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Public History and Public Memory

Author(s): Diane F. Britton


Reviewed work(s):
Source: The Public Historian, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Summer, 1997), pp. 11-23
Published by: University of California Press on behalf of the National Council on Public History
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National Council on Public History
President's Annual Address

Public Histoly and Public


Memoly

DIANEF. BRITTON

AMERICANS AREINLOVE withtheirpasts.Thepopularityof historical


novels
byindividuals suchas HowardFastandJohnJakes,the HistoxyChannel's
abilityto attract30 millionweeklyviewers,increasingsalesof computer
softwaregameslike "TheOregonTrail,"participation in reenactment
groups,andthe listingof over800localhistorical organizations
in a guide
published bytheOhioAssociation of Historical
SocietiesandMuseumsl-
allattestto a demandin ourcultureforaccessto thepast.Livingroomsare
mini-museums withphotographs
andartifactsthatrepresent whatisimpor-
tant aboutthe past on a personallevel. In some families,memories,

DIANEF. BRITTON is professorof historyandcoordinatorof publichistoryat the University


of Toledo,whereshe is involvedin communityoutreacheffortsincludingcooperativeprojects
with local historicalagencies.Her publicationsincludeThe Iron and Steel Industry in the
Far West: Irondale, Washington (Niwot,Colo.:UniversityPressof Colorado,1991),History
Outreach: Programsfor Mt4seums,Histor7calOrganizations, and Academic History Depart-
ments (Malabar,Fla.:Krieger,1994),as well as articlesandbookletsthat focuson commu-
nityandindustrybuildingandinterpretation of the pastforpublicaudiences.
The authorwishes to acknowledgethe helpful commentsof J. D. Brittonand support
fromthe Universityof ToledoResearchAwardsandFellowshipProgram.
This articleis a slightlyrevisedversionof the presidentialaddressgivenat the National
Councilon PublicHistory'sannualmeetingin Albany,New Yorkon May2, 1997.

1. Htstorical Organizations in Ohio: A Directory of Historical Societies, Historical Muse-


unss, Historic Sites, Historic Preservation Organizations, Genealogical Societies, Historical
Libraries, and Statewide/RegionalHistorical Associations, 5thedition(Columbus,Ohio:Ohio
HistoricalSociety,1996).

11

The Public Historian, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Summer1997)


O 1997 by the Regents of the Universityof Californiaand
the NationalCouncilon PublicHistory
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ANNUALADDRESS * 13
NCPHPRESIDENT'S

traditions,andheirloomsarepasseddownfromgeneration to generation,
thuspreserving a senseof continuity.Americans lovethe past,andthey
engageit on a dailybasis.
Howis thisloveof thepastrelatedto whatwe do asprofessional public
historians? Is it connectedto the history we interpret for audiences in
historicalsocietiesandmuseums, forexample, or for students in
sitting our
classrooms? Dohistoricpreservation planning, policyanalysis, orpublicand
privatecommemoration havea relationship to it?Whatroleshouldhistori-
ansplayin assisting thepublicto understand thepastaswe moveintothe
twenty-first century?Howdo we continueto confrontthe issueof"who
ownsthe past"?2 Who determineswhichstoriesor interpretations are
legitimate,whatshouldbe remembered andsaved?Howdothewaysthat
individuals identifywith the pastinfluencewhatwe do as professional
interpreters of history?Theseareall questionsthatwe mustcontinueto
addressas we movetowardthe millennium. At the sametime,we must
considerthatat the centerof allof theseissueslies the delicatebalance
betweenhistoryandmemory.
Intherecentblockbuster movie,Star Trek:First Contact, Captain Jean
LucPicardtravelsbackintimewithhiscrewinordertosavethefuturefrom
takeover bya deadlyalienforce-the Borg.InPicard's past,theyear2063,
he confrontsthe societyof scientists-survivors of WorldWarIII who
inventwarpspeed,andthusmakeinter-galactic spacetravelpossible.Ashe
entersthe missilesilo thatcontainsthe "Phoenix," the firstwarp-drive
rocketship(a convertedTitanII missile),a lookof fondremembrance
comesoverPicard'sface.He reverently placeshishandson the shipand
softlystrokesits hull.Hisandroid companion, Data,doesnotunderstand.
Picardexplains thatbytouchingsomething thepast,a realconnection
from
is made.Throughout themovie,thevisitorsfromthefutureremainin awe
of ZeframCochrane,the twenty-first centurycreatorof the warpdrive
whichpowersstarships toflyatthespeedoflightandbeyond.Theengineer-
ingstaff,especially Lt.Reginald Barkly,followhimaround, hopingto shake
thefamousman'shandorto speakwithhim.Theytellhimaboutthehuge
monument, completewithhisstatuepointingto thestars,builtontheside
ofa Montana mountain. Onecrewmemberexuberantly tellsCochrane that
he studiedabouthimat StarFleetAcademy. Andbeforethat,he attended
a schoolnamedin his honor.The twenty-first-century manrespondsto
thesereportsofhisimpending notoriety in dismay."That's notme,"he tells
theconfusedvisitorsfromthefuture.Cochrane builtthewarp-drive proto-
typeshipto makemoney,notto initiatea neweraofpeaceandharmony in
2. A sessionat the 1996AmericanHistoricalAssociation(AHA)annualmeetingentitled
"WhoOwnsHistory"consideredthe clashbetween"historiesprofessionally recounted"and
"memoriesthoughtfullyrevisited."Papersfromthe sessionare publishedas a "Noteworthy
Forum"in AHA Perspectives 34 (October1996): 1, 6-10, 26 and AHA Perspectives 34
(November1996):1, 4-6.
14 * THEPUBLICHISTORIAN

