So Many Actors, So Many Narratives

The National Park Service has become the  caretaker of many landscapes of national triumph over the past century. From Gettysburg to Fort McHenry to the Lincoln Memorial, the NPS runs parks and historical monuments that have been interpreted to tell a relatively easy-to-digest story: the struggle and triumph of Americans to win more freedom for their countrymen over the forces of oppression. But what happens when the NPS acquires a landscape in which ordinary Americans are the villains? Is it possible for a government agency to successfully and accurately interpret a past event in which American soldiers massacred hundreds of peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho men, women, and children. Ari Kelman’s book about the controversies over the creation of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site attempts these questions through an intimate look at how various actors have interpreted one of the most horrible acts ever committed by Americans on their fellow human beings.

The narrative that Kelman presents does not move from point A to point B. Instead, the author moves his story back-and forth from the events surrounding the Sand Creek Massacre to modern times when various groups argued over how a national monument should be created to commemorate the massacre. There are never even any page breaks to easily signify to the reader when Kelman is going to send him forward or backward through time. Instead,  Kelman moves his story suddenly from the argument in 1999 between the NPS and Native leaders over whether the part-Cheyenne George Bent’s or the white soldier Samuel Bonsall’s map of the Sand Creek  Massacre should be used to determine the massacre’s exact location to a discussion of the paranoia of Governor Evans and other white settlers in Colorado in 1864 towards the Cheyennes, and then back to 1999 in which the descendants of the massacred Cheyennes and Arapaho remained horrified and bitter over the desecration of their ancestor’s bodies by Samuel Bonsall and other white soldiers. Kelman weaves the distant and recent past together not to confuse the reader. He wants to show how different groups’ memory of the past heavily influences beliefs and attitudes in the present.

The NPS had no reason to disavow Samuel Bonsall’s map. They saw themselves as neutral arbiters whose only goal was accuracy, and the evidence indicated Bonsall’s 1866 map was a much more accurate picture of the site of the massacre than George Bent’s early twentieth century map of the same landscape. However, most of the native leaders saw the NPS as anything but a neutral actor who had their interests in mind. The NPS was part of the same government that had murdered their ancestors over a hundred years ago. They were now upholding the drawings of a grave robber over those of a person who was wounded by white soldiers at the Sand Creek Massacre. Unlike the Sand Creek Massacre, public history is actually a battleground, and Kelman’s book shows the lengths that every participant will go to make sure that they win.

The contest between the Natives and the American government over how the Sand Creek Massacre should be remembered began almost immediately after the 3rd Colorado scalped its last Cheyenne victim shows the minefield that the public historians entered. Kelman shows the evolution of the government’s history of the massacre in his first chapter. Initially, Colonel Chivington attempted to present the events at Sand Creek not as a massacre, but instead as a justified battle that avenged Native atrocities against white settlers. When overwhelming evidence made that interpretation unpalatable, the government decided to commemorate the Sand Creek Massacre as a massacre, but in doing so its representatives argued that the acknowledgement of past sins meant that they were washed away in the present. Native leaders rejected this interpretation. The government continued to oppress them even if it finally got around to apologizing for an event that happened over a hundred years ago. Laird Cometsevah and others saw the creation of the Sand Creek Massacre Memorial not as an end to the government’s repentance over Sand Creek, but instead as a first step that would lead towards the reparations promised by the government to the Sand Creek descendants in another broken treaty between America and Native Americans. Kelman’s history shows how public historians wanted to simply utilize their professional training to create what they saw as the most accurate history of the Sand Creek Massacre as possible. However, the many disputes and controversies over the creation of the memorial proves that even the most well-meaning public historians cannot use their expertise to avoid politics.

Other actors beyond the Native groups and the government were intimately involved in the creation of the Sand Creek Massacre National Memorial, especially landowners whose land would create the memorial. To a certain extent, the NPS accommodated the differing views of these actors as well. My question is would it have been much easier for the government to simply declare eminent domain over these parcels of land and donate it to the Native groups to do with it whatever they wanted? Is the government the proper owner of a piece of land when it committed a crime against innocent people on that land?

The other question has to do with the status of public historians in the creation of these memorials. One of the major disputes that the Cheyenne and Arapaho leaders, as well as local landowners like the Bowens, had with the historians employed by the NPS was that they seemed to be ignoring their history in preference for what the historians felt was the most accurate history of the Sand Creek Massacre. Is it better for outside professional historians to take the lead in the interpretation of a site such as Sand Creek whose history is so controversial, or should locals and descendants of participants in the historical event take the lead despite their lack of formal training in history? Would it be possible for public historians to train these amateur actors in historical techniques and them step back and allow them to come to their own conclusions for the proper interpretation of the site?

