Authority at “History on the Edge”

1785Who owns the past? Who controls it and shapes the way it is told? What happens when intentional and unintentional omissions support one version of the past at the expense of another?

As one of the essential underpinnings of the historical profession we are taught to think through issues of authority at all levels. We are trained to recognize the role and nature of power not only in the creation of historical narrative, but also in our own interpretations.

At “History on the Edge,” the 2015 annual meeting of the National Council on Public History I heard attendees directly and indirectly discuss various forms of historical authority. I offer three statements to summarize the discussions:

  • Avenues for historical authority continue to expand.
  • We need to become better communicators about our profession (in effect to re-gain the historical authority we seem to be losing).
  • That complex issues of authority still exist as we continue to work to create a more inclusive historical narrative.

I attended five different panels.

A nostalgic view of the Courtyard at the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum.

Social Media and Authority: This panel examined the ways in which the public uses social media to engage with the past. Using engagement with the Holocaust as an example, panelists described how the different platforms manifest authority and how moments taken in these spaces were a sort of “networked memory making.” For example: interactions on tumblr were akin to a self-curation space where a sense of community was created.

One question from the discussion stood out for me: Are those visitors interacting with themselves and one another shaping memory or merely reflecting it?

Invisible Histories: 
At first I thought this panel would be addressing the idea of silences in a more traditional way. In fact each of the case studies described the empty spaces not merely as “missing histories” in terms of race and gender, but in terms of practice. From finding the truth in ghost stories to reading between redactions in Freedom of Information Act NSA files this session articulated four different perspectives on filling in gaps in history. In each case the panelists made it clear that they weren’t the mainstream way of reaching and connecting with the past but that through the traces of history the narrative could be changed.

Challenging the Narrative Paper Panel: 
In this panel attendees were asked to look beyond the dominant narrative of a particular place, and to instead examine layers of history. One paper (presented by a friend of mine) looked to bring to the forefront disability history in a town where the impact of the gold rush often took center stage. Another panelists used a Rose Parade float to highlight female pilots during WWII. The last panelist, Franklin Odo, described his life’s work with the APIA community. The panel emphasized that sometimes silences aren’t due to omissions in the documentation, rather its due to one narrative superseding another in the communities consciousness.

Radicalized Geographies: I’m not entirely sure what was the original intent of this panel. What I know is (whether unintentionally or by design) the moderator posed a question based on her visits to two museums (Weeksville Heritage Center and the Lower Eastside Tenement Museum) that elicited an intense response from her panelists.

Paraphrasing from my notes: The question asked: what are these two museums missing by not discussing the effects of urban renewal at their museums? She essentially made the assumption, based on her experiences, that these conversations weren’t happening. What ensued was a very frank discussion about race, urbanization, and perception at historic sites. Essentially asking the audience to unpack what was really a conversation about audience authority. That is how to navigate and understand what a visitor versus what the museum exhibitors believe they are portraying.

History Communicators: The final panel that I attended looked to encourage public historians to become history communicators. I attended this panel because it looked to be a continuation of existing discussions on history relevance. It felt, on some level, a panel about regaining our authorial footing when discussing our work. To take a more journalistic approach rather than a governmental one. It was a little unclear to me what the difference of being a history communicator was beyond what our mandate was as public historians whose role is to communicate history out to various audiences.

Let’s go back to my three original statements.

Avenues for historical authority continue to expand. 

This is actually not a brand new assertion. Historians have been discussing the role of “shared authority” for years in thinking through oral interviews and crowdsourced exhibitions. What I feel is new — especially in terms of the tools available–is the role technology plays in enabling and ushering in an expansion of voices.

Most historical organizations use social media, websites and online exhibitions to engage with audiences. What was emphasized in the social media session is that these venues also provide a new forum where visitors to a historic site can engage with each other without the overt facilitation of the historian or museum educator. 

A view of the workshop space at Hatch Show Print in Nashville. | Credit: Priya Chhaya

We need to become better communicators about our profession (in effect to re-gain the historical authority we seem to be losing).

I guess the big phrase is STEAM. Where the arts and humanities don’t get shoved to the side by proponents of science and engineering. Of course it’s a little more nuanced but this but I can see our role as “expert” in these situations diminishing as education curriculum shifts and changes across the country. But what are the ways in which we can become better advocates and communicators for the value of history? The history communicators session — tried on some level to engage with that question as does the History Relevance Campaign.

That complex issues of authority still exist as we continue to work to create a more inclusive historical narrative. 

Diversity. Inclusion. Many Voices. One of the most important conversations we continue to have as historians. We’re still working on it. This was evident in the papers presented at the changing the narrative panel, and the discussion during Radicalized Geographies. Who decides what should be covered at a museum and why? Is it our responsibility to make sure everyone has the same experience when the walk through the doors — and is that even possible? (My answer: of course not). As we continue to create a more democratic history there will continue to be tough conversations between the historian-as-authority and the community-as-owner. Learning how to navigate the difficult space between documented history and the remembered past — and acknowledging that both histories may be valid, but both might not be morally right.

And that’s the thing with historical authority. We as a profession have to be flexible and continue to define and redefine our role in the conversation. Are we facilitators or authors? Creators or community organizers? It is integral as public historians that we are trained to switch hats when necessary or we won’t be able to engage with the public when needed.

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