I recently had the good fortune to be in a position to hijack all conversation during a two hour car ride with several other budding public historians. We were returning from a workshop on grantwriting presented by a program officer from the NEH. The circumstances and environment of the event were fertile soil for the germination of tiny idea-sprouts, and I jotted down several. When we commenced our drive home I decided to dragoon my fellow travelers into fleshing one of them out.
Somehow during the proceedings of the day I decided that what the historical profession really needed was a reality TV show. Maybe I felt that the discipline was too classy to survive in the modern world. Maybe it seemed a Trojan Horse to sneak historical thinking past the educational-programming-alarms that come standard on todays model of citizen. Actually, more likely is that the image struck me as something *I* would like to watch, and therefore that I could conceiveably work on for more than the time it took to formulate the thought in the first place. So, here’s the “elevator pitch”:
This project would involve a partnership between historical institutions of various sorts and local high schools, community centers, or otherwise with the lay public. The basic aim would be to connect working historians with interested but unexposed persons, who would have an opportunity to “be an historian for a day.” Historical institutions would be solicited for volunteers who are currently engaged in projects of one sort or another, and who would be willing to plan a kind of hands-on introduction to the kind of work that goes into research, exhibit design, preservation work, or whatnot. Lay participants would work alongside their historian for the day and get their hands dirty (or, more likely, dusty) on the real day-to-day stuff of history. Each encounter would be filmed with an aim toward editing a 15 or 30 minute episode which could be released for public viewing through a Youtube channel or other means of digital distribution.
The overall goals of the project would be two-fold: participants would gain a degree of personal investment in the project that they had helped to bring into being, and the once-around-the-world overview of the work of historians would serve as outreach and educational resource for the public at large. I think that the majority of people don’t really have a clear idea of where that stuff in the textbooks or museums comes from, and learning that it is the product of work and creativity could lead both to an increased appreciation for the material itself, as well as a greater understanding that history is not complete and monolithic, but a process that is constantly in motion, a body of knowledge created and recreated by real people.