The other day, my white professor opened class with this proclamation – "I resent that this administration is, for the first time, forcing us to think about politics on a daily basis. We didn't have to before, and that was the beauty of democracy!" My white classmates nodded in approval. Against my better judgement, I kept my mouth shut.
For what will likely be my last blog of the year, it seems appropriate that my complaints will come full circle. I began the fall semester with a newfound militancy, lamenting everything from white project leadership to white liberal reactions to current events. In some sense, these issues were one in the same. White project leaders-cum-saviors have redoubled their efforts to (unintentionally?) co-opt politically-driven, civically-engaged public history from POC, citing "the importance of our work in these dark times" or something to that effect. In their "columbusing" of activist history, they don't recognize that POC continually reconcile politics and social inequalities in our day-to-day lives, and that we're forced to critically engage that reality through our work. After all, the personal is political.
"Columbusing." Know Your Meme. Accessed December 5, 2017. http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/columbusing.
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.