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.
Each section establishes a thematic bent for discussion. Some (but not all) of these topics emphasize historical context, comparing and contrasting contemporary facts with the past: “Today, about one-third of doctors are women. Over 150 years ago this was not the case.” (“Eliza Grier and Matilda Evans”). Video narration over primary source images and text clarifies the points being discussed (e.g., short definitions of the Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Sixteenth Amendments in “Early African-American Woman Physicians”). While use of both text and video benefit different types of learners, their intermittent informational overlaps are repetitive, but still effective in reinforcing recurrent points. For example, both the text and video in “Women’s Hospitals in World War I France” state that “Women physicians were not permitted by the Allied countries” — stressing the prejudices women faced. Little elaboration is offered, however, leaving the audience with unanswered questions: What were the reasons behind these rules? Why weren’t exceptions made for wartime? One might argue that physical exhibits, with the benefit of docents and tour guides, allow for more user interaction and explanation. Conversely, online exhibits encourage online follow-up research, and might even include direct access to good primary and secondary source materials (i.e., portals).
Each section also includes questions for reflection that outline the information (making it digestible and useful for educators and students), while social media tools encourage viewers to actively engage with the resources (especially younger audiences). The exhibit successfully illustrates contextual relationships; the timeline places each topic in its temporal setting, while maps provide geographic setting for the sites discussed in each story. “Essential Evidence” acts as a catalog of historical documents relevant to the discussion, providing background for each item and a discussion of its significance within a larger thematic scheme. This analysis is accompanied by high quality scans of sources, their transcriptions, and audio recordings that resolve issues of accessibility. Additionally, document details hyperlink out to specific, cited sources; the transparency of the evidence lends credibility to the historical perspectives offered.
“Related Primary Sources” furnish additional points of interest that, while relevant to the overall topic, aren’t necessary to its understanding. However, the selection of what is most pertinent to each topic seems variable. For example, an article from The Medical Woman’s Journal describing refugee conditions is used as “Essential Evidence” in “WWI France,” yet another article from the Journal describing both race and gender discrimination in school and the workplace is a “Related Primary Source” in “Grier and Evans.” Additionally, the scans of both these journals are bulky, containing the entirety of the publications, potentially making it difficult to scroll through and find the articles being discussed. Luckily, there are bookmarks within the scans that block off specific segments that the curators likely found most significant.
Questions for a panel of public history professionals:
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?
"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:
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.