Most public historians assume their displays, exhibits, explications, and events will be received and reviewed intelligently by visitors to their museums and historical sites.  In fact, it is ethical standard practice for public historians to seek critical feedback and commentary on their work; the input helps them improve quality, accuracy, and professionalism.

Exhibits, artifact displays, history programs, even museums themselves, can all be interpreted and evaluated by the public in terms of educational worth, entertainment value, and inspirational motivation.  An alternative understanding of this would be to imagine public history displays as historiographic “texts”–specific narrative presentations of history authored by public historians. 

As such, it is possible to have very different accounts of the same historic event, for example.  To a northern historian it was the war to preserve the union, but to a southern historian it might be the war against northern aggression.  Of course, neither interpretation is completely accurate, but the point is that even historians edit their work according to inherent social, political, and economic values and biases–whether explicitly or unconsciously.   

Discerning the omission or falsification of known historic facts is relatively easy.  What the public might find harder to detect is the way in which history gets subtly shaded or distorted.  To a museum visitor, there would be a difference between, “According to the Tuskegee Institute, 4,743 people were lynched between 1882 and 1968 in the United States” versus “Although rare, lynchings were reported to occur throughout the South.”

So, caveat emptor, let the buyer beware.

But let’s not imagine the museum visitor as consumer, where the only expected recourse is to complain that he or she did not get what they paid for as part of the cost of museum admission.  Instead, lets view the museum visitor as an intelligent, critical reader of history, someone willing to make an intellectual investment in what the public historian is offering.  Therefore, caveat lector!

READING AND WRITING THE WORLD & HISTORY

Critical literacy is the ability to read and understand hidden or explicit motivations, assumptions, and biases in the texts of our lives, such as television news, public policy and laws, works of art, expressions of fashion and style, textbooks and school curricula, public relations and marketing campaigns, and the ways of our social, political, and economic institutions. Let’s not forget museums.

As with most things, what we see at first is not always the full picture, although it may be what we are intended to see.  Look past the bling, hype, superficial glimmer, summary, generalization, or slight of hand and we often see the details of a hidden reality purposefully or accidentally obscured.

Those who “write” the world (e.g., news editors, media producers, marketing executives, politicians) often craft realities that conform to their own motivated narratives.  In other words, they want you to see what they want you to see.  Let’s not assume historians to be any less motivated.

Writers often include unconscious biases in their work and privilege certain facts over others, mask subjective opinions as reasoned evidence, and offer personal value judgments as objective conclusions.  Again, let’s not assume historians are any less affected.  There’s a big difference between, “This is how it was” versus “This is what we know from the historic record.”

Caveat lector! We are awash in biases and too often unaware and accepting of them.

Here’s an example.  At a recent political rally we heard a politician say, “America is the greatest country on earth.” A critical reading of this statement would ask, who’s saying this to whom, and for what purpose?  What are the factual data to support such a claim?  What does “greatest” actually mean? If America is, in fact, superlative, which countries are thus subordinately ranked greater, great, better, good, and fair by comparison?

We may also ask, why did so many people at the political rally applaud this statement?  To what degree do Americans in general believe this to be true?  Why do some disagree?  What do the Russians, French, Australians, Chinese, Sudanese, or Bolivians have to say about this assertion?

We can critically read other social, political, and economic “texts” and respond appropriately:

  • Mississippi and several other southern states rank among the poorest and least educated. Why does this trend continue year after year?
  • The wealth gap in our county is widening. What data demonstrate the harm of this phenomenon?
  • Police brutality is negatively affecting African-American communities. Where are the eyewitness accounts and oral histories?
  • For decades women have been discriminated against in athletics.  How does Title IX address these concerns? 
  • Southerners tend to characterize the Civil War as a “noble cause.” Why do southern historians continue to characterize the war this way? 
  • US war crimes and propaganda are seldom included in populist discussions about wars. What are the implications of romanticizing US wars and the veteran experience?
  • America was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492.  Why does this myth persist and who reacts most strongly to challenging this assumption?

WILL YOU STAY SILENT?

Learning about history should be an intellectually active and rewarding experience.  Students of history (i.e., all of us) should expect to struggle a bit with it.  Much of history is unresolved.  It’s still working itself out.  Not all history fits together as neatly as it does in our 5th grade textbooks. Public historians should be honest about this.

Historic sites that have no such expectations for visitors are doing them a disservice.  It is hard to understand how any historic site not encouraging critical thought can hope to educate, entertain, or inspire the public at all.

Challenging statements and assertions about history through critical inquiry can lead us to knew insights and understandings.  However, sometimes such challenges are not without negative consequences, as we saw recently in the heated debate and physical tussle over the historic interpretation, value, and cultural significance of Confederate monuments.

At times, disturbing obdurate mindsets, willfully omissive narratives, and arbitrary values can get ugly.  After all, people tend to hang onto “their” history–that which they’ve constructed for their own benefit–like a cultural life buoy.  But is not challenging history’s falsehoods, biased assumptions, calculated omissions, or willfully distorted mythologies always the right thing to do?

We’ll leave this up to you, dear reader.


PUBLIC HISTORY MATTERS

At The Social Voice Project, we celebrate history and people through our community oral history projects that give us a chance to look, listen, and record the voices and stories of our time.  We encourage all local historical societies and museums to capture, preserve, and share their communities’ lived experiences, memories, customs, and values. Future generations are depending on it.

Contact TSVP to learn more about our commitment to public history and community oral history projects.

MORE ESSAYS & THOUGHTS ON PUBLIC HISTORY