Lightly edited from Source: So Many Actors, So Many Narratives by Andrew Young

Creating Memory, Identity, and Purpose in the National Parks System

The readings for this week’s discussion included a broad study of the history of the National Parks Service followed by three articles that narrowed our focus to three more specific aspects of NPS preservation and interpretation. As a whole these readings raise questions about how to approach issues such as, determining purpose, defining memory, and creating identity in the context of the NPS. However, it becomes clear in completing all three readings that the park service and the field of public history are closely intertwined not simply because the NPS manages historical sites and monuments, but because each tackles the same set of issues in serving the public.

One of the main topics we discuss and explore in our coursework is the question of the purpose of museums and other vehicles for bringing history to the public. In its early days (and certainly as it has evolved throughout the 20th century), the National Parks Service also attempted to define its purpose. The first director of the NPS, Stephen Mather, decided to emphasize the importance of parks for their economic potential as tourist destinations (Mackintosh, 21). Less than 20 years later; however, the system was redefined once more. On August 10, 1933 an Executive Order signed by FDR that created a “single system of federal parklands, truly national in scope, embracing history as well as historic places” went into effect (Mackintosh, 28). Therefore, after 1933 the NPS was forced to find their purpose as a system in charge of parks, reservations, monuments, and historic sites. Alicia Barber’s study of Scotts Bluff demonstrates that while the Park Service attempted to reconcile competing demands for recreation and conservation, local involvement in developing the monument increased (Barber, 44). Should the NPS focus on recreation, conservation, education, or something else entirely? Much like the park service, public history institutions need purpose in order to function.

Closely connected to determining purpose are the issues of defining public memory and creating identity. John Bodnar’s definition of public memory is “a body of beliefs and ideas about the past that help a public or society understand both its past, present, and by implication, its future” (Barber, 37). Barber created a distinction between local memory and national memory when discussing Scotts Bluff. Locals continued to feel a sense of ownership over newly federalized spaces (Barber, 38). As a result, they often feel entitled to determine how their monument/park/history is remembered. The people near Scotts Bluff remember the monument as a place to hike to in order to enjoy scenic views; however, the NPS saw the monument as part of a national story of Anglo-American progress as a marker on the Oregon Trail (Barber, 58). Individual groups of people remember their history differently than outsiders and it is important to consider when representing them.

The National Park Service used the re-creation of the Shenandoah National Park to go as far as creating memory about the Park Service itself. The NPS removed families from the park area and added the Skyline Drive in order to create a tourist destination in a park re-made to look natural (Maher, 105). However, the narrative of a “natural” park is not completely accurate. New species were introduced to the area and instead of allowing nature to run its course without human intervention, humans continued to intervene (Maher, 108). Just as institutions today can shape their own story, the NPS used Shenandoah to shape theirs.

Similar to public history the Park Service is also active in creating identities. On one hand, local identities are created when monuments, parks, and historic sites are declared. The people near Scotts Bluff; for example, shaped themselves around their monument (Barber, 60). Simply the creation of parks created a national identity during the New Deal Era. The Civilian Conservation Corps transformed the American landscape while creating the identity of the American man. The CCC promoted the idea that hard labor in nature was a means of transforming Italian, Polish, and Jewish boys into American men (Reich, 448). Simultaneously, the work of the CCC reshaped the politics of conservation in the United States (Reich, 436). Men from the CCC took jobs in federal conservation agencies while some even created new environmental organizations (Reich, 453). Therefore, the United States’ environmental identity was created alongside the creation of national parks.

Question 1: My first question for the class relates to Scotts Bluff. What lessons can we as public historians learn about reconciling local and national memory? Sometimes it is not enough to decide to combine the two. In the case of Scotts Bluff, local traditions like the derby harmed the monument site and conflicted with the conservation goals of the NPS. How do you choose between two conflicting purposes that have origins in two different memories? Does there have to be a choice at all?

Question 2: Should the National Park Service be in control of historic sites? Public historians and park officials share two goals: preservation and education. However, is it possible to improve the management of historic sites by separating them from national parks and reservations? Perhaps they are similar enough. Public historians and the NPS do both have to decide what to preserve and present, thus determining what is significant. I’m honestly just curious to know what people think.

