Few topics in history command as much obsession and relentless discussion as wars. This is no surprise. After all, wars have always been a main stage for great heroes and malicious villains. Even if these heroes and villains are storybook versions of the real thing. If world history was a movie, wars would be the action scenes. And who doesn’t love a good action scene? For many Americans, the greatest (grimmest may be more accurate) action scene is that of the American Civil War. As Tony Horwitz makes abundantly clear in his book Confederates in the Attic, the Civil War occupies a starring role in the lives of many Americans. These people eat, sleep, live, and breathe (literally in several cases) Civil War.
What is it that makes wars, and the Civil War in particular, so interesting for Americans? Unfortunately, a definitive answer to that question is not easily found. For some, such as Robert Lee Hodge, who adorns the cover of Horwitz’ book, it may just be a fascination of a life so foreign to their own. In Hodge’s own words, “When you get into the grim details of the War, you realize you’ve lived a soft life” (16). For Hodge and other reenactors, the Civil War is a form of escapism. For all the reasons to be obsessed with the Civil War this may be the most benign. It may seem a bit goofy to some, but the same could be said about a variety of other hobbies.
Sometimes, however, the Civil War is more than just a weekend obsession. It is a lifestyle. Such is what Horwitz encountered in North Carolina. These people centered their community around confederate clubs. Largely, what this amounted to was a glorification of the Confederacy and its heroes. However, for some, such as a twelve-year-old girl that Horwitz talked to, confederate clubs were just something people did. This young girl did not have an agenda, she just liked the confederates for their underdog status.
Nevertheless, slavery is undeniably tied to the Civil War. Horwitz strategically juxtaposes the confederate clubs of North Carolina with a celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. He talked to a young pastor named Michael King who saw what he called confederacy worship. King concluded, “remember your ancestors, but remember what they fought for too, and recognize it was wrong” (44).
Wars, often, represent the boiling point of differences in ideological views. Maybe this is one of the reasons why so many people find wars so fascinating. As a historian, it is tempting to just paint everything in black and white to prove a point. But that might not be the answer. For Public Historians, interpreting the past can benefit from differing viewpoints. The National Parks Service has done this sort of thing by showing the “transformative power of exposing visitors to the original openendedness of history by shifting from fixed explanations of the past to considering the past moment as the original participants experienced it when they did not know what the outcomes would be” (Imperiled Promise, 44). These viewpoints should not be presented as choose-your-own-truths, rather they should cause the viewer to consider the differing viewpoints and come to the truth through careful consideration. But that is the hard part: sometimes public history means braving the storms of public psychology.
In his Public History book, Thomas Cauvin points out that, “the relations between the past and the present are at the center of public history” (239). This may seem somewhat obvious to anyone who has spent the last several weeks writing a blog focused on public history, but it is an important observation. Whether it is the concept of shared authority, history as activism, or the everyday American’s intersection with the past through personal histories, the past can influence the present and the present can influence how the past is viewed.
For many people, for many reasons, sharing can be difficult. So too, then, the concept of shared authority is a struggle for the professional historian. The idea of shared authority suggests that historians are not the only ones with a legitimate interpretation of the past. Understandably, this is a hard pill to swallow for many. As Cauvin says, “most of the time, history training does not lend itself to shared authority” (216). In addition, if someone spends a significant amount of time studying something, or writing a blog or something like that, then they often feel as if they have earned the authority.
So why must they share their hard-earned authority with know-nothings? Well, the truth is, the know-nothings are not actually such. In fact, most people are engaging with the past on a regular basis, just in a different way than history professionals. As Roy Rosenzweig notes in The Presence of the Past, “our survey respondents often used the past in complex and subtle ways, but their approach was sometimes in tension with my historical training and preferences” (186). So, then, the goal is to give a balance in the range of interpretations of history. Because a free-for-all, everyone-make-your-own-history fun park is just as shutter inducing as a stingy little lord historian raining down correct histories from their castle on the hill.
