The readings for this week focused on overarching themes of overspecialization in the historical profession and how to overcome it to better interact with a public audience, and how best to balance historical memory and heritage with the academic integrity that those in the historical profession seek in their work. In short, these readings provided a fascinating insight into serious issues that historians faced in the recent past, but would do well to learn from in the present in order to maintain relevance in modern society and into the future.
The Presence of the Past, by Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen focuses on the idea of “popular historymaking,” and how to incorporate that in historical work to better engage the general public. “Popular historymaking” considers the general public active participants in understanding history rather than passive consumers (Rosenzweig and Thelen, 3). The authors also sought to better understand how the public understands the past in order to better engage them in historical endeavors. The main argument in this book is that the past matters significantly to most people, and it is up to historians to better cater to their interest (Rosenzweig and Thelen, 7).
In Pennsylvania in Public Memory, Carolyn Kitch’s goal was to determine which of a lost way of life’s parts should be remembered, how, by and for whom, and at what “temporal distance” (Kitch, 4). She discussed throughout the book that in regards to industrial history it can be difficult for historic heritage sites to provide the evenhanded, objective history that most scholars would like, but achieving that requires time. Ultimately, she ascertained that heritage culture in history does matter significantly because it is “a public expression of our wishes of the present and because those wishes have implications for the future” (Kitch, 179).
In the prologue to Denise Meringolo’s book, Museums, Monuments, and National Parks, she sets up the focus of her book by redirecting discussion on public history from the typical attempts at defining what it is, towards what it is to perform historical work as a public service (Meringolo, 22). She referenced a study which indicated that the sources Americans trust most are museums and historical societies, not history classes or scholarly journals (Meringolo, 6).
In the first two chapters of his book Historians in Public, Ian Tyrell warned against overspecialization within history as a profession, using the history/culture wars of the late 1980s and 90s as a cautionary tale wherein history professionals estranged themselves from the public. In discussing the culture wars, Tyrell alluded to the difference between teaching multiculturalism in classes, and providing a diverse historical curriculum.
In Presence of the Past, Rosenzweig and Thelen asserted that the largest barrier to historic collaboration was not conservatives but rather those professional historians who, “failed to overcome habits of professionalization.” (p. 4) These habits are the ones which led to overspecialized scholarship to which Tyrell referred, which was so narrowly focused that the general public felt no desire to consume it as they could not relate to it. In her book, Pennsylvania in Public Memory, one of Kitch’s main goals was to ascertain how people (whether still in school or out) learn about history and through which mediums, supporting Rosenzweig and Thelen’s argument that to garner greater interest from the general public historians must consider how best to engage them, whether through innovative interactive technology or simply by presenting a history that they find relatable to their own personal history or identity. Thelen and Tyrell both addressed the Smithsonian’s Enola Gay debacle, about which Thelen wrote how historians were asked to “choose between the authenticity of a pilot’s memories of wartime service and the accuracy of written sources recovered by a historian” (Rosenzweig and Thelen, p 190). Kitch also discussed balancing academic integrity with memory in discussing how some of Pennsylvania’s industrial historic heritage sites exhibit a fair amount of personal bias. In reaching one of her ultimate conclusions (that time is really the only way to eliminate that bias in historic sites), she referenced the Harrisburg Civil War Museum which was more evenhanded than other sites she visited.
Each of these readings was fascinating and beneficial to someone intent on going into the Public History field. It is good to know going in what kinds of issues historians face in the field and learn what methods they use to overcome things like overspecialization, external bias, and balancing memory with scholarship.
I will conclude this post with my favorite passage from this week’s readings, which comes from Kitch’s Pennsylvania in Public Memory as she describes a 1928 Wurlitzer within the Latonia Theater near Oil City, PA. “The snare drum trilled and the doors swung open in front of the ceiling-high pipes, and I heard the opening notes of ‘When You Wish Upon a Star.’ As I watched the organ’s computer-programmed keys press out the song, I looked up at a sign hanging on the wall above. It reads, ‘The past stays with us.’ Most of the oil industry did not, but the Wurlitzer survives to remind us: This is what we once were” (Kitch, 167).