On the bookshelf: Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski, eds. Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World

In Letting Go?, a diverse array of public historians strive to address major questions facing the discipline in our contemporary “user-generated world.” Technological and methodological innovations, the rise of the participatory web, and shifting visitor expectations have challenged the traditional relationship between museums and their visitors. The questions that arise, then, are how and to what extent this relationship needs to change to accommodate an increasingly egalitarian information economy. Most pertinent to this volume is the issue of shifting authority within the Web, community-based programming, oral history, and contemporary art.

As the editors stress, the purpose of the book is “to mark a particular moment in the field, not to advocate or proselytize” (12). That’s a good thing, because the contributors disagree on fundamental questions and therefore don’t offer an entirely cohesive picture of how public historians can move forward to answer them. Rather, the editors identify “patterns” emerging in the conversations and case studies. For example, increased focus on encouraging audience participation has resulted in more inventive and innovative approaches. Additionally, a “no-boundaries” approach to audience expression has, paradoxically, resulted in less creative responses than when dialogues between museums and constituents were facilitated in more structured ways. Finally, contrary to the perception that sharing authority and public curation might make staff obsolete, this volume reveals that in actuality more is required of museums and their employees. Traditional skills like editing, deep content knowledge, and rich interpretative expertise remain just as vital as ever.

Letting Go? is structured into sections that outline changes happening in several arenas of public history practice. In each segment, public historians debate what “letting go” of the last word in authority means in theory and in practice.

The entry portal to City of Memory, a participatory dynamic story map of New York City described by Steve Zeitlin.

The first section, “Virtually Breaking Down: Authority and the Web” poses the question of how new information technologies have complicated and/or enhanced the practice of shared authority. Essays by Nina Simon, Steve Zeitlin, Matthew Fisher, Bill Adair, and Matthew MacArthur examine what public historians and museum practitioners can learn from the open and adaptive nature of the Web. As Nina Simon points out, the Web is a huge information storehouse that was purposefully created for those who would be using it: it is not curated; it adapts to user preferences to determine priorities; it is ever-welcoming of more content from anyone who wants to contribute. What would happen if museum professionals overcame a fear of losing control over dialogue and trust and embraced the potential of Web-inspired collecting and organizational techniques?

“Throwing Open the Doors: Communities as Curators” explores the promise of shared authority in the exhibit hall with pieces by Kathleen McLean, John Kuo Wei Tchen, Liz Sevcenko, Deborah Schwartz and others. Using the examples of the Minnesota Historical Society’s “Moving Pictures” film competition, the Brooklyn Public Perspectives Project, the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, and the New York Chinatown History Project, the authors reveal the pros and cons (but mostly pros) of opening up curatorial duties to the community. Dialogue-driven museums can provide valuable contextualization of topics and showcase marginalized histories by opening up conversations with audiences based on respect, reciprocity, and mutual interest. In the case studies provided here, relinquishing or sharing staff control over content and curation has actually resulted in a new level of intimacy between museums and their communities, who feel they can better trust the former to tell their stories.

“Hearing Voices: Sharing Authority Through Oral History” seems to be the portion of the book most readily showing ambivalence about “shared authority” phraseology, practice, and outcome. Contributors Michael Frisch, Benjamin Filene, Billy Yalowitz approach the issue in essays about StoryCorps, the Minnesota Historical Society, and performance art about the Black Bottom neighborhood of Philadelphia. While championing new technologies and avenues for engaging audiences in oral history, the authors also identify what they see as the dangers inherent in them. For example, StoryCorps has wide reach and popularity, but it does not replicate the historian’s craft. And the organizers of the Black Bottom project ran into confusion about how to address one of the major goals of former residents of the neighborhood: reparations for displacement and property seizure. Michael Frisch, author of seminal oral history text A Shared Authority, challenges the entire premise of “letting go’: oral history, he argues, involves an already shared authority that exists whether historians decide to recognize and respect it or not. It’s not up to public historians to “let go” of authority when it wasn’t theirs to begin with.

“The Question of Evaluation: Understanding the Visitor’s Response” is the shortest chapter of the book, questioning how museums can pragmatically stay true to mission statements and facilitate user-generated content in the modern era.

