Calling All Public Historians

Yesterday’s post about my good friend John Hennessy left me wondering what, if anything, has taken place or is being planned in museums, historical societies and other institutions to help their communities make sense of the relevant history behind our ongoing and very emotional discussion about Civil War memory.

It’s an opportune moment for public historians, who focus on the Civil War Era and the history of race relations. Folks who have never thought about the American Civil War are giving it a good deal of thought. No doubt, some of that reflection is based on bad history.

I can only imagine the many land mines that historical institutions will face when dealing with some of these questions, especially in communities that are actively dealing with questions concerning flags, monuments, etc., but does anyone not believe that they have a responsibility to do so? Public programs and educational outreach can go a long way to help those truly interested in better understanding this complex intersection of history and memory. High on my list is how we help students and their teachers think more critically about these issues?

The National Park Service, state historical societies and museums devoted to the Civil War should be all over this.

Perhaps programs like the one John Hennessy offered on Friday evening have already taken place. If so, I would love to hear more. It is also possible that plans are in the works to deal with various aspects of this issue. Again, please share so we can spread the word.

It may not be a stretch to suggest that more Americans are now thinking about the legacy of the Civil War than did during the entire sesquicentennial. This may turn out to be a protracted debate and it may not come around again. To all of my friends in public history, get out there and do what you are trained to do.

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9 comments… add one
  • Baird Aug 1, 2015 @ 8:17

    Speaking as someone who works for the National Park Service I think you will find that what John Hennessy has been able to do is pretty unique and is most likely driven by a combination of personality, years of hard work and and a little luck. There are a lot of factors limiting this kind of risk taking in public history by the NPS, and specifically discussing the Civil War beyond battles and slavery. These include local politics, generational politics, agency and visitor demographics and national politics and funding. The best news right now is the development of a Reconstruction Historical Theme and study for associated sites. Ideally the next step would be a further historic study on the role of white supremacy in American history but I do not expect that any time soon. Please remember just how much hard work was required to get slavery into the Civil War story. And not everyone has yet forgiven the NPS for that undertaking.

    Another issue limiting the ability to interpret controversy at NPS units is the push within the agency for interpretation that creates a space for the visitor to have their own understanding of the site. While well meaning, it makes it appear risky to staff to commit to making most recent historical research available to the public if that research conflicts with a broader public idea of the past.

  • Pat Young Jul 28, 2015 @ 8:19

    I am a member of a Civil War-related message board. It is common for the history-obsessed there to complain that the public is unaware the Civil War because history lacks “relevance”. When the war suddenly became relevant, most discussion of CBFs and monuments were shut down.

  • Leo Jul 27, 2015 @ 4:59

    I will check the Civil War Center’s website at the university

  • cagraham Jul 26, 2015 @ 8:52

    Well… I’m with you and Keith, ready to lend whatever I can to any effort.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 26, 2015 @ 8:54

      I am interested primarily in history education in high schools. As you know the Confederate battle flag has been front and center in a number of school communities. It’s a perfect opportunity to encourage students to think critically about these difficult issues.

  • cagraham Jul 26, 2015 @ 7:48

    Yeah, I’ve been hitting Twitter with this question, and asked this question on my blog a few days ago, and have not heard a damn thing from anyone. (Except AASLH, which is thinking about a discussion at their annual meeting.) It’s rather distressing.

    My angle here is the intersection of museum relevance in a time of transformation, the moral imperative of the #BlackLivesMatter movement (and the larger struggle that represents), and this moment. I’m not thinking so much of NPS but of local museums and historic sites and how they prove their worth as centers of community meaning-making in this new landscape. The consensus among PH thinkers is that responsiveness and shared authority—imaginatively applied—are essential to continued relevance. I shouldn’t be surprised, but am still disappointed, that the state-owned historic sites and battlefields in my state haven’t done anything, and appear poised to continue as if it’s 1990. Informed and reflective interpretation on tours, like John Hennessey is doing (what a balm to hear his words!) is a good start. But I think even more than that is required.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 26, 2015 @ 8:22

      Hi Chris,

      I love the idea of historical institutions “as centers of the community.” Again, I think Richmond can serve as a model, but I haven’t heard anything from a number of institutions that are perfectly positioned to address the relevant issues.

  • Keith Harris Jul 26, 2015 @ 5:52

    I have made precisely the same call (suggesting the use of technology for interpretive purposes: apps and such) and have offered to collaborate with anyone in the tech development world with the skill set necessary to help bring this to life. So far…not much in the way of interest. On a smaller scale, next week I am going to try and meet with the folks at a cemetery here in Hollywood where there sits a small Confederate monument (yes, we have them way out West too…this particular cemetery is a tourist attraction for a number of reasons) and see about installing some contextual signage. I am interested to see how this turns out.
    In other words…I’m working on it, Kevin. But it is going to take a lot of people to push this conversation forward in any meaningful public way. Sometimes I feel that the loudest voices (on all sides of these controversies) on social media quiet down once we ask them to put up or shut up…so to speak.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 26, 2015 @ 5:59

      I have a talk about the history and memory of the Confederate flag that I presented at my school last February. My goal is to publicize it in the coming weeks for those interested. Best of luck with the cemetery tour.

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