Public Historians: Trying Our Hardest to Eat Indigestible Stories

Liberty-Bell-688-x-240Public historians have the daunting task of developing and implementing the most visible form of historical education. They have to carefully consider the goals of all of the stakeholders. In the case of Sand Creek, the stakeholders were Native American groups, local residents, property owners, government entities, among others. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to represent the collective memory of all of the stakeholders. In Sand Creek, the stakeholders were primarily local or state entities, so in comparison with say the Anola Gay, the stakes were small and the geographic reach was limited.

Even still, Dr. Laurie Arnold characterized Misplaced Massacre as a “book of meetings” and rightfully so. It took an unimaginable amount of communication, through correspondence and meetings, in order to determine the best way to represent the needs of all the stakeholders. Although it was a lot of work, at least the stakeholders were relatively easy to identify and reach out to. How could a public historian possibly reach out to all the stakeholders for a national exhibition on African American history? He cannot.

So what should he do? How can he address these complex issues without sparking mass controversy? The stakeholders for exhibitions at a museum like the National Museum of African American History and Culture are vast. At the very least, the entire African American population of the United States is a stakeholder, but arguably the nation as a whole is a stakeholder. In order to deal with such complex issues of public support and critique, aspiring public historians need guidance, Slavery and Public History provides just that.

The book is a collection of essays that address slavery in public history as a whole, as well as specific examples of public history projects that have directly tackled or tactically avoided slavery. According to the authors the primary problem in the United States is education. Most Americans think of the slavery experience as being the couple decades preceding the war and the war itself. However, slavery “is the beginning of the story it is not the end.” (Slavery and Public History, 7) American history, and school textbooks in particular, have oversimplified and glossed over the slavery experience. It is made out to be a small event in the American past, unimportant in the grand picture. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Textbook authors and football coach history teachers have done America a disservice by underrepresenting the importance of slavery. (Sorry Coach Johnson) The effects of the poor teaching are not confined to the classroom, they have long-lasting effects. “When students are fitted with such intellectual blinders,” one of the authors asserts, “they are likely to become citizens incapable of understanding why we remain a divided nation.” Therefore the first step to bringing slavery into public history is education of the American public, “the public historian is to attempt to address popular ignorance of slavery’s diversity, longevity, complexity, and centrality.” (Slavery and Public History, 37-38) We need to nuance the slavery experience much like Ira Berlin does in Chapter 1 by relating the difference in slave experience from generation to generation.

The education and reeducation of the American public must go beyond the classroom and extend to all of the “nonacademic settings where Americans go to learn.” (Slavery and Public History, 36) There are multiple examples of public historians working to bring some of this education out into the open. The “Back of the Big House” is an excellent example of historical education of slavery in a public venue. Yet the educational component of the exhibition was not equally valued among all, in fact some stakeholders felt the exhibit was insensitive and inappropriate, which led to it being taken down and relocated. The way to make slavery a topic Americans are willing to discuss is by educating them, but public historians need to be careful how we present that education because it is a delicate subject rife with controversy.

The Liberty Bell rips emotions of freedom and independence from the depths of patriotic Americans. For decades its interpretation was immune to the paradox of freedom for all, but only for some. (Listen to the Bell) However changes in the ways the NPS and public historians have addressed history and memory have encouraged rethinking the ways that certain sites are interpreted. As we saw in Imperilled Promise, the NPS has been prompted to improve their historical interpretation by collaborating with and hiring trained public historians. It is interesting that in the case of the Liberty Bell, the author noted that when trained public historians are involved in projects “the scholars’ history will become the public’s history.” (Slavery and Public History, 101)

Adding slavery into our venues of public history will always be a challenge, but it will have clear benefits. At Monticello, Jefferson’s estate, slavery has been incorporated into the interpretation and it, for the most part, has been well received. In fact most respondents to a survey said that “slavery was important for understanding Jefferson himself.” (Slavery and Public History, 149) Visitors of Monticello for years were deprived of that historical narrative, fortunately they no longer are.

Not everyone is excited about this more controversial telling of the past. In fact, the managers of Baron Von Munchausen house clearly do not like this “new” controversial past, and they would prefer if we would “stop bringing into the 21st century all this negativism.” (Northwest History) The managers of the house have not come to terms with slavery or race, they  “deny its presence, minimize its seriousness, and ignore its enduring scars.” Instead they say “never mind the slavery, have you dipped a candle yet.” This historical mindset that only sees what it wants to has no place in public history, it needs to go. The authors of Slavery and Public History, and myself, recognize “the historical and moral importance of engaging America’s indigestible stories” and we plan to continue to do so. (Slavery and Public History, 214)


One thought on “Public Historians: Trying Our Hardest to Eat Indigestible Stories

  1. Education and reeducation are definitely one of the best ways to combat the denial of the past. And I agree that the “entire African American population of the United States is a stakeholder” and that is why the historian has such an important duty.


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