And certainly that was a motivation for Charles II, who granted our Charter explicitly codifying our “lively experiment.” Looking at how these men sought to find a way for people to stop killing each other over religious differences is undoubtedly relevant for this very day. Even though times and culture have changed enormously, this primal problem remains, and we might do well to examine what deep thinkers in all times and places can offer in solution.
Ruth S. Taylor