Everybody is interested in history. Some more so than others, but everyone utilizes the past in some form or other. Though, as it turns out, semantics play a role in how popular opinion views public interest in history. As Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen point out in their book The Presence of the Past, “History is the word that scholars privilege to describe how they approach the past” (6). They go on to say that many people view history as something that is formal, far away, and unrelated to them. For those people, history is just that high school class reserved for a snooze. However, to declare this attitude of the American people as being representative of a general lack of interest and knowledge of all things historical is a mistake. The truth is, for the most part, Americans are deeply interested in history, though for many, history goes by a different name: the past. For this reason, it is the task of public historians to present history to the public in a way that is unique from the way history is presented academically.
Writing for a popular audience can be a challenge for any professionally trained historian who spent their academic career writing a billion research papers. Academic papers do not usually find their way to the top of someone’s reading list. They are too technical and do not usually provide a compelling narrative. Popular history books, biographies, and historical fictions, on the other hand, are driven by narrative and, as a result, pop up on many bestseller lists. These popular works, if done correctly, use the same sources and are just as well researched as their academic cousins, but what separates them is the style in which they are written. As Thomas Cauvin notes in Public History, “it is always very important for public historians to provide a style that does not deter public attention” (117).
Increasingly important for public history writers are the tools available in the digital realm. Blogs, especially, are a preferred method for reaching the public. By their nature, blogs are easily accessible with posts organized chronologically and word counts that are not too daunting. Blogs also allow for a degree of interaction with the audience. As Cauvin emphasizes, “especially relevant for public historians is the capacity to collect comments on their blog and to make their research more interactive” (124). Other valuable means of bringing history to the public are sites likeSpokane Historical. Spokane Historical is a site that brings the history of local people, places, and events together in a way that is clear and informative. This sort of thing is especially important to a public that greatly values familial and local history.
If the survey employed by Rosenzweig and Thelen for their book is taken as being representative of the American population then Americans care deeply about the past and their relationship to it. For those surveyed, “intimate uses of the past mattered so much in every aspect of their lives.” (37). Family is the one thing that ties everyone to the past. “Almost every American deeply engages the past, and the past that engages them most deeply is that of their family” (22). History of the family, therefore, is something of a gateway to love and appreciation of history, the past, in general, and public historians should keep this in mind when writing for a popular audience.
I now know more about Cheney, Washington and Eastern Washington University then I ever intended to know. But that’s okay. I put Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass’ Whipped Cream & Other Delights on in the background as I read and the proceedings were sweetened, if made slightly comical by my choice of soundtrack. The history of Cheney will be forever tied to the dulcet sounds of trumpet in my mind. But the truth is, Cheney and EWU have a delightful little history that’s worth reading. From big hopes of being the regions major Metropolis to a school for teachers, Cheney made its own way. Sometime in the future when I am speeding across the post-apocalyptic landscape in my custom Mustang I will run into someone, figuratively, and I will say to them, “Jonathan. My name is Jonathan. Let me tell you a story of the place called Cheney.” Because, naturally, that is what we would all say upon meeting someone out in the middle of nowhere.
A major stand-out, in my opinion, in the history of Cheney is the shenanigans surrounding the county seat. I was filled with joy upon reading this story because it confirmed my suspicion that Cheney is full of nefarious evil-doers. (*Note to Cheney citizens: I don’t actually think this. I love you dearly.) The story goes, in 1881, after an undesirable recount, a group of Cheney men snuck into Spokane Falls at night and, as Jim Kershner puts it, “took custody of the auditor and the county books, did their own quick recount, declared Cheney the winner, and bundled books and auditor off to three waiting wagons.” They even had six-shooters. It’s perfect. If I ever have spare time I will write the screenplay. It will be called, The Grand Steal. Of course, Cheney’s victory did not last long as Spokane won the county seat back in a landslide a few years later. And that, my friends, is what they call karma.
Poor small Cheney. They had such high hopes of being eastern Washington’s crown jewel, they even named their city after Benjamin P. Cheney, a director of the Northern Pacific rail line, in an attempt to flatter their way into the railroad’s good graces. But, like all good losers, Cheney lost. Spokane Falls grew into the region’s largest city while Cheney was left in the dry eastern Washington dust. That is, until Cheney was chosen as one of three locations that would host a State Normal School. This school for teachers would eventually be known as Eastern Washington University.