theuniverse forallofhumanity,aspopular historical


interpretation
hasled
peoplein thefutureto believe.3
Thisis butoneexampleof howa generalunderstanding of thepastis
reflectedinthepopularculture.Thelinesbetweenmemory andhistoryare
blurred.Generally speaking,
ourculturepromotes a senseof thepastthat
clasheswithwhathistorianshavedocumented to be true.Thewell-known
storyof PaulRevere,forexample, differsfromthehistoricalfacts.
Listen,mychildren,andyou shallhear
Of the midnightrideof PaulRevere,
Onthe eighteenthof April,in Seventy-five;
Hardlya manis nowalive
Whoremembersthatfamousdayandyear.4

In 1923,asWarrenG. Harding touredthecountry,a criticpointedoutto


himthatReverehadbeencaptured bytheBritishandnevermadetheride
thatLongfellow immortalized in verse.Unfazed,Hardingtolda crowd,
"Suppose hedidnot;somebody madetherideandstirred theminutemen in
the coloniesto fightthe battleof Lexington,
whichwasthebeginning of
independence in the newRepublicin America.I lovethe storyof Paul
Reverewhetherherodeornot."5 Longfellow's
famouslines,andtheimages
theyinvoke,continue tomakeupapartofthebackdrop ofAmerican lifeand
as suchcontribute to societalunderstanding
of the past.Publichistory
studentsin mycourseshavenotedsimilarpatterns. Whenaskedto record
historical
messages thattheyencounter intheireverydaylivesina memoiy
journal,
theyquickly becomeoverwhelmed withthequantity andvarietyof
thoseimages.Lookingforconnecting themesthatmayhelpto definea
publichistoricalconsciousness, studentsconcludethatthese messages
reinforcemanyof thepopularnotionsabouthistoIy.6
Forexample, becauseAmericans viewthemselvesasheroicpeople,they
tendtoemphasize thelivesofgreatindividuals
andundervalue socialgroups
andmovements. WhenMichaelFrischaskedgeneral-education-level col-
legestudentsto listthefirsttennamesthatcometo mindwiththeprompt
3. Star Trek:First Contact, RickBerman,producer;RickBerman,BrannonBraga,and
RonaldD. Moore,writers;JonathanFrakes,director(Paramount Pictures,Inc., 1996).
4. "PaulRevere'sRide,"in The Poetical Worksof Henry Watlszorth LonMellow(Boston:
Houghton,MifflinandCo., 1891),183.
5. RichardShenkman,"I Love Paul Revere, Whether He Rode or Not' (New York:
HarperPerennial, 1991),vii-xi.
6. A regularassignmentin myIntroduction to PublicHistoryclassis forstudentsto keep
a journalof historicalmessagesthattheyencounterin theirdailylives.Thesehavebeen as
diverseas streetnames,newspaperand magazinearticles,song lyrics,productpackaging,
advertising,moviesandTV,museumexhibits,familyphotographalbums,etc. Afterseveral
weeksof readinganddiscussion,thestudentswriteessayswhichanalyzethesemessageswithin
a discussionof the intersectionof memoryandhistory.I believethatit is anessentialfirststep
forpublichistoriansto understand the mindsetandculturalmilieuof theiraudiencesbefore
attemptingto interpretthe pastforor withthem.For moreinformation aboutthe courseor
assignment,contactthe author.
ANNUALADDRESS * 15
NCPHPRESIDENT'S

"American historyupto 1865,"theyconsistently citedmensuchasGeorge


Washington, ThomasJefferson,andAbraham Lincoln.Interestingly, re-
peatingthesameexercisewithothergroups,including museumpersonnel
andhistorymajors,producedsimilaroutcomes.7 Studentmemotyjournals
recordplacenames,streetsigns,monuments, andevencurrency thatpay
figures,mostlymen,whohavebecomethe sym-
tributeto larger-than-life
bolsofwhatit meanstobeanAmerican. Thistypeofcultural reinforcement
helpsto explainthe continuity of publicmemory,andthusthe consistent
resultsof Frisch'sstream-of-consciousness activity.Evenin the fictional
Star Trekmovie,publicmemoryof ZeframCochrane reflectsthe kindof
heroworship anexceptionalist
thatcharacterizes viewofanational andlocal
past.
Beyondheroism,Americans valuebraveryandthus oftenchooseto
interpretmilitarystrugglesin termsof victoxyand gallantryinsteadof
lookingatthevictims.Frederick Douglass'seffortstoperpetuate a memory
oftheCivilWarthatpromoted socialjusticefortheformervictimsofslavery
becameovershadowed bythedesiretohonorthecourageandconviction of
soldierswhofoughtonbothsidesof thecause.WorldWarII,in thepublic
memory,rocketedthe UnitedStatesnot onlyto superpower statusbut
securedits positionas the arbiterof morality worldwide.Thisis ironic,
perhaps, in lightof thefactthatthearmyincarcerated tensof thousands of
UnitedStatescitizensbecauseofunwarranted suspicionsofsabotage. Even
Vietnam,whichsimultaneously invokedsupportof American policiesand
vocalcriticismof military whilethewarraged,canbe memorial-
atrocities
izedwitha focuson unityandhumanity.8