An interrupted scene at the Dennis Severs House, as featured in Mary Teeling’s essay. Photograph by James Brittain

Finally, the last section, “Constructing Perspectives: Artists and Historical Authority” examines what happens when the worlds of artist and historical institution come together. Melissa Rachleff, Fred Wilson, Paula Marincola, Marjorie Schwarzer, Laura Koloski, Otabenga Jones and Mary Teeling pull back the curtain on such collaborations and their inner workings. Revealingly, although the resulting projects often prove provocative, ground-breaking, and spectacular, they are also shown to be problematic in that they may not actually share authority with communities, be factually sound, or have positive consequences for museums that engage in them. To get around these issues, the contributors emphasize the importance of interdisciplinary methodology, as well as concerted efforts to reconcile what may often seem a radical divergence in language, responsibility, and priorities between the parties involved.

Although sometimes it seems like the essays produce more questions than answers, I think that this collaborative effort is especially strong in that it provides in and of itself an outstanding example of what shared authority looks like. Sometimes uneven in content or presentation, sometimes unexpected or inspiring feelings of discomfort, this book nevertheless provides equal representation of differing viewpoints and experiences in the field.

On the bookshelf:
Andrea Burns, From Storefront to Monument
Edward T. Linenthal, “Anatomy of a Controversy” in History Wars: The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past
Ken Yellis, “Fred Wilson, PTSD, and Me: Reflections on the History Wars” in Curator: The Museum Journal (October 2009)

This week’s readings explore what can happen when the traditional and expected narrative of American progress and exceptionalism is subverted in museum exhibits.

Exhibit label from Mining the Museum, Maryland Historical Society

“Fred Wilson, PTSD, and Me: Reflections on the History Wars” by Ken Yellis considers the example of the 1992-93 exhibition Mining the Museum at the Maryland Historical Society. Fred Wilson’s critical juxtaposition of artifacts (such as a baby carriage holding a Klu Klux Klan hood) was highly controversial. Because it destabilized the expected seemingly-neutral presentation of “history” as straightforward, linear, and apolitical within the museum space (in Wilson’s own words, “They’re expecting one experience and they get another experience.”) some visitors reacted with revulsion and distrust. One such visitor remarked, “Museums are not supposed to lie to us.” Yellis, noting the relative lack of such contentious exhibitions in museums today (the article was written in 2009), wonders if the negative response that museums received from these types of efforts has affected curators with a form of PTSD. They avoid taking a stance, he hypothesizes, because they fear losing control of the visitor experience.

In the same vein, Edward Linenthal relates what can go wrong when a national museum attempts to tackle difficult questions in “Anatomy of a Controversy,” an inside look at the process behind developing the Enola Gay exhibition at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Plagued by generational conflicts, bureaucratic red tape, and the fatal misconception that it was possible to mount an exhibition that did not make any type of political statement, the exhibition underwent numerous changes in the development process and emerged as a diluted and uncritical version of its original incarnation, upholding a narrative of American patriotism and derring-do. One thing missing from the essay, though, is an explanation why this exhibition garnered so much more controversy than the National Museum of American History’s A More Perfect Union, an exhibition about Japanese internment camps that visitors still ask about.

From Storefront to Monument charts the history of the Black Museum Movement, which

The NMAAHC, September 2016. (Author’s photo)

began closely related to the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power Movement and shared aims and proponents. Museums like the DuSable Museum of African American History and Culture in Chicago and the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum in Washington, D.C. were inspired by the exclusion of the African-American experience in “mainstream” large institutions. Largely believing that museums should be involved in social change in their communities, the movement has encountered issues actually instituting that change, remaining true to grassroots convictions, and adapting to developing needs in the community. As the book was written in 2013, it anticipates the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture as a watershed moment that could redefine the Black Museum Movement in scope, content, and level of community involvement. I had the opportunity to visit the NMAAHC, and while on the whole I think it very much reflects a typically “good/bad” categorical Smithsonian approach to history, there were a few exceptions. For example, an installation on the Louisiana State Penitentiary (“Angola”) critically examined the prison’s plantation past and the implications of incarcerating an overwhelmingly Black prisoner population there.