Of course, universities need buildings and buildings need to be named something or other hall. Eastern did just that. For example, some buildings in the Historic District of EWU include Showalter Hall, “the oldest and most important building on the Eastern Washington University campus” and named after the first president of Cheney Normal School, Noah Showalter; Monroe Hall, named after Cheney Normal School Board of Trustees member Mary A. Monroe; and Senior Hall, prophetically named after me because I am a senior. (*That last part is not true). Speaking of naming conventions, one of my favorites comes from this EWU timeline that points out that, in 1977, a new field house was built and named for Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe who was “a native of Pennsylvania, who had no affiliation with Eastern.” What?
Cheney and Eastern Washington University contain many buildings and landmarks that provide neat historical stories. In addition, early Cheney antics have inspired in me a wonderful idea for the next great western film, although it’s probably sixty years too late for that. However, whatever your preferred method for consuming Cheney history, I recommend doing it while listening to Herb Alpert. I wouldn’t say its transcendental, but it’s certainly amusing.
If birth records and death records can give one a snapshot of a community, so too can jail records. Indeed, the Spokane jail registry from 1900 offers many insights, often humorous, to those willing to peruse it. The first thing of notice is that Spokane entered the twentieth century as a diversified community with a significant Chinese population. On February 19, 1900, which will be exactly one hundred seventeen years ago tomorrow, five Chinese men were arrested on First street in what appears to be a raid on an opium den. Two of the men were charged for operating the joint while the other three were charged for smoking. This, however, was not the only occurrence of Chinese men in the records. Though, whenever they appeared, they were all, almost exclusively, charged with opium related offences. That being said, they played a valuable role in the community working as laborers, cooks, and laundrymen, but their opium habits were not appreciated by the community, which seemed to be attempting to project an upstanding and attractive image.
Other offences noted in the register indicate that improving appearances was important for the community. On February 23, 1900, six men were arrested for offences to a paved street. One man left his horse on the street and the other five were charged with scattering gravel on the street. Did they fill their pockets with gravel with the intention of scattering it on the street in some sick, monstrous pre-meditated gravel scatter? We may never know, and don’t think about it too hard. You may not be able to sleep at night. If only they could see the Spokane streets today. For those that don’t know the Spokane streets first hand, they can be described in three words: hellish Swiss cheese.
Somewhere in the slow part of Home Alone 2, the boring scene where little Kevin imparts some wisdom to a struggling old soul, right before the good stuff, Kevin McCallister shares a story about how he had some super cool roller-skates he did not want to ruin, and so never wore them. The whole scene is rather boring, I always fall asleep during it, but the point is, what is the good of preserving something if it cannot be used for its purpose. The same can be said for archives. As the Society of American Archivists (SAA) points out in their Core Values of Archivists, “Access to records is essential in personal, academic, business, and government settings, and use of records should be both welcomed and actively promoted.” So, it is clearly understood that most good archives seek to provide access to their materials to as many people as possible. However, the challenges to the success of this goal are, as would be expected, numerous.
Everyday businesses, governments, educational institutions, and individuals produce an immense amount of records. To preserve everything in a repository is impossible, not to mention kind of ridiculous. Thus, it is the archivist’s responsibility to decide what materials, based on their historical value for current and future generations, should be preserved as part of a collection. In addition, and often overlooked, archivists need to be consistently engaged with their collection so as to be able to downsize when necessary. Thomas Cauvin, in Public History: A Textbook of Practice, notes, “Collection management is not a linear process but must be seen as a cycle.” (36). As an employee of Spokane County Library District, I am very aware of the tendency of collections to get out of control. There is a continuous process of adding new books to the collection and weeding out old ones that never get checked out. The limitations of physical space demand continuous collection vigilance. Of course, as Cauvin makes sure to point out, for archives that are deaccessioning, “preferably items should be offered to other collections, and transferred rather than sold or destroyed.” (37). This is because, as Laura Schmidt makes clear in Using Archives: A Guide to Effective Research, “Materials in an archives are often unique, specialized, or rare objects, meaning very few of them exist in the world, or they are the only ones of their kind,” unlike libraries where a new copy of a book can be purchased if the old one wears out.
Archival work has its challenges, but it’s not insurmountable. Vigilant collection management goes a long way in maintaining a useful and accessible archive. In addition, hiring archivists who exhibit the SAA’s Code of Ethics for Archivists is also a good place to start. Professional relationships, judgement, authenticity, security and protection, access and use, privacy, and trust are attributes listed and I would just like to quote Bill Murray form Groundhog Dayon this, “me, me, me…me also…I am really close on this one!”