7. MichaelFrisch,"American Historyandthe Structures of CollectiveMemory:A Modest


Exercisein EmpiricalIconography," in DavidThelen,ed., Memory and American History
(Bloomington: IndianaUniversityPress,1990), 1-26. Frischused this exercisewith survey-
level historyclassesovera periodof eightyearsat SUNYBuffaloandfoundlittlevariationin
the namesrecorded.Overthe past six years,I have repeatedthe exercisewith a varietyof
groups,includingsurveyand upper-levelhistoryclasses,publichistorystudents,secondary
schoolteachersandmuseumprofessionals. The lists,whichresultfroma streamof conscious-
ness prompt,remainsimilarto thosethatFrischreportedin his article.
8. DavidW. Blight,"'ForSomethingBeyondthe Battlefield': FrederickDouglassandthe
Struggleforthe Memoryof the CivilWar,"in Thelen,ed., Memoryand AmertcanHistory, 27-
49, documentsDouglass'sstruggleto the endof hislifeto keepthe ideologicalmeaningsof the
CivilWaralivein the publicconsciousness.JimCullen,The Civil War in Popular Culture:A
Reusable Past (Washington, D.C.:Smithsonian InstitutionPress,1995)exploresthe waysthat
public memoriesof the Civil Warbecome disconnectedfrom the past to reflect current
concernsin Americansociety.The clashbetweenhistoryand memoryof WorldWarII was
mostrecentlyplayedout in the muchpublicizedandcontroversial cancellationof the original
Enola Gay exhibitat the NationalAirandSpaceMuseum.The essaysin EdwardT. Linenthal
andTomE:ngelhardt, eds., History Wars: The EnolaGayand Other Battlesfor the American
Past (New York:HenryHolt and Co., 1996) providecarefulreflectionon the issues that
surrounded the volatiledebateoverhistoricalinterpretationsof droppingthe atomicbombon
Hiroshima.JohnBodnar'sPrologueto RemakingAmerica: Public Memory, Commernoration,
and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century (Princeton,N.J.:PrincetonUniversityPress,1992)
exploresthe conflictingagendasand compromisesof the interestsinvolvedin creatingthe
VietnamVeteransMemorialin Washington,D.C.
16 * THEPUBLICHISTORIAN

Americans alsoperceivethemselvesas a compassionate peopleand


respondwellto placesthatattestto theirinvolvement withthelessfortu-
nate,resulting in moresitescommemorating stationsontheUnderground
Railroad thaneverexistedinthepre-Civil Warera.Storiesofsecretrooms,
hiddentunnels,andthecourage whoriskedtheirown
ofwhiteabolitionists
livesto aidthehelplessvictimsof slavery continueto fascinate.LarryGara
haspointedoutthat"thelegenditselfrevealssomething of theAmerican
character" whichmayexplainitspopular persistence.He notesthat"local
prideinnorthern communities alsocontributedtothegrowth ofthelegend.
Traditional accountswerepublished in manycityandcountyhistoriesas
wellas in journalsof localhistorical societies.Everybarnthathadever
housedafugitive, andsomethathadn't, werelistedasunderground railroad
depots....andtherearefewsectionsintheNorththatcannotboastatleast
oneunderground railroaddepot."9
Duringblackhistorymonth,the ToledoBlade rana storyto highlight
underground railroad sitesin the area,although theheadlinecouldclaim
onlythatthe city"may have had stops."
several localproperty
Nevertheless,
ownersperpetuate old stories thatlend a senseof mystery to the historic
housestheyinhabit. Thearticledidpoint out thatonerumored sitewasnot
constructed untilafterthe CivilWar.l°Whilewe extolthe underground
railroad legend,wechoosetoignoreordownplay thehorror ofotherevents
fromthepast.Colonial Williamsburg hasstruggledwiththeissueofhowto
interpretthe historyof slaverywithoutdisturbing the sensibilitiesof its
guests.Onevisitorwhotouredthehistorichomesof GeorgeWashington,
ThomasJefferson, JamesMonroe,andGeorgeMasonnotedthatwhereas
tourguidesadmitted thateachof theearlypatriots hadosvnedslaves,"all
weremorally opposedto slavery.''ll
Americans seethemselves asprogressive peopleandtherefore enshrine
the artifactsof technological advancement andinvention whiletheytear
downthevestigesof conflictandstrife.Thus,the National AirandSpace
Museumservesas a symbolof pride"inthe unmistakable triumphof
American technology" whileitignoresfailure, andthevoicesof
controversy,
groupsthatmightprovideafullerpicture ofthepast.l-InToledo,agroupof
prominentcitizensis workingto create"Toledo's Attic,"a museumof

