Public historians, social good, and measures of success

Ashley Luskey posted a lengthy piece at the Civil Discourse blog making strong cases for public historian collaborations in the civic square, and for maintenance of Confederate monuments for in situ interpretation. I printed it out (I’m analog like that) and my copy is marked up with agreed…agreed…agreed…excellent point… and in one spot super-agree!!! I have already added the post to a resource/reading list for a thing I’m doing here this spring.

I particularly like her persistent vision of public, civic, space as possessing educational potential. I am a museum and historic site guy, so what I know and what I advocate is informed by the constraints inherent there. Luskey says historians should be present in open civic spaces to prompt, remind, inform, engage, share, and otherwise work with public audiences, municipal governments, and community groups, to shape the ongoing process of public memory. I completely agree.

She further makes a case for maintaining Confederate monuments in place. Her reasoning here, as I understand it, is that these monuments represent difficult historical legacies that are still deeply embedded in modern American social, cultural, and political structures. Removing the monuments will not solve these problems, Luskey claims, and will only deprive us of entry points for public dialogue about those structures that we, as a society, need to have. (Agree with all of that.) Moving these monuments drains them of their potency—the context that makes them particularly good teaching tools.

I am on board with most of this, not the least because I am a historian and I believe that through our discipline and the practice of analysis, reflection, and historicization we can achieve empathetic understanding and enlightenment, and locate common social aspirations in a pluralist democracy. The problem that still troubles me is that many people, including our intended, or a contingent, audience, mostly doesn’t do, or respond to, history that way. I keep coming back to the question…what if the public wants something different from what I want? What if the public refuses to see a monument as an epistemological statement to be analyzed? What if that monument represents something to people—an embattled identity, a visceral threat—that can’t be soothed by historical reflection? Whose vision for monuments gets prioritized when (re)contextualizing doesn’t work or common ground can’t be found?

Anyhow, I agree with Luskey. I think public historians and intellectuals should engage with the process of these debates. Her template for how we/they might do so is pretty great as a starting point. And it makes me want to hear more. I’m particularly interested in her claims that recontextualized monuments (e.g. Hayward Shepherd, Colorado Civil War Soldier) have successfully offered “a powerful lesson in history and memory.” How do passersby approach (or not) and interact with these waysides? What is the measured outcome? Is it a feeling? A particular bit of content knowledge? How well is the outcome retained? What text, voice, or graphic styles most influence retention? Further, (and speaking for the non-practicing, non-in-the-field, non front-line folks out here) how can these insights on effective attraction and engagement techniques shape the large scholarship on what we do know about visitors via Falk, et. al.? When I say I want a study on using waysides to teach historical complexity and civic reflection to joggers and stroller-pushers, I’m really quite serious.*

But, like I said, I’m a museum and site guy, and I’m thinking of ways to direct the energy that Luskey is harnessing back into the institutions where many public historians work. At battlefields and museums, public historians have a great range of interpretive opportunities and a great desire to be a part of these conversations, yet they can’t because of a number of institutional constraints. From conversations I’ve had, I understand that the imperative to engage in public dialog often falls behind other needs. Chiefly, museums prioritize visitation, membership, and revenue, because the measures of success (and thereby continued funding) established by agency oversight, boards of directors, and funders count how many people walk through the door, how many joined the friends group, or how much money an event returned to the general operating fund, and nothing else. That, and needing to maintain a favorable cost-per-visitor ratio puts pressure on museums to maximize the large family events, the popular reenactments, and the Christmas open houses. (I’m not against those things, btw.) The point is that undertaking an initiative—a community dialog unlikely to produce high visitation, new members, or entrance fees, and that costs the museum money, is low priority. The prospect of losing visitors, members, and revenue by hosting a dialog that will question a Confederate symbol makes it a virtual non-starter. And this is within the confines of rather conservative mission statements that bind museums to collect, preserve, and interpret a historical topic in ways that limit more imaginative uses of the venue and its history.

My point is this: How can we direct that impressive list of public scholars that Luskey cites toward convincing legislators, boards, and funders to value intangible social good as a desirable measure of success?

*Seriously. Call me. I need something to present at CampingCon.


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