Friday, April 11, 2008

Language, Emotion and Power: The Frustration and Exhilaration of Public History

I believe I have written this precise sentence before, perhaps dozens of times: Public historians are intimately engaged with the emotions, identities and beliefs of audiences in ways that traditional academics simply are not.

My experiences during today’s events at the National Council on Public History Annual Meeting reminded me of that truth.

This morning Edward T. Linenthal, spoke eloquently about memorials and, more broadly, about the memorial impulse behind many public history projects. He said the persistent belief that memorials are, by definition, acts of healing and reconciliation is baffling to him. Indeed, his work has produced much evidence to demonstrate that the process of memorial-building can open as many wounds as it heals, forget as many stories as it remembers, and exclude as many people (and as much pain) as it includes.

In a richly descriptive presentation, Linenthal reminded us that language matters, and that carefully chosen words sometimes have the effect of minimizing or (perhaps worse) normalizing acts of brutality and injustice. He noted: words can be the salt poured into the wounds of victims and survivors.

Linenthal has a long and prestigious body of scholarship from which to draw for examples. He has studied the ways in which Americans sanctify their battlefields, and has analyzed efforts to memorialize events as disparate as the Oklahoma City Bombing, the Holocaust, the events of September 11, 2001, and the Tulsa Oklahoma Race Riots of 1921. His work repeatedly demonstrates that the very events that official culture would like to forget because they do not reflect well on American history and identity are often the very events that form the core of localized, vernacular identities. In his words, officially forgotten places are often the most intensely remembered.

I left Linenthal’s talk thinking not simply about language, but about power.

As public historians we are often faced with the task of interpreting a collection of intensely remembered –and intensely contested—places, many of which are sites of violence and trauma. We have the daunting responsibility to engage mindfully with a cacophony of emotional sensibilities attached to such places. It is not always easy to quantify, contain and tame the power of what he calls “felt history.”

It may not ever be possible.

It might not actually even be advisable.

It may be that the very impulse to mitigate the emotional power of painful pasts is precisely what transforms memorials into sites of cultural amnesia rather than cultural memory. It is an act of power to insist on transforming felt history into some apparently "neutral" observation of past events.

Immediately following Dr. Linenthal’s talk, I lead a good natured group of graduate students on a soggy walking tour to three local museums – the Frazier International History Museum, the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory, and the Muhammad Ali Center. At each institition, we met museum educators and curators whose work requires them to think about the ways in which the artifacts they display and the stories they tell might connect to audiences and identities and arouse an emotional response.

At the Frazier, a traveling exhibit on the slave ship Henrietta provides a metaphor for the ways in which the educational staff is re-imagining the institution’s interpretive plan. The bulk of the museum's permanent collection consists of historical weapons from the United States and Great Britain. These weapons have been displayed in cases as artful artifacts. Viewed through the lens of the historical brutality and inhumanity emblematic of the slave trade, however, the weapons no longer appear unproblematic, innocent and attractive. At the Frazier, they believe conflict, emotion, and provocative language will attract new audience and engage them in conversations about the past as well as the future.

At the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory, a for-profit corporate institution, challenging stories about consumerism, capitalism and the transformation of sports into an industry are unlikely to accompany the baseball bats used by Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente. Yet, the young curator recently displayed a copy of the Mitchell Report alongside sporting gear used by athletes accused of “juicing,” a juxtaposition that invited audiences to explore the report's language without mediation or judgment. At the Muhammed Ali Center, the boxer’s story serves as the framework for values-based educational programming that might provide a framework for the institution to evolve as a site for new forms of civic education in the future.

Later in the afternoon, I attended a session that promised to provide some guidelines for fostering university-community partnerships. The three speakers presented case studies in which university based historians participated with their students in projects designed to benefit a local community. Each of the three described the ways in which academic-oriented historians might be of service to local communities. Yet, each of the three speakers also expressed a measure of surprise about the ways in which community stakeholders responded to ivory tower proclamations about the meaning and value of locally significant neighborhoods and buildings.

Because our work –whether we like it or not—shapes official and vernacular forms of American identity, we must not only remain mindful of our interpretive language, we must also remain mindful of our cultural position. Underneath every interpretive act, memorial gesture and carefully chosen word is a power struggle in which we actively engage beliefs about who we are as community members and Americans. It is our responsibility to make this power struggle transparent to our audiences, our clients, our colleagues and ourselves.

It is not enough to say that words matter, we must explore the reason that words matter and to do so we must actively expose the power dynamics of race, class, gender and ethnicity. Harder still, we must become conscious of the ways in which we –as well-educated producers of culture—both bolster and benefit from their power.

Felt history is a starting point from which we might find creative ways to work as equal partners with communities to generate new interpretations that help us arrive at a more complicated notion of who we are and what our past means.

(For short video excerpts from Ed Linenthal's keynote speech, click here. Kelly Britt also blogs about it on this site.)


Anonymous said...

Once again Linenthal offers powerful commentary on our cultural attitudes and preconceptions. How can old historical societies fruitfully participate in the "felt history" that motors so much public engagement in history?

After collecting September 11th objects, presenting Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America and exhibiting the 3 part series Slavery in New York, the New-York Historical Society has become more closer involved with the emotional power of history. Much of today's enthusiasm for African-American History was propelled by the seemingly official neglect of the African Burial Ground, which was saved only through noisy public action.

The notion that historical artifacts both memorialize and document events captures the overlap between scholarly and community-based responses to history. Our encounter with such hidden resources in history as lynching photography and slavery documents demonstrates the power of joining traditional research with vital public issues.

Furthermore, collecting items associated with the tragic history of the attack on the World Trade Center prodded us to look at how we use other earlier collection objects of everyday life, which resemble the sad remnants of desk drawers and pocketbooks retrieved at Fresh Kills landfill where the WTC ruins were carted. These insights collected from episodes of difficult history have encouraged curators to think more about the personal dimensions of these new landscapes of evidence.

Anonymous said...

The seminar on the historical interpretation of the Atomic Bomb offered a lively debate on the differences between the treatment of the subject at the Truman Library, Smithsonian, and Los Almos. The question of memorial or museum came up and one attendee questioned whether it should be the Smithsonian's goal to portray the history of the development and use of the bomb in an even-handed comprehensive way (to the extent that is even possible).

It was clear that the Smithsonian only provides a limited version of the story at this time, largely celebratory, and this led to a significant amount of consternation among the historians in attendance.

On the other hand, no one seemed as concerned that the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials sit at the other end of the Mall with nary a mention of the complex histories behind those two individuals and their times.

It was explained that "those are memorials" and the Smithsonian is a "museum" and the two should be treated differently. Coming on the heels of the Linenthal speech, and John Barnes' excellent piece in the latest issue of the Public Historian on the Bear River Massacre, I was left to wonder whether such a distinction is appropriate or even possible.

As Barnes points out, the original plaques commemorating Bear River were simply memorials to settlers who "overcame" the difficulties inherent with Western expansion. Only years later was the massacre better identified, acknowledged, and a fuller picture provided for in the monumentation.

The memorial evolved to tell the story we expect a museum to tell: the complete picture. Should we expect every memorial to do the same?