The Opportunity and Challenge of Historical Commemoration

Re-enactors recreate the surrender of Fort Sumter from Federal to Confederate troops Thursday, April 14, 2011 at Fort Sumter National Monument, S.C. Blacks have mostly stayed away from Civil War commemorations, but the National Park Service is trying to make the celebrations more accommodating. (AP Photo/The Post And Courier, Alan Hawes)

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.

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5 Responses to The Opportunity and Challenge of Historical Commemoration

  1. Tim says:

    Roger – Great post! Having worked at the center of the Lewis and Clark bicentennial commemoration, I have some first-hand experience. I was encouraged by several advisors to seize the opportunity to work on a high-profile project like this as an excellent learning experience. I was not disappointed. It had everything you mention above. What struck me most about it was the opportunity it gave the team that developed the bicentennial exhibition to increase awareness and educate millions about the different tribal perspsectives of the L&C expedition. The time was right to offer dual perspectives of the expedition: the view from the river and the view from the river bank (as our curator liked to describe it). We worked with tribal advisors and I’m sure we ultimately changed some attitudes. My biggest regret is that we did not have funds to do a summative evaluation to see if we managed to change attitudes. Would I work on another commemorative event again? That depends on many factors. I will most surely be drawn into some in the future, as will you, and I’m not sure it’s a bad thing.


    • launiusr says:

      Tim, thanks so much. I have thouht for some time that it might be an interesting experience to write a handbook to commemorations for the historical professional. It’s always a challenge to work through this, but its also quite rewarding in many ways.


  2. I am fortunate to volunteer at the National World War II Museum here in New Orleans. I believe the facility has performed brilliantly in aiming for and achieving the goals you mention for the commemoration of public history. The museum has the benefit of commemorating a historical era that is nearly universally looked upon in a positive light. Yet the professionals and volunteers there have worked hard to present all facets of the war including the round-up and internment in concentration camps of the Japanese-Americans (Nisei), how African-Americans faced bigotry and racism at home and in service, the many contributions of women to the war effort, the geo-political causes of WWII and so on. But I have seen a troubling trend of extreme Conservatives to attempt to appropriate the myth of WWII and the legitimacy of our museum to support their social, political and religious agenda. We hosted then Vice-President Dick Cheney for an event in 2004 and you would have thought the museum had turned into GOP HQ with all of the important Republican players and government official who attended. The rhetoric presented was hard to swallow that our nation had “lost” our way due to perfidious liberals and godless secularism and that we needed to return to the “good” values practiced by the Greatest Generation during WWII who we know were all right-wing Conservative Republican fundamentalist Christians. We have had other events with a very conservative theme/group but the Cheney event was by far the worst with the most historical revisionism i have ever experienced in person. So I appreciate you laying out point by point just how to avoid having history hijacked for a partisan agenda. I don’t want to insinuate that all of the criticism has been about being too identified with conservative causes. When HBO came out with “The Pacific” mini-series and we had visits from Tom Hanks, Spielberg, and many of the cast of the mini-series, the museum was accused by many on the right of being revisionists by portraying the Marines fight in the Pacific as barbaric showing numerous atrocities committed by Marines against the Japanese on the battlefield. While the script was based on the writings/experiences of several Marines there was still assertions made that we had a “liberal Hollywood agenda” to slander these Marines by showing the reality of what happened in the fight to take these islands from the Japanese. It was very frustrating to read this criticism because my grandfather was a veteran of the fighting in the Pacific with the 6th Marines. He said it was a vicious, take no prisoners fight to the death with the Japanese and I have no reason to believe he or these other Marines were lying about their experiences. Going into this field I never knew it could be so controversial. The fight for our collective memory is a very volatile pursuit but well worth doing right.


  3. Pingback: Indedpendence Day Commemorations « collectionsconversations

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