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.

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