 

Lightly edited from Source: Pawnee: The Paris of America by Katherine Fusick

The Question of Professionalism and Authority in the Black Museum Movement

Andrea Burns’ From Storefront to Monument explores the movement within the black community to promote a more accurate and positive portrayal of African American history and culture. Black communities aspired to emphasize their “uniquely ‘black’ identity and consciousness” and make this more readily available to the public (5).  To achieve this goal, black communities began to form museums which presented an alternative narrative to the misrepresentation and bias that was often seen in the telling of American history at other institutions and in school.  A counter narrative was to be proposed, as Burns says, “to the narrative of invisibility practiced in mainstream museums” (4). This becomes an interesting thought to consider once you realize a couple years down the line national mainstream museums would then take the counter narrative of African American history and adopt it within their own museums.  African American history and culture soon became “more commonplace in so-called white institutions” who had better access to funding, staff, and artifacts (138).

Burns uses case studies of the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago, the International Afro-American Museum in Detroit, the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum in Washington, D.C., and the African American Museum of Philadelphia to argued that, despite their various individual struggles and avenues towards creation, these museums were pioneers of the local community museum. Unlike the Henry Ford or Henry Mercer museums, these African American museums were not created by wealthy and powerful men, nor were they created by museum professionals. Instead, they were grassroots institutions, established by local black communities and their leaders.  Some of these museums, like the DuSable Museum in Chicago, naturally grew from early ventures within residents’ homes which functioned as both meeting spaces and areas to collect and preserve artifacts representing black culture.  In other cases, like the African American Museum of Philadelphia, a museum was created by members of the black community in response to the lack of representation and general exclusion of black organizations and projects at the city’s Bicentennial celebration in 1976.  It is because of museum leaders’ intimate involvement, as an “active force within th[ier own] communit[ies]” (182) that these museums were better able to understand and cater to their audience, as they pushed to show not just anyone’s history- but their own history.

However, African American museums struggled to curate and prepare their exhibits without professional expertise.  As Burns writes, at the African American Museum of Philadelphia there was a recognition that “academic involvement might make it easier to attract grant money for the [museum] project” (48).  Similarly, Burns notes that the absence of a professional archive at the Philadelphia museum, “detracted from the primary mission of African American museums- namely to educate and serve their audiences” (123).  Yet, as these museums began to become more professionalized, they were no longer connected to their intended audiences as they once were.  This new professionalism seemed to wither away the close-knit interactions of the museum with the local community.

This brings me to my first question: Can it be argued that these African American museums should have remained unprofessional and continued to function as “amateur” local community based museums? Should the African American museums have found a way to operate outside of the government and outside of museum professionals, especially since these museums, in their efforts to professionalize, were seemingly turning away their originally intended audiences? As we have touched on in various classes, what is the correct balance between amateur and expert?

The book also seemed to address the more general question of who had the right to interpret African American history.  In other words, as is often questioned within the field of public history, who has authority?

This leads into my second question: Who did, and does, have the authority to tell African American history? Do dominant mainstream institutions have a right to show African American history and culture within their own museums when many African Americans believed that they had no right to do so? African American leaders insisted that black history should be told by blacks, that being told by someone else would “compromise the integrity of the stor[y]” (160); these leaders did not want the government (who had shown historical incompetence, oversight, and bias towards blacks) to have the ultimate authority in the creation of a national African American museum, like the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C.  Therefore, should the telling of these African American histories remain instead in the hands of local communities?

 

Burns, Andrea A. From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.

Slightly edited from Source: The Question of Professionalism and Authority in the Black Museum Movement by Sarah Huston

Feel the Burns: The Struggle to Maintain a Museum’s Message and Community Outreach

Andrea Burns’ From Storefront to Monument is a crucial read for several reasons. With the highly anticipated National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAH) scheduled to open next year, it’s important to reflect on the success and failure of previous African American history museums and to look for specific solutions to help them retain community  support while also maintaining the message on which they were founded. African American history museums such as Chicago’s DuSable Museum and the African American Museum of Philadelphia helped form the African American museum movement. Each had a  profound impact on black neighborhood museums and a strong influence on the broader museum profession and its methodology. (179). This book analyzes the history of African American representations in museums, and exposes the complicated politics involved. These museums were created in order to represent the specific African American struggle to have historical representation and, therefore, a more positive and active space for identity formation. Burns addresses the significance of having museums that work to accurately depict history as communities change and evolve with “a sense of opportunity and self worth” (78).

