While writing my final reflection paper for my Exhibit Design course, one of the prompts we were asked to address was, “Are we or can we be social change agents in the world?” In order to answer this, naturally I climbed upon my public history soapbox. Since I doubt any of this paper will be sent out anonymously to rest of the class like a previous paper of mine, I thought I’d share some of it with the blogsphere. It’s a concise explanation of my stance on public history and museums and I think sharing it is long overdue.
I believe that access to knowledge is a human right. My passion for history and the belief that understanding it is crucial to understanding ourselves, our society and our ability to positively change the world has brought me to public history. That and the fact that for most of my life I’ve almost peed myself in glee every time I visit a historical site or history museum. So yes, I do believe that we can be agents of social change. The lack of collective historic appreciation in this country is disheartening, but again, that’s not new. In 1824, the Marquis de Lafayette toured the United States and visited many of the sites where events crucial to the American Revolution occurred. While the Americans were preoccupied with showing him new buildings which replaced earlier ones and all the progress that had transpired since he’d returned to France, it was the French Marquis who had to plead with Americans to preserve the sites of our heritage. Not much has changed. I believe Americans still turn to Europe with its ancient castles, grandiose cathedrals and ancient relics and believe that’s what public acknowledgement and appreciation of history looks like. But as a relatively young country bent on looking forward, there are those of us that are clamoring for preservation, acknowledgement and education. However, there is an overwhelming disconnect between what goes on in academic buildings and the public’s understanding of their own history. With my work I seek to close that gap, but it is a monumental task that unfortunately is not getting easier.
“Staying relevant” is a mantra repeated time and time again but it is so much harder than it sounds. Places like the George Washington Carver Center in Phoenix seem to grasp that problem but there is only so much that can be done to bring history to the people. I think on an individual basis Americans believe we appreciate our history, but much like the industrialization of food in this country, we seem to think someone else will decide what is best for us and make decisions in our best interest to preserve, understand and “use” the past. I can sympathize because I struggle to understand the entire picture with almost every point in time I study and learning history often feels like an endless tunnel because history is everything. It is endless. It is an art. It is interpretation. The noble goal of our education system is that every individual should have some understanding of the past, yet it mostly fails to make people feel like the facts have any relevancy to their own life. History is not the story but a story. Most of all, it should be your story. It is not a recitation of facts as our education system teaches. It’s a subject I doubt many people can appreciate before they’ve come to understand their own place in time and space, which does not happen in high school (despite what many teenagers seem to think). After formal education, museums are the most trusted institutions as a source of knowledge and truth about the world. We need to protect that trust and taken as much advantage of it as we can. Learning to give people a voice in the process of what we do is crucial. So is believing in the potential of our visitors to decide what matters. Giving them the tools to help us help them, whether it is within the walls of an exhibit or not, is vital. Museums are evolving and evolving fast. I love being a part of it.