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