In reading The Presence of the Past, I became more cynical than optimistic towards the future of history. Like Michael Zuckerman in his response to the book’s publication, I noticed that a lot of the respondents only cared about the past if it pertained to their personal lives or families and rarely looked at history in a broader sense (Roundtable Responses, 20). Roy Rosenzweig’s said he did not see the “pathological, nonparticipatory, and ahistorical culture,” that Zuckerman observed (Roundtable Responses, 37). However, even recognizing people’s personal point of entry to the study of history can be difficult for public historians. How are public historians supposed to create an interpretation that appeals to many, if people seem to lack a collective conscience? Last week we read about how the National Park Service is struggling with telling an American story that is also inclusive and multicultural. Rosenzweig and Thelen’s study seems to indicate such work is quite difficult if not impossible. Currently, the NPS has a white-dominated narrative, but as the study shows, whites are not a monolith. Age and gender also play a large role in how a person looks at history. The study showed that men over the age of 65 thought U.S. history was the most important (Presence of the Past, 130). This finding is not surprising since old white men figure prominently in the history of the U.S., but it does mean that the majority of people do think history is “boring” and “irrelevant.”
Presence of the Past is also misleading in its portrayal of the popularity of museums and historic sites. Spencer Crew, then-director of the National Museum of American History was optimistic that Rosenzweig and Thelen’s respondents listed museums and historic sites as the most trustworthy (Roundtable Responses, 24). According to survey, people felt connected to museums and historic sites, because they were able to draw their own conclusions. Although it’s reassuring that the public trusts these places, attendance levels may prove that trust does not really exert an influence on the future of history museums. In “Passionate Histories,” Benjamin Filene cites a 2007 study which finds that, “History museums and historic sites showed the lowest popularity among the eight types of museums measured in this survey,” and, “for all demographic groups, history museums are the least popular” (“Passionate Histories,” 13). So, it may not really matter if people find museums and historic sites the most trustworthy if they never go there. Filene also mentions the comments of James Vaughan, vice president for Stewardship of Historic Sites at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, who said communities view museums and historic sites as, “irrelevant and unresponsive to societal change” (“Passionate Histories,” 14). How should public historians react to low attendance and poor reception from the public? Should they act more like outsider history-makers, who are much more popular than professional historians? Rebecca Conard brings up a good point on changing the historical interpretation to appease the public and increase attendance. She states that the quality of interpretation does little to draw people to historic places, and it is doubtful that a drastic change would bring in numbers. She is also concerned that a large enough deviation from the status quo may be met with opposition from, “those who control the storyline” (Roundtable Responses, 18). People may trust museums and historic sites, but ultimately, the majority of people do not care about them enough to go. How can public historians get people to care about a wider history than their own? Michael Zuckerman phrased the question, “How do historians reach out to people who don’t want to be touched?” (Roundtable Responses, 22).
Some solutions are offered by Benjamin Filene and David Thelen, but they were not satisfying. Outsider history-makers clearly have popularity among the public and share the same broad messages of history as professional historians do, but their history is too narrowly focused. I do not have problems with the histories told by outsider history-makers, but I do not think that that should be the only form of history. The consensus seems to be that professional historians and outsider history-makers need to meet half-way in order to find a good and popular history. However, public historians were hurt publicly by professionalizing, so will professional historians lose credibility academically if they become more accessible? I do not know the answer, but it seems like a hard question to answer. Professional historians may be, “painfully unaware of how people outside of their own circles understood and used the past,” but how are they to become more aware? (Presence of the Past, 2). Rosenzweig and Thelen’s study showed that professors were trusted sources for history, yet there still seems to be a disconnect between them and the public. How much should professionals historians pander to the public and how much should public historians professionalize? Is there a happy medium?
Lightly Edited from Source: What are Public Historians to do? by Eric Burroughs