21 February 2007

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."

Wow.

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.

1 comment:

Kevin Marshall said...

Two accounts seem to form a consensus. I'll be the first to say it:

"In 2007, UWO Public History students were mildly hungry."