Readings for this week included Pennsylvania in Public Memory (Carolyn Kitch), The Presence of the Past (Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen), Historians in Public: The Practice of American History, 1890-1970 (Ian Tyrrell), and Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History (Denise Meringolo).
In The Presence of the Past, the authors conduct a survey of Americans to discover their attitudes towards the past, not big academic history per se, but rather the past in general. They find Americans to be quite interested in the past and quite active in activities relating to it. However, most were limited to their immediate, familial past instead of the broader past.
For historians who wish to engage the general public, this is helpful insight. People are curious about their immediate past; is there a way we can link that to the broader past to draw people in? Can we use that to help them relate to the past, engage with it, and learn from it? I think the answer to both is yes. Figuring out how to do those things is the real work.
Tyrrell in the first two chapters of Historians in Public mostly focuses on internal historical problems, such as the debates over specialization and the ways in which it changed in meaning and organization but always seemed to remain in one form or another.
Historians are people, and only have so much time. To fully study the history of the world and everything would take very many lifetimes. So unless all historians study it all at the very broadest level, specialization is inevitable. Tyrrell does not seem to think it is a problem, but many of the historians he chronicles did. Which leaves the questions: did they waste their time, worrying about the inevitable? And does all this debate, within the ivory tower, take away from our ability to reach the public?
In Museums, Monuments, and National Parks, Meringolo is primarily concerned with the history of public history as a profession. She contends public history has much older roots and longer lineage than the common view which associates it strongly with its rise in the 1970s. She mentions its roots with natural scientists and the museum of Charles Wilson Peale (although she leaves out P.T. Barnum and his museum, probably for good reason). She is largely focused on how public history grew with the federal government, and especially—as is only fair—the National Park Service.
My experience as an undergrad, in a way, both confirms and challenges the idea that public history’s genealogy needs updating. In my museum classes, we discussed Peale and the early museums, while in preservation we discussed the Park Service and the women’s groups who saved various sites. So in each specialty, the long history is not forgotten. However in intro to public history, we started at the 1970s. So in the broader sense, I can agree with a need to expand the definition.
I saved Pennsylvania in Public Memory for last because I connected with it the most. Here, Kitch discusses the issues of retaking abandoned industrial sites and repurposing them into historical sites. She also discusses the conflicts between history and heritage. Her visits to many of Pennsylvania’s former industrial sites informs her discussion.
One in particular is the remains of Bethlehem Steel. I am from Allentown, pretty close to this site. I have heard the same expressions of shock and sadness at the closing of the plant that she mentions, and have seen some of the local documentaries and events commemorating the plant. Clearly it had a big impact on the community—but unlike many of the other steelmaking places she mentions (Braddock PA), Bethlehem is still a very vibrant city, and the city itself, as I remember it, was never completely devastated even in the years immediately following the plant’s demise (in fact it has always seemed much better off than Allentown). Which could be the subject for another book—why did Bethlehem thrive when Braddock went down?
In any case, telling history at that site has always been a problem. She mentions the museum planned to be built there, but published before the director was hauled before a grand jury for gross incompetence in mishandling money. (Here is a pretty fun article about it from the local newspaper: http://articles.mcall.com/2014-03-01/news/mc-bethlehem-national-museum-industrial-history-ca-20140301_1_industrial-history-industrial-museum-larger-museum. Click read more below for great quotes.).
The public historian assisting with the project was very frustrated even before that, which points to another challenge for us: how do we handle people from outside the discipline who have executive power but refuse our advice?
Ponder that. Good luck!