History Works

These pieces had so many quotable lines, and definitely addressed the trepidation that many experience with engaging the public as either an academic or public historian. For me, they reaffirmed the idea that history work can be engaging, active, important, and affect change in societal power structures.

Chauncey DeVega said that “history does political work,” and that “memory is a function of power.” This was especially true to the idea of perpretating myths of the Civil War in the Sons of Confederate Veterans “celebrations” that DeVega was writing about, but also pertained to the articles on false claims of black confederates in elementary textbooks, Cebula’s example of “bad history” at the Baron Von Munchausen house, and our past discussions on reenactments. These mindful and devoted public historians are doing great work to dispel the idea that false history is harmless or not important/impactful enough that there is a need to correct it. The most powerful article in the vein of history accomplishing political work was the one on fracking, in which Robinson noted the urgency in this particular instance of “using the past to challenge systems of exploitation and power.” The fracking article reinforced our earlier realization that NRHP protection doesn’t always amount to much, and for me emphasized the value of regional memory in addressing local issues. The million dollar question Robinson presented was “How can historians and publics use the power of the past to catalyze social change?”

I read the New York Times article detailing more information on the Sons of Confederate Veterans event, and it raised an interesting point I hadn’t considered before. It noted that “commemorating the Civil War has never been easy. The centennial 50 years ago coincided with the civil rights movement, and most of the South was still effectively segregated, making a mockery of any notion that the slaves had truly become free and equal.” This highlighted the inanity that Civil War commemoration is so rampant now, when a short 50 years ago it was taboo, for obvious reasons. How is it that our national memory is so short that we can’t contextualize these “commemorations” now, but 50 years ago, at the centennial celebration, the implications of the history were so obvious? Admittedly, there was a congressional centennial commission in charge of the events, which “lost credibility when it planned to meet in a segregated hotel.”

Cebula’s piece was a surprising read for me, not because of the fact that small house museums are rampant  with historical inaccuracy or glossing over of the unfortunate truths, but in the nature of the seemingly harmless myths that the museum was perpetrating, and the fact that they were 5/10 of the Colonial Williamsburg foundation’s myths that should be dispelled. I wondered at how these almost trivial “facts” about colonial times have been repeated over the years. Of course most people would find these untruths a bit of harmless fun, some trivia for visitors, but the fact that docents and interpreters would willingly impart false information goes entirely against the entire purpose of historical institutions serving the public as they do. Not that the unpaid, volunteer docents were doing so maliciously or even knowingly, as Cebula acknowledged, but the director’s response did surprise me in its unwillingness to acquiesce to anything Cebula pointed out. Of course, we can’t expect every text book author, museum docent, historical house manager, etc., to be a trained historian, but when engaging with historical work I believe we must hold them to the same standard that historians hold themselves and their peers to. I would think that there would be a certain review process to vet out the incompetent/false histories, but as a commentator on Cebula’s first article pointed out, there are state historical museums in Wisconsin (and other states closer to home *cough*) that haven’t updated their exhibits in 50 years that may do a decent job at interpreting a now outdated historical understanding. I guess my main point is that new generations of museum educators, curators, exhibit designers, and academic and public historians at large, have plenty of work to do. To answer Robinson’s question, doing history always has the innate opportunity to catalyze social change, if done vigilantly and to the greatest standard possible, especially if it works to include “both the diversity of opinion and the question of specifically politicized values into our public history work.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *