27 February 2007

A Comedic History Break

This comic from Pearls Before Swine captures exactly how I often feel about history and its aficionados:

I fell off my chair when I read this. Really. Right off.

Have you ever experienced the horror of telling someone a historical nugget that, to you, is intensely interesting, only to look at the receiver of your tale and see a thick, clear glaze over their eyes? It seems to happen to me almost every time I open my mouth.

To the historian, be they amateur or professional, tidbits of history like the one in the comic above can seem like the blood of everyday life. To others, though, they may (read: most likely) are irrelevant and dull. Part of the reason why I enrolled in the Public History program at Western was an idealistic bent of mine that wants to improve upon history-telling of the sort depicted in Pearls Before Swine.

I do not think that history has to be boring, but I admit that it often is. I have no prescription for how to change this. All I can say is that I know interesting history when I see (or hear, or read, or listen to) it, but that what is interesting to me may be lifeless to another.

I didn't mean for this post to be intellectual at all; I just wanted to share the comic. Then I got thinking about it and dug a little hole from which I cannot seem to extricate myself. So instead of trying to climb out, I'll dig deeper and request that anyone with an interest in history think before they next speak about a history topic. You may be doing more harm than good.

21 February 2007

Public History: In Need of an Attitude Adjustment

As part of the University of Western Ontario’s Public History Program, we students must complete an internship over the four-month summer term (May-August). To help us find our internships, and clarify some questions, we had three guest speakers come to our class last month. Two are museum professionals, while the other works in the private sector as an historical consultant.

It was a great experience, and I, for one, learned a lot from the speakers. I take issue, however, with two ideas our guests presented.

The first is the negligible credibility of practicing history. One guest suggested that to be able to practice history as a career is a privilege. Fair enough, I suppose. But the same can be said for many other jobs, so this assertion really doesn’t carry much weight with me.

My real contention with the claim, though, came when the speaker suggested that it is a privilege to practice history because 150 years ago, doing history was only the purview of wealthy élite men.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I am all for looking to the past to understand the present, but that, to me, smacks of living in the past. Sure, only rich men wrote history in the nineteenth century and before, but today’s world is much, much different. Today, history is about more than just élites, and therefore can justifiably be practiced, I think, by people of all demographic backgrounds. That is a bit of a simplistic argument, I know. But to suggest that we should feel privileged today because 150 years ago only the privileged did what we do is simply irrational.

My second complaint with the guest speakers relates to the first, and has to do with compensation within the public history field, a topic about which I wrote in a previous post. Connected with the notion that we are privileged if we practice history in the public realm is the idea that we therefore ought not to be paid well for it. The payment, so goes this line of thinking, is in the very fact that we get to practice history.

What a complete crock. Historians – and public historians, especially – add worth to their communities by providing understanding and culture. That makes us valuable, wouldn’t you say? As Molly recently wrote, “Historians have a skill set just like anyone else. Other professionals are able to lay ideology aside and get on with saving the world.” And those professionals are, more often than not, handsomely paid for the use of their skill set. While Molly would like to see a world in which we historians offer our services to those in need, I think we need to service ourselves before we can help others.

Well, that was rude, Bryan. A little too blunt, don’t you think?

Yes, yes. You’re right, Bryan. My point is that engineers and medecins who offer their services with little thought for themselves can afford to do so because the training they receive and skills they possess have value, whether real or perceived. Thus, their full-time careers provide them with sufficient remuneration so as to be able to afford to offer themselves up for free at other times.

No historian would, I believe, compare what we offer to the public with saving a life. Nonetheless, until historians start to see the real worth in what we bring to the public, or until we can convince the public that what we offer them is of value, we will continue to starve and our institutions will continue to suffer.

A Public's View of Public History

Reading through the Introduction to Fanshawe Pioneer Village's 40th Anniversary Commemorative booklet, I was struck by the simplicity of the following sentence:

"The Village offers a glimpse into the past through costumed volunteers, who re-enact the chores, pastimes and occupations of the late-19th and early-20th centuries in an authentic period setting."


Over the last four years I have heard or read the phrase "a glimpse into the past" countless times at other museums, living history sites, in books and movies, and on television and websites. Most of us, in fact, have probably heard it more than we know. It is a refrain so ubiquitous in (Canadian) popular history as to border on cliché. But never before did that specific arrangement of words hit me the way they did today.

It made me realize that I am jaded in my view of history (some might replace jaded with "educated," or"enlightened." Sure.). I remember recognizing - at some point in my undergraduate career - that my degree in history was eroding the innocent notion of history I had held for most of my life. What was replacing it was an understanding that the past was by no means as real or as tangible as I thought.

This "glimpse of the past" realization, however, was important because it will change my approach to how I present history to the public. I realize now how it is I used to think of history, which, I assume, is also how many people without academic training in historical thought might also view it (for the record, and in spite of the snootiness of this point of view, I think they do). Many people must arrive at places like Fanshawe Pioneer Village truly believing that they are visiting the past, or at least witnessing what the past looked like. Not as though they have traveled back in time, mind you, but that the people they are seeing in the present are thinking and acting in the exact ways that people in the past did. This realization is important because it gives me a clearer understanding of the expectations of the visitor / viewer / consumer of public history.

As public historians, is it our job to inform the public that no, you are not actually seeing the past, stupid, that the past is gone, never to return? Or should we aid in the suspension of disbelief necessary to further the public's engagement with some sort of semblance of the past? To take the former approach is to adopt a more academic view than the public may care to hear. But to take the latter is to fail on some level in educating the public about the past.

Maybe we should do both. Hopefully we do both. Perhaps the success of a blend of the two depends on the medium or form the "glimpse into the past" takes; I have no answer for that. I do know this, though: like Kevin, I am hungry.