On Monday morning we heard from Eric Sandweiss, who teaches at Indiana University. He used recent changes in the way history organizations state their missions to talk about the changing nature of our work. “Collecting, preserving and interpreting” was once seen as a legitimate end in itself, having value for society as a whole. Now it is only a means to an end, which is to have some positive effect on the public. Often this is stated as helping others find a meaningful, personal connection with the past. A generic mission today would read: we use history to have an effect on the public.
However, this way of thinking about our purpose has deep roots. The Smithsonian was founded for both the increase and diffusion of knowledge. Charles Wilson Peale and P.T. Barnum created democratic enterprises, for the amusement and edification of the masses. In contrast, early historical societies sought to do this only for the elite. These places emphasized reading, with objects used only as illustrations, and labels as the primary means of conveying information.
We still feel the tension between these two purposes in our organizations today.
In our discussion with Eric class members talked about the pressures we feel not to offend certain people and groups. Tony Glen from the Canadian War Museum told of an episode where controversy over a label led to the resignation of the museum director. Jackie Barton from the Ohio Historical Society said that some in the public are frustrated that we are too compromising. Dina Bailey from the Freedom Center described her work as walking a tightrope, sometimes compromising too much, sometimes not enough. We talked about topics that seem to be off limits, the demands of pressure groups, and our shifting role from authoritative voice to convener.
This was a great way to start the seminar. We jumped right into the complexities, frustrations, and challenges of using history to serve the public in today’s world.