Similar to the people we encountered in previous readings such as Everybody’s History and Museums in American Intellectual Life, most of the founders of the neighborhood museums Burns explores were historians or museum professionals. Rather, they were black community leaders (3). This influenced not only each institution’s original work, but also its further development. Creating these museums wasn’t just about gathering artifacts. In neighborhood museums such as the DuSable Museum, leaders hoped to reach “an audience believed to be in danger of slipping through society’s cracks: black children and teenagers” (75). Their approach was much more local and had more of a social justice agenda.

In order to avoid some of the financial, political, and community-based problems that came with the founding African American museums, it’s important to look back at how conflicts were handled and the impact that compromises had on mission and audience. What happens when museums start to lose money or employers? How to they stay open while keeping their message? New York City’s El Museo del Barrio, a community museum founded for Puerto Rican culture, faced financial difficulties and consequently the board decided to broaden the museum’s mission in order to draw in more crowds and therefore more money (180). But the community resisted. The museum had lost touch with its mission, origin, and community.

The fact that community leaders established and ran these museums also became problematic. Under pressure to become more professional, many museums began to replace individuals with strong community ties with professional curators and museum directors who often lacked community connections.  During the 1980s, the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum replaced some of their more community driven exhibits because of concerns about “the museum’s inferior status in relation to the rest of the Smithsonian system” (185). Burns argues that eliminating the community ties from neighborhood museums contradicts their mission. At the same time, institutionalization and change can help the museum build creative opportunities to evolve and grow with the community. Is there a way to create better balance between community interests and professional interests?

I found it commendable that Burns included an entire chapter on the future of African American museums, particularly the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) at the Smithsonian.  I believe with so much happening in our society today, we can benefit for having a good basis of community representation as well as a successful representation in DC for people all over the world to see. I hope that this museum has found creative ways to address the issues that Burns has identified in the history of African American museums, because it could help the visitors understand some of the conflicts in running museums. It could also create a better dialogue between the museum and the visitors. Could the NMAACH offer to accept donations from their visitors on behalf of community museums?

The NMAAHC’s website claims that the museum hopes to remember in a country that is known for forgetting, and by remembering it will “foster a spirit of reconciliation and healing.”

Since the NMAAHC was established under different circumstances than other black museums, will it still face problems in maintaining its message while keeping praise from visitors? Is this conflict inevitable?

Edited from Source: Feel the Burns: The Struggle to Maintain a Museum’s Message and Community Outreach by Jenn Montooth

How Museums and Intellectuals Came Together–and How They Split Apart

The turn of the twentieth century in America was a time when the boundaries between public history and academic history were much more fluid than they would be in later decades. The two chapters in Steven Conn’s book Museums and Intellectual Life, 1876-1926 complicated the picture I have held of the history of the development of  museums at the turn of the century.

The subjects of these two chapters are methods to present history to the public that I would consider to be incredibly flawed. The anthropology museums in Chicago and Philadelphia adapted Darwinism to present what they interpreted as the progress of human society. These museums created a hierarchy that placed objects from European cultures above those of other cultures. They perpetuated the idea of white racial superiority over supposedly inferior races. Meanwhile, the object-based museums created by people like Henry Mercer and Henry Ford took artifacts from American out of their original context and instead interpreted them based on the whims and ideologies of the museums’ creators. The artifacts at these museums now teach us more about the personalities of Mercer and Ford than they teach us about the cultures in the past that made use of them.

However, Conn’s goal with this book is not to criticize the interpretation strategies of the Field Museum or Greenfield Village. Instead, he explores how contemporary intellectuals in academic anthropology and history interacted with the museums that developed contemporaneously to their careers. At first, academics like Franz Boas were willing work to develop the exhibits at Chicago’s Field Museum because they felt that the museums  offered the opportunity to advance research and understanding of human cultures. Similarly, Henry Mercer and other museum directors could become respected in professional history circles despite a lack of academic training in history.

Conn charts how these interactions broke down and separated public history from academic history. Boas and other contemporary academic anthropologists felt that the evolutionary way in which museums looked at different human cultures was creating a biased story that did nothing to increase our understanding of anthropology. Eventually, academic anthropology separated itself from any interaction with anthropology museums. This meant that the story that anthropology museums presented to the public was fatally flawed according to the leading professionals in the field. The separation between academic and public history had baleful consequences for both sides. Academic historians lost their ability to influence one of the most common ways in which the public discovers their past, while public historians lost access to the most cutting-edge ideas of the correct way to interpret the past. Museums proved to be too inflexible to uproot the way they presented their collections to satisfy academics, while academics refused to take the time to to change these large institutions radically. The two disciplines stopped talking to one another, and thus did not learn anything from one another.

