Such questions about shared authority are best encapsulated by Serrell's discussion of "The Label's Voice" (Chapter 10), "Labels That Ask Questions" (Chapter 14), and "Digital Interpretive Devices" (Chapter 16). When creating labels, we must be cognizant of the creator's point of view, their positionality – "this is particularly important in exhibitions that present some form of debate, issue, dialogue, or strongly held opposing views" (136). Serrell touches on this issue earlier in the text when discussing the "Big Idea" of an exhibit, oscillating between the values of "controversial" and "balanced" (if there is such a thing) viewpoints. Topics themselves stir debate before any interpretation is imposed upon them; after all, nothing exists in a vacuum. As with the case of the 1995 Smithsonian controversy, choosing to do an exhibit about the Enola Gay is inherently contentious – regardless of timing or tone (16).
Likewise, "the best questions in labels are the ones visitors themselves would ask" (178). But how do we know what visitors would ask if we don't give them the space to ask such questions – either before or during the exhibition? This gets back to the issue of open-ended interpretation; is such a thing even possible? Taking a "just the facts, m'am" approach to label creation doesn't free us from the constraints of perspective and positionality because objectivity is a myth. Therefore, the establishment of "fact versus fiction" dualities only serves to contrive an institutionalized narrative of accepted meaning. As much as I hate to problematize the "factual" interpretation of evidence in the age of fake news, it still needs to be done – in part, because of white liberal historical narratives that, in their attempts to extinguish the scourge that is white supremacist scholarship, end up obfuscating and/or eclipsing the work of POC with their own "accepted truths." The assignation of meaning is an inherently political act regardless of how mundane the subject.
As such, we often attempt to engage our audiences with answerable questions – questions that visitors would ask and that the content of our exhibit answers. How might we further engage people with open-ended questions that "prompt visitors to think about their own prior knowledge and experience and construct or retrieve a thought that is their own personal creation" (186)? I am a fan of "talkback panels" (as Serrell identifies them), on which visitors are given the opportunity to provide their own answers – thus interpreting history themselves and relating it to their own experiences. Take, for instance:
I was excited to see Serrell's suggestion that we "let visitors annotate the labels" (227). Though she suggests this in the context of digital tools, the "old-fashioned" way still applies. In a sense, something as small as providing the infamous sticky notes for visitors to share their testimonies aids us in reframing facts and fiction collectively – at least depending on who our audience actually is, what visitor cohort they fit into. Serrell distinguishes identifying the audience as a precursor to shaping visitor experience. How do we identify our audiences holistically while taking into account accessibility of word (reading level, density, and language) and image (textual interplay, comprehensibility, ability). How can could labels grow beyond this limited dependence on visually-based evidence and interpretation to encompass multiple mediums like oral history and perhaps even scent, taste, and touch?
These experiences shaped my understanding of McKenna-Cress and Kamien's work. The benefits of collaboration – "varied points of view, interdisciplinary engagement, and innovation" (6) – only manifest within a just and equitable environment. Issues of team member bias and institutional respectability politics can serve to undermine the spirit of collaboration. There's a fine line between "fear of conflict" and destructive disagreement (13). As such, I was struck by the absence of a representative for community interests among the five essential team advocates that the authors described: institution, subject matter, visitor experience, design, and project/team (22). Surely community and institutional advocacies are often at odds. I'd imagine that one might try to subsume such a category under "visitor experience," but they're not the same thing. Communities are the (historical) subjects; visitors are the spectators. Though this book speaks to exhibit creation across disciplines (e.g., art, science, history), one cannot ignore the importance of community perspectives regardless of genre. Take, for instance, the Whitney Biennial controversy. Both curators were Asian American, so they were not at all exempt from racism and anti-Blackness (regardless of their tokenization as POC by their defenders). Likewise, having a single Black person "represent" community interests would be absurd and, regardless of that single person's input, the show would go on (with or without the white artist's Emmett Till painting). The issues of epistemic privilege and interpretation bias would go undebated and unresolved. The ideal of having different interests/advocacies be weighted – in that some categories would get more representatives than others – ensures such dialogues take place among a majority of community members, for instance, before reaching the public sphere for a free-for-all, where every (white) Tom, Dick and Mary thinks their opinions carry equal weight on an issue that most impacts Black people.
