“It seems straightforward: public history should reach the public. Yet museums and historic sites struggle to make history matter to audiences.”
(Filene, 2012, p. 11).
The reading, Passionate Histories: “Outsider” History-Makers and What They Teach Us inspired or reinspired why I choose to work in the field of Public Humanities. Am I considered a professional for going to school to further pursue the field and my education or am a history enthusiast who truly just has a passion for the field of history? Can we be both? Is that possible? Or do we have to pick a side? In my experience working in museums, I have met some passionate individuals who simply love to inspire people. During my time working at the archaeological conservation lab at Historic Jamestowne, I worked alongside volunteers who would drive to the lab sometimes an hour one-way to assist with sorting and labeling artifacts from the collection and previous excavations. These “enthusiasts” as some would label them were the most generous and knowledgeable people who were always willing to answer my tiniest questions. Without their assistance, I honestly do not think that the highly-skilled (equally as friendly) small “professional” team, as they may be considered to others, would have been able to work on these bigger projects. Is it an important component for museums to have a balance of these more identified “academic” voices as well as those “enthusiasts” that are able to connect more with the public?
“Why don’t they share our passion for the past?”
(Filene, 2012, p. 11)
I have always loved history and the storytelling quality it provides. I would consider myself a historian but also an educator and a public historian as well. But are people able to realistically encompass all of these identities for every paper, project, or situation? I think because they makeup qualities of who I am they do tend to appear, perhaps not in equal proportions, but still present. One of the major reasons for wanting to further pursue public history along with other humanities, involves hearing kids from my education background telling me that they, “hate history” or that it is “boring” and “only involves memorizing dates” but history is so much more than just dates and facts, it’s about connections and understanding motives not just the Who, What, Where, but the Why and How. How can I make history relevant? How can I inspire others to feel just a sliver of my love and passion for history? Filene refers to “core values” behind people’s passions for history, which made me start to self-reflect and think about my very own (Filene, 2012, p. 23). Why do I feel this passion? What topics do I feel more passionate about? I personally relate to stories of overcoming obstacles: Justice, Drive, Ambition, but also the characteristics and qualities of people in history I admire: Respect, Integrity, Balance, Boldness. How can I teach students about the American Revolution without creating narratives and discussing race, gender, class, along with the motivations and years of frustrations leading up to the War? I have to be able to connect and use my knowledge as a historian but also my more public-facing individual qualities and my education background to make history feel important rather than sitting in a history class with a textbook.
“Perhaps, the problem isn’t with “them,” the public, but with “us,” the museums.”
(Filene, 2012, p.12)
My final thoughts are on the future of museums. Looking into the future often looks bleak but I see this as an opportunity, a crossroads perhaps, for museums to be honest with themselves and decide if the institution is the problem with why guests are not visiting. Are you doing everything you can to make the museum feel inviting? A place for non-museum goers to feel inspired and excited to go. I’ve been recently thinking about the hit Broadway show, Hamilton. This show, engulfed in history, is one of the most popular, in my personal opinion, (at least it feels this way) shows. These tickets are often impossible to come by and people who I never knew were interested in either the theatre or history would jump at the opportunity to see and experience the show. Why? What is the show doing that makes people eager to go? Is it the catching tune? The diverse cast? What separates it from museums? Unfortunately, I do not have the answer, I am one of the unlucky few who has not had the opportunity to see the show but I am interested to see others give their feedback. What changes can museums make? Does adding in more “academic” voices change the museums’ reception? Should museums think more outside the box and be inspired by the arts like Hamilton? My answer is yes. The field needs to get creative. I do not mean to alter the content or change how history played out but it is in the past and provides an exciting framework for museums to begin to figure out how best to relay this information to the public.
Filene, Benjamin, “Passionate Histories: ‘Outsider’ History-Makers and What They Teach Us,” (Links to an external site.) The Public Historian, 34 (2012), 11–33.