Conn also makes the important point that professional historians of the early twentieth century lost out when they refused to adapt ideas from museum leaders like Henry Mercer. Scientific historians discounted the importance of everyday objects as a way to discover and interpret the past. Their histories were thus elitist tomes that ignored the contributions and accomplishments of illiterate or semi-literate humans to the development of our contemporary world. Mercer’s presentation was flawed, but his emphasis on objects predated the development of social history later in the century. Conn’s book illustrates the negative consequences of when academics historians refuse to consider the needs and desires of historians who tend to interact more regularly with the general public.

Conn’s work raises the following issues in public history:

The different needs and audiences of museum historians and academic historians.

The need for both disciplines to interact intimately with one another so that flaws in the way each discipline interprets and presents history can be corrected.

Even the most misguided and amateur historian, such as Henry Ford, should have a voice in the way that history is presented. It is possible that they may have some ideas that improve on what the professionals are doing.

Conn’s chapters leave a couple of important questions for discussion.

Conn covers a fifty year time period around the turn of the twentieth century in which the modern museum and the modern academic history discipline were being developed. Are there some issues between academic and public history that are unique to that time period? Do some issues between that two disciplines remain?
Conn’s work is almost entirely about the debate between history professionals over how the past should be interpreted. Based on the Erekson book does the general public have an influence on this debate? In what ways does the general public express this influence, if it does indeed possess any sort of power over the discipline?

Source: Andrew Young, How Museums and Intellectuals Came Together–and How They Split Apart

Don’t Conn-fuse me with someone who knows how a museum should be organized

These selections from Steven Conn’s Museums and American Intellectual Life, 1876-1926 did a lot to deepen my understanding of the genealogy of the history museum in America. Conn looks especially at competing visions of the “object-based epistemology” (80) that’s still with us today – ideas about which objects museums ought to display, how those objects are presented (and how the physical space of the museum is used) in order to create historical narratives, and how those narratives reflect the ideologies of the present in which they were conceived (whether patriotism, white supremacy, the Frontier Theory, or Henry Ford’s “sentimental longings” (154)).

Essential to the development of museums has been the development of the professional disciplines behind them; Conn traces the relationship between museums and the university-based disciplines of history, anthropology, art, etc., and how the changing parameters of those disciplines in turn changed the way museums presented their objects and human subjects of study. Here’s Conn at the top of page 95 on The University Museum in Philadelphia: “The functional and religious items collected from existing primitive groups had no value as art, but they could be studied instead as scientific specimens. By the turn of the century . . . the categories of art and history helped define the difference between civilization and primitivism when Western eyes gazed on ancient societies or contemporary primitive groups.”

Conn’s Chapter 5, about Henry Ford and his inspiration, Henry Mercer, looks further at the ironies that resulted from an abundance of faith in objects to transmit historical meaning.

I wonder if anyone else noticed the parallel with the Southwestern Indiana Historical Society on pages 170-171, where Conn describes how a more or less local public history endeavor (Mercer’s Bucks County museum) corroborated a popular historical narrative that begged certain political conclusions related to the present (Turner’s Frontier Thesis). Mercer’s “Tools of the Nation Maker” exhibit “gave material form to Turner,” Conn writes, and marked a movement “from the consideration of particular objects to the consideration of the whole country: ‘in the largest sense the story of Eastern Pennsylvania and of its Bucks county is that of the whole nation. . . .’ [Mercer said] (171).” As we move along in the semester I’ll be interested to follow the dynamics between small-scale public history organizations and the academic trends or popular theses that exist outside of them. We’ve seen examples now of local public historians accommodating a larger trend in scholarship (the Frontier Thesis) and also refuting one (the pre-Southwestern narrative of Lincoln’s boyhood).

Question 1 for y’all:

Here’s Conn in Chapter 5, page 187, summarizing the failure of Mercer’s approach: “He never quite explained what one was supposed to do in the presence of these artifacts. Reading history from ordinary objects, which seemed so easy and clear to Mercer, proved more difficult and opaque for others.”

In our own time we have access to so many more ways of communicating information to museum audiences than people like Mercer had in the early 20th century: audio aids and the use of film have been around forever, digital technology and online resources are all over the place, etc.