9. LarryGara,The Liberty Line: The Legend of the UndergroundRailroad (Lexington:


Universityof KentuckyPress,1961),17 and17940.
10. NaraSchoenberg,"Running on the Roadto Freedom:Toledomayhavehadseveral
stopson the Underground Railroad,"ToledoBlade, 16 February1997.
11. PatriciaLeighBron, "AwayFromthe Big House:Interpreting the Uncomfortable
Partsof History,"Histony Negs 44 (March/April 1989):910 and MarkBograd,"Apologies
Excepted:FacingUp to Slaveryat HistoricHouse Museums,"History Neus 47 (January/
February1992):20-21. PaulGoldberger, Showson Trial:WhoJudges?"
"Historical The Nez
YorkTimes, 11 February1996,discussesthe removalof anexhibition entitledBack of the Big
House:TheCulturalLandscapeof the Plantation,thatcontained photographs of slavequarters,
fromthe Librarsof Congressonlvhoursafterit hadbeen put up. Takenoser by the Martin
LutherKingJr.Library in the Districtof Columbia,curatorssanitizedthetitleto The CIlltural
Landscape of the Plantation.
12. EdwardT. Linenthal,"Anatomy 21-27.
of a Controversy,"
NCPHPRESIDENT'S
ANNUALADDRESS * 17

twentieth-century industrialprogressin thatcity.Whilea colloquium of


scholarsand planningcommitteemembersdiscussedand debatedthe
relativemeritsofvariousthemesthatmightbe includedin theinterpretive
focus,city-hired demolition crewsturnedthe HistoricElmStreetBridge
intoa pileof rubblein orderto makewayfortheBuckeyeBasinGreenbelt
Parkway. Throughout thesummerof 1996,historicpreservationists, neigh-
borhoodactivists, andlaborleadershadstruggled to savethebridge,orat
leasthaveit carefullydismantledfor use in a labormemorial.The site
becamefamousduringtheAuto-Lite strikeof 1934,oneof theeventsthat
contributed to thepassageoftheWagnerActandthefounding of theCIO.
Thebridgeconnectedfactorygroundsto a hugescrapyardwhereworkers
hadgatheredpriorto rushingtheplantgates.Controlof the areabecame
vitalfornationalguardsmen whoplacedamachine-gun nestoverlookingthe
bridgewheresomeof the fiercestfightingbrokeout.Twoyoungworkers
eventuallydiedin the conflict.Morethansixtyyearslater,the site still
evokesemotional responses, asevidencedbythedebateoveritsinterpreta-
tionforToledo'sAttic.Onecolloquium memberreferredto thebridgeasa
"plague" thatshouldnotbe includedforfearof fanningthe flamesof old
controversy. Othersviewthe bridgeas a symbolof Toledo'slaborhistory
andits connectionto largernationalstrugglesto gainrightsforworking
people.Fornow,theremainsofthebridgesitindumpsters inthecornerof
a citymaintenance yard.l3
Americans stillsee theircountlyas a refugeforoppressedpeople,the
great"meltingpot"of the world'scultures,and tend to associatetheir
immigrant pastwithsymbols liketheStatueofLiberty andEllisIsland.John
Bodnarhaspointedout thattheseicons"represent a distinctive
viewof
American history.Theystandforthenotionthatimmigration tothiscountry
was essentiallya strikefor personalfreedomand the enhancement of
individualopportunity; theyreaffirmthebeliefthatthisnationistodaywhat
it hasalwaysbeen:a placeof hopeandopportunity fordiverseandless
fortunatepeoplethroughout the world."Thesesymbolshelp to define
nationalvaluesandencouragepatriotism, butby themselvestheydo not
reflectthe complexity of historical
experiences forindividual immigrants
andtheirfamiliesovertimeandspace.l4

13. TimothyMesser-Kruse, "Bulldozing


LaborHistory:TheDemolitionof Toledo'sHistoric
ElmStreetBridge,"Northwest Ohio Quarterly 68 (Summer/Autumn 1996):141 47 providesa
good summaryof the bridge'ssignificanceand the events surrounding its destruction.The
Toledo'sAtticColloquium, organizedbyProfessorRogerRay,headof the HumanitiesInstitute
at the Universityof Toledo,includesscholarsfromhistory,politicalscience,andurbanaffairs;
localhistorians;
andmembersof a largerplanninggroupwhorepresentcitybusinesses.
14. John Bodnar,"Symbolsand Servants:ImmigrantAmericaand the Limitsof Public
History,"Journal of American History 73 (June 1986): 137. In a roundtablediscussion,
"Government-Sponsored Research:A SanitizedPast9"The Public Historian 10 (Summer
1988):31-58, historiansfamiliarwiththe dilemmasof presentinghistoryto publicaudiences
commentedon Bodnar'sviewthatuse of these sitesby the NationalParkServiceto interpret
immigranthistoryencouragedanofficialviewof the past.Mycommentsherearenotmeantto
reopenthatdebate,butmerelyto cite familiarpublicsymbolsthatevokeparticularmemories
aboutthe Americanpast.
18 * THEPUBLICHISTORIAN

