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.
9 thoughts on “Guardians of the Past or Advocates for the Present?”
Reblogged this on A Rootless Tree & Other Histories and commented:
While I generally like old stuff, I must agree with this blogger.
Bravo! Great post. I love it when historians present the future of the history field in a positive light. History offers something for everyone which makes it very adaptable to indivdual needs.
did you see this documentary about Israel secret service Ben Sith called The Gatekeeps?I loved it..interesting way to present history that builds a story for a layperson like me..
I absolutely agree with your general sentiment Rachel. Public historians are indeed (or should be) specially equipped to encourage dialogues about the sediments of social relations embedded in memory and the material world. But it seems like you primarily point to a problem of interpretation much more than to a problem with the material stuff of history. Language–spoken or written–is, after all, very much an artifact of and agent for oppressive social relations (post-structurally speaking). To me, the issues you mention are often more easily mediated and incorporated into the interpretation of space and material than they are with more abstract verbal dialogue.
I agree to a certain extent, Devin. It seems to me that neither language nor material contains more inherent potential to empower communities than the other. Both language and material can be radically reappropriated to combat oppression; in fact, they depend upon each other. Material and space facilitate discussion; but without discussion, historical material and space lose their relevance and meaning for contemporary communities. Historians should not give material and space priority over dialogue and community need.
It is also worth noting that communities invest meaning in these remnants of past social relations and cultural forms and interpret and mediate them among themselves and to outsiders (excuse my binary) whether or not historians and allied professionals deem it worthwhile to chime in. These materials and their meanings encoded in public memory engender conflict, solidarity, and everything in between. Even when these meanings are rooted in fiction–and most often, it is to some extent–their capacity for social cleavage or fusion testifies to the importance of old things. Objects, documents, and spaces produced by and reflective of social relations constitute venues where societies work through their historically contingent tensions and contradictions. Sure, the attached meanings and memories rather than the materials themselves are the terms of conflict and consensus, but the materials elicit these responses in people, at least in many Western cultures the one we inhabit. Power imbalance and oppression certainly inheres both the terms of discussion and the dynamics of preservation, but subverting this socially ingrained tendency is precisely the main task public historians should invest themselves in. We should utilize material culture to facilitate context-sensitive social dialogue rather than sheltering those materials from their most recent form of utility. Neither antiquarianism nor a disregard for old things can achieve this end.
I can agree with you Rachel especially after experiencing some of the communities we saw a couple weeks ago. For me I find it naive or cold for preservationists and public historians to divorce themselves from the complexities and hard realities of the communities that surround their shrines of “old stuff”. I’m not saying I’m against historic sites, objects, and so on; I think that we can’t prioritize things over living people and communities.
Oh, Rachel! Sad that your post didn’t spark more discussion but look at me, commenting almost three months later! I guess there is still hope. I just would like to say answering to you, Devin, William, and Courtney, yes, history is a mess! The good thing is that we came to the same realization. Now, there are people out there who think otherwise, and that is ok. We are not going to change their set of mind, at least not all of them at once. I think is tremendously necessary to always state that “history is constructed, there are multiple interpretations, the reasons because some of those are dominant, and what do we want to do with that information a.k.a. how we subvert power relations, marginalization, etc.” I understand Rachel’s visceral point because is mine too. One grows impatient. We ought to do something. We need to be useful to our society.
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