In this way, how might we negotiate the drive to integrate "multiple points of view" (79)? I think this issue extends beyond the institutional interests that the authors describe. We exist in a society, an intellectual culture that claims to treat all ideas as equal, even those that would deny the humanity and dignity of others. This masturbatory, "devil's advocate/argument for argument's sake" rhetoric is especially prevalent in academia. The devil doesn't need more advocates; he runs the world. In an exhibit about the history of slavery, would those who push to include "every perspective" ask us to offer up a sympathetic portrayal of slave owners? Surely it's already been done enough times for the benefit of Presidents and other glorified white people. The historical canon – what's taught to children as part of a program of intergenerational brainwashing – has so sanctified, so romanticized our past that we are made incapable of critical engagement. Even once we've established the supposedly radical ideological agenda I'm proposing, we find the elitist academics rearing their ugly heads yet again to accuse us of "dumbing down" the content (78). I myself am guilty of pretentious speech, and am endeavoring to learn how to write more like a public historian than an academic. My aim is versatility - much like this neuroscientist or Henry Gates. One's ability to adapt their content for a variety of audiences lends itself to one's own comprehension. In other words, if you're not capable of explaining what you do to a five year old, then perhaps you don't actually know what you're talking about, and are simply obfuscating with big words and affectation.
"Doctors know no more about this flu than 14th century Florentine doctors had known about the Black Death."
– Dr. Victor Vaughan, President of the American Medical Association
This quote from John Barry's The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History (page 403) got me thinking about how intellectual histories – those of knowledge, the transference of ideas and methods – can be interwoven with medical histories – chronologies of disease and environment, and the social and political institutions that scramble to command them. How does our knowledge progress through time, and how does that knowledge (and its limitations) impact disease outbreaks? How do we avoid engaging linear, "progressive" narratives of scientific/medical histories?
Barry cites a single day when 759 people perished from the flu in Philadelphia – compared to an average 485 deaths from all other illnesses, accidents, suicides, and murders per week (329). His juxtaposition of different statistics certainly serves to contextualize the circumstances of the epidemic. However, I question the relative feasibility/accuracy of picking and choosing numbers to encapsulate such dark histories. Where is the pathos? When/how can statistics get overblown for the sake of melodrama and the objectification of tragedy? If an exhibit were to feature a "wall of numbers" to convey the variety of experiences and issues at play, would we not bore our audience?
Thomas Wirth opens his article "Urban Neglect: The Environment, Public Health, and Influenza in Philadelphia, 1915-1919" on that same day (October 10th). He vividly describes the context – a sick mother and her five children, sharing beds – and infuses his narrative with empathy. Yet he still manages to incorporate statistics without detracting from the humanity of the story: "13,000 dead" (316), rental prices (317), "1,077 complaints related to nuisance, maintenance, sanitation, and building code violations on a total of 639 properties" (326), mortality rates (327), case numbers (332), funding (333), demographics (336). If anything, he treats these numbers as evidence for an overarching theme of negligence and suffering. One cannot incorporate statistics for statistics' sake.
Barry describes the effects of age on mortality rates: "influenza outbreaks ... start with a peak representing infant deaths, then fall into a valley, then rise again, with a second peak representing people somewhere past sixty-five or so" (239). He describes this as a "U-shape," then notes the exception of 1918-19, when this correlation was shaped like a "W." People in their late twenties, early thirties, and early twenties were the most likely to die, respectively. A reviewer of Barry's book (Andrew Noymer) commended him for not using any graphs or tables to describe this phenomenon, claiming that it was good for a "general nonfiction audience." Since when are graphs and tables unsuitable for the layperson? I found that quite alarming. I would think that, in the context of an exhibit, these visuals would help us engage visitors and their various learning styles. Personally, I would have found charts preferable to Barry's multi-paragraph explanation.
As such, I've included a Google Ngram chart as my "image" for this post. I'm interested in exploring how suitable digital history tools are for a physical (interactive?) exhibit – the accuracy of the data they produce and its accessibility for our audiences. In this chart, please note the uptick in mentions of "influenza," "Spanish influenza," and "influenza epidemic" between 1900 and 1930 (peaking in the 1918-19 period). While these results seem obvious, there are other phrases we might explore, and the digitized literature (e.g., old medical journals) that these charts yield may be of use.
Questions for an advisory group of public health professionals (by theme):
Those that emphasize "expert knowledge":
Those that emphasize testimony and individual perspectives:
Those that emphasize our service as public historians, community wants/needs:
Jobs and academic appointments geared toward recruiting POC oftentimes go to those “willing to work with diverse populations” or those who "specialize in POC histories" rather than actual POC. Inclusion is everyone's responsibility, but the role of POC in interpretation often goes unrecognized. When we assert that our work in the institution is valuable and should not/could not be done without us, we are met with workplace intimidation. “Performing race” encompasses everything from day-to-day macroaggressions (e.g., being treated like the spokesperson for one's entire race/ethnicity), to explicitly being called upon to perform a racialized role at a historically painful site (e.g., Black historical reenactors performing enslavement at a plantation for the white tourist's gaze). Intraracial class, gender, and sexuality dynamics (e.g., within the Asian American community, we’re still contending with working-class vs. middle-class, transqueer vs. cishet dynamics). Additionally, “POC” have been made a monolith – a blanket term used to obscure issues like anti-Blackness among non-Black POC.
