Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World is a collection of essays published by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. It was a timely read for me this week as I wrote a piece for AnabaptistHistorians.org about how Anabaptist Historians should embrace public history techniques such as shared authority.
In fact, I wish I had read Letting Go? before I wrote most of the post. I will certainly refer back to the collection of theory and case studies whenever I get around to writing the sequel. Briefly, here is a summary of that post (possibly slightly infused with my reading since I sent it off for copy-edit):
One might argue that public history’s concerns and methods are applicable to any sub-field of history, but I think Anabaptist history (and the broader, though less well-defined field of Anabaptist studies) could learn particular lessons from public historians. The academic conversations about Mennonites, Amish, Brethren in Christ, and historically associated denominations are primarily being carried out by highly-educated white people who can trace their lineage to somewhere in Northern Europe, perhaps by way of Russia or Ukraine. In the 21st century, however, the majority of Anabaptists live in the global South and are not part of those conversations about history, culture, and ethnicity. Anabaptist academics must find ways to reach beyond their comfort zones if they are to produce useful history work for the broader Anabaptist populations. Mostly I am trying to start a conversation about the broader public history movement because I think it hasn’t been brought to the table in Anabaptist circles much.
But back to the Letting Go?: Several of the essays are going to immediately enter my elevator pitch for when people ask me “What is public history?”
Michael Frisch, may have written the book (A Shared Authority) referred to in the subtitle to this book but he has no qualms about interrogating that title and its inherent assumptions. Like a mother cobra protectively circling its eggs, Frisch is venomous in “From A Shared Authority to the Digital Kitchen and Back.” He uses scare quotes around “user-generated world” and the “thought piece” (as the theoretical essays in the collection are called), and is generally dismissive of the project’s framework. I think Frisch has a point when he points out that “Sharing authority” suggests a condescension whereas “shared authority” recognizes that audience already shares authority with the author. While I find Frisch’s tone altogether condescending, his essay has some interesting ideas, such as the idea that oral histories should be “cooked” (this is a long extended metaphor, but basically it just means “made into a final product”) by historians in cooperation with an audience, perhaps in museum or library spaces. Given many of the problems of making oral histories accessible (which I don’t think Frisch altogether solves), the idea of shared processing and collaborative creation is an intriguing one.
The difficulties of oral history accessibility were also the subject of several essays that examined the cultural phenomenon that is StoryCorps. Frisch mentions the projects icy reception at the 2008 Oral History Association meeting, and Benjamin Filene explores some lessons that museums can learn from StoryCorps. In all mentions throughout Letting Go? StoryCorps is held up as a wildly successful project yet also at arm’s length due to its lack of historical pedigree or scholarly rigor. As a public humanities project, it has surely succeeded, but what is it’s place in the field of history?
The conversation between Jack Tschen and Liz Ševčenko (“The ‘Dialogic Museum’ Revisited”)was another highlight. Tschen wrote “Creating a Dialogic Museum: The Chinatown History Museum Experiment” over two decades ago, and Ševčenko was one of the folks that put that idea into action at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and expounding on it in the literature of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience.
As I work at a site that is a member of the Coalition, I was looking for principles that I could use in my day-to-day life. The exploration of “the relationship between dialogue and truth-telling” was nuanced and helpful but it didn’t give any easy answers. At work I’ve had several conversations (which have become more common since the election) about what kinds of comments to confront when we hear them and which to let go. Working at a prison museum leads to a lot of distasteful attempts at humor and some of the questions we ask about contemporary prisons unleash a lot of prejudice. While we have techniques to deflect or use some of these uncomfortable moments (and we practice them), several of my co-workers and I are finding that we avoid any level of confrontation, even engagement, with these comments since the election; we feel too sensitive and don’t trust themselves to hold it together. While few of the offensive things we hear are out-right untruths (such as denial of a massacre might be) it makes it harder to push back against them. Are we just unprepared to recognize the truth of others’ prejudice? Do we have a responsibility to let racist assumptions hang in the air or the opposite? Where is the line between dialogue and truth-telling?
Of the case studies, my favorites were “If These Walls Could Talk,” the Minnesota Historical Society’s recreation of a modest home, and City Lore’s City of Memory website. The 470 Hopkins exhibit at the MHS did some really simple things (combined oral history with a recreated and usable space) that resulted in a highly evocative meaning-making exhibit. I want to see it and also wish I’d done it first.
City of Memory is a project that maps stories onto the New York area, linking some of them into “tours.” When I visited the website, I was greeted by the Nuyorican Poets’ Cafe tour, a sequence of seven short video clips filmed on a physical tour that took place in 2006. I knew nothing about the Nuyorican poetry seen or Loisaida going into watching the videos but I thoroughly enjoyed the old poets’ reminiscences of a bygone era.
As I look back over the table of contents of Letting Go? and what I’ve written above, the only summary I can provide is that there’s a lot more here that I need to chew on and revisit. No easy answers but lots of good questions.