Americans definethe UnitedStatesas a classtesssocietyandextolthe


accomplishments oftheindividual. Manypublic schoolsemphasize theland
of opportunity themeand ignorethe complexities of this diverseand
stratifiedsociety.JamesLoewenexamined twelveAmerican histoIytext-
bookscommonly usedin secondary-level classrooms anddiscovered that
"theconflicting desirestopromoteinquiry andtoindoctrinate blindpatrio-
tism"resultedin lackof interestamongstudents whodonotseehistoryas
relevantto theirlives.In the textbooks, he identifiedheroworshipthat
distortsthe livesof realpeopleandportrays themas "melodramatic stick
figures" withoutinnerstruggles, lackof culturaldiversity in the storyof
European exploration andexploitationofAmerica, avoidance ofanydiscus-
sionof the relationship betweenhistoryandracism,justifications forin-
equality,andapositiveviewofgovernment thatreflectsa senseofidealism.
In addition,textbooks tendto neglectffierecentpast,maldng for
it difficult
students "todrawconnections betweenthestudyofthe past, their livestoday,
andtheissuestheywill faceinthefuture." Loewen concludes that"students are
leftwithnoresources tounderstand, accept,orrebuthistorical referents used
in arguments by candidates foroffice,sociologyprofessors, or newspaper
Ifknowledge
journalists. ispower,ignorance cannotbebliss.''l5
Classroom teachers, statesocialstudiesadministrators,academic histori-
ans,representatives of professional organizations,publicinterestgroups,
andparentsspentfouryearsdevisingtheNataonalStandurdsfor History
undertheco-directorship of GaryB.NashandCharlotte Crabtree. Whilea
politicalbattleragedoverwhatshouldbe includedin theseguidelines for
historyeducation,the basicpremisethat"knowledge of histoIyis the
precondition intelligence"
of political remained unscathed. Theauthors of
the National Standards defendedthe significance of historyforthe edu-
catedcitizen:
Historyopenstostudentsthegreatrecordofhumanexperience,revealing
thevastrangeof accommodations andsocietieshavemadeto
individuals
theproblemsconfrontingthem)anddisclosing
theconsequencesthathave
followed choicesthathavebeenmade.Bystudying
thevarious thechoices
anddecisionsof the past,studentscanconfronttoday'sproblemsand
choiceswitha deeperawareness beforethemandthe
of thealternatives
of each.l6
likelyconsequences

15. JamesW. Loewen,Lies AIy Teacher Told Me: Eserything Your Amencan History
TheNe.wPress,1995),1-7, 26,62,6748, 138,207,209210,
TextbookGof Wrong (NewYork:
246 and294. Loewen'snewprojectinvolvesa consideration of howthe memoryof the pastis
depictedin historicmarkersand monuments.In a post to publhist,the NCPH-sponsored
Internetpublichistoxydiscussionlist, he notesfinding"atleasta dozenmarkersandmonu-
mentscelebrating theKKKorKKKfounders,butnomarkerormonumentcelebrating a defeat
of the KKKor notinganythingwrongwithit."
16. Nstional Standardsfor History (Los Angeles,Calif.:NationalCenterfor Histoly
in the Schoolsr1996V,41 For informationabout the controversyover developmentof
the standardssee GaryB. Nash, "NTational Standardsin U.S. History:A Note fromthe
President,'7OAH Newsletter 22 (November1994):1, 16;LynneV. Cheney,"TheEnd of
NCPHPRESIDENT'S
ANNUALADDRESS * 19

