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.