Selling the Value of History [Roundtable]

For the 9th Annual Loyola History Graduate Student Conference, the LUC Public History Committee will host a roundtable on “Revisionist Public History.” This is a post that introduces a case study on the topic. The Committee welcomes participation both online and at the conference. If you have an example of “Revisionist” Public History, please feel free to mention it as a comment on the blog, or contact the blog editors to request the opportunity to author a guest post. For more information on the Conference and the Roundtable–to be held November 3 at Loyola’s downtown Water Tower Campus–click here.

Is history just for Trivial Pursuit?

Most historians are well aware of history’s value. Professors clarify its value the first day of every 100-level history course.  Most value statements generally boil down to “knowing history will make you a better person.” For most people, knowing history does not translate directly into a job or profit, however even a passing knowledge improves their quality of life. History gives a better understanding of the cultures, cities, states, nations as well as the world we live in. It allows us to better understand other people and makes us better citizens. History also makes for better humor. While this is all relative, at scale I believe that the more people that pursue learning about the past, the better off humanity will be in the present and the future.

Historians find the value of history (if not my “progressive” personal beliefs) self-evident. While historians all have different areas of interest, in common we enjoy uncovering, assembling and sharing stories of the past that help us better understand the present. As a universal discipline, everything falls under the purview of history, making the possibilities for investigation infinite. How is it then that our discipline which encompasses everything and all of the stories ever told is generally considered boring?

The answer to that question comes down to poor sales work. As a whole, professional historians have done a poor job selling the value to others. Public history has gone further than traditional academic history in thinking about how to make history relevant to a broader audience.  While I embrace the mission of public history (to include the public in every step of the historical process from project identification to preservation, to  production and ultimately consumption in an attempt to make narratives and audiences more inclusive and diverse), I wonder if that mission is enough. Beyond creating more inclusive historical narratives, how can we revise our historical production to be more engaging? How can we make the value of history more concrete? How can we sell the value of history to a wider audience?

What follows are several examples of public programming that more effectively share the value of history to wider audiences in new ways. Please feel free to add other examples of historical institutions that have experimented with new methods of sharing history.

Democratic Discussions: Pioneered by Sites of Conscience, historical institutions facilitate a conversation (or wider participation) amongst visitors to reflect on a contemporary topic in light of the historical product they have just experience. For example, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum offers “Kitchen Conversations,” after a tenement tour to discuss contemporary immigration issues with a docent and other visitors. This sort of programming connects history to the present as well as facilitating conversation amongst people from different backgrounds. Jane Addams Hull House offers a similar program, “Re-thinking Soup,” to discuss recent current events that relate to the mission of the Hull House Museum.

Educational Programming: National History Day is probably the most successful nation-wide history education program. It is a history research and presentation competition for 6-12 grade students. Students develop presentations on a topic of their choosing related to an annual theme. Participants cultivate individual historical interests, while history serves as a vehicle to teach students valuable research, writing, critical analysis and presentation skills. While there is a national office, it is mostly organized at the local level by historical institutions. In Minnesota, the Minnesota Historical Society has lobbied the deliverables of the program to be included in state education standards. MHS has also receives partnership support from the statewide library system (to offer research events for students across the state) as well as the University of Minnesota (to bring undergraduates into urban classrooms to help participants), amongst many others. In Chicago, History Day is offered by the Chicago Metro History Education Center as Chicago History Fair. The program is generally well received because it offers teachers a clearly defined curriculum package (that meets education standards in some states) and offer outside professional support within the classroom.

Interactive Historic Sites: Colonial Williamsburg retooled their interpretive program as a two-day intensive reenactment, “The Revolutionary City.” Rather than a living-history environment of a static past, Colonial Williamsburg offers the developing plot of the American Revolution and invites visitors to become a part of the story. This reconceptualization offers a clearer appeal to entertaining the audience while educating them. “The Revolutionary City” also acknowledges that historical institutions are in direct competition with mass media entertainment for their audience.

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