Our publics take many forms. From students to professionals in the heritage sector, to amateurs and volunteers who find existential meaning through encounters with the past. As historians and history graduate students, we are one of the highly interested publics for history. “Pastkeepers” and storytellers, we have the disciplinary training in content and method that allows us to shape the relationship with our audiences. Professional gatekeepers might portray themselves as mediators between a lost past and a marooned present. But for many oral and local history practitioners the historian mediates the past alongside the audience, acting instead as part of a community of inquiry that shares different skills. From this last few weeks’ encounter with the literature, it appears that the way we relate to our audiences is often directly related to the way we portray historical time.
For many historians, the past is considered, to borrow L. P. Hartley’s turn of phrase, “a foreign country.” Its ways are strange, and unknowable; its people inscrutable to the present, but through a translator. Here the historian becomes an explorer – venturing into strange lands and returning with fragmented insights for a contemporary public—stories distilled for an undisciplined other. Students sit and learn the lessons of these intrepid sojourners, and with sufficient effort and memory, might one day make the trip themselves. Drawing on De Certeau, we might think of the past in this formulation as a “corpse” upon which it is the professional duty of the historian to operate and make known. The past is dead and gone, but for our forensic efforts. Our audiences must wait for our pronouncements, lest they mess up the whole business of historical discovery.
Many of the scholars on this week’s reading list have largely rejected the notion that history is lost to the present. Instead they offer a past interwoven with the everyday, which however insignificant in its manifestations, helps us find our footing in time.
Carl Becker and the Histories of “Mr. Everyman”
Thinking about the relationship between history and the general public, Carl Becker wrote presciently in 1931 that history was in its most succinct definition “the memory of things said and done.” In a social context, however, history is also narrative rooted in an aspiration to truth. By its narrative quality, history is never fixed, never definitive, and always retold to suit the needs of the day. Writes Becker:
… in every age history is taken to be a story of actual events from which a significant meaning may be derived; and in every age the illusion is that the present version is valid because the related facts are true, whereas former versions are invalid because based upon inaccurate or inadequate facts. (Becker 1931)
Rejecting what he calls “the permanent contribution”—those “Complete Histories” which still haunt our library shelves today—Becker calls for an engaged history that better connects with the needs and wants of a Mr. Everyman. For this theoretical character, “the history that lies inert in unread books does no work in the world.” His past is always with him, always being retold at the whim of his desires and interests. He performs the task of the historian on a daily basis. The simple paying a bill for his company requires recall of things said and done; examination of documents to supplement unaided memory; and critical comparison of conflicting reports in order to evoke a reliable picture in his mind. What confuses the observer as to Mr. Everyman’s status as a historian is that he is not writing a book or giving a lecture (1931). For Becker, the methods of the historian do not distinguish us from our Mr. Everyman. The questions we ask (why were pirates described as “Enemies to All Mankind?”) and the activities we undertake (lectures and publications) are what makes us different.
For all its gendered language, Becker’s description of Mr. Everyman, the historian and their shared use of the past, levels the professional hierarchy that separates the expert historian and the “everyday public.
More important for our questions about the audience, however, is Becker’s assertion that the history that matters is the one that does “work in the world.” The historiographical legacy of this perspective on history has been profound. It underpins (or at least complements) concepts such as “usable pasts,” “shared authority” and “participatory historical culture.” History that does “work in the world” also lies at the heart of national surveys on historical engagement in the United States (1998), Australia (2001), and Canada (2012).
Raphael Samuel and the History Workshop Movement
Becker’s line of thinking is clearly reflected in the work of Raphael Samuel and the History Workshop movement. The History Workshop website describes itself as “a popular movement for the democratisation of History which flourished in Britain from the late 1960s to the mid 1980s (with sporadic activity continuing into the 1990s)” Culminating in Samuel’s Theatres of Memory (1996), the movement’s practitioners conceived of history as a process involving “many thousand hands.” With contributors coming from a variety of fields, and from both within and from outside the academy. The History Workshops asked how we might configure public history if we see it as a process of constant engagement between many practitioners.
As Jan Benson points out, Raphael Samuel’s efforts to break down the artificial division between past and present were central to his historical activism. A concept of history connected to the present allowed him to reach out to contemporary audiences in a way that could not be accomplished by epistemic formulations of time that situated the past outside of lived experience. Rather than an interpretative crutch, hindsight here becomes a tool for engagement and deeper appreciation of the role of history in the world—one that is shared by a broader, interested public.
