In Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World (edited by Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski), Michael Frisch incisively parses the notion of "shared authority," arguing that public history has no sole interpreter – "the interpretive and meaning-making process is in fact shared by definition" (127). Ideally, oral histories are dialogues, while exhibits structure exchanges of information and memory. The illusion that the institution has the power to bestow or benevolently transfer authority is largely a myth born of historiographic paternalism. Dialogue-driven interpretation opens up questions of trust between institutions and communities, scholars and "laypeople." As Kathleen McLean points out, public history engages the power differentials of knowledge transfer – "museums, conceived and perceived as sites of authority, still embody the 'information transmission' model of learning" (70).
Monologues are a top-down interpretive approach, while docent Q&A is a quasi-top-down approach in that it necessitates audience engagement but still prioritizes the word of an "expert." Meanwhile, audience feedback is a quasi-bottom-up approach in that it provides a forum for audience response/interpretation, but doesn't require follow-up from the institution. Only true grassroots work can be bottom-up; it's ultimately impossible for institution-driven projects to truly be bottom-up. Dialogues could be a happy medium, depending on who's mediating/hosting/driving them, who's attending/in the space, whose work gets recognized, and whose ideas get incorporated into the set narrative. To that end, does bottom-up history demand dynamic, ever-changing narratives – pliant, permeable, and impermanent as opposed to static, overarching narratives crafted through exhibit labels and the like?
Still, this top/bottom spectrum would suggest an inherent imbalance. Doesn't everyone have agency? It's the structural factors, the predominance of certain methods and narratives, that stymie community-driven projects. McLean advises against replacing "curator expertise with public chat" (77). We exist perpetually in this "tension between curation and participation," as Steve Zeitlin describes it (34). Yet even with attempts to reverse these power differentials by casting "communities as experts" (74), we can't allow ourselves to fall into the trap of token "advisory committees." As I've previously and repeatedly articulated, we need to differentiate between the value of consultation and leadership – who has a hand in commentary versus content. Too often, POC are brought in as "experts" to clean up a preexisting history, disregarding our own interpretation and testimony. Rather than asking POC to correct/supplement white people's work, why can't white people take the backseat by supporting independent, POC-led/driven projects – using their privilege to amplify our voices rather than drowning us out or trying to speak for us?
Two questions from this book struck me. On trust and power exchange – Jack Tchen asks, "How can we trust what's being written by a historian? What are the sources? Are the sources based in archives that are truly resonant with the lives of people who are victimized by some of these laws or on the other side of power?" (89). On new technology and museums as mediating spaces – Tom Satwicz and Kris Morrissey ask, "How does this growth in 'public curation' advance, hinder, or change a museum's public mission?" (203). I conclude with this admission – I hate that seemingly everything I write falls back on critiquing white folks. It's exhausting. But it needs to be done. There's no reason that my unrelenting cynicism towards whites should be any more or less cringey for readers than work that enumerates issues with men. Yet, naming whiteness – white people, rather – is still taboo, so I will continue "calling it out." My rhetoric is intentionally aggressive; my aim is deconstruction.
However, the crux of this disagreement didn't stem from any existential debate over empiricism. Instead, it acted as a prelude to this individual's true concerns – making this exhibit "too political." How a century-old history of city corruption could be offensive was completely beyond me. We largely pussyfooted around any discussion of funders; even then, I failed to understand how a wealthy white person could find an anecdote about greedy politicians to be interesting, let alone insulting. Unless they saw themselves in that history? Someone alluded to the mayor at one point. He hardly strikes me as a man who has the time or the hypersensitivity to read this historical narrative as a commentary on his administration or an attack on his leadership. Then again, as I'm writing, I'm realizing that it wasn't so much the history itself that offended our partners, but its implications. I find that tiresome.
I find it tiresome what (white) people choose to be offended about, because that offense is almost always misplaced. Not just what, but when, where, how and why they choose to be offended – coming from a people who usually have very little to be upset about. Readers of this post might sigh and bemoan that I always manage to make everything about race. But that's because it is. I spend my days attending classes as the only person of color in the room. If I have the audacity to take issue with the fact that ninety percent of the syllabus is white men, I'm shut down. If I have the audacity to roll my eyes at the sinophilic mansplainer to my right, I'm being unfair. If I have the audacity to find the spectacle of ten white people discussing the history of slavery laughable, I keep it to myself. If I have to endure my white professor flashing racist cartoons on a screen for the sake of a lesson as my white classmates look on – shifting uncomfortably in their seats because, for the first time, they recognize my presence as Other – so be it.
This is why I find it tiresome when white people are offended by history – theirs or others, it makes no difference. Some small, meaningless story about white men who held power over other white men and screwed the infrastructure of Philadelphia more than it was already screwed in time for a massive pandemic is not offensive. But it's our partners' call to make; they get to decide what does and does not get included in this exhibit. I couldn't care less. This was just another reminder to me that some people don't truly know what it is to be "offended" by history.