I unintentionally anticipated this post in my previous post (I should read ahead, but it’s hard to do that when you already feel/actually are behind).
In many ways, I feel like the process and vision for public history/humanities articulated by Tchen is and should be the gold standard. The chapter even concludes by invoking Freire. What is also apparent from Tchen’s essay is the enormous and ongoing amount of thinking, discussion, reflection, and work that goes into creating a truly dialogic museum or exhibition. If Tchen’s piece felt more like it laid out the overarching philosophy and goals of public history, Corbett and Miller’s essay, with its abundance of examples from the Missouri Historical Society, worked to ground this philosophy and these goals in real-life projects. Despite focusing on exhibitions created by the MHS, Corbett and Miller reject the theory vs. practice divide and foreground the ideals espoused by Tchen in their discussion of the MHS projects. This essay really stuck with me, as I think my proposed project sort of centers on the tension they identify: “The stories public historians want to tell are sometimes not the stories the public wants to hear” (p. 22).They note that “Community history thrives in situations where people feel comfortable enough to confront their own pasts and share with others” (p. 24), but what happens when that comfort doesn’t exist?
Corbett and Miller describe a series of projects and point out where they felt each project was successful and not so successful, for both the public and the historian. This is valuable because it really demonstrates how one exhibition cannot be all the things to all the people, and that that is fine. Their discussion of Through the Eyes of a Child was empowering for the African American community, but not as critical as they desired: “The choices of theme, and the primary sources themselves, worked against critical class and gender analysis because the interviewers elicited memories of childhood, recollections always prone to nostalgia” (p. 30). Their final example, of the World’s Fair exhibition, also points out how the public can, ultimately, choose not to meaningfully engage.
My proposed project seeks to foster audience engagement by asking the community of users to create a collection of items related to the history of Old Redford. Due to massive demographic changes between 1950 and the present, users are dispersed, although current residents of the neighborhood are also potential (and perhaps current users). This collection also needs to be built by the former community because it is one of many neighborhoods in Detroit, which is very large in terms of area and used to be very large in terms of population. While institutions such as Wayne State University and the Detroit Historical Society do collect materials about the history of Detroit, including Old Redford, they do not focus on it. And there is clearly interest in it – the Facebook group has about 3,300 members and steady activity within it everyday. Members take photos, find images online, create movies and slideshows, conduct research, scan books, relate stories, and look for former friends and neighbors. My proposed project wants to help organize all of this effort into an organized and searchable collection so that other users can search or browse for materials they’re interested in.
The infrastructure for that collection will be my creation, but I also want to bring the “broader story” that encompasses the many smaller stories told by users to the site somehow. This is where Corbett and Miller’s essay particularly speaks to me, since many residents of Detroit and its suburbs already have a broader story, and often that broader story is not just uncritical but racist. How does the public historian negotiate, reflexively engage, and co-create in this sort of context? This broader story is deeply believed and widely held; I’ve encountered it in my own family and acquaintances. To some extent, as a working-class white person, I get why it is deeply believed and widely held, but if historians are to some extent responsible for “accuracy,” how can I responsibly ignore it? The current Facebook group users are not particularly interested in accuracy (some are, this is a generalization) and often reiterate this dominant story in their posts. In many ways, this story prevents or inhibits connections to current residents and like Frisch, I do think that face-to-face dialogue is valuable and should be encouraged if there is interest.
I don’t want this project to be entirely “raw” in Frisch’s metaphor, but I do need to think more on how to incorporate something cooked, that broader story, responsibility if not authority. My initial thought was some sort of resource list so that users could seek out other resources if they chose to, but I am open to suggestions.