Connecting tensions | National Council on Public History
21 May 2018 – James F. Brooks
This issue of The Public Historian unfolds as a meditation on one of the central paradoxes in our field. In her presidential address, past-president Alexandra M. Lord surveys her seventeen-year career as a historian within the federal government. Trained in British and early modern medical history in the PhD program at the University of Wisconsin, Lord found herself at the Smithsonian seeking connections across the tangled sweep of US history. She wondered why continuities across the Atlantic world were silenced by enduring notions of American exceptionalism. She puzzled, too, on the apparent disconnect between formally identified public historians and curators, interpreters, museum educators, preservationists, and archivists whom we seldom imagine as colleagues in a collective enterprise. In her address, she argues for “an aggressively inclusive culture” that seeks to enlarge not only the tent of demographic diversity, but also the intellectual connections between disciplines and fields that engage with the public in myriad ways, to further “a much broader definition” of the meaning of public history. In so doing, however, she cautions that inviting wider participation in the enterprise also invites more tension—among and between federal agencies, funding streams, and the many locally invested publics we hope to serve—and must be done while also upholding our professional commitment to critique the “troubled legacy” of programs most dear to our constituents.
The struggle to balance public appeal with professional critique suffuses Rebecca Mancuso’s “Finger Saga” essay. The severed fingers of Mary Bach, cleaved from her hand by her husband Carl on October 10, 1881, in a frenzy of murderous violence, are preserved today in what tradition holds to be a jar of whiskey. These pickled digits have long fascinated visitors to the Wood County Museum outside Bowling Green, Ohio. As a trustee of the local historical society that oversees the museum, Mancuso was understandably disturbed by this display of human remains. Yet she also understood that the public’s “perpetual attraction” to the fingers inspired visitation. Mancuso shows that after board’s decision to remove the fingers from display, the museum engaged in insightful research into white working-class gendered violence, courtroom dramas, the guilty verdict, and the hanging of Carl (and the preservation of the noose that throttled him) meant to counter an ongoing public perception of Mary’s complicity in her own death. Few cases illustrate so well the perils that public historians encounter in our daily work.
In a similar vein, Ariel Beaujot walks us through Hear, Here, a place-based oral history project in La Crosse, Wisconsin, that collects stories from the one-time sundown town and makes them available at “listening posts” for public enjoyment. Some of the stories, however, explicit in revealing racism in “place,” evinced strong negative responses from modern business owners and town boosters. Beaujot, an untenured assistant professor at the time, found herself in complex negotiations among university administrators, students, oral history subjects, and business boosters. Her essay demonstrates how a commitment to community engagement sometimes means working “up” the race-and-class privilege ladder, as well as down on the streets to facilitate connections among contentious perspectives, and considers the limits to success in those efforts.
Marika Cifor, Michelle Caswell, Alda Allina Migoni, and Noah Geraci survey twelve sites of community archive formation in Southern California to likewise explore the boundaries between the professional objectivity and neutrality in archival work and our field’s tradition of social justice activism. Richly detailed in drawing from in-depth interviews with community archive founders and situated within literature on archival formation and public history activism, it serves as both foundation and provocation to the reader. One also sees the interviewees taking command of and recasting the researchers’ questions, locating the interviewees work in specific locations and issues to make distinctions between “activists,” “advocates,” and “organizers,” and in doing so point to the importance of archives in contemporary social movements.
Finally, this issue includes a provocative roundtable on the topic of the Obama Presidential Center (featured on our cover), the first presidential center to not fall under the funding and administrations of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), a precedent reaching back across thirteen administrations to the first such library, that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Archivist Bob Clark believes the transfer of design and administration from the federal government to a private foundation will leave “our democracy, the Obama legacy, and the legacy of all future presidents . . . the worse for it.” Benjamin Hufbauer counters that “presidential library museums function essentially as political infomercials funded by the federal government” and the shift to private nonprofit foundation funding and management is a timely recognition of the fact. Michael J. Devine contextualizes the history of NARA presidential libraries and argues that philosophical and organizational changes since FDR lie at the crux of the matter. Meredith R. Evans details how changing informational technologies underlie the transformation, and that President Obama was the first “social media president,” using an iPad to read daily briefings and a Blackberry for communication, transforming the curatorial palette required in a library. Beyond the brick-and-mortar expenses of a library, digitally adept archivists and massive electronic storage and management demands may allow NARA to create “virtual” collections in tandem with the private libraries, thereby fulfilling its mission to “ensure public access to federal government records.”
~ James F. Brooks is editor of The Public Historian and professor of history and anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.