On Friday, March 23rd, four people with very different training, interests and perspectives, but who all are in the business of talking about history to the public, gathered at Newport’s Colony House. They came together to join the Newport and Rhode Island Historical Societies in a History Space program — Myth, Memory, History and Heritage, a panel discussion focused on the issues public historians face when trying to make history understandable and useful to a broad public audience.
In my introduction to the discussion, I asked if the study of the past simply is an intellectual exercise. We have had abundant evidence in the last few years that an attempt to understand the past has important implications for today and the future. More than an effort to understand human behavior generally, the ability to comprehend history helps us to understand where we are today, and to evaluate the present – the history that is happening now.
But, how do we learn about and understand the past? Historians have a way of doing so – but as individuals, history is only one lens through which we try to access the past. Our sense of heritage, our memories and the repeated memories of our families, and the stories that we tell and are told – some fairly called myths – are all fuel for us as individuals.
But are they all of equal weight? All evaluated the same way? What role should history, and the work of historians, play in our public examination of the past? And, for those of us who manage history museums, historical sites, and other history-based public endeavors, how do we approach the very important job of talking to the public about history? What are our goals? To give people facts? To encourage them to “think like historians?” To examine their myths and memories? What can we do to help people navigate these interesting times?
The panelists were:
Akeia Benard, Anthropologist, archeologist and ethno-historian, Curator of Social History at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
Morgan Grefe, Historian and public historian, Executive Director of the Rhode Island Historical Society.
Jim Ludes, Historian, public policy scholar and journalist, Executive Director of the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy and Assistant Professor of History at Salve Regina University.
Jason Steinhauer, Public Historian and originator of the discipline of history communication, Director of the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest at Villanova University.
The conversation was both theoretical and specific, and focused on the following issues and challenges of public history:
-Bringing historical data and interpretation to the public in clear, digestible packages, and often with limited face-time.
-Meeting the public where they are, including the other ways of knowing and thinking about the past that audiences bring to our museums, sites and activities. And the expectation that history will be presented as narrative, not data.
-The lack of current information in our school textbooks and curricula, which tend to perpetuate out-of-date information and narratives.
-Cultural differences in “knowing” the past, including different ideas about the nature of time.
-Myths about the past and the value of myth, regardless of any factual base, in reinforcing cultural norms and defining who “we” are. This becomes an issue when society is changing, and when facts conflict.
-The transitory nature of memory.
-The complicated understanding that historical interpretation is based on the facts currently known, and to some degree, to the lens of the current time and place through which we all see any given issue. New facts change interpretations, and new times change the way we see things.
-An understanding that the “dominant narrative” of history has been disrupted, with stories of previously marginalized populations introduced and political and cultural differences in interpretation all being presented at the same time.
-The importance, given the above, of talking about how we interpret, how we evaluate an interpretation, and how to address perspectives and interpretations that appear to be based on belief more than analysis.
-The political polarization and politicization of historical narrative that is a part of our intellectual environment now.
-The value of diverse perspectives in a democracy; the danger also of the lack of a shared narrative.
The extremely engaged audience had too many questions to be asked in the time allowed; some of those not addressed are below. Click here to watch a video of the entire session.
My takeaways from the session have to do with the several areas where I think we can improve the way we work towards the goal of insuring that history is studied, understood, and seen as relevant by the public.
The first is the continued need for interdisciplinary conversation. The conversation about the role of memory in the public conversation about history had great depth in this setting where an anthropologist and a journalist interacted with historians. The NHS has some experience in facilitating interdisciplinary conversations, and I remain convinced of their value and importance.
The second is a new interest in the field of history communications, as articulated by Jason Steinhauer. I have described what the NHS tries to do as like the best science writers — translating complicated ideas and information for the public without dumbing it down – and that is exactly what the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest is trying to do for historians. The work that Jim Ludes is doing with Story in the Public Square is also worth keeping an eye on.
Finally, I am more convinced than ever about the importance of history-based organizations in conversations about policy, civics and the evolution of our democracy today. While the panelists talked about whether our institutions should take overt stands on political issues (some should, some should not, but none should be afraid of fulfilling their missions, even when that means talking about controversial issues), the bigger issue is that historical facts, and fact-based interpretation, have a role to play in informing the conversations that take place in many settings. The work happening at our local institutions has the potential to lead the field – I look forward to new programming at the New Bedford Whaling Museum by Akeia Benard and her colleagues. Morgan Grefe’s work at the Rhode Island Historical Society has demonstrated leadership in many areas – but I will particularly salute their advocacy, and actual practice, towards improving history education in this state. And their work with the NHS on History Space.
History Space is a partnership initiative which focuses on the practice of public history at museums and historic sites. History Space seeks to support the field of public history through education and demonstration. The work includes the production of high-quality living history programs and events, including traditional trade and craft demonstrations and workshops, and programs and seminars that assist practitioners of public history and inform the public about topics and issues in the field.
Some additional audience questions:
-[Given the diversity of perspectives and interpretations] how do you decide which stories should be presented to the public in today’s social context?
-Given our new normal, wherein everyone can find their own everyone can get support and evidence for their own positions, how do we get people to listen to opposing information? How do you “unpack the myths” if people will not listen?
-What to do about the conflict between academic elitism (only “we” are the source of facts) and the problem that not all alternative sources bear any relationship to fact or reason?
-Institutions are valuable, but they limit their value when they are impervious to change. How do we guard against that?
-Who does not deserve a voice in conversations about our past?
-Is there a conflict between making sense of the past and making peace with it?
-Who cares about public history/who is funding it? Who is the audience for it?
-What do we do about educational lacks in history – what can our field do?
-How does the interpretation of history in film impact the public’s understanding?
-Why do ordinary people seek out historical knowledge in the first place?
Thanks to all who participated in this event! We hope these conversations continue to make our field vibrant, useful and engaging. Please join the RIHS and NHS, and watch our spaces for more.