By Avi Decter and Ken Yellis
If you cannot find the road, then you make a new one.
Interpretation is not information; it is provocation.
At present, history organizations are increasingly faced by what Ronald Heifetz in Leadership Without Easy Answers (1998) distinguishes as “adaptive challenges”―those for which there is no established solution, no clear path forward, and no external consultant who can offer tried-and-true remedies. Adaptive challenges are hard to address “because they demand of organizational leaders that they question their own ingrained assumptions, admit contrary evidence, and deviate from established behavioral comfort zones.” Moreover, embracing an adaptive approach entails new risks with unknown outcomes.
Even so, we have little choice: we can shape the emerging “next practice” or have something considerably less appealing imposed on us. President Trump’s September 17, 2020, speech on history education at the National Archives foreshadows what might be in store for us if history museums and the museum field generally do not find ways to be more proactive and more vocal in this critical national struggle for ownership of the national story.
The stakes in that struggle could not be higher, as the Organization of American Historians’ September 25 rebuttal to Trump’s address makes crystal clear. The OAH statement characterized the President’s effort to return history to a narrow, celebratory story as an effort to “restrict historical pedagogy, stifle deliberative discussion, and take us back to an earlier era characterized by a limited vision of the U.S. past.” What is at stake is our sense of who we are as a people and as a nation, as individuals and as members of community.
Without an open, honest, and realistic understanding of where we have been and where we are now, we will find it hard to move into an uncertain future with a sense of common purpose.
In this time of crisis, our history organizations will need to adapt to novelty. We are living in a time of unprecedented crisis and change in American life. The pandemic, economic dislocation, social protest, natural disasters, and a divisive national election are having profound effects on our history organizations―and on our historical narratives. The historiography of America, the bedrock of our narratives, is being re-thought amid changing circumstances. Our collective history and the purpose of our historical organizations is in play. We therefore need to re-consider our priorities and our narratives. We cannot stay with what has been—til now—considered a safe, agreed-upon national narrative; considered safe and agreed-upon, that is, by the privileged.
Instead, our history organizations will need to assert in new ways our commitment to civic culture and civic engagement. Best practice, a remarkably vacuous idea, will have to give way to “next practice” and new narratives. Anything less is likely to lead to short-term frustration and long-term failure. As has been observed, “Repeating the same behavior under changing circumstances leads to a muddle.” We’ve already arrived at the muddle stage. Our job now is to work on a “next” iteration of practice that looks to the future for the field at large. This entails the development of new kinds of organizational structure and new ways of interpreting our shared histories with methods and strategies that may take us out of our comfort zones.
Embedded in our national narratives are myriad specific stories and a multitude of individual and communal voices. And there are more to come: as the writer and translator Maria Dahvana Headley has observed: “There are also stories that haven’t yet been reckoned with, stories hidden within the stories we think we know. It takes new readers, writers, and scholars to find them, people whose experiences, identities, and intellects span the full spectrum of humanity, not a just a slice of it.”
We are not advocating for any particular storyline. Instead, we propose that history organizations consider three broad approaches in developing their historical narratives. One is to focus on a more critical, inclusive past, which will entail the telling of many untold stories. The second is to emphasize the importance of individual agency in history by talking about a wide range of community activists. A third approach will be to use the lens of crisis to explore the limits of community at the local, regional, and national levels.
Critical, inclusive stories: Alan Taylor, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, opens his book American Colonies (2001) by declaring that “the traditional story of American uplift excludes too many people.” Moreover he argues, “Indian deaths and African slavery were fundamental to colonization.” In short, American history begins in two tragedies—genocide and slavery. If we are intent on promoting an authentic understanding of America’s history and culture, then we are going to have to address difficult subjects and challenging stories, among them stories of suffering, pain, and loss. But if we want fresh, accurate perspectives on our past and present, then we will need to engage and comprehend a host of little-known stories, many of them unpleasant and disturbing.
Individual agency in history: This time of crisis is forcing most Americans to make a wide range of choices, about family and home life, work and schooling, personal and political priorities. But ours is not the first generation of Americans who have confronted difficult situations and hard choices. In fact, individual choice is one of the key tropes of our historical narratives. As David Hackett Fischer, also a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes in Washington’s Crossing (2004), history is about “people making choices, and choices making a difference in the world.” It is therefore one of our primary responsibilities to construct interpretive narratives that tell “a story of real choices that living people actually made.” And one of the easiest ways to do this is to tell the stories of the community activists who are present everywhere and at all times. By emphasizing individual agency—from registering to vote to marching in protest—our history organizations can explore pressing issues while encouraging active participation in civic affairs.
Looking at history through the lens of crisis: The present moment is not the first time that Americans have confronted a wide range of crises. Epidemics (cholera, influenza, smallpox, polio) natural disasters (floods and fires, tornadoes and hurricanes), and wars and depressions punctuate American history. By looking back at these past crises, we can see what roles the governmental and private sectors, institutions and individuals played in specific circumstances. We can see what worked and what didn’t. And, perhaps most importantly, we can see how each crisis defined our communities—that is, as Charles King puts it in Gods of the Upper Air (2020), “the web of beings who deserve our ethical conduct, whatever we deem ethical conduct to be.” In every crisis, some are succored, others ignored. By looking at our past responses to crisis we can learn how we have defined the limits of “community” in different ways at different times.
For the most part, visitors come to our museums and sites looking for confirmation not provocation, nostalgia not new understanding, and reassurance not challenges. We will want to consider a somewhat different view of what it means to engage history. Encountering people in historical circumstances―talking and thinking about where historical characters were and how they reacted to their situations―is a humanistic endeavor. As we understand more about the diversity of human experiences and as we accumulate more strategies for thinking about those experiences, we generally (though not always) develop a degree of empathy for others (or even The Other). As we learn about the choices that people have made in history, we begin to understand contingency and agency. And as we encounter the welter of circumstances in which all people, then and now, function, we begin to develop an appreciation for the complex challenges of our own time and place. This is not easy knowledge, but its power can be affirming, liberating, and empowering.
Avi Decter ([email protected]), principal of History Now, has worked in public history for over forty years, and is the author of Interpreting American Jewish History at Museums and Historic Sites. His many projects include the Boott Cotton Mill at Lowell National Historical Park; the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum; Louisville Slugger Museum and Visitor Center; and the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Ken Yellis ([email protected]), principal of Project Development Services, is a historian with four decades in the museum field. Yellis has worked extensively with the Museum Education Roundtable, Roundtable Reports and its successor, the Journal of Museum Education. He has been involved in over a hundred history, science, and art exhibitions.