Working group discussants will exchange case statements describing examples of and experiences with specific problems relevant to those listed above, and help hone the discussion questions. Participants will have access to a blog where they can publicly (or privately) share feedback, commentary, and resources – creating a safe space for discussion of issues impacting public historians of color, and an open-access, online learning tool for others interested in witnessing the conversation before, during, and after the conference. During the conference, a designated participant will take notes on a Google Doc to provide everyone with a transcription of the proceedings in real time; live-tweeting will be enthusiastically encouraged.
The co-facilitators on this proposal represent a unified, trifocal perspective on issues of racial bias in interpretation. As Black, Latina, and Asian public historians collaborating on a shared goal, we can ensure that this POC-originated/led proposal will result in tools and resources that promote other POC-originated/led initiatives. In making this a working group, we are passionately and wholeheartedly undertaking the responsibility to see this project through, from start to finish, as well as hand pick participants to ensure this conversation is not commandeered by non-POC. This working group will result in a white paper for institutions seeking to prioritize POC-led interpretation projects, in addition to the support network and website created by participants.
This was our final submission to the National Council on Public History (based on my topic proposal from June). Today, it was accepted for the 2018 Conference! A big thank you to my co-facilitators, Patrice Green and Shakti Castro!
Such narratives are inherently racialized because they become dependent upon the specter of a foreign enemy, a threat to economic security domestically. Yet, Kitch's inclusion of the narratives of economically disenfranchised people of color is tangential at best (81-4). By framing "collective narrative construction"as the framework through which people of disparate experiences ought to find "common ground," Kitch naively conveys public history as a unifying enterprise (i.e., something through which to quell the antagonisms of the white working class and the guilt of the white middle class). Had she more thoroughly juxtaposed the experiences of working-class whites and people of color, her audience would have been better able to conceive of public history as an educational enterprise – something meant to contextualize and illuminate the inequities of the past and present.
Likewise, Kitch's treatment of immigration as the "unifying theme"of economic historiographies implicitly prioritizes the "white ethnic" experience. Momentarily engaging the question of "who is 'ethnic'?" (156-7), she never discusses the rich "industrial past" of Philadelphia – a prime example of the economic disenfranchisement of Black Americans. Instead, Kitch glosses over the"industrial heritage" of Black Americans by espousing an oversimplified, two-step journey of "geographic mobility toward freedom in the north" and "economic mobility through their inclusion in certain industries."*
Meanwhile, Kitch's careful consideration of oral histories evokes questions of respect for "storytellers" who interpret their own experiences and ancestries and, thus, the value of community engagement (84). Indeed, "shared authority" has become somewhat of a buzzword in the field lately – reminding us to be wary of methodological hypocrisy. Many a paternalistic public historian has claimed to "give voice," and to bestow the aforementioned "authority" upon a community to tell its own history. Kitch engages this issue, but, again, only within the confines of white working-class narratives. There still remains a seeming resistance to apply this method of epistemic privilege to "racial" histories; the inclusion of curators, interpreters, docents and tour guides from the community whose history is being shared is only afforded to "color-blinded" narratives of class, gender, and sexuality.
Indeed, according to Denise Meringolo in Museums, Monuments, and National Parks, the "professionalization" of the public history field began in the mid-1970s as a result of economic recession (xiv-xv). The recruitment of jobless academics (and, as such, the programmatic occupation of the field by the white middle class) to serve as official or "objective" storytellers is nothing new. The American Historical Association's new initiative on"career diversity" (ironically, not about race) exemplifies this issue.
So, how do we envision the potential of new fields like digital history to support the grassroots disruption of the narratives legitimized by institutional powers and the "demographically flawed" workforces that have created and maintained them? Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen found that museums were the most trusted sources of "historical fact" in the mid-1990s, thanks to their survey (the results of which are recounted both online and in The Presence of the Past). Does that belief still hold today, in the age of "fake news," when we cling to such flawed and aged establishments with the hope that they will provide the answers? Likewise, Rosenzweig and Thelen found that over a third of people had investigated their family history in the last year. The authors view this statistic as an indication that we first ground, then experience our identities (ancestries and positionalities) as the impetuses for our change-making aspirations. Such subjectivity is, perhaps, incongruous with the sanctification of "objective" institutions like museums.
As Ian Tyrell demonstrates in Historians in Public, public historians' drive to emphasize our usefulness has, historically, lent itself to ultimately supporting the state's narrative – the powers to which we find ourselves appealing for legitimation and support (i.e., funding). Historians like Jesse Lemisch have lamented that "history [is] at the service of power" (246).
*For a great digital project that thoroughly and meaningfully tells this history, check out "Old Philadelphians and Southern Newcomers: An Experience of the Great Migration" by Tina Conway, Richard Fontanet and Brad Horstmann.