Finally Some Good News!

In Public History we spend a lot of time thinking about our audience.  We think about how we can share authority, how we can better engage them, and how we can fully and effectively understand who they are.  Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen’s research in Presence of the Past makes me question our use of the term “audience” when we are talking about the public.  I frequently find myself spending time thinking about how to engage an audience, but what I really mean is “how do I make the public care about what I’m doing?”  Rosenzweig and Thelen discovered that most people really do care about the past; more than that, most people use the past in their everyday lives.  Even more promising, people are already actively engaged in their own “history making” (3).

In the late 1980s Lynne Cheney chastised Americans for their apathy and ignorance about history (3).  Although her sentiment angers me, I certainly can’t claim I haven’t ventured into the same mindset of condescension and judgment.  Ultimately that frustration comes from an assumption that the public is composed of  consumers of history, rather than users of history.  Rosenzweig and Thelen, in contrast, show us that people are active users and “authors” of a past.

People construct narratives out of the past that they use for a multitude of purposes.  Presence of the Past is saturated with examples of how real people interact with the past and create stories that have significance for them. As I am reminded of how our charge as Public Historians is not to produce history fit for public consumption, but instead to really grapple with the way people actually make use of the past and offer our guidance and support as they figure out how to live, I feel a little ashamed for any previous sense of indignation.  In fact, the way people do this with their personal, family, and sometimes group histories is not so different from the way professionals treat the past.  According to Rosenzweig and Thelen, “millions of Americans regularly document, preserve, research, narrate, discuss, and study the past” (24).  What sets the public apart from professionals in the types of history they prefer. While professional historians often deal with national history and large themes, most people are interested in personal and family history (17). They focus on lived experience, not abstractions or “example.” This does not mean that the personal and family histories never intersect with national themes of history. Rosenzweig and Thelen particularly noted that non-white communities of people are particularly attuned to the the ways in which their experiences have been shaped by larger events,  like civil rights in the African American community and the slaughter and oppression of their ancestors in the American Indian community.  To my surprise R&T found “the story often told by profession historians — is most alive for those who feel alienated by it” (13).

In fact, some of the most interesting and most hopeful observations that came out of this study involve the African American community’s particular sense of connection with the past.  While African Americans were similar to white people in their interest in personal and family history, they were much more likely to make connections between their individual families and a larger group history.  “To talk about your family history was also to talk about the history of your race[.]” (150).

In our class we have spent a lot of time discussing Public Histories failure to reach diverse audiences.  Yet, R&T’s results make it seem like reaching the African American population, a population with a better sense of cohesion and one more rooted in a larger historical narrative than the white population, should not be a difficult goal.  Therefore, I find myself asking: why does Public History still struggle to interpret African American history?  Rosenzweig and Thelen provide us with the encouraging news that people care about the past, especially people who feel excluded by it.  But does their study give us sufficient information on how Public History can practically address that interest, and use it to initiate dialogue, connection, and empathy between people?  I don’t know that it does, and I don’t know that a survey of this kind can do that.  Perhaps we are relegated to a trial and error methodology to find the answer to Public Histories persistent questions.

Presence of the Past is still one of the richest repositories of information for Public Historians, but I wondered as I read: how relevant are their findings to the field today?  Although the book is not old, it was published in 1998, it seems that over the last 17 years the way people receive, process, and organize information has changed with social media and the internet.  When asked to rate the trustworthiness of sources, responders rated museums and eye witnesses at the top of their list and movies and books at the bottom (30).  With the wealth of online articles, pinterest pages, and other various information sites out there, I wonder how much people trust the internet for information on the past.  I think people would either believe the internet offered them abundant options for “unmediated” information they could trust, or they would treat it like other media sources, such as TV and movies, and write it off as politically slanted (90).  My perception is that people are overly trusting of the internet.  People confuse the ability to select information out of vast sea of perspectives for a comprehensive truth on any given subject.  On the other hand, I was surprised by R&T’s findings in 1998 and I might be surprised by our ability to differentiate between good and bad sources in 2015.

Rosenzweig, Roy, and David Thelen. The Presence of the Past. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

Slightly Edited from Original Source Finally Some Good News! by Michael Stone

The Presence of the Past: History and the American Public

Rosenzweig and Thelen’s The Presence of the Past examines the ways in which Americans use and understand the historical knowledge in their lives. The conclusions reached in their analysis are based upon data collected via telephone survey of American households in 1994. The most important conclusion that Rosenzweig and Thelen reach is that, despite what many professionals at the time believed, the average American does understand and use the past and “make it part of everyday life” (Rosenzweig and Thelen, 13). This “popular historymaking,” as the authors have termed it, is different from the recognized “conventional historical narratives and frameworks” (9) that are understood by professional historians. As a part of this study, an important distinction was made in terminology. Interviewees responded more positively when asked about “the past” than when they were asked for their thoughts on history. Many Americans, it seemed, thought only of their school history classes when asked about history, a setting in which “they felt less connected to the past there than in any other setting” (179). When asked instead about “the past,” people responded more positively, revealing that they “did not view the past as distant, abstract, or insignificant” rather these “people pursue the past actively and make it part of everyday life” (18).

