On Sunday I will be traveling to Indianapolis to spend three weeks with fifteen practitioners of public history, the 2011 class of Developing History Leaders @SHA. We will engage in deep discussions with many leaders in our field, probing some of the BIG questions about the relevance and future sustainability of our work.
Every two or three days I’ll post a summary of what we’ve been talking about. If you’d like to follow and comment on our discussions, sign up to follow this blog by clicking on the button to the right.
During the first week our questions will center on the nature of our work in relationship to the people and communities we serve. Why is it that so many Americans find history, for the most part, boring and irrelevant? Why is it that they think of visiting a history museum, historic site, or any history organization as something nice to do occasionally, if at all, and certainly not on a regular basis? Is it because history is really not so important in today’s world?
Here are some specific questions we’ll be asking.
1. Whose history is it? Do we decide what’s important about the past, or do we let the people we serve decide? How do we share authority with them? How do we get them “involved” in history and still maintain standards of accuracy and authenticity?
2. What if they have different points of view among themselves? Do we take sides, or do we take a neutral stance? What is our role, and how do we best fulfill that role? This is an especially relevant question when one group of people has oppressed another group in the past.
3. Is it enough that we make history engaging by telling great stories and displaying evocative and provocative objects, or should we find ways to make history useful to present-day concerns? What roles should we play in our communities?
4. How can we be more creative in using authentic objects to involve people in exploring the past? For decades we have used objects to illustrate an interpretation of the past, displayed in cases, on platforms, and in room settings. Are there creative ways to use objects, not as illustrations, but as sources of evidence to enable others to develop their own interpretations?
5. How can we best use technology to enhance a person’s involvement with history? What are people already doing outside of our field? How can we take what’s out there and use it to our advantage?
6. Is there a limit to what we should do? Should that limit be determined only by available funding? Does everything old that comes our way have to be saved for the benefit of the public? How do we make choices?
Remember, if you’d like to follow our discussions, sign up for this blog.