If GRRM Can Present Complex Stories, So Can We

Upon finishing Slavery & Public History I felt incredibly frustrated with Pitcaithley & Levine’s chapters, which focused primarily on the Lost Cause movement and their gnat-like ability to annoy public historians.

Interestingly, Pitcaithley and Levine suggest two different techniques to deal with the controversial Lost Causers. Pictcathley advises that, “… because both [professional and amateur historians] share a passion for history and an interest in its relevance to contemporary society, perhaps it would be worthwhile if they could engage in civil conversation.”[1] Levine, on the other hand, proposes that public historians should not invest the energy to engage with Lost Causers as, “No matter how many fallacies are exposed, however, and no matter how many hard facts are put in their place, the most dedicated Black-Confederate devotees will not change their opinions.”[2]

Reflecting upon Slavery & Public History as a whole, it does seem as if Levine’s solution of giving Lost Causers the cold shoulder may be the optimal choice for the time being. The articles by Nash, Vlach, & Melish indicate we have a lot of work to do within our own ranks before we begin lecturing outsiders. A group of professionally trained group of historians refusing to “tell it like it was” is far more harmful than a bunch of untrained Civil War revisionists.

Furthermore, these craven professional historians provide lackluster reasons for presenting a watered down version of history. They either assume the general public is too daft to understand the material, are unwilling to spend the time to perfect the interpretation’s wording and research, or simply want to avoid confrontational e-mails and tweets. While I realize funding probably plays into at least two of those reasons, it seems to me that presenting a generic, whitewashed history is extremely self-centered and lazy. If the popularity of Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones proves anything, it’s that the public is ready and willing to invest the time to understand complex stories and characters if we can facilitate an engaging way of presenting the information. In an ideal world, building a rapt and loyal audience would in turn help earn more funding.

My eternal grumpiness aside (I always feel like I come off as weirdly aggressive in these posts. My apologies.), as a young historian I was left curious whether using the media as leverage to replace outdated interpretations was common place. Or is it more common to face situations like Melish’s Patriots’ Park example where the change just takes a lot of time and revision?

P.S. – Thought you folks might enjoy this semi-relevant sketch by the comedy duo Key & Peele. Heads up, the language might be inappropriate for a workplace.

[1] “’A Cosmic Threat’: The National Park Service Addresses the Causes of the American Civil War.” In Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory, edited by James Oliver Horton and Lois Horton, by Dwight T. Pitcaithley, 186. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

[2] “In Search of a Usable Past: Neo-Confederates & Black Confederates.” In Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory, edited by James Oliver Horton and Lois Horton, by Bruce Levine, 211. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

Dear Letting Go, I’m Not the Uptight Historian You Think I Am.

When Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, herein Letting Go, began discussing how historians should work with artists I found the idea a little obvious. While I might not know a whole lot about fine art, but the fact that half of the Best Picture nominees for 2015 are biopics sort of proves that artists are going to incorporate history into their art regardless of whether or not they have a historian’s “permission” to do so.

I sort of take offense that this book assumes all historians are so uptight about hard facts and dates that they need to be encouraged to make like Queen Elsa and let it go. In my experience, public historians pride themselves not so much on the facts, but on the ability to help people see the beauty of history. In helping to foster an appreciation for the peculiar way time, geography, culture, and human nature have a way of interplaying with one another. Now don’t get me wrong, I know somebody has to be accountable for making sure historic claims are accurate (Here’s to you academic historians!), but I feel more laypeople would value efforts for accuracy if, first, they felt personally invested and connected to the research at hand. The final article in Letting Go, Mary Teeling’s “A London Travelogue: Visiting Dennis Severs’ House”, felt to me like the only article that really understood this about public historians.

What I found oddly absent in Letting Go was any coverage on how historians and cultural institutions can actively bring their expertise & historical authority to the public on the public’s turf. Many of the examples explored throughout the book relied on the public making an effort to go to their museum or semi-obscure website in order to interact with the history on exhibition. As we now live in an era of social media, I would have liked to see more discussion on how can historians can “let go” of their historical authority to help better direct and learn from the public conversations about history on YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter. Further, how can historians utilize these sites, or even physical public spaces or events, as a place to host our projects and exhibitions?

Death, Human Rights, & Our Role As Allies

Letting Go?: Reading Part 1

I was surprised to find that there are still museology experts in the 21st Century having to defend the idea that museums should be participatory. In my eyes, the attainment of knowledge, freedom of self-expression, and the ability to play an active participant in society are all basic human rights. Not only has my personal voyage into adulthood embedded this belief into me, but also several tragic deaths have done much to cement in me the importance of these rights.

Growing up in the age of the Internet and American Idol, there has never been a time when I could not voice my contempt, delight, or disappointment about my life and the world around me. And while my online ramblings are typically not intellectual or even very popular, I have always felt like I had a voice.

Some have been less privileged in their access to these freedoms. Aaron Swartz was one activist who recognized the relationship between power and knowledge. Swartz fought for his belief that academia was obligated to provide open, public access to their findings. As it stands now, many independent researchers cannot access journals, books, or other materials they require to further their studies without first paying large sums of money to access it. Admittedly, the issue is more complex than I can present in such a limited space. Yet, it’s not such a stretch to say that museums were founded on principles similar to Swartz’s. That to create a greater society, learning must be affordable and accessible to even the layman. After an incident involving the mass download of JSTOR articles, Swartz faced multiple criminal charges and legal fees totaling $1 million.[1] The criminal charges, coupled with a past of mental illness led Swartz to take his own life in January 2013.[2]

More recently, the death of Leelah Alcorn, a 17-year-old transgender girl, has caused me to ponder the duties and responsibilities of curators and preservationists on the web. Before her death, Alcorn was an active user on the microblogging site Tumblr. The blog she left behind tells the story of a girl who struggled in trying to find both her identity and comfort in a world where she felt unloved.[3] Leelah’s blog was not carefully curated like Steve Zeitlin’s City Of Memory project.  Her baby pink, kitten covered blog would fail to pass some curator’s tests for quality, relevance, and importance. As Leelah’s suicide gained national attention in late of December 2014, Tumblr executives deleted the blog at the behest of Leelah’s parents.[4] The deletion has been controversial, as many in the Tumblr community believe the deletion is a form of erasure and transphobia. A number of these individuals have begun making amateur efforts at preserving Leelah’s blog.

Death always has a way of revealing the fragility and importance of any given situation. Ultimately, our job as public historians is to act as allies. We must prioritize our conversations with the public, whom we serve and represent.

[1] Schwartz, John. “Internet Activist, a Creator of RSS, Is Dead at 26, Apparently a Suicide.” The New York Times. January 12, 2013. Accessed January 20, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/13/technology/aaron-swartz-internet-activist-dies-at-26.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Suicide Note of Transgender Ohio Teen Inspires Call to Help Others.” The New York Times. December 31, 2014. Accessed January 20, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2014/12/31/us/31reuters-usa-ohio-transgender.html.

[4] Vultaggio, Maria. “Leelah Alcorn’s Parents Had Tumblr Suicide Note Deleted; Transgender Teen Mourned At High School.” International Business Times. January 4, 2015. Accessed January 20, 2015. http://www.ibtimes.com/leelah-alcorns-parents-had-tumblr-suicide-note-deleted-transgender-teen-mourned-high-1773000.