What is the difference between these two terms?

Professional historians tend to use them interchangeably, but to the popular historymakers, they are distinct terms. The difference, it seems, lies in the connections that people make between themselves and the people that came before them. The primary way in which Americans connected with the past, Rosenzweig and Thelen found, was through the history of their families. Altogether, about one third of Americans interviewed for the study “were involved in tracing their family’s history” (25). To Rosenzwieg and Thelen, this “suggests that more historical research is done on families in this country than on any other subject” (25). From my experience working for the Historical Society, I can agree completely with their conclusion, as the overwhelming majority of researchers who use the archives and collections are doing so in order to research their families, sometimes for themselves, sometimes so that they can pass the information along to younger relatives, and sometimes as a requirement for joining an organization such as the Daughters of the American Revolution. Another connection between the “average American” and the past that I have seen, but was not mentioned in the study is property history. I have often helped researchers who visit the Society’s archives in order to find out the history behind their home, attempting to create a connection between themselves and the families that owned the house before them. Often this research will end up becoming an exercise in family history research, but will include elements such as architectural history that are not found in typical family histories.

For some of the people surveyed, the idea of family extended into racial and social groups. African Americans, Mexican Americans, and Native Americans included in the survey (many of whom felt that their stories had been excluded from “traditional” American history narrative) detailed ways in which they were actively working to ensure their histories are preserved and shared, so that “the past would not die with them” (60). This sense of a personal connection to the past is very important for Americans and is the driving force behind their interest in history. As Rosenzweig and Thelen have shown, the way to create interest and engagement with history is to encourage the creation of personal connections between the people of the past and the people of the day. As future public historians, the most important question from this book is: how do we encourage people to create these connections? How can we present history in a way that people can relate to?

Slightly edited from Original Source The Presence of the Past: History and the American Public by Jacob Bensen

The Emotional Toll of Interpreting

Public historians are essential figures within the discipline of history. They have both the ability and the task to provoke inquiry about historical events among different audiences. Although their role and impact in the field has evolved over the decades, arguably, some factors have remained the same. More often than not, for instance, their work tends to be unappreciated or underestimated as seemingly more relevant factors (read: profits and entertainment) become more valuable to visitors and managers of historical sites. This fact is a point of contention between public historians and investors considering that the former are, in fact, the “content holders and knowledge producers[1]” at historical sites. Amy M. Tyson’s book, The Wages of History, describes with astonishing detail the role and evolution of a subset of public historians: living history interpreters. Although her book is based primarily on the experiences of the frontline interpreters at Minnesota’s Historic Fort Snelling (HFS), she also addresses some of the national trends that helped shape the field over the last few decades. In addition, she relies on her experiences as an interpreter at HFS, as well as data from a combined thirty-two interviews with supervisors and fellow interpreters, to explain the emotional cost of being in this profession. She also identifies the reasons that compel people to get involved in this complex field, but more importantly, why they choose to stay.

By focusing on the history of the evolution of interpretative programs at HFS first, Amy M. Tyson provides a window into a relatively convoluted past. Since its inauguration as a historical site, interpreters working at HFS have had to adjust to the commercialization of the field. Taking their cue from the existing programs at Williamsburg, Virginia, Old Sturbridge, Massachusetts, and Fort York and Fort Henry, Ontario[2], HFS began to craft their programs to attract an already growing tourist population. After HFS’s management had realized that it needed more qualified tour guides for the site in the late 1960s, they decided to focus on creating a closer visitor-interpreter relationship. To that end, a more experienced batch of interpreters became responsible with “carry[ing] out the educational mission of the historic site while also delivering individualized customer service to its clientele[3].” This vision led to a number of changes in the ensuing years, most of which formed part of the 1970s interpretive programs (IP). Among others, the HFS decided to increase the number of costumed performers to bring a broader sense of realism to the visitor’s experience. However, some of them were more interested in the performance aspect of their work than the vital interaction with visitors. The HFS also decided to include women on the post “to contribute tone and gentility to what would otherwise be a brusque and careless man’s world[4].” Similarly, in order to please the growing female audience, “female interpreters were usually [chosen] to staff and clerk the sutler’s store[5].”Despite that many of these changes provided a more enjoyable experience to visitors, some of them were simply historically wrong. As Tyson points out, “the decision to represent “women’s roles was chiefly driven by a customer service mandate, rather than by concerns about social history.”[6]

Although it can be argued that many of these changes broaden the role of interpreters, I can’t help but wonder: how much of what public history sites have to offer (including HFS) is driven by commercial purposes? In the same vein, if the history that is presented at these locations is based on what seems to be orchestrated scripts, how much of that history is actually accurate?

