in PUBLIC HUMANITIES
Whose History is It Anyway?
It’s that time of year when a whole new flock of bright-eyed, idealistic, newly-minted public historians are pushed from their academic nest into the rough and tumble real world. Let’s just say that they are successful finding work in this very competitive field, then they will discover another level of challenges. The one I’m going to touch on today is at the foundation of what we do as public historians.
Being a bit of a nomad (perhaps migrant is a better word?), willing to travel where there is work, is part of the bargain you make in this field. If you end up working in local history as a city’s preservation planner, a curator in a regional history museum, an archivist caring for community records for example you will invariably run up against what I call local bias. It is the convergence of local pride and the public’s perception of what history is, and is not. Local bias demonstrates itself in several ways and I’ll speak to just a couple of them.
Local bias #1: How can someone not from a place be able to competently discuss and preserve its history?
Sometimes this manifests itself as either a backhanded compliment, “Wow, what a nice article you wrote about our town, you wouldn’t even know you weren’t from here” or an attempt at modesty, “So, you aren’t from here? Why are you interested in our history?” A former colleague of mine left to become director of a state historical society. He is from the mid-west and worked here in Maryland for a little over 10 years before moving to New England. More than one person expressed their surprise that he could be qualified for the job. Not because he lacked the skills but because he wasn’t from there. As a historian, when I first was presented with this mindset, I was puzzled. People who aren’t Greek study ancient Greece and there are people in Great Britain who study the American Civil War, but there seems to be a disconnect when it comes to local history. What I usually do is this case is to say something like, “Isn’t history great? You can live here but be an expert on the Mexican Revolution if you want.” I also point out that not being from a place actually benefits local history because you can be objective which is what history is supposed to be. Everyone’s story is equally important, not just the ones about the local aristocracy. This brings us to the next issue:
Local bias #2: Beware the minefield of local history boosterism.
Every locality has its historical claims to fame. Sometimes they are nationally known, like Kitty Hawk and the Wright Brothers’ airplane but often they are more obscure like Bellefontaine, Ohio (pronounced bell fountain) which is the first place in the United States to pave a street using concrete. If you’re lucky the particular claim to fame is true and historically accurate in its details. Usually you find that a portion of the story does have a grain of truth but over the generations the details have gone all wonky. As a trained historian whose job is to encourage and preserve accurate history, this situation calls for diplomacy since people are very protective of what they consider “their” history. I guarantee that if you do your job right you will be accused of “taking away all the good stories” but if you also do your job right you will be able to help the public discover new “good stories” that are also historically accurate. It is in this process that you will be able to cut through local bias #1 and #2 and be on your way to being accepted font of historical knowledge in the community.