Editor’s Corner: Complicating Authority

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Editors’ Note: We publish the editor’s introduction to the May 2023 issue of The Public Historian here. The entire issue is available online to National Council on Public History members and to others with subscription access.

This issue brings several articles that explore the concept of authority in public history, an idea that has long shaped debates about how we define our field. The first, Michael J. Brown’s “Overlapping Origins, Diverging Paths: ‘Public History’ and the ‘Public Intellectual’” examines how these two approaches to engaged scholarship (or more accurately, the labels identifying them) each emerged in response to larger social and academic trends in 1970s, but defined quite distinct approaches. Key to their differences were questions of authority. As Brown writes, “Whereas authorship and, thus, the authoritative voice have remained central for public intellectuals, public historians have rethought the nature of authority itself. . . . In public history, the processes of meaning-making and shared authority have moved to the center of the field.” The article provides an invaluable genealogy of our field, centering the meaning of authority squarely in its discussion.

In her article, “Race, History, and the Politics of the Local,” Elizabeth Belanger also reflects on the meaning of scholarly authority as it intersects with race, especially in working with community-based projects. In her thoughtful Report from the Field, Belanger analyzes how her positionality as a white female academic shaped her understanding of “the community” during the process of planning and creating a local public history project. Inspired by NCPH’s “Challenging White Public History” working group that met in 2020, Belanger employs “theories about whiteness, white supremacy, and white privilege to analyze a public history project.” The result is a critical reflection on the compromises to which she reluctantly agreed while working with specific local partners. As she notes, “a public historian’s positionality can shape their often-unconscious understanding of ‘community’ and ‘collaborators.’” Belanger also points out how the pressure to create “deliverables” leads to an emphasis on product rather than process that can limit time to “reflect, assess, and discuss.” Claiming the space to do so, Belanger concludes with asking all public historians to consider “the need to see and re-envision the structural, institutional, and personal obstacles that stand in the way of a more inclusive public history.”

Cover of Vol. 45, No. 2 (May 2023) of The Public Historian. Cover features artwork that reads "Dive In" in white capital letters on top of a naturalistic design on water.

The May 2023 cover of The Public Historian features a color photo of Carlos Lopez Rosa’s 2021 “Ofrenda (Dive In),” a hand-painted mural on acrylic. The photo of the mural appears in the exhibition “POOL: A Social History of Segregation” at the Fairmount Water Works in Philadelphia, reviewed in this issue. (Used in the Journal by permission of artist)

This issue offers two additional Reports from the Field. In the first, “Michigan’s PBB Disaster: Finding New Ways to Commemorate Large-scale Environmental Disasters,” Brittany B. Fremion and Marian Matyn use the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of a large-scale contamination of animal feed supply to examine how the event has been remembered and forgotten. Lack of accountability by government officials and corporate producers for the chemical exposure prevented the public from using the disaster to serve as a cautionary tale or to anticipate future toxic events. And yet the authors also learned of a grassroots effort to remember the contamination and its local and state-wide effects. They assert “that documenting personal memories in a variety of formats and creating opportunities for community members to share their experiences should be considered forms of commemoration that go beyond the static state in which monuments and memorials tend to exist.” In this way, they suggest that those affected by events shape meaningful counter-narratives.

In “Clipping for the Commission: Creating Digital Educational Tools about the Global History of Religious Toleration,” Bram De Ridder reports on an innovative project funded by the European Commission. The RETOPEA (Religious Toleration and Peace) project tasked historians with creating “clippings,” or short discussions of historical events presented in an online exhibition aimed at European teenagers. De Ridder notes that the project truly can be defined as “applied history” as the EC asked historians to apply their knowledge to help promote an agenda, that of religious toleration. Although some academic colleagues voiced skepticism, even dismay, about the project, De Ridder found that “in reality [,] clipping the global history of religious toleration proved to be an extremely demanding exercise in processing historical information” and raised important questions about research methodology and communication. As he concludes, the project’s value “does not only lie in its impact on education and policymaking, but in its contribution to methodological reflection on applied history in a European, educational, and digital context.”

We close with Daniel S. Murphree’s “Remembering the ‘Dade Massacre’”: Regional Memory, Settler Colonialism, and Native American Perspectives,” examines the long process of the creation of a Florida state park commemorating what had originally been termed a “massacre” of US soldiers by Seminole forces. Murphree finds that contrary to expectations, the park founders resisted demonizing actions of the Seminole fighters, largely understanding their actions in the context of illegal land claims by the US in the nineteenth century. Notably, Murphree finds that the even greater attention in the park given to the perspective of Seminole participants in recent decades emerged from the efforts not of professional historians, academic or public, but from historical reenactors, whose authority in terms of historical interpretation has often been not fully recognized. Today, although the park does not have a formal relationship with Indigenous descendants, Murphree finds that “in the park’s recent historical reenactments, advocates of interpreting settler colonialism and of collaborating with Native American descendants will find the influence of both in subtle, if important, ways.”

Finally, I would like to thank Nicole Belolan for her service as co-editor for The Public Historian. Her time with the journal, and especially her work as reviews editor for museums, exhibitions, films, and podcasts, has greatly improved the journal during her five years working with us. She has especially pushed The Public Historian to give greater attention to issues of disability and accessibility. We will miss her and wish her the best.

~Sarah H. Case, the editor of The Public Historian, earned her MA and Ph.D. in history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she is a continuing lecturer in history, teaching courses in public history, women’s history, and the history of the South. She is the author of Leaders of Their Race: Educating Black and White Women in the New South (Illinois, 2017) and articles on women and education, reform, and commemoration.

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