Another point that Tyson makes regarding the evolution of interpreters is the significant discrepancies that existed concerning their jobs and their limited agency. By the early 1980s, historical administrators had a tight grip on the budget and hiring process. The reading suggests that many state organizations, including the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS), were more concerned with allocating funds to the creation of new historical facilities rather than investing in the existing ones[7]. Such absolute control prevented interpreters from openly voicing their concerns and disagreements; a fact that contributed to lower the morale among interpreters who saw both their work and opinions as depreciated. As a result, interpreters working for the MHS decided to form what they called the Caucus. This short-lived grassroots organization became one of first to embark on a process aimed to professionalize the interpretive workforce. However, unlike the National Association for Interpretation (NAI), an organization committed to advancing interpretation as a profession, they wanted to provide a platform for interpreters to redress workplace grievances[8]. After conducting a survey among interpreters in Minnesota, the Caucus soon realized that not all interpreters wanted the same stability. Most members favored the implementation of sick leave standards, better salaries, automatic rehire, and the establishment of permanent employee status for seasonal staff[9]. However, others did not see interpreting as a career choice, as they seemed to prefer such posts only as “seasonal non-committal relationship that provides…a fine salary and excellent educational opportunities[10].” Moreover, despite the fact that benefited from the role and by definition were considered as such, they essentially refused to be fully identified as interpreters[11].

While Tyson doesn’t reveal whether those who opposed being identified as interpreters had a background in history, it makes me wonder if their primary occupations had anything to do with their decision. To be precise, considering that a number of people working and volunteering at historic sites tend to prefer only certain aspects of their work (e.g. re-enacting) I question their actual commitment to interpreting and history at large. Should they be considered interpreters even if they lack certain qualifications? Is it fair to expose visitors to these interpreters?

Chapters four and five, quite honestly, address much of what public historians continue to debate to this day: creative autonomy and how to tackle the painful history of the country. Considering that most visitors expect a high level of authenticity in these sites, interpreters and management have to agree on what that is precisely. The discussion between the two sides about, what is more, appropriate or more historically correct, turns into a power conflict. That is; interpreters want to implement historical activities or scenarios that, in their opinion, fit the criteria for the period they are re-enacting. However, management needs to control what goes on in these sites for the purposes of, among others, consistency, liability, and profit. This disagreement reveals “the quality control structures in place…[a]re largely aimed at managing, rather than cultivating, interpreters .” This dynamic seems to suggest that public historians at these sites have very little control over content and delivery. On the other hand, when the topic becomes too uncomfortable to address (i.e. slavery), both sides seem to prefer not to discuss it at all. At least that was the case until 2007 before the HFS changed its policies. Before then, as Tyson puts it, “the Fort’s programming tended to erase the history of slavery at the site[12].”

Another point that is persistent throughout the narrative, which may not come as a surprise to many, is that historical interpreters do, in fact, value their jobs. This comment is not to suggest that they necessarily appreciate the long hours they have to put in, or the sometimes adverse weather conditions they have to endure. Nor that they are pleased with the low wages they receive, or even the disrespect and disregard that visitors, coworkers, and management often show. However, based on the relentless commitment they exhibit, it is clear that most interpreters regard their work as a dynamic and artistic craft. This fact is surprising considering that some in the general public often stigmatize them due in part to the career they have chosen. This mark of disgrace seems to be bestowed upon them, mainly, because they continue to pursue what others see as nothing more than seasonal employment. Because of this, interpreters constantly feel the urge “to defend the honor of their job[13]”as a way to justify its importance. Despite this, it is here where the reader can understand just what the author means by “Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines.” Living museum interpreters really try to emulate as much as possible the characters they are portraying and the times visitors come to experience. It seems that in spite the various issues they face in their personal lives, these dedicated public historians are only interested in making positive connections with the public. Even if the reward is sometimes nothing more than a smile, a wink, or a nod.

