Have you ever stood on a railroad track and seen a freight train in the distance, whistle blowing and diesel wailing, rumbling directly toward you at high-speed? What magnitude of alarm and exhilaration resulted? Did you case the area to plot an escape route? Did you have, if for just an inkling, the desire to stand there and stare it down before leaping to safety? That is how I feel when I contemplate upcoming historical events that will be commemorated in the coming years. Equal parts enthusiasm and dread animate both me and many other historians at the prospect of such events.
I have discussed the problem and challenge of commemorations with many people of late and we all scratch our heads and express reservations about them. Several have said we should ignore commemorations, let others do what they will, but for those of us working in public history there seems to be no way to escape the commemorations. The communities we serve seemed thrilled with commemorations in general and many are tailor-made for hoopla and historicism and perhaps hysteria by various interest groups who seek to turn them to their own ends.
The simple fact is, I don’t see how history professionals, especially those working in the public history world, can escape such events. Perhaps academic historians, too often characterized by “ivory tower” mentalities, will be able to use those ivy covered walls as a defense against those who demand commemoration, but public historians will be left putting together all manner of events and celebrations and exhibits and publications and television documentaries because their clients want such remembrances.
With this as the case, I am convinced that public historians working in the field must leap aboard whatever commemoration train that might be underway and help to drive it. Not to do so, I fear, will lead to being run over by it. With this as the case, my thoughts inevitably flow to the question: “How might I, as a public historian, use the events to be commemorated to accomplish worthwhile objectives not otherwise attainable because of the lack of resources, interest, or resolve?”
Historical commemorations offer an important opportunity to accomplish several related, and I believe, worthy ends for members of the historical profession, but they also harbor pitfalls that must be negotiated based largely on the difficulties of dealing with multiple communities with differing identities. All of these are connected to the three broad goals of collecting, preserving, and disseminating history. As such, they correlate to what I consider the core responsibility of any historical professional, the planning of educational, civic, and commemorative activities that both furthers the collective memory of the event and adheres to the highest standards of the profession.
Most of those who work in the historical profession—whether they are in museums, the various levels of government, the corporate world, historical societies, or in colleges and universities—have a marvelous opportunity to put into place strategies for collecting, preserving, and disseminating historical knowledge about the events being commemorated. Among the broad themes to be emphasized, I view the following as the most fruitful for historical emphasis during any commemoration:
- Collect additional information about the commemorated events through a variety of projects ranging from oral histories and documentary projects.
- Preserve historical documentation and physical artifacts about the events.
- Educate the public about the historical events through a variety of publications, events, and other projects.
- Highlight the importance of the subject in the United States.
- Learn about the roots of the events commemorated and appreciate that unique heritage.
- Show the manner in which the events commemorated has changed the lives of people today.
- Re-ignite public enthusiasm for the events and historical exploration.
But commemorative events may easily turn sour, because the commemorations are given meaning by interest groups who may want to engage in identity politics using them. The proactivity of the historical profession in turning them to the advantage of historical understanding will probably mean the difference between whether these commemorations will be a good or a negative development.
I much prefer the first of these two options and I believe that the more concrete efforts that can be put into place before that inevitable day when senior leaders turn and ask what is being done to commemorate some event, the greater likelihood of staving off less-than-worthwhile activities dreamed up by others and of concentrating efforts on projects useful for the expansion of historical knowledge.
I have many more thoughts on this subject that I intend to explore in future posts. Stay tuned, but also, please let me know your thoughts on this subject.