Independent Public Historian
When David and Marla invited me to be part of the alumni panel I pointed out that I haven’t been involved in any public history projects for several years, so I didn’t have any recent snapshots from the field. They said that was okay, they wanted me anyway. But I was a bit at sea about what to talk to you about. After the conference began I realized I am the earliest graduate of the program in attendance, so it seems I ought to speak about the history of the program from my point of view.
It is striking how so many of the key themes for the next 25 years identified here at the conference were also central to the Public History Program when I joined it in 1989. Among these themes were the importance of place and the relation of the historian to both subject and audience. We explored the notion of “shared authority.” (Michael Frisch was the keynote speaker at a 1990 symposium I helped to organize. The occasion was the 20th anniversary of Woodstock and of the student strike here at UMass over Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia. That strike actually shut the University down – it closed a month early as the administration declared the school year to be over!)
There were many, more established graduate programs in 1989 that were good at teaching many of the skills of public history specializations, such things as archival management and museum curation. But UMass was asking the big questions about the uses of history and the construction of public memory. This was the reason I chose to come here, and I think it is an important part of the reason the program has been so successful.
I wasn’t aware of an explicit promulgation of the values that Marla listed as those that the program cultivates today, but the qualities of tact, patience, and humility were modeled by the practice of the faculty. Yesterday, the “courage” required to do good public history seemed obvious after Nina Simon named it. I would like to add that the qualities of “empathy and compassion” are hiding in plain sight in all of the work that has been talked about at this conference.
Many people have picked up on Nina’s commitment to “messiness” as a virtue, and I add my voice to the chorus of support for that idea. While she was speaking specifically about museum exhibitions and programs, I think it applies more broadly. Most of my work has been done as a contractor or consultant to various civic groups, usually funded by the Mass Foundation for the Humanities (which has done some heroic work for the people of the state). Every time, that work has been messy. I never had real control of a project. As soon as I stepped over my threshold out into the world there were always constellations of existing groups, politics, expectations and desires that shaped what was possible and what ultimately resulted. Of course, that didn’t stop me from trying to create an orderly “product.” It is in this area that Nina’s comments might help to improve my practice.
Given all the (appropriate) attention to the importance of process and the role of public historians in that process, I wouldn’t want us to lose sight of the value of our expertise as historians. I remember during my student days asking Kathy Peiss, who served as one of my advisors, what I should be thinking about as I prepared myself for a possible museum career. She said, “What museums need are good historians.” She meant, I think, that museums need the intellectual rigor and skepticism of good historians. This includes the ability to find and use sources and to think historically. It means the scrappiness of the historian who naturally questions every grand narrative and each “common sense” claim. These are important assets even in the context of inclusive and collaborative public history projects. (At this point I would like to admit my occasional wistful and romantic yearnings to be an academic historian.)
It was inspiring to be at this conference and to hear about the people and places where meaningful public history is getting done. Two things, in particular, struck a chord for me – the progress in “sharing authority” and the relation of public history work to the fine and performance arts.
I have done a lot of oral history, and I was especially impressed with the way Steve High’s project has expanded the notion of shared authority from a narrow focus on the relation of interviewer and interviewee to encompass the conceptualization of the project and all of the products that come out of the interviews. How much more lively and consequential public history will be when it involves the conscious leveling of hierarchies and a commitment to shared interpretive responsibilities!
In a number of projects, I have seen the usefulness of the fine arts as a way to connect with the past. It has challenged me to try and respond more imaginatively to the stories I hear and the stories I am trying to tell. I have witnessed the power of music, in the proper context, to create social and mental space for a deeper kind of connection to an historic past and its legacy in the present, especially in the Northampton State Hospital Memorial project (As you know from the actual talk I gave at the panel).
As the conference continues in the virtual world, I would love to see more discussion about the concept of “community.” As I mentioned ever so briefly and incoherently at the end of my actual talk, there is a way in which all of my intellectual and professional life has been centered around “community.” It is a protean concept. Where does it reside? Is it anchored in place? How much change can a community undergo and still remain one? What marks you as a member? As a professional historian I am almost always working with self-conscious communities to which I am an outsider. And I feel ambivalent about that.
As my time is ending, I want to thank the Public History Program for organizing this conference and for inviting me to be part of it. Hearing from the subtle thinkers and big doers brought together here was exciting and inspiring. Thank you very, very much.