As a whole, the Minnesota’s Historic Fort Snelling case study provides meaningful insight about the growth, struggles, and objectives of one of the most undervalued, yet, important group of historians in the field. But most importantly, this case study exemplifies the notion proposed by Dr. Meringolo that “public History is a form of public service…[in which]… public historians help create historical understanding by sharing authority and inquiry with a variety of partners.” This is an excellent read for those who are not as familiar with the world of living museum interpreting.

[1] Amy M. Tyson. The Wages of HIstory: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013), 5.

[2] Ibid, 34

[3] Ibid, 36

[4] Ibid, 41

[5] Ibid, 43

[6] Ibid, 42

[7] Ibid, 56

[8] Ibid, 61

[9] Ibid, 64

[10] Ibid, 67

[11] Ibid, 69

[12] Ibid, 149

[13] Ibid, 90

Source: The Emotional Toll of Interpreting by Yamid Andres Macias

Sand Creek and National Identity

Ari Kelman’s book “A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over Memory of Sand Creek,” raises a complex set of questions for public historians attempting to represent a difficult topic to large numbers of people whose own national story is complicated by dark corners of the mind where unfavorable memories hide. As Kelman’s analysis of the battle over the representation of Sand Creek shows, the public historian must wear many hats and be able to maintain integrity while attempting to please multiple motivations. Kelman’s book sheds light on the role that both identity and place play in the conflict over representations of history.

Perhaps one of the largest issues facing Sand Creek was the site’s membership as a part of the National Park Service. In order to fall under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, Sand Creek had to hold some kind of national significance. As Alicia Barber points out, in order for a place to become a part of the national park service, it must have national significance with “national meaning” and contain a component of “a larger national progress.”[1] The problem with Sand Creek is that of the two parties of major interest, one of them, the Native American population, sees themselves as outside of the American experience. This raises an interesting question about national identity. Assuming a national common identity is possible- which it very well may not be- is it even desirable or necessary? How do we deal with those populations who are left out of or even victimized by the national narrative?

For Kelman, this question is particularly exposed by the relationship between the Civil War and Sand Creek. The Civil War was no doubt fueled by westward expansion and the national issues associated with it. Americans were determined to conquer the West, some of them with slaves, and others who wished to keep racial minorities out of what was believed to be virgin land. As Kelman states, “white anxiety ran rampant at the time, fostering paranoia and misapprehensions about monolithic Indian identity.”[2] For all Americans, native populations, especially if collectivized, threatened U.S. domination of the west under nothing less than American ideals and ambitions- although northerners and southerners conflicted over the role the institution of slavery played in those ambitions. Nevertheless, Indians were an enemy to national progress.

The problem for public historians and the national park service then, was the difficult relationship between the representation of related events which had for decades, been portrayed as not related at all. The Civil War isn’t portrayed as relative to expansion- but rather to a battle for freedom, preservation and unity under national ideals. As Kelman suggests, “the Civil War occupied a sanctified place in the American imagination and served the interests of federal authorities.”[3] The problem here is that to the federal government and perhaps the American people, who have become so attached to this narrative, the war for freedom and preservation can’t coexist with a war for territorial gain that resulted in the merciless slaughter of peaceful people. So either the narrative has to change, or the two events must be presented as separate entities. This may suggest that Americans do indeed desire a unified national story. Perhaps the only option then, is to relate the two events, as they deserve to be, and change the national story. The question for public historians and the national Park service then, is how can historic sites with connections be linked together in order to tell a national story that recognizes the good and the bad? Should national parks like Gettysburg or Antietam recognize and foster a connection to national parks like Sand Creek? Do Americans lose a sense of identity if the “virtuous and glorious fight, emblematic of the nation’s commitment to defending freedom against tyranny,” known as the Civil War also incorporates the failures of the same people?[4] Or can Americans learn empathy and reach reconciliation through recognition of past faults? If so, can this then make space for Indians to share in our national heritage, when the story of “Us” includes more than progress but also incredible failures?

Kelman’s analysis of the issues surrounding Sand Creek raise questions about the role of native peoples in shaping national identity. Because the search for Sand Creek is physical as well as ideological, the fight over this place raises questions concerning the role landscapes play in evoking a feeling associated with memory. Why does physical space matter and to whom? Sand Creek was a torn place. Intended as a public space for American people to enjoy, celebrate, and potentially reflect, for the Arapaho and Cheyenne, the physical land of Sand Creek was viewed as a private space for remembrance and certainly for reflection. For the Indian populations, the desecration of this sacred ground by looting Americans perusing evidence of the physical battle place was a horrifying act of disrespect. As Kelman points out, it wasn’t the Indians who were looking for Sand Creek- they believed they knew where it was all along because while Americans forgot this space, it was sacred to the Indians.[5] Who then controls the landscape and the lessons we learn from it? Is it the group to whom the memory is most crucial to their heritage?

