My Public History Experience and the Role of History in Society

November 7, 2018 |  Tagged , | Comments Off on My Public History Experience and the Role of History in Society

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 There is sometimes a divide between public and academic history. A good example of this divide was the controversy over the proposed Enola Gay exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum. The proposed exhibition, which incorporated contributions from academic sources, intended to display the aircraft that dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan while also raising questions about the war and the consequences of the bombing[1]. This exhibition was opposed by politicians, veterans groups, and other advocacy groups for tainting the image of the US in WWII and the heroism of veterans, and was eventually cancelled altogether in favor of a much simpler display. The backlash shows how sacred history can be to a society. Societies are not necessarily always interested in the academic view of history that draws out all of the complexities and questions. They sometimes prefer a view that is in line with the society’s identity, values, and perhaps myths. In the interest of learning from the past and advancing knowledge, how can this be overcome? Should academic and public historians be responsible for bridging this gap? Do ideas change societies or do societies change ideas? These are questions that may never be answered, but they are at least something important to consider.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 I was drawn to a history MA program because I wanted to gain a more complex and challenging view of history. History is so often portrayed in an oversimplified or sensationalized way in movies, museums, schools, public events, etc. A more complex understanding is important because of the importance of history to the present. History shapes the idea of the nation, gives groups pride, justifies group grievances, provides entertainment, justifies conflict, and so much more[2]. The professional academic study of history through analysis and argumentation with evidence must surely help societies evolve and develop in a positive way that is based on a more honest understanding. Furthermore, it teaches people that events (in the past and the present) are not black and white affairs, and when you reference history in the present there should be skepticism and debate[3].

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Many experiences influenced why I decided to pursue a history MA. One notable experience with public history was when I visited the Lexington and Concord historic battlefield a few years ago. I did not know what to expect when I went there. I knew that the site was central in the narrative of the American Revolution and US history in general. I expected to find commemoration of the events that occurred there and not much more. At the time, I was a graduate student, but in a secondary education program not a history MA. I was surprised though to find a much more in-depth representation of the events that occurred. Most of the other visitors I saw at the site were just wandering around and taking pictures. At both battlefield sites (Lexington and Concord are separated by about 6.5 miles) however, by accident I encountered someone from either the National Park Service or the local town who was rounding people up for a 30-minute historical presentation. Out of the other visitors to the sites very few of them actually choose to attend the presentation.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Each presentation was a very factual and honest description of the events that occurred there. At Lexington I discovered that nobody knows for sure who fired the first shot, and that it may have been fired by accident. At Concord I found out that the local militia attacked the British troops who were searching the town largely due to a misunderstanding about what was going on there. The presentations were both highly detailed and very honest about what information was missing or uncertain. The presentations did not glorify the events, in fact, they made both events seem like unintended accidents that resulted in violence due to either misunderstanding or folly. The interpretation though was really left up to the audience. This experience motivated me to want to be a part of the transmission and creation of this detailed knowledge and the assessment of meaning from the past.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 After having been a MA student for a few semesters now, I think more about that experience and others that I have had. I wonder if that detached and informed account of events would have been possible in the years after the American Revolution or even 100 years after it, even if the information was available. The full detailed account does not seem particularly controversial today, but it may have been seen as improper then to include such details, as today it is still controversial to present some details or questions about our past. I wonder what has changed since then. Academic historians have certainly become more critical and discerning, but does that explain the whole picture?

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Another, although much more extreme, example of a society coming to terms with previously sidelined information was Austria concerning discussion of its role in WWII. According to historian Margaret MacMillan, Austrians did not begin to question their role in the Nazi past until a new generation emerged in the 1960s. This story is repeated elsewhere where political, generational, or other societal shifts usher in a new widely accepted understanding of the past. Meanwhile in other societies such as Israel and Palestine that still find themselves in the midst of a conflict historical narratives can be more ossified and unquestioned. This brings me back to the original question. Do academic and public historians actually have control over history or do societies? In their fields yes, but more importantly, in society perhaps not. While uncovering the complexities of the past still motivates me to pursue my MA, I am reminded that how a society looks at the past is not only shaped by how historians interpret it. Very often historical understanding is a product of larger societal factors such as political and generational changes. I believe that this is a humbling fact of history. Rather than discouraging though, I believe it shows that although society might not be ready for a new interpretation at this moment, there may be a time and place for change in the future, even if that process might be out of the hands of historians.

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9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 [1] Richard H. Kohn. “History and the Culture Wars: The Case of the Smithsonian Institution’s Enola Gay

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Exhibition.” The Journal of American History. Vol. 82, No. 3 (Dec, 1995), pp. 1036-1063

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 [2] MacMillan, Margaret. Dangerous Games: Uses and Abuses of History. New York: Random House, 2010.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 [3] MacMillan, Dangerous Games: Uses and Abuses of History


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