Monthly Archives: November 2011

What’s my payback for SHA?

I had the opportunity to attend the Seminar for Historical Administration last year and have since considered the question “what’s the payback for SHA?” I am a director of a mid-size community’s historical society and it never fails to amaze me how vast and varied our methods and approach to history are all over America and even in the next town. Unlike many other professions, you do not need a license to practice history and that leads to a public that does not know what to expect from its local museums because they have probably seen both the best and the worst of us. That is, in essence, the payback to SHA for me- it set the bar for best practices in the history field in a way that no other program has come close in the field of public history. I know as I approach the wide variety of problems and challenges that historical societies face that I have an edge over the rest because I attended SHA and discussed and learned and argued and discovered the complexities of being a public historian.

As the director of a small museum, I am very grateful for the opportunity that SHA afforded me and will pay it forward by encouraging my fellow small museum colleagues to consider attending SHA. I also know that the program is not possible without the generous underwriting from its sponsors, and I am eternally grateful for those organizations that donate resources of all kinds to its success. Due to the sponsors of SHA, the program is available to not only staff at the large, national institutions, but also those at the local level, and as we all know, local museums can play a key role in a community’s culture. SHA never made my issues seem small or insignificant, and that attitude is critical for the success of our field as a whole. On behalf of the small, local museums all over America, we appreciate the sponsors of SHA for understanding the importance of best practices in history organizations and thank them for funding this critical endeavor. Since attending SHA last year, our organization has a new mission, new vision, and has adopted a strategic plan for the first time in its history. Our work has lead to greater public awareness of heritage in our community, which has a ripple affect outward-raising all of us up with it. After attending SHA, I now feel I have a license to practice history and a whole network of people that I can turn to for support. Onward!

What is the role of the historian in the age of shared authority and radical trust?


We began the 2011 seminar focused on relationships with communities and groups, seeking to understand how history organizations can become relevant and hence sustainable. We discussed community engagement, facilitated dialogue, shared authority, and radical trust – approaches that enable others to find their own value in the past. Examples range from simply using historic sites as a place for community gatherings, to the rigorous examination of a community’s contentious past.

In this milieu, I see two essential roles for the expert who has spent considerable time researching primary evidence and acquiring a body of knowledge: (1) tell a good story and (2) enable others to think critically about the past.

As interpreters of history, we have become very good at telling stories. History organizations around the country are using narrative in exhibitions and tours to enliven the past, capture the imagination of listeners, heighten emotions, and create an experience that is more than a recitation of facts and a display of stuff. When told well a story can reveal the nuance and complexity of history. “Follow the North Star” at Conner Prairie, now in its fifteenth year, continues to be one of the best examples of this genre.

But storytelling is not enough. At one point the seminar discussions touched on the general naïveté of the American public when it comes to understanding history. With rare exceptions, people seem to want simple answers. They prefer affirmation of what they already believe, rather than thinking critically about evidence and grappling with contradictory interpretations.

Jody Blankenship and others at the Kentucky Historical Society think the answer lies in education. They say that the public has little awareness of history as a discipline of knowledge. The public’s interest in history is based on the enjoyment of good stories rather than an appreciation for the critical thinking, weighing of evidence, reasoning, and knowledge of multiple perspectives that goes into an interpretation of the past.

Sharing authority with others carries an obligation on our part to teach the discipline of history. We do this in some of our programming for schools; National History Day is a prime example. But such programs are usually viewed as peripheral to the core work of producing exhibitions and new interpretive experiences.

It is time to put the teaching of critical thinking at the center of our work. We must do more than tell a good story. We must do more than open our doors and minds to the stories of others. We must teach them to be historians, to practice the discipline of history.

Ford Bell talked with the class about AAM’s efforts to unify the various types of museums – art, history, science, children’s, zoos, aquaria, etc. He suggests that in spite of the many differences, what we have in common is an educational purpose. Marsha Semmel talked about the work of IMLS in bringing museums to the table in the national conversation about education reform. Museums can play an important role in helping citizens develop crucial 21st century skills such as critical thinking and civic literacy.