Although I can’t recall ever seeing anything at the level of Mining the Museum, I would challenge a fatalistic view of the doomed nature of ‘controversy’ in museums. I’ve seen several exhibitions over the past few years that I would categorize at the very least as nontraditional, such as Abigail DeVille’s Only When It’s Dark Enough Can You See the Stars, the BMA’s Imagining HomeThe Big Graph at Eastern State Penitentiary, the President’s House Site in Independence Park, and of course my all-time favorite, The Lower East Side Tenement Museum. When I think about it, though, much of this work seems to be stewarded or inspired by the arts community rather than the history community, and I wonder if that goes back to Yellin’s point about visitor expectations- someone visiting an arts or arts-related installation perhaps anticipates a challenge to their perspective more than the same visitor in a history setting. Although both are in actuality about crafting a narrative, a history museum holds the illusion of conferring more legitimacy on this narrative. Artists are supposed to be creative; historians are supposed to “tell it like it is.”


On the bookshelf:
Cathy Stanton, The Lowell Experiment
Jill Ogline, ‘”Creating Dissonance for the Visitor”: The Heart of the Liberty Bell Controversy’ in The Public Historian 26:3 (2004)

Dissonance, the theme of the week, defined by Merriam-Webster:

a : lack of agreement; especially : inconsistency between the beliefs one holds or between one’s actions and one’s beliefs — compare cognitive dissonance
b : an instance of such inconsistency or disagreement
: a mingling of discordant sounds; especially : a clashing or unresolved musical interval or chord

Examples: dissonance in a sentence
<the dissonance between what we are told and what we see with our own eyes>

It’s hard for me to write about creating dissonance between visitor and subject matter this week because of the sense of dissonance, incongruity, surrealism suffusing my own reality at the moment. This week, Donald J. Trump won the electoral vote and will now be the President-Elect of the United States. It is surreal to even type that sentence; it feels like a joke; it is unimaginable to me that the country that I call home and that professes to uphold the values of equality, democracy, and virtue could elect a man who embodies the antithesis of those things.

We’ve had several discussions about whether this election shows that historians have failed the nation, and though I wish it weren’t true, it feels somewhat that way. Are all of the Civil War battlefields that celebrate Confederates to blame? What about the Smithsonian exhibits and textbooks that refer to enslaved people as “workers”? And the NPS sites that gloss over difficult histories to provide a G-rated version of the past? I believe these approaches are cowardly and an affront to critical thinking skills, a concession to jingoistic rhetoric that equates inquiry with treason.

In The Lowell Experiment, Cathy Stanton investigates the complicated history of one such an NPS site, the Lowell National Historical Park in Lowell, Massachusetts. Tracing the development of the public history movement in tandem with the evolution of interpretation at the Park, Stanton investigates its efforts at “cultural-led regeneration” (once considered groundbreaking). Lowell’s history is particularly interesting in several respects. The exploitative textile industry that put it on the map is still mostly intact, though it has relocated to more impoverished nations. Additionally, a large Cambodian-American community currently resides in Lowell where Irish, Polish, and Greek immigrants once lived. The story of immigrant labor and hard living is told at the historic site as if it were in the past, when it is plainly visible that it is still a reality for many people in the city. Park workers have struggled with how to present the past as a lesson for the present, partially due to their own discomfort at addressing the subject.

Similarly, in “‘Creating Dissonance for the Viewer:’ The Heart of the Liberty Bell Controversy,” Jill Ogline reports on the controversy surrounding plans to expand the Liberty Bell complex onto the former site of George Washington’s slave quarters. The very idea of interpreting such a jarring juxtaposition has proven apoplectic for NPS representatives. Per Ogline, at this site, “dissonance is viewed as a threat to maintaining smooth operations. In an environment so focused on ensuring comfort—physical, intellectual, and emotional—an upset visitor is a sign of failure” (55).

I don’t know if there is a lesson I can take from these readings to assuage my own sense of dissonance. I suppose, if I can pull anything out of it, I can definitively state that dissonance and discomfort are prime motivators for change and reflection. While I still have a lot of trepidation about the future of the country and the history profession, I take heart in the “subversive” Lowell tour guide who brought up the subject of the continuing injustice of the textile industry- even if it was bookended with “Just something to think about!” There are people out there willing to do the hard work of addressing historical relevance. Maybe I can be one of them.

Last week, I wrote about the difficulty of addressing memory in the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor of Baltimore. This evening, I attended a talk at Temple by Ta-Nehisi Coates: writer, journalist, history major, and former resident of a West Baltimore neighborhood just blocks away from that corridor.

