Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Preservation as Controversy (Part 2)

In my last post, I started to wonder how one of this week's in-class readings, Beyond Preservation, might relate to our course project on public history controversies. I threw out a few thoughts related to public history and preservation controversies that have beset one of my favorite Philadelphia neighborhoods, Germantown.

In finishing Beyond Preservation and giving some attention to both Tilden's Interpreting Our Heritage and Fritsch's Shared Authority, it seems clear that there are some basic principles that may help us, as public historians, to navigate controversy, conflict, and debate in an ultimately more constructive way. Here are some "first thoughts."

1. Construct project agendas at the grassroots. Hurley makes this point in the conclusion of Beyond Preservation (181), and Fritsch makes a similar implicit claim in his introductory discussion of the "poles" of contemporary public history discourse (xxi). This is key to doing public history well. Without allowing the project to descend into banal or flaccid history-making, we public historians should relinquish our absolutist claims -- learned in an academic context that rewards expertise -- to "doing history correctly." That is to say, when we empower grassroots participants -- institutional partners, community activists, neighborhood residents, etc. -- to shape the way we interpret and present history, we release a bit of our claim to authority. But we also gain (if done well) a wealth of information about how history becomes real and meaningful in the minds and lived experiences of those who consume and make it.

Unfortunately, we haven't done this yet with our current course project.

2. "Instead of one story, many stories." I love this idea! Hurley (who I'm quoting in the bold headline text) sets the idea as a product of postmodernism's rejection of "absolute truth" (182), but I see it more as a willingness to relinquish our discipline's demonstrated (and the general public's assumed) affinity for metanarrative. One explanation can't explain it all, and that's okay. The layering of narrative -- a process much more possible now with the advent of digital media -- opens up a wide vista for history-making.

This, I think, is at the core of what we're trying to do with our public history controversy project. How can we create an exhibit -- whether digital, print, or both -- that allows us to expose users/visitors/readers to the layers, the complexities, of public history-making? And how can we immerse them in that process, empower them to recognize their voice, and encourage them to exert their agency in the act of public history-making? I hope we figure that out.

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