The utility of an international vision of public history
04 February 2013 – Zachary McKiernan
On a recent conference call that connected public history practitioners from Bangladesh, Brazil, Italy, Spain, South Africa, and the U.S., one participant remarked on the utility of replicating historic site and museum programs from different geographic locations in others. Another extolled the benefits of sharing ideas, methods, and experiences across the different regions of the world. Meanwhile I mapped these diverse localities in my mind, juxtaposing one local program with another; drawing others into the picture; putting in conversation an oral-history archive in Santiago with an aspiring one in Cambodia; comparing what to do with the former UN Special Courts building in Sierra Leone and what to do with a former site of detention and torture in Argentina; the universal linkages, I think, that connected these diverse locales.
Truth be told, I am interested in the idea of an international public history (maybe as part of a broader shift to public humanities) as much as I am with the idea, articulated in Robert Weyeneth’s recent piece in this blog, that the bedrock of public history remains rooted in the local, a particular place, a house’s history, the story of a neighborhood, the “location-specific case study.” David Glassberg’s Sense of History: The Place of the Past in American Life (University of Massachusetts Press, 2001) reminds us of the difference between public history and its academic counterpart, proposing “Historians begin their inquiries into the past by identifying a particular social or political process, then looking for the places it happened; the public begins with a place that it cares about and then asks, ‘What happened here?’” (111).
I think the perceived tension between the local and global might be more a matter of approach than principle. Writing from an international perspective (say Santa Barbara or New York, where I often am) about a local history project in Berlin, Germany or New Hampshire might present problems. In some senses, this may represent a more conventional academic approach where the author and narrator remains detached from the local (geographically, emotionally, politically, if not intellectually). This approach puts a different spin on local readings, practices, and representations of public history, if not in a methodological sense then certainly in one that is removed from the authors and narrators who are in the thick of the fight, the banality of bureaucracy, the controversy of consensus. From this angle, yes, thinking of international ideas of public history presents a slippery slope. But the slipperiness and the slope exist more between the tension of academic and public history than it does local and international public history, to say nothing of the countless nuances between professional and popular-history making.
Approaching the idea of international public history from a different direction might present a greener field to graze. That is, we could look at it from the local-specific case study outwards—as Weyeneth puts it, “how it is hitched to everything else.” From this angle, local practitioners in Santiago de Chile can share their challenges and successes concerning an oral-history archive project of trauma survivors with counterparts in Cambodia. (This is valuable not least because the latter still suffers from a lack of professional and scholarly expertise that was purged during the Pol Pot dictatorship.) The practice of community-based co-curatorship at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum in Chicago might be a method effectively employed in areas looking to bring community organizations and “regular citizen-folk” into the folds of a shared history. I myself would have little hesitation in taking what I learned (in a methodological, ethical, and political sense) at the various location-specific sites of memory and conscience in Chile to a table in another land.
Creating an international language and spaces for public history is important for myriad reasons. The historian Elazar Barkan, for one, in the October 2009 American Historical Review Forum on Truth and Reconciliation in History, makes the case for how historians can contribute to reconciliation efforts in more advocacy-oriented roles after historical injustices. He notes a global truth commission trend in the investigation of local histories in the American South (Greensboro, Wilmington, and Rosewood), connecting these to Holocaust-related commissions and the South American ones that inspired South Africa’s. Louis Bickford (Human Rights Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 4, Nov 2007), like Barkan, makes these same connections and coins the term “Unofficial Truth Projects” to describe this transitional justice strategy, “efforts…rooted in civil-society—hosted and driven by human rights NGOs, victims groups, universities, and other societal organizations—and are not primarily state-based efforts.” Locating our local roles and experiences as public historians within larger conversations about, for example, transitional justice and human rights activism only adds to the richness and utility of our field. Heeding Weyeneth’s recommendation to reflect on how a case study is related to everything else gives us a great starting point to think about international ideas of public history.
I recently took the Lower East Side Tenement Museum’s featured walking tour, “Irish Outsiders,” about daily life through the eyes of an Irish immigrant family living in a mainly German-occupied building in late 19th century New York. The Museum’s educator, who led the tour, was neither Irish nor a native New Yorker. The group’s constituency counted two Brits, one of whom was of Indian descent. While my father, who was with me on the tour, remarked on immigrant issues in California, I let myself remember the conference call from a few days prior. It was remarkable, I thought, that however local the public history was that day, it was impossible to avoid its international implications.
~ Zachary McKiernan