Glassberg’s attention to the reception of historical knowledge offers a helpful counterpart to our previous discussions on the production and reproduction history. It is easy for scholars to become so fixated on the meta-analysis of a given historic site (or classroom, or movie) that we forget that the narratives we identify are not always the narratives with which people walk away.
Glassberg’s article reminded me of a particular moment from a field trip I took in college. At a historical site in Ohio, my classmates and I went through a simulation of the Underground Railroad wherein we were the runaway slaves. As part of our early orientation, we were “sold” away–news we received from an Irish indentured servant who had previously worked above us in some supervisory capacity. My first thought had been that encountering this white ethnic laborer emphasized the racial hierarchy that conferred special privileges on European indentured laborers (the Irishman was working toward his release) while consistently reserving the most inhumane degradation for enslaved black people. But another man on our tour had taken that moment to tell his daughter, “See, that’s important to remember: Irish people were slaves too.” For him, the presence of an Irish laborer had neutralized the racism of slavery by positioning us as equals.
There is much to unpack in such an exercise, but I think it illustrates the extent to which our previous orientations to history condition the ways in which we consume new knowledge. Or, as Glassberg puts is, how learning “changes as audiences actively reinterpret what they see and hear by placing it in alternative contexts derived from diverse social backgrounds.”
This also speaks to what I think is a much bigger problem for scholars: it is much easier to assess the damaging, or heartening, messages communicated by a particular idea or cultural text than to account for the human responses they elicit. It seems to be especially difficult for historians, grasping for patterns and explanations in what are always more complicated histories, to grapple with incoherent and changing ideologies, or to understand how people can hold multiple truths quite unbothered by their contradictions. Perhaps it is a matter of putting humans back into history (and history museums).