Methods and Mandates in Historical Activism

In the Historical Methods class I’m taking this semester, I’ve been struggling to frame a topic for my semester-end paper (which will be due all too soon!). I want to look at historical preservation and historical interpretation as methods of historical work alongside the schools of thought we’ve read about: everything from Rankean objectivity to Marx to the Annales school to Orientalism. I’ve been struggling because it’s been hard to know where to start assembling a historiographical framework. For one, it seems like there has been less theoretical work done in public history fields such as preservation and interpretation, and that which has been done has been done within the last few decades.

Then along came this week’s reading and my task for Methods snapped into focus. Cathy Stanton is an anthropologist (her internal citations totally irked me at first), but she begins The Lowell Experiment: Public History in a Postindustrial City with a history of the discipline of public history and then a very thorough examination of the shortfalls in the scholarship. Stanton refers to several key titles that were familiar to me: The New History in an Old Museum: Creating the Past at Colonial Williamsburg by Richard Handler and Eric Gable, which is explicitly about frontline interpretation, and the works of Dean MacCannell on tourism, which I wouldn’t have immediately connected as relevant, but which now seem essential to my task. I have a lot of reading ahead.

Stanton didn’t only provide a historiography from which to build, however. She also articulates her own methods and her specific research concerns in a way that will be useful to me as I write the paper. Stanton doesn’t examine interpretation writ large (I’ll have to look to some other titles, such as Interpreting Our Heritage by Freeman Tilden, for that) but problematizes much of the interpretation delivered by park rangers at Lowell National Park in very specific ways that nonetheless are applicable elsewhere. For instance, I’ve been thinking about Hayden White’s notion of the “emplotment” of history and how it is, conventionally at least, a foundational strategy of an interpretive tour. When presenting information linearly through space and time, it has generally been most effective for guides to structure narratives that play out narratively rather than jumping around in time and space.

Another reading we had was Jill Ogline’s account of “‘Creating Dissonance for the Visitor’: The Heart of the Liberty Bell Controversy”, published in The Public Historian in 2004. Tackling the complexity of the tussle over meaning at the Liberty Bell site in the midst of the controversy, Ogline cannot really provide much closure. It was a great read having visited the site only a few weeks ago with the Introduction to United States History class I’m taking. On that occasion we came away from the President’s House monument with complaints about the jumbled and often jarringly varied narratives within that space alone (excluding the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, the Constitution Center, and the National Museum of American Jewish History, all which are very near by). However, reading Ogline’s essay, I began to understand—to some extent—the fact that even the imperfect execution was a profound achievement of Historian activists.

Historian activists cropped up in Stanton’s book too as she examined the political leanings of the original interpretive team and the paradox the rangers find themselves in currently, balancing a labor-centered interpretive plan with the economic development model of the present economy in Lowell. The clarion call for public historians to be explicit in their advocacy for social justice was also prominent in Interpreting Difficult History at Museums and Historic Sites, by Julia Rose, which I read a bit of before receiving clarification that it wasn’t a required text for Thursday (of course it too will likely have a prominent role in my Methods paper!). All of these rallying cries felt very poignant given the seismic conclusion to this year’s presidential election which left me (and more than a few of my classmates) reeling emotionally, ontologically, and vocationally. The connections between the national political discourse and career paths in history and how those careers in return engage politics were teased out in Introduction to United States History today in a cathartic session that saw a few tears shed (Shout out to Cynthia who brought chocolate to raise the spirits!).

As I consider these readings, and the mandate they provide for historical engagement with contemporary politics and society, I come full circle in this blog post and consider how the particular methods of Public History uniquely equip my role models and my peers to engage that mandate. To what extent are the methods and the mandate inextricably linked and to what extent are they simply part of the set of concerns that emerged in the 1970s professionalization of public history as social historians left the academy for ideological and economic reasons? Are the methods and mandate particularly well suited to each other? To what extent to the economic forces at work in heritage sites (and “heritage” seems to share space with “history” at Lowell) contradictory to the marriage of method and mandate?

Questions to ponder as I read more and the semester flies by.


Jill Ogline, “‘Creating Dissonance for the Visitor’: The Heart of the Liberty Bell Controversy” The Public Historian, Vol. 26, No. 3 (Summer 2004), pp 49-58

Cathy Stanton, The Lowell Experiment: Public History in a Postindustrial City, University of Massachusetts Press: Boston, MA, 2006.

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