“The Past is entombed in the Present! The world is its own enduring monument; and that which is true of its physical, is likewise true of its mental career. The discoveries of Psychometry will enable us to explore the history of man, as those of geology enable us to explore the history of the earth.” – Joseph Rodes Buchanan, Manual of Psychometry: the Dawn of a New Civilization
Since arriving at the Smithsonian, I’ve been preoccupied with a fanciful notion – curators are like psychometrists. Psychometry, pioneered physician-cum-spiritualist Joseph Rodes Buchanan in the nineteenth century, is the supposed ability to consume an object’s history via physical contact. In lieu of touch, however, we can excavate memory and meaning, provenance and perspective from the material culture we acquire through careful research and interpersonal connections.
Thanks to my advisor, Dr. Katherine Ott, I’ve gained a greater appreciation for material culture over these past few weeks. On my first day, we had an intensive conversation about our work, history and philosophy. She told me about the material culture class she teaches, and how she urges her students to recognize the ways we (sub)consciously organize our lives. Everything from identifying something in the fridge as edible to choosing a seat on the Metro – we engage senses like sight, smell, and taste to concoct categories like color, location, and utility.
Towards the end of our talk, Dr. Ott sagely proclaimed that we live our lives through things, objects, and stuff. The physical world is filled with tangible representations of everyday meaning-making – both sacred and profane. Imbued with this consciousness, I was set to task reflecting on the unattainable and the unknowable – researching the stuff from our past for which we have no backstory, as well as that which is lost, destroyed, or simply nonexistent.
There’s a pathos to processing. When I first arrived, Dr. Ott had just returned from Casper, Wyoming. She had met with Matthew Shepard’s parents about donating some of their son’s belongings to the National Museum of American History. By the end of the week, we were bringing up boxes of materials. Inside were hundreds of condolence letters and printed emails, sweaters and a pair of worn shoes, teeth molds for braces, elementary school projects and report cards. The most moving item of all – a ring that Matthew had bought, imagining that he might one day find someone to give it to.
For the next few days, I had the privilege of perusing some of the queer collections that Dr. Ott has acquired over the years – including myriad vintage activist buttons and (my personal favorite) a leather harness. I’ve also attended several orientations and meetings, and connected with dozens of staff members, fellows and other interns. Just this past weekend, I rode on the back of a flatbed truck during the Capital Pride Parade as a part of Smithsonian GLOBE – the institution’s LGBTQ employees and allies organization.
Currently, I’m assisting Dr. Ott by following some research leads in preparation for the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising and the public programming she has planned. We’ll be highlighting instances of activism that preceded and succeeded the event, such as a police raid on a 1965 costume party hosted by San Francisco’s Council on Religion and the Homosexual and the origins of the iconic rainbow flag.
Back in March, I met Dr. Ott for the first time after attending a talk she gave at the Mütter Museum in Philly. Afterwards, she took me on an impromptu research and collection trip around the city. One of our stops was the home of Mark Segal, founder and publisher of Philadelphia Gay News. Among Mark's possessions was a pink and yellow star – a concentration camp badge for a gay Jew. Without any provenance for this item, we have no way of knowing if it is authentic. Examinations of chemical elements, fabric, dye and stitching patterns were inconclusive. It could be a real Holocaust artifact or, for all we know, it could be part of a costume from the movie Bent. If only curators really were psychometrists.
But does it ultimately matter? Mark had imbued this object with so much meaning as a gay Jewish activist that it has taken on a whole new historical significance. Its potential connection to a single historical event does not define its "worthiness" for incorporation into the NMAH collections. Rather, it is important because it was rendered such by a historical figure – a symbol of his identity and one facet of a vibrant story that curators get to tell.
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!
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