This educational function may well be our greatest relevance today. This may be the way to make involvement in history not simply an enjoyable pastime, but a useful tool for building stronger communities and individuals.

It’s Time for a Kykuit-type Conversation about Historical Objects

It is time to do for objects what we have done for historic structures and sites. For decades we assumed the “best practice” for such a property was to set it up and present it as a historic house museum, historic village, or historic farmstead, with priority placed on historical accuracy over visitor needs. Authenticity – defined as the real thing portrayed just as it was at some point in the past – was deemed the highest value.

In 2007, at the second Kykuit conference organized by Jim Vaughan, then the VP for historic sites at the National Trust, we redefined the value of historic places in this way:

Sustainability begins with each historic site’s engagement with its community and its willingness to change its structure, programs, and services in response to the changing needs of that community.

Serving the needs of the local community (not the tourist audience) is the most valuable and most sustainable goal for most historic sites.

Claiming community relevance as the highest value led to a significant shift in thinking. Instead of the importance of history, we started to think about the power of place. This simple shift in focus unleashed a wealth of fresh thinking, innovation, new programming, and community involvement at historic sites around the nation.

Until recently our conversations about collections have mostly addressed how rather than why? We’ve had lengthy discussions about deaccessioning, and standards of care, and access. But what is the real value of historical objects?

We may be starting to have a different conversation now. Rainey Tisdale, in “Do History Museums Still Need Objects?” (History News, Summer 2011), claims that the value of historical artifacts lies in their authenticity – here defined as something tangible, in contrast to virtual representations of objects online. To quote Reach Advisors, as cited by Tisdale, people value such objects “because real authenticity is increasingly hard to find in our crazy world.”

I fear that simply claiming authenticity as the defining value of historical objects doesn’t get us very far. In a sense it just makes us an alternative or antidote to modern life. We need to dig deeper.

Reach Advisors (thank you again, James and Susie) has other intriguing data that suggest that an encounter with an object at an early age (mean age 7) and crafting one’s own story about the object, leads to avid museum participation as an adult. Others are researching what actually happens during object-based learning. We’re getting a better understanding of the developmental value of tinkering with objects, figuring out how something works, and coming up with ways to improve it. Nina Simon in The Participatory Museum describes “social objects” that by their nature prompt dialogue among the people viewing them. (p.129 ff) We are starting to see the ways in which objects impact our lives.

What if we bring together people who can help us discover and articulate a new value statement for historical objects? Can we arrive at a simple statement that opens up innovation? As I read and think about this I suspect the answer will relate to our function as institutions of learning. We will come to see historical objects primarily as tools for understanding ourselves and others.

What do you think?

History Leadership and Community Engagement

I believe people long for history, that they demand the truth, and they are eager to talk about the tension in the past.

David Young, the executive director of Cliveden in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia

History is complex. So are communities. The big challenge in history organizations today is to find ways to make history, in all its complexity, relevant and useful to its community-at-large, and to the many sub-communities therein. This requires leaders who are passionate about both history and community, who are committed to helping others have better lives, and who believe that increased understanding of the past can contribute to this goal.

The leader’s first job is to show up. The history leader must be in the community, present at community events, participating in community organizations, and taking a lead in addressing the community’s concerns. By being present, the leader learns what people want and need, and begins to build relationships with other community leaders.

Without this preliminary work, the history organization is likely to encounter resistance when it approaches a community group with an idea for an exhibit or program. In the seminar last week Dan Spock, from the Minnesota Historical Society, had the class role play several cases. Those who were playing the role of community members had concerns: What does the organization want from us? How will our needs be addressed? Can we trust them? Will they listen to us? Will they believe us?

There are many ways that a community (groups and individuals) can become involved in the work of a history organization. Over the course of the first week the faculty introduced and we discussed many of these, including community input into deciding what to collect, community generated exhibits, and community participation in events and programs. Benjamin Filene, who teaches public history at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, is one of the editors of a new publication that addresses the same issues we discussed: Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World (The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, Philadelphia, 2011)

A good place to start is to help a minority community tell its own story, take pride in its heritage and celebrate its achievements. Many history organizations originated with this impulse, focused on the group in power at the time. It is worthy now to help other groups have their turn. History becomes relevant when it enables people to share their stories, instill pride in their culture, and affirm their values.

