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
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
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.
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.