At the risk of blaspheming as a historian, I declare that I dislike old stuff. I am growing impatient with public history’s traditional fetishization of physical objects and buildings. Certainly manuscripts, objects, and buildings serve a critical role in the historical record as access points for dynamic historical inquiry. Yet I maintain a strong aversion to the esoteric enjoyment of looking at and talking about old stuff. Distaste occasionally turns into outrage when I exit a classroom or museum and encounter the very real products of systemic poverty, historic racism, and structural oppression.
The suffocation of a static, object-oriented past dramatically contrasts with the invigoration of engaging with the public. The most thrilling conversations originate when I tell someone that I study history and they inevitably share their passionate, personal version of history. A retail coworker enthusiastically discussed history as a series of major local events happening in real time, like the construction of rapid transportation. A restaurant waiter wanted to know more about international history, particularly the historical relationship between the Philippines and the United States. Anyone who takes the time to listen to the public’s interest in history will find intense personal investment in the intersections between past and present.
Listening to the public ought to be the first step any public historian takes. Only when we take the time to find out what a community wants and needs can we respond in our fullest capacities as public historians. If we treat communities with respect, then they might allow us to respond and even push back with our perspectives as trained historians.
Present-day communities, rather than historical resources, ought to be our departure point for the work of public history. Old stuff does not have objective or intrinsic value; in fact, the old stuff we save and adore often reflects the values of a dominant culture responsible for historic oppression. The work of the public historian can be so much more powerful when we choose instead to advocate for historically oppressed communities. Public historians can embrace a socially relevant and provocative role beyond serving as guardians of old stuff.
A public-oriented concept of history is not new or even that radical. But as I navigate the worlds of academic and public history, I am increasingly convinced that the civic responsibility of public historians needs to be better emphasized. I would even like to envision a future where the primacy of community is an assumed foundation of public history.
In this five-part series, Lakefront Historian contributors respond to the critically acclaimed blockbuster Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Daniel Day Lewis.
The opening shots were so promising. A pan of Civil War carnage preceded any mention of Abraham Lincoln. African American soldiers stood before The Great Emancipator and called him to task on the problem of wage inequality. Then Lincoln subdued them with a charming anecdote, thus setting the tone of the rest of the film. In the subsequent two and half hours, a thoroughly endearing Abe ambled through a world of rhetorical and ethical dilemmas, mesmerizing everyone with his storytelling and lawyering skills. Indeed, Spielberg’s Lincoln succeeded as a comedic drama of white politicians debating slavery while effectively silencing other nineteenth century voices.
Two Lakefront Historian contributors and public history students at Loyola University Chicago are featured this week on History@Work, the blog from the National Council on Public History (NCPH). Annie Cullen and Rachel Boyle discuss how the overwhelming success of Public History Ryan Gosling reveals the strengths and weaknesses of popular culture as a tool for public historians. The post will give you a preview of the panel presentation Cullen and Boyle will be giving at the annual NCPH conference this April in Ottawa, Canada. Hope to see you there!
The casual radio listener cannot avoid the chart topping hit “Some Nights” by the band Fun. As with their other recent hit, “We Are Young,” Fun. produces upbeat tempos and soaring harmonies that belie darker lyrics about the emptiness and purposelessness of life. By applying the postmodern undertones of “Some Nights” to a music video dominated by Civil War imagery, Fun. meaningfully reflects and contributes to popular memory of the Civil War.
I wake up most mornings thrilled to go to work. I relish the rare opportunity to engage in positive dialogue with the public about critical themes in Minnesota and United States history. On a daily basis I participate in open conversations about class, slavery, and American Indian history. I feel continually supported by a remarkably amicable staff and refreshingly thoughtful and efficient supervisors. Considering the many museums and historic sites still reveling in nostalgia and Great Man history, I truly value the opportunity to practice public history at Historic Fort Snelling. Not to mention my sheer enjoyment of hearth cooking or playing nineteenth century games with children.
All the fantastic aspects of employment at Historic Fort Snelling tend to overshadow the occasional discomforts: the offhanded racist comment of a guest; the low traffic in Dred Scott Space or Indian Agency compared to the overwhelming popularity of the infantry and artillery drills; enthusiastic youth marching and shooting imaginary guns. Perhaps these are just the unfortunate realities of interacting with the public.
A recent experience, however, put my discomforts into sharp relief. While stationed in the Indian Agency I observed a visitor who appeared to me to be American Indian. As he exited the space he turned to his companion and stated matter-of-factly, “there is a lot of evil in this room.” Continue reading
Rachel Lewis and Rachel Boyle share the same first name and many courses at Loyola University Chicago. Rarely do they share the same perspective on historical topics. In this installment, the Rachels provide two distinct reviews of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter as a work of cinematic public history.
“History prefers legends to men” – Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
In the interest of full disclosure, I should confess that I have very limited knowledge of vampire mythology. I am still unclear about how to kill a vampire. Do you shoot them in the heart with a silver bullet? Cut off their head? Nervously bite your lip until they succumb to your wiles? Judging from the way Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter treats the historical record, I suspect the film plays fast and loose with the rules of vampire hunting as well. Therefore, I will not be evaluating Abraham Lincoln in terms of adherence to the rules of vampirology or historical accuracy. I am most interested in dissecting the internal logic of this film and the implications for the public’s memory of Abraham Lincoln and nineteenth century United States history.
Periodically, a Lakefront Historian contributor surveys recent public history-related news that emerges on the Internet. In this installment of “Around the Web,” Rachel Boyle highlights new columns, blogs, and posts that exemplify public history online. She also anticipates the opening of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Follow The Lakefront Historian on Twitter (@LakefrontHist) for news updates as they happen.