Once you have built relationships and given a community an opportunity to tell its own story, it may be time for tackling some of the more contentious stories.

Here is some guidance for working with community groups, especially around controversial issues.

1.Be aware of your own biases and expectations. What is your motivation for engaging communities and the public around contentious issues? Others will be suspicious; they will want to know what you want from them.

2.Be pragmatic. Be honest with yourself with how much you can do. You may not be able to change others’ minds; at most you may be able to affect their thinking.

3.Expect to be challenged. Recognize that American history is difficult history. There are no straightforward answers. There are many perspectives. We haven’t got it all figured out yet. Don’t take it personally (this is the hardest thing.)

4.Retain the sacred while adding the forum. In the process, and in the final product, be it an exhibit or program, give people space and times to reflect and be inspired, as well as analyze and engage in dialogue.

5.Use concentric circles, start with those closest to you and move outward to engage others. Use both process and content to engage their interest.

6.Facilitation is crucial. The Tenement Museum trains its staff to facilitate tough conversations about immigration. David Young has used facilitators with expertise in group dynamics and psychology to bring blacks and whites together to discuss slavery. Dan Spock is using resources from Healing Through Remembering, an organization in Northern Ireland, to facilitate dialogue around the 150th anniversary of the U.S.-Dakota War in Minnesota.

Benefits of Community and Public Participation in the Presentation and Practice of History

We have been discussing relationships between history organizations and the people and communities they serve. I am pleased that we did not dwell on concerns often voiced about inviting others to participate in our work: can we trust them, will they follow the rules, will they damage the collection, and will they respect my expertise?

Although I still encounter such objections around the country, the discussions in the seminar have been not about whether we should engage others in active participation, but rather how to best do it, and toward what ends.

What are the benefits of community and lay participation in the practice and presentation of history?

1. The practice of history is about making sense and making choices. Historians know that history is complex and nuanced; that we haven’t got it all figured out yet; that interpretations of the past must be rooted in specific evidence; and that the discovery of new evidence can be really exciting, especially when it helps us answer a question. Yet our practice in history organizations has been to keep the fun of discovery to ourselves and just give the public answers. As a result many people think of history as simple. They come to us for answers and not for solving problems. And yet we lament that the public has a naïve understanding of the past. By involving them in the process of historical research and interpretation, we can help them think critically and appreciate the complexity of the past.

2. By engaging others in our practice we can give voice to underrepresented groups. There is strong interest in doing this in the class, and we have discussed many examples of working with minority communities to tell their stories through exhibits and programs. We have talked about the benefits and risks of sharing authority, the challenges of establishing trust, the distinctions between memory and history, the role of the expert, and the value of multiple perspectives. In spite of the challenges, it is clear that there is great benefit to both the community and the institution in doing such work.

3. Involving others in out work also occurs via social media. Again our conversation centered on the benefits and strategies for doing it well. This year’s students are fully engaged in the opportunities and challenges of using Web 2.0, although some of their institutions are lagging.

4. Engaging others in the practice of history can potentially help people come to grips with aspects of the past that make us all uncomfortable. I say potentially because this can be hard, time consuming and risky work. We discussed contentious cases dealing with slavery and race relations, and U.S. government treatment of American Indians. In my next post I will go into greater depth on this topic, and lay out some of the strategies that are working.

5. Finally, active engagement of a community in understanding its past can help people see the relevance of history in their lives today. They can discover the historical context for the problems they face in building a better community. Every present-day concern has a history, which if known and understood, can inform dialogue and potentially lead to better solutions.

We recognize that there are many ways in which communities and individuals can participate in the practice of history, from contributing their own stories and photographs, to full participation in the interpretation of evidence and presentation of an exhibit.

At its best, involvement can lead to critical thinking, greater understanding, and commitment to preservation of historic places and historical collections.

SHA blog

As we’ve just created this new site, we’ve not yet synced up our blog sites.

If you’re interested in following the goings-on for the Class of 2011, please see http://developinghistoryleaderssha.blogspot.com/ and follow the blog there.

Bob Beatty

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