Friday, June 15, 2012

History Practitioners, Unlicensed

My imaginary license to practice history 

I had a couple of visitors tell me the other day that they had stopped at a historic home somewhere along their route and were appalled at the gross misrepresentation of history at that site. "You should do something about that," they informed me. I explained to them that there is no official criteria to open or run a historic site and that in these States United, private individuals and organizations are allowed to say what they want regardless of gross misrepresentations. This idea had clearly never crossed their minds. As far as they knew, they have been lied to this whole time by museums! We continued a conversation about history presentations at historic places and how these sites tend to reflect the contemporary understanding of the past.

Our conversation prompted my own thoughts about how members of the public perceive historic sites, museums, and other cultural institutions. People trust museums and often take the information presented at face value. They don't necessarily ask "does this place reflect the most up-to-date-scholarship?" They usually just ask "where is the restroom?"

Just kidding. Mostly.

While training programs exist, there is no mandatory school for museum or historic site managers. Some would even argue that the best managers come with a business background, a skill set vital in an age where money for the humanities is scarce. Historians have been trained to research and retell the story of the past with the best possible evidence. Historians working with the public have been trained to disseminate that information in the most accessible manner. There is no test, no annual refresher, no license providers for historians. Many visitors don't know that, however.

So do we try to change this? Do we advocate for a professional monitoring source, an agency that can issue a license or stamp its seal of approval? I would argue "no, not entirely although there may be some merit in it." That ambiguous answer comes from a combination of my understanding of history and how history "works." I understand history as a conversation on collective memory. People perceive the past in different ways. Even those experiencing the same event may remember it differently that the others who experienced the same event. Visitors engaging the stories that historic sites tell of the past will leave with differing experiences and understandings. I think one of the most important things historic sites can do is provide a place for feedback and engagement. Facts might wrong, but society is moving in a direction where we can access the world deftly with palm-sized mobile technology. Obviously, professional, independent, untrained, and other types of historians want to present as accurate information as possible. But how the facts are presented impacts the visitor experience. Differing perceptions of a place or a story represents the diversity of the human experience. Encouraging visitors to consider their own role in remembering the past may be a way to get visitors to think about information presented at that and other sites.

Organizations, like the National Council on Public History, provide opportunities for professional development, networking, and conversations to happen about improving history at work in the public. Historians are trying to do their best with what they've got! Conveying how history is "done" may be another step in encouraging more historic thought among the public. How often does the public get to see researchers and the process behind researching? I like to watch NBC's Who Do You Think You Are? and giggle. In the show, actors and actresses learn of their genealogy on screen. The part that gets me is the archivists and researchers; they just open magic books and ta da! All information is neatly ready for the two-minute presentation to the film star. What the show does not demonstrate is how researchers may have poured hours or days or weeks of time into their efforts. What about the efforts it takes to put together a museum? That story of choice, about the decisions managers make, about what is included (and alternatively left out) can reveal as much as the museum itself. Visitors seeing some of the "behind-the-scenes" actions can be encouraged to ask "how" and "why" questions. Again, this may be a method to encourage a broader historical thinking.

As far as a history license goes, we have strict standards for doctors, lawyers, even HVAC technicians and cosmologists. We have no official professional standardized bar for historians or historic site managers. Think about THAT the next time you cross the threshold of a historic site (at least before you proceed to ask "where is the restroom?").


  1. What's your stance on Sam Wineburg's Historical Thinking? Is it an unnatural act? Can it be taught? Is it beyond the capabilities of some?

  2. Ahh, Will. Starting my Saturday morning with questions that deserve essay-length answers? I'd have it no other way. I have been thinking on how I wanted to answer this all day and I believe I will give a short answer here and then a longer review in an actual post later.

    First, I want to say that I've seen struggles between history teachers/educators and historians working in the public (or public historians). And by "struggles," I mean I have seen outright arguments. For all intents and purposes, my experience has rested almost entirely on working with the public. Even the education programs I deliver are designed to spark interest (for I am not assigning students' grades, I am only attempting to evaluate their reception of whatever theme or message I present). Wineburg looks very closely at schools and schooling. In most open-to-the-public general programs, I am working with those who have already been through (and graduated some form of) school. I am also hoping their history teachers did right by them.

    Second, I want to point out that Wineburg's work on historical thinking is a reflection of his own time and culture, as well. I agree that we perceive our past through a contemporary, societal-defined lens, even that we are sometimes taught about our past through a contemporary, societal-defined lens. As an interpreter, I tap into that lens as a means to encourage a deeper historical understanding. And as an interpreter, I believe that historical thinking can be reached by anybody, though the interest level may not be there (and historical thinking is not something we can force).

    Third, I think part of my starting a blog in the first place is to sort out for myself my role as practicing historian. Am I teaching history or sparking interest in it? How can I better incorporate the two? Sparking interest (interpretation) means I am only stirring up those historical-thinking-dregs that may have settled to the bottom of a visitor's mind, understanding that historical thinking isn't necessarily unnatural, just untapped. Society doesn't choose to make history conversations a mainstream approach to how we interact; it is too easy to focus on the gazillion things that are happening right now. Sparking interest (interpretation) also means I understand that everybody can attain some level of historical thinking. If my role were more focused on teaching history, however, I might have a different approach.

    What are your thoughts on the "unnatural act" of historical thinking?