We have been discussing relationships between history organizations and the people and communities they serve. I am pleased that we did not dwell on concerns often voiced about inviting others to participate in our work: can we trust them, will they follow the rules, will they damage the collection, and will they respect my expertise?
Although I still encounter such objections around the country, the discussions in the seminar have been not about whether we should engage others in active participation, but rather how to best do it, and toward what ends.
What are the benefits of community and lay participation in the practice and presentation of history?
1. The practice of history is about making sense and making choices. Historians know that history is complex and nuanced; that we haven’t got it all figured out yet; that interpretations of the past must be rooted in specific evidence; and that the discovery of new evidence can be really exciting, especially when it helps us answer a question. Yet our practice in history organizations has been to keep the fun of discovery to ourselves and just give the public answers. As a result many people think of history as simple. They come to us for answers and not for solving problems. And yet we lament that the public has a naïve understanding of the past. By involving them in the process of historical research and interpretation, we can help them think critically and appreciate the complexity of the past.
2. By engaging others in our practice we can give voice to underrepresented groups. There is strong interest in doing this in the class, and we have discussed many examples of working with minority communities to tell their stories through exhibits and programs. We have talked about the benefits and risks of sharing authority, the challenges of establishing trust, the distinctions between memory and history, the role of the expert, and the value of multiple perspectives. In spite of the challenges, it is clear that there is great benefit to both the community and the institution in doing such work.
3. Involving others in out work also occurs via social media. Again our conversation centered on the benefits and strategies for doing it well. This year’s students are fully engaged in the opportunities and challenges of using Web 2.0, although some of their institutions are lagging.
4. Engaging others in the practice of history can potentially help people come to grips with aspects of the past that make us all uncomfortable. I say potentially because this can be hard, time consuming and risky work. We discussed contentious cases dealing with slavery and race relations, and U.S. government treatment of American Indians. In my next post I will go into greater depth on this topic, and lay out some of the strategies that are working.
5. Finally, active engagement of a community in understanding its past can help people see the relevance of history in their lives today. They can discover the historical context for the problems they face in building a better community. Every present-day concern has a history, which if known and understood, can inform dialogue and potentially lead to better solutions.
We recognize that there are many ways in which communities and individuals can participate in the practice of history, from contributing their own stories and photographs, to full participation in the interpretation of evidence and presentation of an exhibit.
At its best, involvement can lead to critical thinking, greater understanding, and commitment to preservation of historic places and historical collections.