Thoughts about public history, ownership, and the role of communities
Every time I embark on another job search, I’m amazed by the variety of environments in which public history professionals find themselves employed. I’ve seen postings for curators, interpreters, consultants, researchers, writers, archivists and librarians, exhibit developers, professors, and conservators, just to name a few. Many of these careers give you a significant degree of independence; however, there is almost always some aspect of the job that involves working with a team. That team could be as small as a few directors or as big as a city.
In the case of Animating the John Rowswell Hub Trail, my work has been overseen by not only my direct supervisors, but the greater community. This project distinguishes itself by its community-driven approach. A diverse body of partners has been involved since the beginning to provide information, direction, and feedback. How do public history professionals reconcile their academic background (typically involving long hours working alone, with near-complete control of research trajectories) and the realities of a community-driven project? Read on for my thoughts about public history, community-based work, and ownership, prompted in part by my experiences with the John Rowswell Hub Trail.
Historians provide a service for the public good. The most obscure historical monograph ever penned still contributes to a body of knowledge that exists for the benefit of society at large. Most historians are funded by universities, not-for-profit institutions, charitable organizations, and governments. By definition, therefore, historians have a professional obligation to serve the public in some way, through their research, publications, teaching, or other duties. In that sense community-driven projects certainly fall under the historian’s purview. For that reason I really value the experience I’ve had at NORDIK and the insight it’s given me into the realities of community engagement.
Engaging communities is messy. It involves navigating your way through both parallel interests and competing agendas. It means sorting through miscommunications and creating understanding, often while managing multiple deadlines. Most importantly, engaging the community means embracing flexibility and understanding that your own priorities may have to be set aside in order to achieve a shared vision. That can sometimes cause tension that wouldn’t necessarily occur in a project where you work alone. My work for NORDIK doesn’t look exactly like how myself or my coworkers first imagined it to be; as we moved forward, our approaches shifted to adapt to the growing scope of the project and the needs of our many community partners. How much is our work controlled by the concerns/whims/funding of others? Is this a bad thing or not?
In terms of my work with NORDIK, I can say that the difficulties of community-based projects are definitely worth it. It’s a good feeling to produce resources that represent cultural communities in the way that they want to be represented. When someone tells you, “I really feel like I’m being heard,” that’s a big deal.
In his article “Museums in the Age of Deconstruction,” Michael M. Ames claims that deciding what constitutes “art” is not only a matter of academic tradition, semantics, or personal preference, but also a political act (89). Certainly this is also true of deciding what to remember and how to remember it. Ames argues that scholars are prone to get so caught up in debates over their constructions of society that the people themselves are forgotten (90). One possibility for turning this around is to engage the public in what we do, whether that is narrating the past or speaking to the present. In terms of museums in particular, Candace Tangorra Matelic remarks that interpretation can be a powerful way to facilitate timely dialogue and reflection about important issues (142). Her book chapter, “New Roles for Small Museums,” points out that community engagement puts people back at the heart of their history, addressing what they care about and working with them to share control, acknowledgement, and benefits of the project (144). Matelic’s vision of history as something with direct public impact has come to mind often during my work, especially as I’ve been collaborating with others to address the multifaceted (and sometimes little-heard) histories of the region. (You can read more about this in my upcoming article, “Sharing local history on the John Rowswell Hub Trail,” which will be published by Active History next month.)
It would be so easy to end my thoughts right there. But of course, life isn’t that simple, is it?
While my work this year didn’t lead to a lot of tension or problematic circumstances, there are certainly times when that is the case. To say that our professional priorities must always be pushed aside in the name of community engagement is to ignore the complexities of scholarly work. It’s incumbent on historians to serve the public. It is also the historian’s job to present the truth of the past, to the greatest extent possible. But what do you do when these things come into conflict? As public professionals, is it always our duty to abide by the public voice? Is popular taste always good taste? What about cases when private clients and conflicts of interest are involved? The overarching question in all of this is: To what extent can the [public] historian assert authority over their own work? Michael Ames asked similar questions in 1992, wondering, “How will anthropologists and cultural workers help people come to term with the growing multicultural and multivocal realities – discordant realities, one might even say – of contemporary society? Will anthropologists in museums and elsewhere have the authority and public respect, not to mention the courage, to speak out? Or will they be lost in the cacophony of voices, reduced by public criticism, populist sentiments, funding restrictions, and the forces of the marketplace to bland pronouncements and tangled rhetoric?” (100) Are we any closer to answering those questions? Now we’re getting into the territory of intellectual integrity and moral compasses and ideology and funding and power structures and identity politics and historicization and marginalization. Didn’t think this blog post was going to go there, did you?
Alright. It’s time to get to the point. My point is that it is the public historian’s professional responsibility to consider the impact – economic and social – of the work they do. If a community-driven project is the goal, completing a project which authentically represents people (if you can say that?) means engaging them in the process, making it theirs and not solely yours. What could that look like? Tune in next time for the practical part of this post, when I discuss evaluation methods and three strategies I used to involve the public and gain valuable feedback.
Ames, Michael M. “Museums in the Age of Deconstruction.” Reinventing the Museum: The Evolving Conversation on the Paradigm Shift. 1992; reprint, Lanham, MA: AltaMira Press, 2012: 86-103.
Matelic, Candace Tangorra. “New Roles for Small Museums.” The Small Museum Toolkit vol.4. Lanham, MA: AltaMira Press, 2012, 141-162.
 There are always going to be factors that make it difficult to arrive at a complete, conclusive answer to any given research question. I always appreciate when an author is upfront about these factors while making the best of the evidence they do have.