Coates spoke of difficult things, including racism and structural violence, in an easily flowing, extemporaneous manner. He cited the necessity of thinking critically of American history and the slave economy that made the nation’s creation possible- that this was a legal, widespread institution wherein real people made real profits by owning, exploiting, hurting and sometimes killing other real people. He explained the inner workings of oppressive power structures in such a lucid way that Joan Scott and Michel Foucault, in all their poststructuralist wisdom, could not hope to achieve.

But among the most striking parts of his talk came in the form of a memory. Coates at age 11, watching a group of older boys in the parking lot of a West Baltimore 7-Eleven. The looks on their faces as they postured to each other, play-fighting. The moment when he realized what one of the boys, looking directly into his eyes, was pulling from his coat pocket: a gun. The shock and fear and realization that he was not safe in his surroundings, could not count on the inviolability of his own body.

This story is testimony to so many things: A young boy’s realization of the brutality of the world he lives in, the nature of life in a neighborhood torn by crime and drugs and decades of discriminatory policies, the emulation of structurally enforced submission at the most interpersonal of levels. This memory is evidence enough of why “doing” history in the Penn Ave. area is so plagued with controversy. “Why would anyone want to remember this awful stuff?”, the argument goes.

Coates’ memory takes on meaning for him in his early consciousness of his own mortality and place in the pecking order of his neighborhood, a meaning that takes on more significance as he gets older and begins to understand the incident in the context of the larger societal struggle over agency and ownership of people of color’s bodies. This is the narrative that he now tells when he remembers the event in front of an audience. Experience has transformed into memory, which has transformed into his history. This history has broader significance in its connections to the present, and the memory must necessarily be seen through that lens as well. There’s a lot going on here.

As evidenced by this week’s readings, including “When Community Comes Home to Roost” (Journal of Social History: 40 [Fall 2006]), and  “When Subjects Don’t Come Out” (in Queer Episodes in Music and Modern Identity), many of these same themes are inherent in the collection and study of oral history. That’s the messiness, but also a reason why it is such an important resource. What matters is not just what happened (the event), but the meaning attached to it. Especially for public historians, seeking to share authority in any way possible, oral history is a way of trusting people to give their own interpretation of an experience. What can result is much richer, more textured, more intimate and intricate than a standard chronology of events. What can result is the explication of an entire worldview.

On the bookshelf:
Andrew Hurley, Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities
Dolores Hayden, “Claiming Urban Landscapes as Public History” in The Power of Place
Marla Miller and Max Page, “Introduction” in Bending the Future: Fifty Ideas for the Next Fifty Years of Historic Preservation in the United States
These classy women put the ‘ladies’ in The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association

This week’s readings are probably the most pertinent of any others I’ve done for grad school so far to what I actually want to do in real life. I love cities- their cultural vibrance, their neighborhoods, their landscapes, and their histories. I think those things should be preserved when possible. I also feel strongly about the importance of “the tough stuff of American memory,” to quote Hurley quoting James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton. What I’m less enamored of is the world of historic preservation groups, many of which have their roots in culturally elitist organizations, and some of which tend to devote their resources in perpetuation of those sorts of ideals.

The power of place: The path of the Berlin Wall is marked with stones in the pavement for about 3.5 miles (5.7km) through the city. Although the Wall no longer stands, its legacy is still felt. Author’s photo.

Reading Dolores Hayden’s “Claiming Urban Landscapes as Public History” challenged my assumptions somewhat about what urban preservation can, ideally, look like. In relating a 1975 argument between sociologist Herbert Gans and architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable over the New York City Landmark Commission’s attitude toward historic preservation, Hayden makes the point that although they both cared about the issue, they were speaking two different languages betraying two different value systems. Reconciliation of diverging perspectives of the parties concerned with cultural landscapes- social historians, preservationists, environmentalists, and public artists- is necessary for a fruitful conversation about the issues of historic preservation.  She elaborates on the idea of place memory and the power of place, arguing that communities invest places with social and cultural meaning; buildings and landscapes become “storehouses for collective memory.”

