Between the Past and Present

My good friend, John Hennessy, has a way of encapsulating in just a few sentences what typically takes me months to articulate on this blog. John added his voice to a post I wrote on the role of public historians in the current debate about the public display of Confederate iconography:

The dog has bitten its tail, and it hurts.

Historians have worked hard to help Americans see and understand the past more clearly. Now that Americans by and large do, some of them want to obliterate the symbols of the history that historians have labored so hard to help them understand.

Most of us in this business have espoused, loudly, that people should accept the complexities of the past.

Sometimes, though, we as historians have a hard time accepting the complexities of the present.

The complicated landscape in which historians work–subject to changing values, newly empowered voices, and shifting political and societal winds–means that some people, some sites, some communities, some states, and perhaps even some government entities will choose not to view these icons and sites as historical tools of learning, but as present sources of pain and discord.

Indeed, despite historians’ best efforts, the larger part of the milieu that will determine the fate Confederate icons resides not in the past but in that complicated present, which we as historians can little hope to influence.

The messy, boisterous marketplace of the American mind will figure this out. In the meantime, public historians ought to continue doing what we do, recognizing the limits of what we can do–that sometimes the history of things like the windows at St. Pauls is not all that matters. Sometimes, to some eyes, the present matters more.


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5 comments… add one
  • H. S. Anderson Oct 15, 2015 @ 6:14

    Some of these statues and monuments are history themselves, having been put in place over a century ago. Rather than tear them down or move them, we should use them to learn about the people who put them up and the society they lived in. We should learn about our past, not erase it or hide it away somewhere. This current trend of removing things that offend people concerns me, because I really can’t see an end to the trend, and I think a pushback that emphasizes education and context is needed here.

  • Marian Latimer Oct 4, 2015 @ 17:10

    I drive by this frequently. Naive me, I did not realize this was a Confederate monument for some time until I was actually living here. I would hate, nevertheless, to see it come down. It’s a lovely piece of art.

  • cagraham Oct 3, 2015 @ 19:13

    Excellent words. Makes my tossing around of jargon seem inadequate. But since you invited a discussion, here are some thoughts…

    Hennessey says that “public historians ought to continue doing what we do, recognizing the limits of what we can do.” Not unsound advice because despite my sniping, public historians do good things and I like his, and your, suggestion that we have had a hand in developing the current sensibility about the Confederacy. But I think we can do new things as well, and doing new things is healthy for our profession.

    The first thing is what Hennessey says…if historians and museums find themselves compelled to relinquish interpretive authority to an audience that doesn’t share our disciplinary methods and values, that doesn’t mean that poor history has been done, or that the destabilized artifacts, iconography, and landscapes loose their power. Accept that and let’s move forward.

    The subsequent things relate to how museums and small historic sites that have a purview and stewardship over Civil War topics conceive of themselves. My sense right now is that Civil War sites in the Southeast just want to keep a low profile so that they can go on “interpreting” things as ever. They imagine themselves as old school, omniscient, authorities that can bring a so-called “balance” to a topic—where “balance” really means not upsetting the status quo and not getting budgets cut by vengeful legislators. (And yes, I’m thinking of a certain state’s system of historic sites and museums, but I haven’t heard of any Civil War museums and sites anywhere that break this mold.) Looking ahead, museums that continue in the mode of neutral and authoritative interpreters have a bleak future.

    Civil War museums and sites should embrace new models of museum practice. They should imagine themselves not as sacred halls of “balanced interpretation,” but as centers critical to the social life of their communities and places where people are welcome to come and disagree about the past. They should think of themselves as museums first—with all the implications about social power that has—and not places narrowly devoted to the straight-up Civil War. (Not forgetting the power of their particular places or stories, however.) They should look to the International Sites of Conscience consortium for examples of how “dialogic” museums generate exhibits and programming that aim at “truth-telling,” or critical assessments of dominant narratives, through collaboration with non-traditional voices. They should welcome exhibits and programs that challenge mainstream assumptions about the legacy of the Civil War—and not in a genteel way.

    Civil war museums should be daring in embracing these new audiences that suddenly have an opinion on the Civil War, not think of them as the barbarians at the gates. Doing so isn’t easy because it means putting in the tedious labor of audience surveys, market research, relationship and trust building, and appealing to non-traditional visitors. It means inviting people to your site and offering a safe space for them to disagree with what you have to say. If a museum’s value isn’t just the institution, but the dynamic that emerges from the interaction of the institution and audiences, it is critical that Civil War museums develop new relationships, because demographic and budgetary change means that the support you get from the Civil War Roundtable meetings and school field trips aren’t going to last forever. You can’t justify your existence to funders if you are clinging to a dwindling audience. You have a better chance if you can prove your social value to the larger community.

    In short, the staff at Civil War museums should put down the latest campaign study and pick up a copy of books like Gretchen Sorin’s Case Studies in Cultural Entrepreneurship, or Gail Lord’s Cities, Museums and Soft Power.

    We don’t have to sit by passively. We can still be engaged in, and relevant to, the “boisterous marketplace of the American mind” as it changes the terms of the historical and present discussion around us.

    I would love to hear from someone who is actually working at a Civil War museum or site who can poke holes in my idealism.

  • Sandi Saunders Oct 3, 2015 @ 5:33

    I appreciate his remarks but I am not sure that everyone can see all of “these icons and sites as historical tools of learning” when we know their history and purpose so well. The concerted effort to support “The Lost Cause” with iconography, memorials, street names, community names, school names, flags, statuary, etc was the real and deliberate “whitewash”. Some were just a thumb in the eye for “the North” and a message to black people. Many will pass the “test” for modern reverence and honor, but frankly many are just seen as “as present sources of pain and discord” for good reason.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 3, 2015 @ 5:44

      Thanks for the comment. I am very uncomfortable with this idea of “whitewashing” the past. It makes very little sense to me in this context. Every instance of selecting something to remember/commemorate involves ignoring (intentionally or not) something else. The Lost Cause was certainly and example where what was highlighted involved intentionally downplaying/distorting/ignoring other aspects of the past. It’s an incredibly murky concept.

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