Thisis, of course,a basicassumption of thediscipline. Yetthesubstance of


historicallessonsremainscontestedterritory.In the novelThe Giver,
winnerof the 1994 NewbertyMedal,authorLois Lowryexaminesthe
ramifications of a societythat seeks perfectionthroughthe denialof
memory. Youngreadersencounter acentralcharacter whodiscovers thatan
awareness of history'scomplexitya knowledgeof boththe painfuland
pleasurable aspectsofthepast iswhatprovides truemeaning forlifeinthe
present.Yet,howis thisconceptreflectedin thehistorythatstudentslearn
in theclassroom?
Whatwe chooseto touchfromthepastinvokesthe memoryof howwe
see ourselvesas a society.Theimagesthatwe preserveto rememberour
collectivepastarereflectedinthehistorical messages thatconfrontusinour
dailylives,thus reinforcinga sense of sharedhistoricalconsciousness.
Perhapswithhonestcontemplation we can admitthatthe sameprocess
occursin ourpersonallives whatwe saveasindividuals definesa senseof
self-identitythattendsto focusonpleasantnostalgia. Studentsaskedto list
whattheirfamiliessavefromthe pastandthento analyzewhatwe know
abouthistoryfromtheseitemsdescribed themesofsurvival7 familyheroism,
compassion7 andprogress,andnotedthatthesetopicsmirrored historical
memoxyon a largersocietalscale.l7Theseanecdotal observationsindicate
the necessityfora betterunderstanding of the waysin whichAmericans
perceivehistoIy.DavidThelenandRoyRosenzweig's upcomingpublica-
tion,HowAmericans UseandUrzderstand thePast,addresses C'theneedto
knowmoreaboutpopularperspectives on the past."Theauthors' motiva-
tionsincludea desireto "converse moreclearly" withincreasingly diverse
audiencesthathaveresultedfromongoingefforts"tocreatemoredemo-
cratichistoricalcontentandpractice," encourage aconsideration ofthepast
as"asourceof empowerment, identity,andinstruction in makinga better
future," andcontribute to the growingscholarly literatureconcerned with
popular historical consciousness. Thestudybeginswiththepremise,postu-
latedyearsagobyCarlBecker,thatAmericans areactiveusersof thepast
andthereforeparticipate in an enterprisesimilarto thatof professional
historians. Thisis a notionnot seriouslyinvestigated, so a new national
surveyprovidesthe rawdatato examinewaysthatAmericans engagethe
pastin theireverydaylives.l8Thispublication mayhelp us to beginto
History,"The Wall Street Journal, 20 October1994;GaryB. Nash and Charlotte
Crabtree,"AHistoryof Allthe PeopleIsn'tPC,"Letterto the Editor,The Wall Street
Journal, 21 November1994;"TheHistoryThieves,"Lettersto the Editor,The Wall
StreetJournal, 8 November 1994;JoyceAppleby,"Lessons in History BasedonFacts,"
The Washington Post, 19 November1994;and CarolGluck,"History Accordingto
Whom?" New York Times, 19 November 1994.
17. Theexercise oflistingwhatindividuals savefromthepastis partofa humanities
class,
Transformation of Memory, thatI teachattheUniversityofToledo.
18. RoyRosenzweig andDavidThelen,How Americans Use and Understand the Past
(unpublished manuscript, 1996)andCarlBecker, "EverymanHisOwnHistorian," American
Historical Review 37 (January 1932): 221-36.
20 * THEPUBLICHISTORIAN

addressthe questions posedearlierbyconnecting personalmemorywith


popular historicalunderstanding.
Nationalhistoricalconsciousness hasundergone continualchangeas
Americans seekto definethemselves basedon a sharedperception of the
past.MichaelKammen, in his seminalworkMystic Chords of Memory,
explorestherolesoftradition, collectivememory, andpatriotisminAmeri-
cansocietyandthetransformations thattheyhaveundergone, especially
in
the generations since 1870.His bookanalyzesthe waysin whichthe
American peoplehaveacquiredtheirsenseof the past,howtheyhave
ascribed symbolic meaning toit, andhowtheirperceptions andusesofthe
pasthavechangedovertime.Thoseconstructions arebasedon struggles
overidentityandmemory. Recentstudiesof memorydefineit asanactof
construction,undertaken insupport ofidentity.Conflictingconstructions
of
memory formtheepicenter of contestedpublichistoricalinterpretations.l9
Americans arein lovewiththe pastbecauseit defineswhotheyareas
individuals andwhattheyvalueasa society.Whenprofessional historians
interpretandthuschallengethatidentity,theythreatena structureof
beliefsthatprovides meaning andsignificance tothelivesofindividuals
and
groups.
Sowhospeaksforhistory? Is historya collectivememoryorsomething
more?Asprofessionals, weseemtounderstand theimportance ofstudying
the past,yet evenat the mostbasiclevel the teachingof historyin the
schools we arechallenged bypopular notionsofwhatthepastshouldbe.
In 1997,on the doorstepof the millennium, we liveunderthe threatof
political
influences thatwouldseverusfromthebenefitsofadiscipline that
is grounded ina richandhonoredheritage. Thecancellation oftheoriginal
Enola Gay exhibitat the National AirandSpaceMuseumafterpressure
fromveteransgroups,the attackby Congresson the firsteditionof the

