Sunday, April 13, 2008

Reflections on Responsibility: The Closing Plenary

The Closing Plenary of the National Council on Public History Annual Meeting provided an opportunity for attendees to reflect on the main themes of the conference. Three panelists amplified and complicated the ways in which conference sessions touched on issues professional responsibility. By linking questions about power, professionalism, political activism and emotional attachment, the speakers asked us to consider the precise nature and dynamic of our responsibility as historians in the public sector. They expressed both enthusiasm and caution about the role of public history in shaping the intellectual and the emotional content of the past.

Calinda Lee, a public history educator from Loyola University of Chicago, encouraged us to think critically about how we deploy professional authority. Over the course of the conference, she found herself becoming less skeptical about the value of “felt history,” recognizing it as a reflection of community status and beliefs. She admitted she had bristled when a secondary school teacher admitted her hesitation to represent slavery with images depicting the dire poverty of enslaved people. As a historian, Lee understood the complexity of these images and feared their absence in the classroom would only foster persistent myths. However, recognizing that the teacher's fears were not about the liberating potential of these images, but rather about their oppressive potential, she became more empathetic. For already marginalized students, such images might dis-empower students rather than giving them a sense of connection to the past. Images, like words, can pour salt into old wounds.

This understanding encouraged Lee to ask: “In whose service do we work.”

Lee observed a disjunction in the broad field of public history between those who feel compelled to shake the foundations of myth and those who recognize that myths contain elements of emotional truth. The sessions she attended provided evidence that public history can serve communities more effectively if we, as its practitioners, resist the impulse to dismiss myth outright and instead work to reconcile the emotional truths that myths disguise with accurate stories about the past.

Margo Shea, a PhD student in Public History at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, observed that this conference had engaged her complete self, allowing her to integrate issues that affect her as a human being, with those that interest her as a scholar and public historian. This description of engaging the complete self seems an apt metaphor for the work of public history more broadly and provides another way of thinking about public historians' responsibilities and potential activist role.

Shea observed that the commonly used phrase “shared authority” is not quite sufficient for describing the kind of collaboration and active engagement that shape public history as a field of both scholarship and practical work. Shared authority rests on a common ability to command authority, and suggests a blind adherence to larger interpretive frameworks, predetermined by disciplinary expertise and the power conveyed by connection to elite institutions. She suggested that "shared inquiry" might be a better way to conceptualize civic engagement. Sharing inquiry requires us not simply to invite interdisciplinary expertise, but to incorporate or at least consider very different ways of knowing and experiencing the past. She observed that, as historians, we have the privilege of walking away from “completed” projects. However, we do so at the risk of abandoning our responsibility to our community partners and denying the role we have played in altering their most basic and heartfelt beliefs.

Finally, Shea's observations ask us to be more mindful of the way we deploy power in the process of creating new historical narratives and sensibilities. She observed that public historians may be a bit too cavalier about the extent to which our work touches emotion. We need to think more critically and in a more actively interdisciplinary fashion about the ways in which events live with people –in their minds, in their bodies, in their hearts—so that we can be better prepared and more self-reflective about our role in transforming the stories that shape very primal and personal identities.

Robert Weible, who recently left the Pennsylvania Museum Commission after 19 years to accept a position with the New York State Museum, took a somewhat different position on issues of authority than either Calinda Lee or Margo Shea. He quoted Bob Dylan: “I can’t provide for you no easy answers, who are you that I should have to lie”

Interpreting that provocative line, Weible argued that history is powerful and purposeful. And, it is precisely because history is powerful –because stories affect the lives and beliefs and material conditions of communities—that we have a responsibility to actively shape not only the narrative of the past but also the uses of that narrative.

With that in mind, he asked us to be more specific in determining how public historians engage emotion. We could act like therapists, he imagined, and help people come to terms with the past in a non-judgmental and non-directive fashion. However, such disinterest is disingenuous, a mask to disguise expertise. He insisted that public historians must embrace expertise, using it to ensure that communities use history accurately and responsibly. This task is possible because we have rejected older scholarly models of exclusive professionalism, replacing them with an appreciation for the emotional as well as the intellectual and practical side of history. We can help people take the past seriously, and we should accept with confidence our right to the final edit.

If the comments and suggestions from the audience are any indication, next year’s conference will enable us to embrace our professionalism by addressing pressing intellectual questions about activism and global identity formation. It will also encourage us directly address the need to diversify our profession in order to foster innovative and creative new forms of collaboration and story telling.

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