The Presence of People and Their Pasts
More recently (2009), Hilda Kean and Paul Ashton offered yet another way of thinking about the social role of history that draws on Becker and Samuel. They argue that public history continues to be defined as a conversation between academic practitioners and their publics—anchoring the historian as mediator between the past and the public—Kean and Ashton present a vision of the discipline that decenters authority from the expert to a wider audience.
National context, with its emphasis on respected experts and institutions of memory, matters a great deal in traditional historiographies. Kean and Ashton, instead, point to Rosenzweig and Thelen’s arguments in The Presence of the Past, mirrored in many ways in Paul Ashton and Linda Hamilton’s Australian survey that found people understood history first in a local context that is focused on family stories and regional topics than on unifying narratives of “national significance.”
They note the widespread popularity of history work that has been marginalized in academic circles, most notably family history and genealogy, bringing a critical eye to this hierarchical ordering of historical research and expression. While public history continues to be seen as the work of professional historians and various publics, Ashton and Kean invite us to embrace the constantly negotiated nature of history and identify valuable contributions to understanding the past from outside the academy.
There are more titles and approaches to working with audiences that I won’t much discuss here. Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski’s collection Letting Go? (2011) offers insight into the role of authority in historical research in “a user-generated world. They suggest that collaborative environments for history-making don’t require “letting go” of authority, so much as simply stepping out of the way of interested community members. The historian does not relinquish expertise, only the final word. Taken to the extreme, Adair’s (et. al.) “user-generated world” becomes the crowdsourced one. To this end, Mia Ridge’s Crowdsourcing Our Cultural Heritage, examines a growing use of (unpaid) volunteer labour to digitize, transcribe, and curate the sources of historical inquiry in order to lend underfunded projects an ethically dubious form of scale (some critics call the practice: “crowdmilking”).
While the influence of Becker’s Mr. Everyman on the historiographical developments listed here is occasionally indirect, we can easily colligate them on the same epistemic map. By rejecting the notion of a lost and irrecoverable past, the historian can find traces of history in the present, and so can everyone else. The incontrovertible fact that the historian has no monopoly over the lived and remembered experience of things “said and done” demands that we rethink where our expertise is situated in the social construction of historical knowledge, as well as how we frame the audiences for our stories.
Both user-generation and crowdsourcing approaches emerge from the digital age—in particular the development of Web 2.0, which enables near-instant feedback and geographically dispersed participation. It would be naïve not to recognize that the communities formed through digital technologies are not in some way affected by the techniques that underpin them. Just as the self and the community are transformed by the mediation of wires and mainframes, so too are our conceptions of time and sociability. Knowledge can now be produced in a radically different way than even ten years ago, with notable consequences for our practice as educators and storytellers.
In a second part to this post, I will examine how historians have incorporated diffuse authority in their oral history projects and pedagogical practices.
Works Cited for Part 1 and 2
Adair, Bill, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski, eds. Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World. 1 edition. (Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, 2011).
American Alliance of Museums, American Alliance of Museums, and Center for the Future of Museums. Trendswatch 2013: Back to the Future. (American Alliance of Museums, 2013).
Cantu, D. Antonio and J. Warren Wilson, Teaching History in the Digital Classroom. (M.E. Sharpe, 2003).
Cohen, Daniel J., and Tom Scheinfeldt, eds. Hacking the Academy: New Approaches to Scholarship and Teaching from Digital Humanities. Digital Humanities. (The University of Michigan Press, 2013).
High, Steven. “Introduction: Sharing Authority,” Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue d’études canadiennes 43, 1 (Winter 2009): 12-34.
Kee, Kevin B., ed. Pastplay: Teaching and Learning History with Technology. Digital Humanities. (University of Michigan Press, 2014).
Kean, Hilda and Paul Ashton, eds.. People and Their Pasts: Public History Today. (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2009).
Kelly, T. Mills. Teaching History in the Digital Age. (University of Michigan Press, 2013).
Lévesque, Stéphane. Thinking Historically: Educating Students for the Twenty-First Century. (University of Toronto Press, 2008).
Ridge, Mia, ed. Crowdsourcing Our Cultural Heritage. (Ashgate Pub Co, 2014).
Seixas, Peter. Benchmarks of Historical Thinking: A Framework for Assessment in Canada. (Centre for the Study of Historical Consciousness, University of British Columbia, 2006).
Taylor, Tony, and Robert Guyver, eds. History Wars and the Classroom: Global Perspectives. Studies in the History of Education. (Information Age Pub, 2012).