“To fully embrace the inclusive nature of history is to embrace the idea that each of us has “our” moment and each of us is entitled to an acknowledgement of that moment.” – Dina A. Bailey
In September 2010, Bob Beatty of the American Association of State and Local History – a for me hitherto unknown organization – invited me to be an observer in their online conference and provide him with an honest assessment of the experience. I accepted and soon found myself learning about the many history organizations focusing on larger and smaller stories from American history. It was a great experience.
I revisited my assessment in light of a new book edited by Bob Beatty, the AASLH’s Guide to Making Public History. My main (and in fact only) criticism at the time was the apologetic attitude of many speakers in the online conference. Although they discussed essential topics and presented inspirational cases, it regularly felt as if they thought their work unworthy of the public’s attention. The same cannot be said of Bob’s new guide, which presents America’s (public) history organizations as more lively and relevant than ever, pressing challenges notwithstanding.
Bob’s Guide to Making Public History is a wide-ranging book, bringing together essays by important thinkers from between 2008-2017 on topics such as entrepreneurship, change management, relevance, partnerships, etc. Key themes in the book include financial and institutional stability, change and transformation, collections, diversity and inclusion, and the relevance of the history field as a whole. Each essay is introduced by Bob, who adds invaluable context and additional sources.
(Many of Bob’s contributions are appearing on his Medium.)
The book is a guide and includes checklists, inspirational quotes, and the occasional framework. It also links to work from other beyond the field, quoting Senge, Kotter, Weil, Drucker, and others and applying their thinking to history organizations. It thereby lives up to one of the contributor’s messages: “Go outside the field for relevant research and theory.” (Candace Tangorra Matelic)
More than a guide, however, it is a book about making (and managing) public history. The book presents public history as distinct from other types of history, in the sense that public historians always engage in collaborative work with community members and other stakeholders. Public history is inclusive in the sense that everyone contributes to history in one way or another. This point is brought home by a beautiful warming up exercise introduced by Dina A. Bailey, which asks participants in a project to reflect upon and share an example of how they are an important part of history.
The ‘public’ part of public history does not come easily. Barbara Franco and Laura B. Roberts echo the sentiment of many of the book’s contributors: “As a field, we continue to struggle to understand exactly what is relevant to our constituents and our communities.”
Although we rely on the past for context, our understanding of the past appears to be limited and often dwindling. Especially in times of social change, this may be an issue. (The essays cover the period between the great financial crisis of the late-00s and the inauguration of Donald Trump.) David A. Janssen adds that “A clear, reasoned understanding of historical context would seem most important as a stabilizing element during anxious debates about the future.”
This future and the uncertainties of recent years are central to each chapter. Both the field of public history and society at large are changing, and the book looks for the challenges and opportunities this brings.
Janssen continues: “As a nation, we too are constantly evolving, embracing new opportunities, and reacting to forces beyond our control. Understanding these contemporary challenges and facing an unpredictable future require periodically rethinking our direction. In doing so, we rely on the past for context. The role of a public historian is especially critical during times of transition.”
Kent Whitworth and Scott Alvey contend that “We have an opportunity to transform the profession if, collectively, we examine the impact that we could and should have on society. How we react or don’t react to this opportunity will in large part determine our relevance.”
Although each chapter approaches public history from another angle, many authors share the same sentiment. Max A. van Balgoony even states that “When history organizations are unable or unwilling to make a difference in their communities, there are too many of them.” To him, “Practising history isn’t just collecting objects, verifying facts, and presenting anecdotes about the past. It’s an investigation to answer a question-an “inquiry” that cracks open the etymological nut at the source of the word “history.”
One does not expect a guidebook to be quite this explicit in the vision it prescribes. Unless, of course, the need for change is paramount.
The time for polite discussions about minutiae is over, according to Kent Whitworth and Scott Alvey. “Rather than spend our days debating issues such as why STEM gets all of the public’s attention and how to get people through our doors-saying the same things over and over again, just louder-we should instead be examining what we can do differently and more creatively in order to help address the needs of our audiences.”
Fortunately, the book is full of promising case studies of public history organizations that have tried to become relevant and sustainable again:
- The transformation of The Strong from a presentation of historical collections to a locally relevant museum dedicated to play, which substantially increased its attendance and impact. (“They transformed because IT WAS THE RIGHT THING TO DO.,” says Candace Tangorra Matelic)
- The Billings Farm & Museum, which has managed to balance the function of a fully operational farm and a heritage site, becoming the gateway to Vermont’s rural heritage while selling artisan cheese. (And challenging the dominant frame that all entrepreneurs look like the people on the cover of Inc. Magazine.)
- The Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts (MAC) that decided to purchase a franchise for a local tourist trolley as an opportunity to generate revenue but also to create a museum without walls, turning the entire city into a potential place to present history.
- Montpelier, where different historical sites have worked on creating a unified public program that creates value for all and where activities are complementing each other rather than competing.
Some chapters transcend the level of a guidebook and give directions on another level, most notably Edward T. Linenthal’s reflections on commemoration and David A. Janssen’s story about the rebirth of Detroit.
What these chapters and many of the case studies share is their belief in history and ‘history thinking’ as a tool for civic engagement, for the empowerment of communities, and as an alternative to existing modes of living together in a society in transition.
As Max A. van Balgoony implies, history organizations can play an influential role in the quest for these new ways of living together, especially when they adopt an aspirational vision for improving society.
There is nothing apologetic about these visions on the field of public history.
Instead, the image of the sector Bob’s book paints is one of a sector that feels a strong need to play an important, relevant role in society, and one that feels empowered and enabled to do so. This confidence is rooted in research and best practice.
For me, this is the great strength of the book. It covers a formative period for many history (and other cultural heritage) organizations and by looking at many case studies at the same time, manages to give a convincing roadmap of possible futures for all of us.
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