To express his need for an intermediary between himself and digital technologies, Owen Lars once complained, “What I really need is a droid that understands the binary language of moisture vaporators.” (Star Wars). And while it is probably safe to assume most public historians are not toiling away on moisture farms beneath two blazing suns, digital fluency and application is an important and useful skill for public historians. In the twenty-first century technology and digital media are a part of nearly every facet of life, including how history is presented and accessed. Digital tools and media have made possible new ways of presenting history, new ways of public participation, and new means of research. However, as these tools present a vast array of options, historians are still determining how best to utilize them.
One such way of using these tools is to develop–or assist with the development of–films, documentaries, and radio programs. Thomas Cauvin refers to films and related media as “…one of the most influential and popular sources of historical knowledge.” (163). Many historians, especially students who aspire to be historians, would grumble at the idea of films as a source of historical knowledge, but to do so would be 1) missing the point, 2) an overplayed stereotype, and 3) pretty downright lame. As someone whose interests exist at the crossroads of history and film (you will find me lying on the pavement with tire tracks running across my body), I know firsthand that the beauty of historical films lies not so much in their strict adherence to historical fact but rather in their ability to act as a catalyst. Though not true for everyone, films act as a gateway to history because they construct a visual of the past. That being said, any producer would do well to consult an historian when producing a historically based film. The little details are not what matters so much as the grand truths. As Cauvin puts it, “What matters ultimately – especially for films – is the capacity to convey a particular historical message about the event, and not the few historical inaccuracies.” (168).
While films and documentaries allow public historians and filmmakers to collaborate to present history in a specific way, the internet proves to be a nearly never-ending resource for research. In reference to Google Books, Dan Cohen states that “It is a tremendous leveler of access to historical resources.” This statement could be extended past Google Books to further reaches of the internet and still hold true. Of course, the typical cautions remain, as the internet is open to everyone. As Cauvin points out, “Everybody can comment on the Internet, it does not mean that every statement is true or even relevant.” (180). However, with cautions duly noted, the internet is a wonderful research tool as it allows old, handwritten documents to be transcribed into searchable text files amongst other things. As this video showed, even as early as 1981 the internet was being used to transcribe newspapers. Furthermore, the internet provides an opportunity to do things like this to pull a massive amount of data together and present it in a visual way. Having the locations of post offices visually represented on a map allows the user, at a glance and without sifting through copious pages of data, to see that the Cheney post office (1881) was established a year after the one in Medical Lake (1880).
Digital tools and media are a great advantage for the public historian. Film, especially, is something that reaches a massive audience and can be an effective means of igniting historical interest. Once interested in an historical topic, many individuals in the public will turn to the internet. A savvy public historian is in a unique position to present history, as it should be, every step of the way. Therefore, binary is an important means of communication for the public historian, at least until golden droids that are fluent in six million forms of communication come along.
This week, we move on from the discussion of museums to focus on a topic of equal weight and importance to public historians: historic preservation. The public preservation of history had its beginnings with those opposed to the demolition of houses and other buildings that had been the dwelling places of America’s founders and visionaries. In its modern conception, however, it is much more than the simple preservation of things with a physical, architectural presence. As the week’s readings expressed, historic preservation involves the preservation of natural space, in the form of National Parks; historical buildings, monuments, and objects; and even communities. But, as with the presentation of museums and probably more so, historic preservation presents many challenges. What structures and sites merit historic preservation? In what way should those deemed worthy be preserved? Should they be left as is or rehabilitated and reused? These questions and many more swim in the sea of historic preservation and contribute to the gainful employment of at least a portion of public historians.
Most people, whether they are aware of it or not, are practitioners of historic preservation, at least on a small scale. Whenever an individual preserves a family heirloom or any other object that has some sort of nostalgic value to them, they are partaking in historic preservation. As was seen in the film Objects of Memory, objects act as seeds of memory and without those associated memories they mean practically nothing. Because of these associated memories and nostalgic feelings, the meaning and value of an object differs greatly depending on who is viewing it. However, if a particular object or site has meaning for a vast number of people then it moves into consideration for historic preservation on a grand scale. At this point, then, “Historic preservation aims at preserving the past for future generations.” (Cauvin 55).
