To be fair, Hurley discusses the issue of subjective history in broader terms earlier on, such that he places the onus on any homogeneous locality wherein "history often becomes a template for the inscription of ethnic and racial achievement" (157). This contested coalescence of institutionalized fact and communal fiction connects well to Carolyn Kitch's Pennsylvania in Public Memory, such that "public commentary on the past [gives] residents the opportunity to communicate contemporary values" (99). While recognizing Hurley's admirable agenda – to advocate for "projects that contribute to economic revitalization through historical preservation and social stabilization" (xiii) – I maintain that we need to be more critical of the public historian's positionality. In other words, regardless of intention, there is an inherent paternalism attached to "professional" public historians entering communities of color to empower and incite socioeconomic transformation. We must problematize the figure of the white middle-class practitioner – no amount of diplomacy will account for a bias that is not explicitly acknowledged.
Patrick Grossi is more self-conscious of this issue in his article "Plan or Be Planned For," about the Funeral for a Home project – "There is something deeply presumptuous about a group of young white professionals inserting themselves into a black neighborhood that has experienced both untimely funerals and demolitions over the years, and asking them to participate in a spectacle that incorporates elements of both" (19). This brief concession leads into some allusions about gentrification, as well as the history of Mantua. Yet the project itself is described as "a model for collaborative programming ... [inviting] practitioners to think seriously about the racial dynamics and efforts toward engagement present in their work" (14). Therein lies the contention. Oftentimes, too much emphasis is placed on the edification of white practitioners and audiences rather than on the support of communities of color. Both white project leaders and white spectators tend to take up too much space on projects. The photos of the over four hundred attendees (24) and of the post-service meal (26) make me wonder – for whom was this project created?
Pastor Harry Moore, Sr. asked a similar question of Funeral's project leaders in the beginning: "What is your goal here? What made you guys want to do this?" This is a question every public historian should ask themselves – especially white project leaders inserting themselves into the histories of POC. This detailed description of the planning process written by Sue Bell Yank (an arts commentator and one of the Funeral book authors) contrasts with Grossi's narrative. While Yank highlights frictions, uncertainties, and hiccups in the planning process, Grossi's published article is much more opaque – emphasizing what practitioners can learn from the project's premise rather than its flaws. The project leaders' vagueness about objectives and outcomes, as well as their inexperience with local dynamics made community members wary. One must set aside one's own goals out of deference for the community, while also not forcing the community to strain for narrative or intention. Yank commends the project leaders for what she perceives to be a successful balancing act: "they have allowed a culture to which they do not belong to collaboratively determine the contextual framework and realize a large part of the content of the event, while simultaneously seizing certain aesthetic opportunities when they arise."
In The Power of Place, Dolores Hayden describes how institutions and agencies "are challenged daily to become accountable to the diverse urban public" (7). Indeed, "outreach" as a concept proceeds from the white institution's historical failure to include community members of color as both interpreters and target audience members. "Inreach" similarly proceeds from the white institution's tokenization of its limited or nonexistent pool of POC staff and/or its occupation and gentrification of communities of color (both physically and epistemically). As such, she stresses the necessity of project leaders to "work for the community ... rather than trying to control grand plans and strategies from the top down" (77). So-called professional public historians must learn humility, and offer our services to disenfranchised populations without demanding conformity to our narratives. It is not community members' collective responsibility to commit the time and labor to support our creative visions, or be treated as props to legitimize class projects. Public history must be transported out of the white middle-class professional world. But for now, institutions ought to offer up resources and forums as tools and sites to enact communal historiographic reparation.
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.
A big thank you to the National Council on Public History for featuring my digital history project "The Semiotics of Sex: A History of Queer Identity Politics" this week. Thanks especially to the History@Work editors for working with me on this blog post!
Click the link or image above to read more!
Select images above to view the model with an audience & side-by-side comparisons to historical photos.
Double-click to activate the interactive model; click and drag to rotate;
click the arrow on the right side for more navigation tools.
"The past did not happen in 2D and that it cannot be effectively studied or taught as a series of disconnected static images that, for the most part, represent incomplete remains." – Donald H. Sanders, "Why Do Virtual Heritage?"
Did you know that this year marks the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the first queer political protest in the world? Surprisingly, most people do not. What would you say if I offered you the chance to relive that historic moment – when, in 1867, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs took to the stage of the Grand Hall of the Odeon Theater in Munich to protest anti-sodomy laws in front of the five-hundred-member Association of German Jurists? He did so on the basis of a new, communal, queer political identity of which he alone had conceived. He was eventually shouted down, but his efforts inspired generations of queer activists – a lineage that can be traced to the modern LGBT rights movement.
As I previously proposed, virtual heritage makes available that which no longer exists or that which is not easily accessible for all. Three-dimensional modeling recreates spaces in which history was lived, enacted, and experienced. Exploring such recreations is a means of engaging our senses. Visualizing history helps us attach imperfection, emotion and memory to events, contrary to claiming "objectivities" and reciting "facts." This particular representation of the Odeon can help us, as public historians, to humanize and celebrate Ulrichs' activism, and to offer an alternative perspective to the narratives absent in history textbooks and our popular historical imagination.
Contrary to the idea that "virtual environments cause disembodiment, disorientation, discomfort, and social alienation" (Champion, 109), digital surrogates like the one I have created of the Odeon help us to both contextualize the spaces in which historic events took place and attempt to situate ourselves in the roles of the historical actors we study. Through a process of emulation, or approximation of lived experience, we can empathize with our historical subjects – thus improving our historiographies.
Rather than idolizing and, thus, objectifying the past – its significance and historical figures – how may we re-enact, bear witness to, and interpret it as human observers-cum-subjects? This project draws on disjointed fragments of information – synthesizing them into something that is not simply consumable (such as a text or tome), but something that is dynamic and interactive. To be clear, this project is not digital for the sake of being digital; "being impressed by technology is not the same as being inspired by it" (Champion, 109). Rather, this model reveals a version of the Grand Hall that no longer exists (having been bombed and reconstructed a level lower as a courtyard). Indeed, we may conceive of three-dimensional modeling (and other kinds of virtual heritage) as a form of preservation. We are creating large-scale digital records of our past. This project does not reveal historical information so much as it elucidates it. I started out with different pieces of a puzzle; SketchUp allowed me to put them together.
Still, we must be wary of accessibility issues that extend beyond breadth of circulation; the digital divide (issues of class and age that make technology a privilege, not the everyperson's tool), disability and learning style (future expansion of this project that keeps it from remaining exclusively visual), as well as questions of copyright, ownership, privatization and commercialization (of space, history and memory). Problems might arise from using a tool like SketchUp to draw from photographs, then upload the completed product to the 3D Warehouse – where anyone might access and even download it. Is that a wonderful, open source, informational free-for-all or a new frontier for plagiarism?