Tag Archives: regional history

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.


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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Public History Series: Local/Regional History

Most cities or counties have a museum dedicated to its history.  This is a place to collect and display the historical items from a particular region’s past.  There are many examples of this type of museum across America.  They present an interesting story, but sometimes these stories are part truth and part myth.  Local history is often used to encourage tourism for a city and that is why some of the more exciting stories are told.

Local museums are often run by a group of volunteers or history buffs that have lived in the region for the majority, if not all, their lives.  These museums rely on donations from the community in order to exist and this creates problems.  When a prominent family donates a large amount of money to form a local museum, they are often doing so with the expectation that their family’s history will be told somewhere in the museum.  I have been to many museums where one room is dedicated to a particular family, but they did not necessary have anything to do with the city’s history.  There are exceptions to that, however.  The Harrison family in the Shenandoah Valley donated the land which makes up Harrisonburg today; therefore, his story is featured in the history of Harrisonburg, but it has been included with the context of city.  Unlike other museums (I will not mention names) I have been to where there is a room dedicated to the furniture owned by Family X, even though they really had nothing to do with the city.

Newton County Museum in Neosho, Missouri

Another part of local history is the publication of books.  I am sure you have seen books on the history of Neosho or Harrisonburg at the local stores.  These books are often written by local history buffs, and they tell the story of the city but do not quite piece together the full context of the city or region.  I own several books on local history and they all do some things well, but ignore other aspects of the history of a town.  Local historians do this on purpose.  Books and museums are a way to educate the public about their city, but they tend to leave out the more controversial parts of history because, in many cases, the families involved in the events are still living in the area and no one wants to offend their neighbors.  This also brings us back to the donation issue.  The family that gives to the museum may have a role in the city’s history, but it may not be a positive role and therefore that is ignored due to their generous donation.

The final issue with local museums is context.  Those running local museums are often well versed in local history, but not so much in national or state history.  This can be important because events taking place in the city at a particular point in time may not have been unique to that city.  It could have been a state wide issue or even a national trend.  Context is important because relating a major national or state event to something that happened in the city allows the visitor to make connections.  A city is most likely not isolated from these events and will reflect some aspects of it.

All the negatives aside, local museums are important to the historical community because they are repositories for local history.  People tend to donate old pictures and items to the museum because they no longer want them cluttering their house.  These items may not always make it into the museum exhibit, but they build a great archive.  Another role local museums often plays involves genealogy.  Many times they will collect the genealogy records for the city or county and make them accessible to the public and that helps a wide variety of historians and the local public.

Local history is not without it faults, but it is one of the most common forms of history in America.  Many Public Historians find themselves at local museums after they complete their degree.  They try to present a complete history of a region, but often upset many members of the community in the process.  As historians we want to tell the whole story, the good and the bad, but local historians need to have the tact to brush over the negatives that effect members of the community.


NOTE:  This is the second 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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