Getting Comfortable With Relevancy
The study of history is about more than reading cool stories.
The preservation of history is about more than storing cool old stuff.
The longer that I have been involved with history, the more I have come to grips with these uncomfortable truths.
I say uncomfortable because stories and old stuff are the avenues through which I entered historical practice. It was definitely cool…but that was it. And if I had ever been pressed for deeper reasons about why anyone should be interested in history, I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it. Then in recent years I have been exposed to the work in the History Relevance Campaign and was shocked to learn that there were people who believed there was much, much more to history…and not just that, but they were articulating its relevance! Still, it was uncomfortable for me because my head told me that there was something real to this, but my heart didn’t quite get it. And I’ve been struggling with that for years.
Until last week.
The relevance of what we do in our field continues to come up at SHA. As Steve Light observed in an earlier blog post, it was the topic we considered on day 1, and continued to be a major undercurrent throughout the week. And that hasn’t stopped in week 2 – we can’t get away from it! During an intense week, we have thought about the importance of government advocacy for our field, fundraising as the lifeblood of our institutions, the great power of preserved physical spaces, communication with our guests through dialogue rather than lecture, and strategies for inclusive interpretation of race and slavery at historic sites. These have impressed upon me more than ever the necessity of knowing your audience, knowing your story, and being able to connect those in a relevant mission.
And it’s not just the faculty that has helped me see this. But my brilliant and insightful classmates have helped me to make relevant connections of my site-specific history in ways that I have never thought of before. And it’s exciting! Not only has my head come to understand the importance of a relevant message, but my heart has also opened up, so to speak. I finally get it. And I have SHA to thank for making it comfortable to think like that.
We still need cools stories. And we still need cool old stuff. But we need to make those valuable and meaningful and need to articulate that in a clear and concise message. I look forward to trying these ideas out when I get back home.
Aaron Genton is the Collections Manager at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill.