Can Public History “Disturb the Peace?” Some thoughts on how Audience Shapes Content in Public History Projects

Historians in the academy tend to work in isolation, to insist upon total authority over their research questions and methods, and to write for small, and often and highly specialized, audiences. But public historians must be willing to share authority, development of, and ownership over a product with their audiences. To Katharine Corbett and Dick Miller, the collaborative nature of the process of public history—this act of sharing inquiry and authority—is at the heart of what makes public history distinct from academic history (Corbett and Miller, “A Shared Inquiry into a Shared Inquiry, 19). Or as Ronald Grele writes, public history done well “promises us a society in which a broad public participates in a construction of its own history.” (Grele, “Whose Public,” 48).

What “shared inquiry” and “sharing authority” looks like in practice varies tremendously by project. Some public history projects share inquiry—they are developed on the basis of ongoing community research—but not authority. The Minneapolis Historical Society’s A Strong Seed Planted exhibit about protests at the Jefferson Bank was developed by doing oral histories from local activists, but the curators defined the topic and interpretation of the exhibit on their own. In contrast, they fully shared authority with the local African American community on the exhibit Through the Eyes of the Child, by allowing the community itself to decide the topic and interpretive themes of the exhibit (Corbett and Miller). The New York Chinatown History Museum, which aspires to be a truly “dialogic museum” where exhibits are developed through dialogue and collaboration with the community, offers perhaps the best example of a public history institution truly sharing authority with the community in every aspect of its operation (Tchen, “Creating a Dialogic Museum”).

These collaborative practices impact not only process—how historical research is done—but also the content of public history projects. Most fundamentally, sharing authority means “meeting your audience where they are” and focusing on the issues that are interesting and relevant to them. Denise Merlingo argues that public historians should “allow the interests and needs of diverse partners to shape the questions that will guide their historical research.” (Merlingo, “Museums, Monuments, and National Parks, xiv). In practice, that means that most public history focuses on local or community history. Developing projects that are immediately relevant to an audience is important, of course, but it is also potentially limiting. Art Museums regularly put up exhibits that invite audiences to explore cultures and worlds they know little about—16th century Korean tapestry, for example. But it’s hard to imagine a community-driven public history project choosing a focus that invites visitors to learn about an experience that is truly foreign. In “Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts,” Sam Wineburg argues that history at its best should maintain a tension between the familiar and strange. While it’s important to encounter histories that where we can immediately locate ourselves, he argues, it’s equally important to be introduced to people, places, and times that are fundamentally different than our own. Doing so helps us recognize the limitations of our own perspectives. The content of public history projects, I would argue, does more to deepen understanding of the familiar than to introduce an audience to the strange.

Meeting audiences “where they are” shapes the content of public history projects in another way as well. As several of the readings that we did for this module point out, the public tends to favor “heritage” over “history.” They are more interested in stories of the past that fit their preexisting beliefs and serve their identity needs. Many are invested in mythic representations of the past that are simply wrong or are woefully misleading. Public history practitioners do not have a single point of view about how to grapple with this public investment in pleasant pasts and mythic stories. Indeed, as Deborah Merlingo shows, for much of the 20th century, public history worked in the service of the expansion of government authority and explicitly promoted patriotic narratives of progress that served the cause of the nation state (Merlingo, 165).

But in the last thirty years, public history has begun to try to shift the public away from heritage and towards history. But offering a top-down academic perspective that interrogates a popular interpretation, as the Minneapolis Historical Society tried to do in an exhibit on the St. Louis World Fair, doesn’t work to change the public’s understanding. “Public history,” Katherine Corbett and Dick Miller argue, “is doomed if practitioners insist that people give up their versions of the past in order to benefit from ours, especially if theirs is comforting and ours disturbs the peace” (Corbett and Miller, 23). Ronald Grele argues that public historians must engage in a “painstaking process” of confronting old interpretations and removing layers of ideology. Collaboration in this case might take the form of doing the groundwork with the community in advance to prepare them to engage with historical content that might in some way, “disturb the peace.”

Corbett and Miller note that the stories public historians want to tell are not necessarily those that “the public wants to hear” (Corbett and Miller, 22). But these readings offer examples of public history projects that are gently seeking to expand the interpretive boundaries of their audience. The Histories of the National Mall project, for example, seeks to complicate the public’s understanding of the Mall as a finished product and wants to show the Mall as a  “contested public space” that has changed over time. Their content highlights many different histories on the mall, including curated “Explorations” that offer complex answers to leading questions that the public might not have asked on their own (“Building Histories of the National Mall). The interests and needs of the audience for a public history project should play a role in shaping their content but they should not keep practitioners from working to offer histories that raise critical questions and highlight historical complexity.

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