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?

One thought on “Dear Letting Go, I’m Not the Uptight Historian You Think I Am.”

  1. Kaci, I think you raise some great points here. The examples were in some cases quite a bit dated, and while they do serve as valuable models, they don’t really reflect the current landscape and newest struggles of public historians. The idea that public historians need to find a way to engage with the public on their terms, rather than the institutions, highlights the reality of one of the problems discussed a bit in the book: how do you engage new audiences, beyond the typical museum-goer and museum staff? I hope we can brainstorm on this as a group, and perhaps take a crack at it for our group project.

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