19. MichaelKammen,Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformationof Tradition in


American Culture (New York:AlfredA. Knopf,1991).For a considerationof memory,see
MauriceHalbwachs, The Collective Memory (NewYork:HarperandRow,Publishers,1980)
and EdmundBlairBolles,Remernberingand Forgetting: An Inquiry into the Natllre of
Memory (New York:Walkerand Co., 1988).In the introductionto his book,The Past is a
Foreign Country (Cambridge: CambridgeUniversityPress,1985),DavidLowenthaldistin-
guishesbetweenmemoryandhistory:"Byits naturepersonalandhencelargelyunverifiable,
memoryextendsbackonlyto childhood,thoughwe do accreteto ourownrecollections those
toldus byforebears.Bycontrast,historv,whoseshareddataandconclusionsmustbe opento
publicscrutiny,extendsbackto orbeyondtheearliestrecordsof civilization.
Thedeathof each
individualtotallvextinguishescountlessmemories,whereashistory(at least in print)is
potentiallyimmortal.Yetallhistor,vdependson memor,y,andmanyrecollectionsincorporate
history.Andtheyarealikedistortedby selectiveperception,interveningcircumstances, and
hindsight"(p. xxii).JohnR. Gillis,ed., Comnummorations:
The Politics of National Identity
(Princeton,N.J.:PrincetonUniversityPress, 1994) explorescross-cultural approachesto
commemoration andhowthesereflectthepoliticization
of memoryandidentity.DavidThelen
summarizes the connectionsbetweenmemorvandrecenthistoricalscholarship in his intro-
ductionto ;1V1emoryand American History, sii-xix.
ANNUALADDRESS * 21
NCPHPRESIDENT'S

in the UnitedStates,the scaling


NatiorlalStandardsforhistoxyeducation
backoftheNationalEndowment fortheHumanities inresponseto conser-
vativecriticism,andthe withdrawal of statesubsidyfromhistoryPh.D.
programs in Ohioarejusta fewof the moreoutstanding examplesof the
assaulton theprofessional practiceof histoly.
As issuesof scholarship and interpretation haveenteredthe public
discourse, professional historians mustcometotermswiththeramifications
of society'sscrutinyof theirwork.AlfredYounghassuggested thedevelop-
mentandadoptionof a codethatwouldprotect"theintegrityof historical
research andinterpretation inmuseumsandhistoricsites."Hissuggestions
stimulateda meetingheldin Washington, D.C. in conjunction withthe
Organization ofAmerican Historians' (OAH)1995annualmeeting.Partici-
pantsdiscussedthe needfora code,similarto the principleof academic
freedomenjoyedby the professoriate, to protecthistorianswhopractice
historyin the publicarena.RobertR. Archibald,as presidentof the
American Association forStateandLocalHistory(AASLH), however,took
issuewiththe development of a codeof interpretive freedomanddefined
theprobleminsteadas"howhistorians canbe publiclyaccountable forthe
narrativestheyhavechosentopresent." Hemaintained thatalthoughacode
"maysellwellto historians," it "willnotbe acceptable to publicaudiences,"
whoarerequiredto visitneitherourinstitutions norourclassrooms. The
question, according toArchibald, "isnotwhetherhistorians willsubscribe
to
sucha code,butwhetherthepublicwill."He hasstatedthatauthoritover
publicinterpretation shouldnot be basedsolelyon a code of academic
freedombut shouldbe developed"primarily throughinternalagreement
andbroadpublicdiscussion." Although sucha procedure doesnotguaran-
tee avoidance of controversy, it ensuresa broadenoughbaseof supportto
surviveit "withourinterpretive intact."20
integrity
Amidthecontroversies anddebates,professional historianswhosupport
publichistoryadhereto the goalof reachingoutto variousaudiences with
thenewesthistorical scholarship, asLeonLitwack explains:
Thestudyof the pasthasneverbeenmoreinclusive,morevariedin its
focus,moreimaginativeinitsmethodology to therange
ormoresensitive
of culturaldocumentation....Voices long stifled, peoples once
marginalizedarenowbeingheardandintegrated intothestudyofhistory.
Overthepastthreedecades,thishasclearlybeenthemostimportant and
far reachingdevelopment in the writingandteachingof history.The
of newvoices,dialogues,
inclusion andexperiences
hasprofoundly trans-
formedhowwe think,talk,andwriteaboutthepast.

20. Alfred F. Young, "S.O.S.: Storm Warning for American Museums," OAH Newsletter 22
(November 1994): 1, W8 and Robert R. Archibald, "From the President," AASLH Dispatch
(May 1995): 3.
22 * THEPUBLICHISTORIAN

Litwack seesthistrendas a reasonforself-congratulation, butpointsout


that it is markedby a seriousshortcomingthe failureto makethat
scholarship moreaccessibleandexplicabletopublicaudiences. Bydoingso
we mightmovepublicinterpretations beyondourownsocietyandculture
andforegoversions ofthepastthatmerelyservetheinterests ofthepresent
or the needsof particular groups.According to Litwack,"Thatkindof
historymaybe goodtherapy, it mayevenmakeformorepatriotic citizens,
butit hasneverbeengoodhistory." Litwack viewsacademic freedom, "our
freedomto questionandprobevariousversionsof reality,to experiment
withnewideas,andto examinecritically olddogmasandvalues,evento
insultproprietiesandexposeabsurdities,"asthe"indispensable strengthof
thisnation." he says,mustspeakforhistoryand"exertevery
Historians,
effortto protectthatrightfromall intrusion, whetherby government
agencies,schoolboards,university regents,textbookcommissions, self-
appointed A morehumanefuturedepends
censors,orpoliticalpartisans."
onourability"topreserveourpastandcommunicate it freely,clearlyand
effectively."2l
Whatcanwe do?Wemustmoveourselves beyondthepoliticaldebate
andconcentrate onlearningmoreaboutthewaysthatmemory andhistory
Wemustfindabalance
intersect. betweenmemor>T andprofessionalhistori-
Onlyinthatway
calinterpretation. eanweservesociety.Onlyinthatway ean
weassurethefutureofthehistorical profession.
Without anunderstanding
of the relationshipsbetweenmemory,identity,andhistor>T, arguments
aboutacademic freedom mean nothing, and publicinterpretationof the
pastis atbestsentimental,andatworstuseless.22 Publichistorians the
need
secuntTof academicfreedomto seekthe historical truthobjectivelya
fundamental preceptof thisfieldof study.Butatthesametime,theyneed
to be cognizant ofviewsthataudiences
of thediversitT bringto interpreta-
tionsof thepastif theirconstituenciesareto be sersTed Profes-
effectively.
scholarship
sionalhistorical canbe perceivedas elitistbyindividuals who
filterthepastthroughprivateandsharedmemories. Wemustconstruct a
bridgethatcanspanthe gulfbetweenthesedifferentunderstandings of
histoeT

