Contested Public History and Public Engagement

The Spring 2014 issue of The Public Historian focused on contested histories, addressing controversy through public history, and the relationship of controversy and commemoration.  Christine Reiser Robbins and Mark W. Robbins’ piece “Engaging the contested Memory of the Public Square, Community Collaboration, Archaeology, and Oral History at Corpus Christi’s Artesian Park” is an excellent example of the challenges and potential benefits of tackling contested histories, issues of identity, and public input.

The article uses the case study of Corpus Christi’s Artesian Park to highlight the potential of using community engaged methods and collaborative designs that integrate oral history, archaeology, and archival research to build historical narratives.

The history of the Artesian Park and its commemoration has been filled with controversy.  In 1975 and 2002 attempts to commemorate the the park were filled with community disputes, disagreements of interpretation, and debated history.

In 2012 a public archeology and oral history project was launched in the community to focus on expanding historical narratives relating to the Park.  The project highlighted the possibility of creating a new narrative that combines personal histories, civic history/myth, and national narratives.  And the results showed the diversity in experiences and histories relating to the park. 

Christine Reiser Robbins and Mark W. Robbins’ argue that “engaged public history frameworks that are community driven and incorporate multiple methodologies can be a ‘source of empowerment’ in the pursuit of more open and contested cultural heritage.”  This project was open to all segments of the community which allowed for a range of participation and an increased understanding of the community itself and the history of the park.  The project also allowed for “new relationships to the place and to the community to be formed.”

This case study is a great example of the importance of community participation, collaboration, and the integration of multiple narratives into historical interpretation.  The long held nostalgic civic histories of the Park represent only a portion of the complete heritage of the Artesian Park.  Community collaboration and community input is crucial when addressing heritage the is contested and deeply community rooted.  Public history projects have the potential to bring together communities and start conversations relating to heritage and broader community issues.

Fear of Losinig Our Past

A speaker I heard recently spoke about FLOP as a concept which shapes our lives, identifies, and conceptions of history.  The popularity of the FLOP acronym is debatable. But the concept behind the acronym is an interesting one and closely relates to constructions of the past.  Fear of Losing Our Past (FLOP) can impact what is saved, how things are remembered, commemoration, and history generally.

On a personal history level, fear and an overwhelming desire to preserve family history and personally important historical moments can contribute to nostalgia and myth making. I’m inclined to say that fear of losing the past can result in people acting like pack-rats or hoarders.  This hoarding might root from a fear that something important is going to be forgotten or that you can’t throw something out because it will result in the destruction of the past. Most archivists and heritage professionals will attest to the fact that it’s not practical to keep everything and not everything is worth keeping.

More importantly, the idea of FLOP brought to mind the idea of how historical narratives are created.  Our conception of history isn’t perfect.  Memory is fallible and often what we know of the past is limited by what has been saved and what sources are available.  National histories, heroic battles, and heart warming local history moments are all written, constructed, and created by somebody.  Good histories are balanced and look at the past from multiple vantage points. But, how history is presented can change and interpretations of the past are not enshrined in stone.  Just look at how the discipline of social history has developed and many narratives have moved away from the once standard history of great white men.

Does the average museum visitor or average consumer of popular history realize the process that goes into presenting the past for consumption?  I hope so, but I’m not so sure.  Even if the museum exhibit or book is factual and well rounded, it is impossible to present every historical detail in any work.  Historical narratives are made through selection and by selection’s very nature things are left out.  No matter how accurate record keeping and oral history accounts are, our conceptions of the past are often imperfect and how we view the past is constantly evolving.

Capturing 2010

December 15th’s #reverb10 prompt:

5 minutes. Imagine you will completely lose your memory of 2010 in five minutes. Set an alarm for five minutes and capture the things you most want to remember about 2010.

I have so many worthwhile heritage memories from this year, but these are the ones that I thought of in the five minute limit:

-The connections I’ve made in the heritage field.
-The kindness of those involved with the CDP and OurOntario
-The image of my parents dressed up in historical costumes during our visit to Fort St. Joseph.
-The skills I’ve learned this year — project documentation, administration, and employee management techniques
-How the Sault canal looked when completely drained of water.
-The feeling of joy I had when I found out about my new job.
-My appreciation of natural heritage, particularly seeing the Agawa Canyon, the view from the Terry Fox memorial, and everything involving Basswood Lake.
-The support from friends and family when venturing into new territory, be it physically moving or taking on a new project.
-The small town moments: a community day parade that was mostly ATVs, a sign that boasts the fact that the KFC can seat forty people, hand delivered mail, a northern Ontario fish fry, and people saying hi to everyone they see on the street.
-Presenting at a conference isn’t as scary as it seems.
-The most frustrating problems often contribute the most rewarding successes.
-My foray into community history and heritage.

Day 2: Memory and Commemoration

The two sessions which I attended on Tuesday morning both contained an emphasis on commemoration and the act of remembering. Commemoration is something which appeals to both historians and the general public, and is something which public historians can play a role in.

Session 1–Private Voices, Public Display. All three presenters examined history’s role in presenting the memory of individuals. Katherine J. Taylor examined “War Bride Commemoration” and the way in which commemorative events impact the way in which people remember. Taylor suggested that memory was greatly impacted by place, people, and that collective memory was often created by the gathering of groups. Similarly, Jennifer Wilhelm examined the NFB film “City of Gold.” This film examined the Yukon and created a specific gendered and racialized interpretation of the past. Both Wilhelm’s and Susan L. Joudrey’s papers highlighted the constructed nature of history. Joudrey examined the Indian Village at the Calgary Stampede and the way in which heritage was used as tourism. The use as history in popular film, or history as tourism is something which is still prevalent in today’s society and which public historians play a large role in.

Session 2–Memory and Authority in the North Atlantic World. All of the presenters in this panel examined different aspects of memory. Chris Tait looked at the way in which the 24th of May became a holiday, and the impact of the tensions between imperialism and Independence played on the holiday. Both Lee Slinger and Valeries Deacon examined memory in France. Slinger looked at how the PCF employed the memory of the revolution of 1789 to encourage communism in 1939. Whereas, Deacon examined the act of forgetting in France, and the degree to which people have often forgotten the participants in the French Revolution who belonged to the political right. Overall, this session linked subtantial events in our past to the act of commemoration and memory, it highlighted the impact whcih memory can have on political events and society in general.

Remembrance in the Media.

The Globe and Mail in the days leading up to Remembrance Day has included a feature called Dear Sweetheart: Letters Home from a Solider. The letters are from Canadian David K. Hazzard to his wife Audrey, he wrote over a 100 letters in total to her. The letters are very personal, emotional and serve to highlight the trials which numerous soldiers went through. Letters by Hazzard and other soldiers are a valuable way of examining the War and serve as a very emotional type of commemoration.

In addition to the Globe and Mail series, pretty much any media outlet you can think of has done some type of feature on Remembrance Day. History Television is currently airing a Week of Remembrance which focuses on various nationally defining battles and Canadian trials in the war. Similarly the CBC had both television and digital representations of Remembrance Day ceremonies and the CBC Digital Archives has a number of recommended videos on Canada Remembering.

With the amount of accessible information I hope everyone took at least a moment to think about the role which War has had in forging the history of our country and to remember the sacrifice of those who believed in something bigger than themselves.