Public History Series: Memory

I could not think of a better post to conclude the Public History series with than one on Memory because it plays into EVERY aspect of the discipline.  The key word in public history is “public.”  We create a link between academic history and the public by making history accessible by everyone.  Memory, in this case, is not a singular term, but a collective term.  The term most often used is “American Memory” and it is very important for public historians to understand.  The knowledge that slavery was bad and immoral is pretty common, and it is a negative memory within the American population, but that does not make it, and other controversial topics, easy to display.

Slavery, and other controversial topics are difficult to deal within a museum.  A museum that chooses to ignore the topic tends to enrage a portion of the population, but those that demonize slaveholders anger yet another part of the population.  Presenting such a controversial topic has been done in many ways.  One way, which causes a great amount of publicity, took place a few years ago at Colonial Williamsburg.  They held a mock slave auction in the town square.  This would have been a common occurrence in the Colonial Era, but was not something the public was interested in in the early Twenty-First Century.  It caused a lot of controversy and they have not attempted to do it again.  Slavery is still discussed within Williamsburg and they even offer a tour that focuses specifically on slavery within a colonial town.

Enola Gay

The other, and more famous, example of a controversial museum display was the Enola Gay.  In 2003, the Enola Gay went on display at the Smithsonian and was presented in such a way that angered those who were against the use of the bomb as well as Japanese-Americans.  The Smithsonian did correct the display, but the results upset veterans whose lives were, arguably, saved by the use of the atomic bomb to end World War II.  The Smithsonian solved the dilemma by taking down the display and leaving the aircraft on display with no interpretation.  The Smithsonian took the easy way out.  The Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. is controversial, but they have not close their doors in response to protests.

The key to remember when it comes to memory is that there are two sides to the same story.  The Civil War is a great example of this.  It is nearly impossible to make everyone happy when displaying any controversial topic in history; therefore, it is important to display the history in a way that is truthful and unbiased.  Allow the visitor to draw his/her own conclusions.

Memory is such a great topic to complete the series because it really does play a key role in how we present the history in all the sub-disciplines of Public History: local/regional history, oral history, historic preservation, documentary editing, museum studies, documentary film and visual arts, historical archaeology, and archival work.

It is important to remember that Public Historians are ultimately working to educate the public and should be wary that some events could be painful or offensive to a portion of the population.  This does not mean, however, that it should be brushed over or ignored.  This is, I believe, where public historians differ from academic historians.  Academic historians write for each other, and there are not many within the public that read academic journals or books.  It is important for public historians to use the academic techniques to present history to the public in a way that is accurate and unbiased.  That is the goal of myself and the goal of Public Historians.

-Eric

NOTE:  This is the tenth and final post in a ten part series on Public History.  The posts from the series will be presented on Wednesdays and Saturdays from now until April 6.  A wide variety of aspects will be covered and I will try to present an unbiased account of the positive and negative aspects of each subcategory of Public History.

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