Similarly, Marla Miller and Max Page address the importance of collaborative work between preservationists, grassroots community organizations, and environmentalists in Bending the Future. The contributors to the volume, summarized in the introduction, recognize a place for activism and social justice in preservation work. They also confront the inadequacies of the industry- for instance, the nondiversity of the majority of preservation professionals, the over-reliance on National Historic Register Criterion “C” (architectural and design/constructional merit), and the risk of preservation sometimes leading to displacement and class segregation.

Lastly, but certainly not least, Andrew Hurley makes an argument for infusing historic preservation work with public history in order to make it “a more effective instrument for revitalizing inner-city neighborhoods.” In tackling the issues of gentrification, displacement, and redevelopment, Hurley provides lots of warts-and-all case studies. He also urges collaboration between public historians and others in the community, providing basic principles for broadening the concept of shared authority in practice. Some of his guidelines include: seeking broad community engagement and social inclusivity; utilizing methodologies like oral history and archaeology that can get community members involved in doing their own history, thereby ensuring investment; connecting with grassroots organizations familiar with local civic affairs; and balancing objectives.

“Welcome to Penn Ave., a place where history lives.” Marquee monument to the demolished Royal Theater, a famous black-owned jazz and blues venue. Author’s photo.

All that I’ve been reading about lost and complex landscapes has had me thinking, particularly about the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor of Baltimore. Once a vibrant African-American theater and music district, it was known as “Baltimore’s Harlem.” It was a central location in the city’s 1960s Civil Rights Movement as well as the backdrop to the 2015 arrest of Freddie Gray and the protests that followed his death. In working on a mapping project of the Negro Travelers’ Green Book sites in the city this past summer, I came to realize just how little of this legacy and landscape remain. Only three sites out of dozens in the area (pulled from three editions of the books) were still extant, and only one was still operating as the original business (The Sugar Hill Tavern). There have been some local efforts to revitalize, preserve, and readapt the area but none by any major public history players in the city, at least recently. There has been a lot of disagreement about the purpose of commemoration in the area. The highly concentrated African-American population in the Penn Ave. corridor did not result from choice- it was the calculated outcome of segregational policies of city lawmakers and community organizations that utilized restrictive covenants to keep African-Americans out of other neighborhoods. It’s an understandably fraught history- how can the “tough stuff of American history” be addressed here?

With the aid of my classmates, I’ve gotten my draft for the theme of “The Personal and Social Function of War Mementoes” down to 100 words and sharpened the meaning slightly. Now to revisit Serrell and see what else I can improve for next week…

Many of us collect souvenirs: A postcard from the Grand Canyon, a ticket stub from a baseball game, a seashell from a lovely day at the beach. These objects help remind us of a time that we don’t want to forget.

U.S.S. Olympia sailors also experienced events they wanted to remember and share with others at home. To do this, they collected mementoes. Touching a Cossack sword or reading a letter from the people of Ragusa could reconnect sailors to where they had been and what they had seen in their travels. Unlike memories, these objects would never fade away.

I’m not sure why I had such a difficult time writing this exhibit label, but I’ve finally put together a (too long) first draft. My topic is “The Personal and Social Function of War Mementoes,” referencing the Cossack sword and (I think?) the letter from the women of Ragusa.

Many of us collect souvenirs: A postcard from the Grand Canyon, a ticket stub from a World Series baseball game, a seashell from the beach where we spent a lovely summer day. These objects help remind us of a time that we don’t want to forget.

Sailors on the U.S.S. Olympia were far away from home for long periods of time. They experienced events, both positive and negative, that they wanted to remember and share with others once they finally returned home. One way they could do this was by collecting mementoes. To be able to touch a Cossack sword, or show a loved one a letter from the people of Ragusa, was a way to commemorate where they had been and what they had seen in their travels. Unlike their memories, these objects would never fade away.

To me, this seems kind of boring and not particularly evocative. Part of the issue is the sword’s foggy provenance: did the sailor acquire it while fighting the Bolsheviks in Russia, or while aiding refugees in the Adriatic? The origination document is incorrect in stating that the U.S.S. Olympia was in the Adriatic from 1918-1920. It was actually deployed in Russia in 1918, and then made its way to the Adriatic (on two separate journeys) from 1919 to 1921. The distinction between acquiring the sword in a trade from an ally in wartime or from a Cossack refugee seems pretty large to me and I’m trying to address the theme without getting into the details. Therefore all I can state for certain is that this particular sailor acquired both items while a crewman on the Olympia and brought them home as mementoes.