Wednesday, November 23, 2011

What is the role of the historian in the age of shared authority and radical trust?

We began the 2011 seminar focused on relationships with communities and groups, seeking to understand how history organizations can become relevant and hence sustainable. We discussed community engagement, facilitated dialogue, shared authority, and radical trust – approaches that enable others to find their own value in the past. Examples range from simply using historic sites as a place for community gatherings, to the rigorous examination of a community’s contentious past.

In this milieu, I see two essential roles for the expert who has spent considerable time researching primary evidence and acquiring a body of knowledge: (1) tell a good story and (2) enable others to think critically about the past.

As interpreters of history, we have become very good at telling stories. History organizations around the country are using narrative in exhibitions and tours to enliven the past, capture the imagination of listeners, heighten emotions, and create an experience that is more than a recitation of facts and a display of stuff. When told well a story can reveal the nuance and complexity of history. “Follow the North Star” at Conner Prairie, now in its fifteenth year, continues to be one of the best examples of this genre.

But storytelling is not enough. At one point the seminar discussions touched on the general naïveté of the American public when it comes to understanding history. With rare exceptions, people seem to want simple answers. They prefer affirmation of what they already believe, rather than thinking critically about evidence and grappling with contradictory interpretations.

Jody Blankenship and others at the Kentucky Historical Society think the answer lies in education. They say that the public has little awareness of history as a discipline of knowledge. The public’s interest in history is based on the enjoyment of good stories rather than an appreciation for the critical thinking, weighing of evidence, reasoning, and knowledge of multiple perspectives that goes into an interpretation of the past.

Sharing authority with others carries an obligation on our part to teach the discipline of history. We do this in some of our programming for schools; National History Day is a prime example. But such programs are usually viewed as peripheral to the core work of producing exhibitions and new interpretive experiences.

It is time to put the teaching of critical thinking at the center of our work. We must do more than tell a good story. We must do more than open our doors and minds to the stories of others. We must teach them to be historians, to practice the discipline of history.

Ford Bell talked with the class about AAM’s efforts to unify the various types of museums – art, history, science, children’s, zoos, aquaria, etc. He suggests that in spite of the many differences, what we have in common is an educational purpose. Marsha Semmel talked about the work of IMLS in bringing museums to the table in the national conversation about education reform. Museums can play an important role in helping citizens develop crucial 21st century skills such as critical thinking and civic literacy.

This educational function may well be our greatest relevance today. This may be the way to make involvement in history not simply an enjoyable pastime, but a useful tool for building stronger communities and individuals.