Each paragraph below presents a common public history work scenario that differs – a little or a lot – from traditional academy-based work. I am looking for comments, suggestions, alternative ideas, and specific examples of what is described. This was written as a centerpiece for a work session planned for the 2012 annual meeting, but is a topic that deserves widest possible exposure. It is being cross-posted on the H-Public listserv and I invite comments either here on the blog or on the list.
Read Part 1 here.
5) In traditional historical undertakings, the presence of the observer/scholar is often invisible in the output of the historian; it is meant to be so. Without taking on the arguments of subjectivity-objectivity, let it be said that the historian is usually much more visible in public history work than in the typical academic work. (We are speaking here of presence in the course of the work, not being a talking head on TV.) For one thing, most projects require that the historian make visible his/her research process and procedures, his/her work objectives and expected outcomes, not just his/her sources. Transparency is essential. In this respect public history often resembles scientific experiments in which all steps are documented and tracked and passed on as part of the chronicle of the experiment. It is presumed in both academic and public environments that research may lead to more research, but the continuance of public history work is usually subjected to non-peer scrutiny (usually around money) that is seldom a contingency in academic undertakings. Is it therefore an element of success to get funding? Or is this seen as inviting corruptibility? Are the processes and practices to be conformed to client requirements and budgets or is this a step toward unredeemable compromise? Are the personality and preferences of the historian, which are often essential to the successful performance of history projects, marks of success? Ego? Influence? Is there a way to measure this? Should this be taken into consideration? And if so, how? And what about acclaim? Is something to be considered successful, more or less, if there is public acclaim but no or little academic acclaim? If there is academic acclaim but public indifference? Do we need both for success to be designated?
6) Process is as important to public history as findings are. Usually public historians are working in areas that are in some way unprecedented. Often enough, public historians are tracking historical records and creating new chronicles of activity for purposes of documentation or correcting the existing record. More often, though, they are looking at things that have not yet been “storied;” they are dealing with objects, events, places, and persons, that are only now being considered “historic,” or they are being asked to evaluate the historicity of something that might seem anomalous (to others). What the historian does in these instances, as well as how they do their work, and how the historian conceives the thing to be, are every bit as important as what they find. In fact, these are instrumental to the findings. It is therefore essential in public history to share procedural matters as much as it is to share findings. Yet these are often classified as secondary tools of the practice and therefore do not feed into the traditional success model as much as they almost have to in public history formats. Articles in The Public Historian, for example, have made it clear over the years, that HOW work is done in public history is as important to know as WHAT work is done. If one is the first to use a particular procedure, or use familiar documents in a new way, or synthesize sources, etc., then this might be a feature of success, more technological perhaps than intellectual. Perhaps. How are procedures and processes, technical and logistical, to be considered as contributing elements to success? How does one claim to be the “first” at something as part of a pattern of success? Must influence be proved? Does this require external validation of some kind? If so, what kind? Is imitation more than flattery in this context?
7) Now we come to the big bugaboo: numbers. It is a common tenet among historians that the more popular a historical work is, the less value it has. This is an untenable position in the marketplace, which is where public history takes place. There, the greater the numbers, the more value a piece of anything has. It is clear that in the case of historic parks and sites, numbers clearly count. We only need to see how many parks with low numbers are being closed right now during the current economic downturn to understand the value of numbers. What is not so clear is how history serves the numbers. Does better history make for better numbers; and what do we mean by “better” – more scholarly or more compelling or more lavish or more experiential or what? What are some examples of good history creating good numbers? Of good history contributing to good numbers? How can the success (in terms of numbers) be accounted for and what can be learned from this? If the client wants to get the word out to as many people as possible, is it pandering to do this? Or is it a measure of success when thousands of people are served in some way? What is acceptable evidence of this? It feels a bit like asking how one stays pure when one is no longer a virgin, but the point has to be made: it is not inexorably unethical or immoral to have high visitation figures or to make money with history. In fact it is a high measure of success in most quarters. So, how do we talk about this? What guiding quantifiers or qualifiers can we suggest?
~ Darlene Roth