The Sand Creek controversy might serve to teach public historians to step back and reevaluate the source of our national stories as well as the people who get to be included in them. Instead of telling a story of national progress, perhaps it is Americans who can benefit from giving authority over public space back to the native population- to reflect, as they do not necessarily upon the triumphs but upon the failures of a people. Perhaps the unified goal of the National Park Service should be less about creating a singular, clean, national narrative and more about character building based on localized experiences.

[1]Alicia Barber, “Local Places, National Spaces: Public Memory, Community Identity, and Landscape at Scotts Bluff National Monument,” American Studies 45, no. 2 (Summer 2004): 37.

[2]Ari Kelman, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand Creek, 1.12.2013 edition (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2013), 35.

[3] Ibid., 31.

[4] Ibid., 55.

[5] Ibid., 140.

Adapted from Source: Sand Creek and National Identity by Talbot Mayo

Review: A Misplace Massacre by Ari Kelman

One of the most difficult, and therefore most important, jobs of a public historian is managing the multiple agendas involved in memorializing and remembering the past.  There is no better example of the difficulties involved in choosing (or trying not to choose) sides than in the long process of turning the site of the Sand Creek Massacre into a National Park.  Ari Kelman expertly captures the controversy that arose between the National Park Service, Colorado State Historical Society (now called History Colorado), and the Native American descendants of the massacre in her book A Misplaced Massacre.

The massacre occurred in 1864, but its location was lost to time.  When two “looters” arrived at the place where the event was believed to have happened, they could not locate any of the desired artifacts.  When they approached David Halaas about the surprising lack of evidence, the search for Sand Creek began (45).

The NPS found archaeological evidence of the massacre up river from the original Dawson site that led them to accept a new map for the event (126-127).  Assuming the authority of their experts would be universally accepted, the NPS ignorantly moved forward and called a meeting to present their new findings to the descendants.  The descendants, led by Laird Cometseveh, surprised the Park Service when Cometseveh walked up to their new map, took a red magic marker and marked the original Dawson location as the site of the massacre (136). Cometseveh contended “The Cheyennes feel the Dawson site is the original site.  It’s not the Indians that’s looking for it” (140).  The reason for the disagreement between the NPS and the descendants came down to cultural values and conceptions of memory and the past.  While the Park Service valued the opinion of experts, archaeology, and certain archival records, the Native Americans preferred oral sources, cultural traditions, and spiritual authority to indicate where the massacre happened (140).

One of the most important questions I had was: who are the public historians in this story?  Before reading, the NPS seemed like a natural answer.  However, the NPS’ frequent clashes with the descendants made them seem, overall, less like facilitators and guides and more like government agents and “experts.”  Instead of identifying a single organization as the public history element, it became easier to see how certain individuals acted as public historians.  These individuals offered some answers to my second question: how we, as public historians, should manage the conflicting perspectives on interpreting the past?

Alexa Roberts worked for the NPS, initially to gather oral histories from the Cheyenne and Arapahoe people on the massacre.  Roberts set herself apart as a more sensitive NPS representative.  Her experience with the descendants gave her more insight into the mindset of the Native Americans, as exemplified through her prediction that the descendants would react poorly to the sense of certainty with which the NPS approached their new location for “the village site” (134).

David Halaas, the chief historian for the Colorado Historical Society, was a different kind of example for the role of public historians.  Halaas sided with the descendants at virtually every opportunity.  Halaas stated “If you’re caught in between them like I was, you have to decide: what do you think?  And I was with the Cheyennes” (153).  In public history, interpretation is always political and there are often conflicting perspectives.  Sometimes it is the public historian’s job to find middle ground, to open dialogues, and to lobby for mutual understanding.  But other times, when the voice of power (NPS) drowns out the minority voice (the descendants), I believe that a public historian can take a more active and partisan approach as Halaas did.  Halaas used his position to empower the side he saw as right.

Misplaced Massacre is an excellent case study of public history and the ways we navigate conflicting perspectives.  How we interpret the past is a reflection of the present.  The debate over where the Sand Creek massacre occurred is a reflection of the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government.  The present day relevance of public history and our commitment to confront those quandaries is one of the things that makes our discipline unique.  In the actions of Alexa Roberts, we can see how a public historian can work toward bridging gaps and, through the actions of David Halaas, we can see how a public historian can be an active political agent, supporting and empowering the smaller voices of both the present and the past.

Kelman, Ari. A Misplace Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2013.

Source: Review: A Misplace Massacre by Ari Kelman by Michael Stone