I’m wondering where the difference falls in practice between Mercer’s failed belief that “the objects he collected yielded their meaning without difficulty or resistance” (188) and the notion of deliberately presenting historical objects in such a way that would make their meanings seem ambiguous or open to interpretation to museum visitors. Is there a balance somewhere between on the one hand providing enough context and coherence in a museum that visitors will understand the message the museum is trying to communicate and on the other, leaving that work up to the visitors themselves at the risk of them not “getting it” at all? It seems to me like you open up a lot of space for dialog in a museum where the meanings of certain objects are open to interpretation (a cotton gin seems like a classic example), but that obviously wasn’t Mercer’s intention. I just wonder if anyone can think of examples where there are good grounds for museums to put more responsibility on the visitor for recognizing the significance and meaning of certain objects.

Question two for y’all:

I had forgotten how weird Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village is; I went there once as a kid and all I remember is that my older brother was asked to sing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” into a phonograph for some reason. It’s fascinating because there’s totally a logic behind Greenfield Village even though it seems so outside of what we imagine as effective (or ethical!) museum curation today: Ford “used the buildings of the village to give context to his blacksmith’s tools and farm equipment, but he also wanted to collect these contexts in the same encyclopedic way” (158). For me, the project Greenfield Village itself is way more interesting than any of those individual buildings.

Couldn’t someone make the case that Greenfield Village should be “disassembled” and those buildings returned to their original locations? Those sorts of arguments are made all the time about plundered artworks. My question is whether there’s any criteria for keeping a place like Greenfield Museum around (for its novelty? for what it says about Henry Ford?, etc.) or if there’s a point at which the original intentions of a museum are so out of step that their ownership of certain objects denies those objects some of the meaning they might communicate in a different context?

Source: Andrew Holter, Don’t Conn-fuse me with someone who knows how a museum should be organized

A Reflection on Keith A. Erekson’s Everybody’s History

In Everybody’s History Keith Erekson challenged me to reconsider what I thought I understood about the value, origin, and purpose of historical societies. More broadly, his book contributes to the larger intellectual project –in which many of us in the field are engaged—to reframe the history of public history, paying attention to its origins and evolution OUTSIDE of the discipline of history.

Traditionally, historical societies have been studied as exclusive spaces, established as a way to document and preserve the elite status of their members. James Lindgren’s work on the creation of preservation associations in New England and in Virginia makes clear that each organization gathered collections and protected pasts in order to preserve the status quo. Pamela West’s work on historic houses similarly draws attention to the ways in which such institutions sought to prevent change and protect exclusive values. But in the creation of the Southwestern Indiana Historical Society and its Lincoln Inquiry, Erekson shows us a historical society established to counter a dominant narrative not to sustain it. In the case of the Southwestern the goal was to prove the humanity and complexity of Indiana’s “pioneers.” This would seem to be a difference without a difference –after all, underlying this effort is still a desire for legitimacy and a kind of reclamation of ancestral roots– were it not for the process that Erekson documents. The Southwestern was a society that engaged a broad swath of men AND women in popular history making. This is particularly notable because it was doing so at a time during which the trend was toward professionalization and masculinization of the broad field of public history.

Erekson also addresses the long-evident divide between public history and its academic cousin. He does so, however, from a new vantage point. He observes the uneasy relationship not from the perspective of academics who are disdainful of public practice, but rather from the perspective of society members. Here we see men –and women—who saw themselves as engaged in a viable historical process. They actively put themselves in conversation with academics. They seemed to me less in interested in whether or not they were judged as “real” historians and more interested in having their  findings judged as viable and their past judged as relevant.

The most important contribution that Erekson makes to public history scholarship lies in his work to identify antecedents for several ideas and practices that are now central to the field, including:

An emphasis on the social nature of historical work

A focus on the relevance and immediacy of the past

An interest in immersing the audience in an experience

His book makes it easier –perhaps—for us to then engage in a more historically nuanced conversation about the tensions that underlie public history practice.

To that end, I would start with these two questions.

First, I do think Erekson is concerned with the problem of authority –a problem that has troubled the field of public history since its inception. In my own work, I see this as a problem that was made manifest because public historians wanted to be taken seriously as scholars. Is this the same source of the “authority problem” in Erekson’s book? Where do arguments over authority erupt and why?

Second, I think Erekson’s book raises really interesting and thorny questions about “dominant narratives” and “counter narratives.” He is focused on a period of time during which the story of “pioneers” in Indiana needed to be reclaimed and reconsidered. What happens when a story moves from margin to center? Is the story of Indiana’s pioneers now a mainstream American Story? Was something lost in translation from local to national, from margin to center?

Post by Denise D. Meringolo