Mike Wallace, for his take on historic preservation, paints a picture of virtually continuous antagonism between preservationist goals and economic progress. It is rather depressing. In his own words, “The preservationist alliance’s triumph coincided with the collapse—and conversion—of its traditional enemy.” (Wallace 199). The traditional enemy being the so-called growth movement and its practitioners and the collapse here mentioned being the world-wide recession of the seventies. Thus, economic recession is preservations boon. Oh, what a sad state of affairs! Could not historic preservation and economic growth co-exist? To be fair, Wallace does address the times when preservationists used the profit maximizing pursuit of their enemies to their own advantage. However, he seems to portray it as only a delaying of the inevitable. I do not think it has to be this way, in fact, a sort of rolling-with-the-punches attitude is a good one to take when combating perceived enemies. Use your speed and your wits, Little Mac, and you can out-box ‘em! As an example, take Cauvin’s explanation of historic preservation in Japan (Cauvin 58). Here we see how the Japanese reconstructed an 8th century Pagoda that had been destroyed in 1528. To many in the US this may seem futile as reconstructed buildings are not really historical preservations. Nobody wants a cheap knockoff! However, in the account of the Pagoda, the reconstruction process required the Japanese to utilize historical techniques and technologies. Thus, we see a shift in what is actually being preserved: not the building, but the techniques.
Historic preservation is, unquestionably, a worthy pursuit. Preserving an historical building or monument not only allows generations to enjoy the craftsmanship and aesthetic but also it preserves memory and history for use in the present and even the future. And National Parks, though I did not get around to addressing them, are preservations of the natural landscape, and that has value that transcends history. Nature’s good for the soul. We, most certainly, want the NP’s to be preserved.
Time marches on and the environment inevitably changes, so I propose historical preservation be of the order of a living, adapting preservation rather than one that seeks to freeze time. You don’t freeze preserves and you can’t freeze time.
For better or worse, but probably not for the worse, museums are the primary vehicle for conveying history to the public. Did a group of public historians get together one day and decide that museums, as opposed to Obi-Wan Kenobi, were the only hope for an historically enlightened general public? No. But somewhere along the way it got into the minds of people that, should they want to dip their toes in the waters of history, they should take a stroll down to the nearest museum. This, in my opinion, is not a bad thing. Museums supply so many opportunities for the public historian to provide a meaningful, impactful, and well-rounded presentation of history. Which is exactly what we saw in this week’s readings. Mike Wallace, in the selections from Mickey Mouse History, showed how the story of immigration in America is conveyed through museums. Thomas Cauvin, in a selection from Public History a Textbook of Practice, emphasized the benefits and importance of public participation in exhibit creation. And this article and this one articulated the new opportunities, particularly for museum curators that time-traveled from the 90’s, for utilizing technology in museum exhibits.
Despite the fact that there are many options available when deciding how to design and structure a museum, the history presented in the final product can still be lacking. Wallace, in the essay about immigration history in America, discusses a few different museums: two in the base of the Statue of Liberty and the one on Ellis Island. Wallace seemed fairly critical of the American Museum of Immigration, and with good reason. One negative he noted that I took particular interest to was the “nationality-by-nationality approach” the museum took and how it left out certain people groups, “most particularly Asians and South Americans” (Wallace 59). I am under the impression, but certainly correct me if I am wrong, that Asian-Americans are often ignored or neglected in many aspects of history. For example: in political contests it is often discussed what percentage of various demographics a particular candidate or another receives but Asian-Americans are never mentioned. Maybe they are too small a group to have relevance in that situation, but I still feel Asian-Americans are neglected in representation. This may stem from the fact that I have seen, firsthand, discrimination against Asian-Americans. Whoever put that graffiti on my old neighbor’s property, I’m talking about you! Anyway, museums have the potential to discuss and represent many groups, and the ones that do are truly successful.
The selection from Cauvin was all about exhibiting the past and he put a lot of emphasis on utilizing public participation. “In putting visitors at the center of the process, exhibit designers echo the current trend of shared authority in public history.” (Cauvin 142-143). All this talk of public participation reminded me of this post I read last week. It is all about sticky-notes and how they can be a tactile way for visitors to leave thoughts and comments and at the same time contribute to a display. It gets visitors involved just like using podcasts or cell phones for audio tours, but much lower-tech.
