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.
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:
Who are the creators? Tyson's book is centered around the push and pull between front-line workers and management, how it informs the cultural product. But she skirts the question of the consumer, neglecting to identify the audience when it matters most. Chapter 5 begins with two attempts to interpret the history of slavery at Colonial Williamsburg – "the country's most well-known living museum" (145). Tyson describes how, in the 1960s, Black maintenance staff members covered a tape recording about "the life of a slave cook" to prevent visitors from hearing it. She interprets their reaction as "embarrassment," stemming from a supposed lack of racial consciousness, pre-Black Power. If Tyson were to interrogate the content of the tape itself, the positionality of the interpreter on that tape, and visitor demographics – in tandem with the Black staff members' discomfort – she could have more substantively analyzed the situation. Picture this: a white interpreter working at a historic colonial site in the 1960s records a script about "the life of a slave cook" for a white audience. The tape is likely paternalistic in tone; at best, it is a sanitized account of atrocity that is both romanticized and dehumanizing. Black staff members are forced to listen to this tape – a white interpreter speaking to a white audience about nameless Black bodies bustling about a kitchen in service to some long-dead white people. These Black maintenance staff members themselves likely clean up after these white interpreters, these white audience members – performing more services and emotional labor than any of the "front-line" workers Tyson writes about. Their smothering of this tape recording did not come from a place of embarrassment, but one of defiance – an obstruction of the white historical gaze, rather than "censorship."
Given my own suppositions, one can understand how easily Tyson's vague account could be misconstrued. The same is true of her discussion of Williamsburg's short-lived African American Interpretation Program (AAIP) and their controversial 1994 "Estate Sale" program. Tyson only goes so far as to locate the problem in terms of the medium of presentation (i.e., reenactment), constraining it to a supposedly universal "emotional and intellectual discomfort" (146). She pays no mind to the white onlookers at this reenactment of a slave auction. Which begs the real question, not of whether living history does justice to painful subject matter, but of why? For whom do we perform history, write history, interpret history? Indeed, assuming public history hasn't been completely overtaken by the sensationalist, money-making schemes of neoliberalism, where do the well-intended set their sights? On educating the masses? Put another way, who benefits from witnessing enslavement? Assuming living history is a medium of empathy, who here needs to be taught empathy? White people. Even comical renditions of historical reenactment speak to this dynamic. In Azie Dungey's "Ask A Slave," emotional labor, white ignorance, and the white gaze are all glaringly apparent. Meanwhile, Key and Peele's "Civil War Reenactment" intrudes upon the insularity of white people reenacting history, their erasure of POC from those narratives out of guilt and fragility. Historic interpretation – history itself – is an enterprise, portioned as mass produced experiences of nostalgia and nationalism.
I'm assuming the premise of the first question was actually meant to draw attention to my own privileges as a half white, middle-class individual – fair enough. My engagement of Black and Brown histories has always been mediated through a white institution. In an act of virtue signaling or in order to meet the quotas set out in "inclusive" strategic plans, historians and institutions create exhibits about Black and Brown people without including Black and Brown people in curation or interpretation. These exhibits use Black and Brown people's materials without full credit, nor do they identify how the subsummation of these materials into the institution's collections will benefit the communities from which they came. Therein lies the rub – the act of "legitimation" that characterizes the public history profession's newfound interest in and consumption of working-class, POC histories.
Historians collect, preserve and interpret primary source materials on behalf of their institutions because they are working on projects for non-community members, outside of community contexts. For example, even when graduate thesis projects are meant to serve community interests, students are still doing the work for a degree and for a job in the professional public history workforce after they graduate. To reiterate why I'm seemingly obsessed with insider/outsider dynamics – I've repeatedly witnessed white scholars who "specialize" in POC history get chosen for curatorial and advisory group positions over actual Black and Brown community leaders, some of whom these white scholars had interviewed for their professionally lauded projects. White savior public historians envision themselves "rescuing" or "empowering" Black and Brown people's histories. Their project leadership gets them news headlines, commendations, prestige and position. But what does it do for community members? Public history practitioners need to offer their services and resources – funds and labor – for the creation of grass-roots initiatives that take place within and for the community (given community members' interest and assent).
So, no, of course historians can never do historical work that doesn't impose their own meanings and understandings – that's why I insist objectivity is a myth. But, disenfranchised people tend to have a more holistic perspective on social and historical structures. As I previously quoted bell hooks, "Living as we did – on the edge – we developed a particular way of seeing reality. We looked both from the outside in and from the inside out … we understood both.” Given the inevitability of human subjectivity, we need to recognize the epistemic privilege of POC.