I’m reading John Dower’s Ways of Forgetting, Ways of Remembering and thinking about conceptions of public history. Dower, writing specifically on the controversy centered on the 1995 Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian debating how to present the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in terms of aftermath and context (or lack thereof), presents the importance of public history as part of an obligation on the part of historians to participate in a fuller exploration of our mission in informing the public. For Dower, reactionary positions on the exhibit decrying a focus on the suffering endured as a result of the bombings open the United States offered evidence of clear limitations on public discussion. The conflict here is both inherently and explicitly political. Whether somewhat illusory in form, such as broad popular narratives on the good and bad of American involvement in World War II, or delivered with more clarity, as in the case of the American Congress’ squaring up to the Smithsonian in 1994 and 1995, such limitations bear clear warnings for our democracy.
One would find it difficult to disagree with Dower. Certainly, it brings to mind for me a central focus in attempts to engage in public history. What exactly are we doing? What are the objectives and what means do we have to get there? As an instructor who dreams of handing his undergraduates a prompt that states, simply and clearly, “write an essay” (and very little else; maybe “don’t use Google in your research”) I am very much in support of a broad ranging focus, many fields of fire launched against the drafted soldiers often unwittingly manning the frontiers of ignorance. Thusly, work such as that of my colleague Bob Whitaker and myself in reaching out to fans of video games and offering more ideas from the academy finds itself, broadly speaking, in the same field as nationally recognized public exhibits. That is, if we are saying public history is a field.
I’m not even sure that we can take that as read, either. Plenty of people doing great work would see public history and academic work as being separate disciplines, but public history is a field of the discipline of History, in the broader sense. So much of what we do when attempting to engage with public history represents the broader tenets of historical work, but I increasingly fear that we are working harder at bridging a gap than we would like to be. I, and many other historians, would prefer that the bridge linking the work being done in historical research in the academy and popular perceptions of history be both structurally sound and aesthetically pleasing. A gleaming bridge covered with stalls manned by historians offering their work to the streams of humanity passing by on their way from one land to the other. Some days I feel the bridge is in such disrepair that no one dares place much of a stall upon it and there is not much foot traffic anyhow. At other times it seems to me that we’re still trying to build the bridge in the first place.
It begs the question, if there is no such (metaphorical) bridge, how do ideas get from one land to the other? In batches of textbooks tied to rafts launched across the water? The occasional snippet of a conversation on television or radio with a member of the academy? It seems to me that ideas travel across this divide in sporadic raids from one side to the other, and usually from one side, with brave souls from the land of popular imagination raiding the vaults of the academy. This causes much concern for historians, but in many ways we have ourselves to blame: those who swim over to the popular side often struggle to speak in the local language. It can be frustrating when problematic statements in the local tongue can be so commonplace.
Thus enters the idea of public history, perhaps not as a bridge but as a motley flotilla of different ideas. Many of these boats come in the form of blogs or, in even more fragile condition, individual blog posts like this one. Certain university presses manage fleets of their own, with larger ships and some established bases on the other side, but we’re all here navigating. More of us still are standing on the shore and talking about how great it would be to get over there. Therein lies the problem really, though I take heart from what seems a general sense among my fellow historians that there indeed sits an audience across the way just waiting for us. I am also increasingly encouraged by the variety of forms which public history may take, from museum exhibits such as that mentioned at the beginning of this post to… well, to blog posts like this one. Admittedly, this post is really only a work of public history if we expand such definitions broadly to get meta. Let’s do that. Let’s get meta.