As an employee of Spokane County Library District, I have a real-life story about sticky-notes used in much the same way. First of all, libraries are already sort of like museums and the people that work there are like old fossils, so I am well on my way to being a top-notch museum curator. About a year or so ago, we at the library had an exhibit called Human Origins, on loan from the Smithsonian I believe, set up at the North Spokane branch. Honestly, it was kind of in the way, but visitors could walk around and read the little blips of information, look at plastic skulls, and watch videos at various kiosks. At the end of the exhibit there was a display that visitors could cover in sticky-notes. The display asked the question, “What does it mean to be human?” to which the sticky-notes were the thoughts and ideas of the public. I did not see any sticky-notes that said “to be human is to fake your way through life and be a massive failure,” which is good. Mostly, the notes said things like “love” and “friends.” So now you know. There’s a sticky-note of love somewhere with your name on it.
This week’s selection of readings, courtesy of Professor Cebula, proved to be a rather complimentary and interesting bunch. The bulk of the reading was drawn from the intro and first couple chapters of Mike Wallace’s Mickey Mouse History. However, the other readings were just as insightful. Taken as a whole, the readings examined how history is presented to the public and how distortion of said history can be problematic and persistent. In an attempt to make it useful, history is often used to justify a particular culture or perspective. Connections from the present are made to the past and a comfortable interplay is created. What I mean by this is that many people, unmaliciously most likely, get comfortable with a particular recitation of history, Professor Cebula’s Baron Von Munchausen Manager is a good example, and do not want to have their feathers ruffled. To be fair, not all feathers need to be ruffled, but when history is clearly misrepresented or entire aspects left out so as not to offend, then, by all means, ruffle away.
Mike Wallace’s first essay is an examination of American museums and the type of history they promote. His aim is to show that these museums were created by members of the upper-class and thereby depict an interpretation of history that lends support to said class and its goings-on. It should be kept in mind that these people are only enemies of history if they make themselves such. As Wallace said: “I do not contend that those who established museums were Machiavellian plotters; the museum builders simply embedded in their efforts versions of history that were commonplace of their class’s culture” (Wallace 4). So it is that people like Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller Jr. created places like Greenfield Village and Colonial Wiliamsburg respectively. Credit should be given where its due, and places like these could reasonably be considered the birthplace of the American Museum. This, in turn, leads one to wonder where and if these places of historical preservation would have arisen had it not been for these men of societal prominence that possessed rather considerable sums of disposable income. I would tend to think the answer is: there would be no museums. So we have these men to thank. However, as Wallace notes, “Ford’s village was a static utopia” and Wiliamsburg was “Planned, orderly, tidy, with no dirt, no smell, no visible signs of exploitation” (Wallace 12, 15). This is where good public historians step in and offer a few respectful corrections.
Establishing a museum or restoring a property is a valuable contribution to society and a commendable undertaking. With that being said, a denial or suppression of the facts of history in the face of good evidence is questionable and not conductive to a well-rounded understanding of history. However, this is what can be seen in the exchange between Professor Cebula and the Baron Von Munchausen Manager. Professor Cebula points out a few common historical myths such as women marrying at such a young age and the lack of literacy. That second item reminds me of a similar historical myth, that is, indentured servants that came to colonial America were criminals and rejects of society. Not true. In fact, indentured servants were quite skilled and most tended to be literate. But anyway, Professor Cebula, most importantly, notes that “The biggest problem with the interpretation at the Baron Munchausen House was the absence of slavery.” To this, the Baron Von Munchausen Manager says:
I feel that bringing up a hateful subject would
be cruel to the student, who would start hating
the messenger ..details of cruelty is a subject
most people with sensitivity do not want to hear about
amongst other things. Interesting, very interesting. You can’t change the past, even if it’s offensive. Maybe the Baron Von Munchausen Manager didn’t get the memo.
Speaking of changing the past, the near eradication of James Glover’s name form the city of Spokane seems just that in some ways. The Inlander article was very interesting, but at what point do we, as a city, remove someone as influential to the founding of the city as James Glover from public sight? Is a name on a street or a field an acceptance or condoning of disagreeable actions? I don’t think so. I think it’s too much ruffling in this case.