Matexialcultureandmemories are vehiclesthatallowdirectaccess


t%to

to thepast,as demonstrated so aptlybyCaptainPicardwhenhe encoun-


teredanartifact notonlytohisownlifebuttotheveeTexistence
significant
Picard's
to understand
of hisworld.It is important responseto
emotional
triggeredmemoriesthatprovideda meaningful forhim.At the
identit>T

21. Leon F. Litwack,"Beyondthe Boundariesof the Academy,"NationalCouncilfor


HistoryEducation,Inc.HistoryMatters!8 (September1995):1 and5.
22. David Glassberg'sessay, "PublicHistoryand the Studyof Memory,"The Public
to considerthe
Historian18 (Spring1996):7-23,providesa goodstartingpointforhistorians
scholarshipof memoryand its relevanceto the teachingand practiceof publichistory.
article*vonthe 1997G.WesleyJohnsonPrizeasanoutstanding
Glassberg's to the
contribution
publichistoryliterature.
NCPHPRESIDENT'S
ANNUALADDRESS * 23

sametime,however,rigorous historicalmethodology couldhaverevealeda


morecomplexportraitof ZeframCochraneandhis inventionof a warp-
driverocketship)andtherebyhelpedthefutureunderstand hissignificance
beyondthesimpleheroworshipdemonstrated bythecrewmembersofthe
V.S.S. Enterprise -aninterpretation of the inventorthattheyhadgained
throughmemoriesreinforced bypopularculture.
Ata NationalCouncilon PublicHistory-sponsored sessionheldduring
the 1997meetingof theAmerican HistoricalAssociation(AHA),Organiza-
tionof American Historians
(OAH)PresidentLindaKerbercharacterized
therecentcrisesintheprofession as<'tragically
energizing'>
inthattheyhave
hadthe ironically goodeffectof helpingto diminishsomeof the artificial
boundaries betweenhistorians who,in fact,sharecommongoals Joyce
Appleby,currentAHApresident,recentlysuggestedthatall historians
becomepublichistorians. She acknowledged thatpublichistoiyhasen-
gagedthe publicrealmin a varietyof waysforsotnetimebutemphasized
thatbeyondinterpreting thepast,we should"seekeverypossibleopportu-
nityto talkto a nonhistorian
. . . abouthowhistoryis produced." Appleby
pointsoutthatmanyof thecontroversies overpublichistorical interpreta-
tionoccurbecause"thereis a pervasive popularopinionthatsomehowthe
pastlingerson to forcethehandof thosewhoreconstruct it. Toinsistthat
historicalknowledgebeginswithsomeone'squestionsdestroysthatillu-
sioIl.>'
Shecontendsthatprofessional historianshavearesponsibilitytotheir
communities notonlyto interpret thepast,butto prc)mote a betterunder-
standingof "howhistorians go aboutcreatinghistorical scholarship in the
firstplace."23
At the sametime,however,if we chooseas professionals to
ignoretheknowledge inherentin the culturalmemoriesthatsurround us,
ourmessagefallson deafears,andwe remaincaptivesin anivorytower,
regardlessof wherewe practiceourcraft.

23 "PublicHistoryandProfessionalOrganizations," NCPH-sponsored sessionheldat the


annualmeetingof the AmericanHistoricalAssociation,New YorkCity,4 January1997,and
JoyceAppleby,"ShouldWe All Become PublicHistorians?" AHA Perspectives 35 (March
1997):3 4. Thecurrentpaperaddressesthe needto explainto audiencesthe methodology that
undergirdsprofessionalhistoricalintexpretations.A relatedissue is one of presentationof
historicalinformation.In a recentissueof Discouer magazine,JaredDiamondcommentson
andcriticizesthe disdaindirectedtowardCarlSaganbythe professionalscientificcommunity
becauseof hiseffortsto reachbroadaudiences.Theremaybe a lessonherethatwe shouldwell
heed in the historyprofession.JaredDiamond '<Kinship Withthe Stars,"Discover 18 (May
1997):44 49.

Minat Terkait