Readings this week:
Cauvin: pp 107-126
Rosenzweig and Thelen: The Presence of the Past, Introduction, Chapter 1
How do regular people interact with history? What is the amount of time an average person spends in their personal life thinking about the past? What is the extent to which the past features in someone’s sense of self and identity? These types of questions are important ones to answer for public historians, to bring the past to the present, to make it relevant to people’s presently lived experiences and to democratize historical interpretations on subjects.
There are of course many different approaches that a public historian can take and this weeks reading from Cavin focuses on public history writing with an interesting intro section that talks about three issues that pervade the different fields of public history: “interpretation, fiction and sustainability (through protection and fundraising).” (p.107) I found the intro section on historical fiction a really great base on what general principles a public historian should keep in mind when writing or working on a project that is historical fiction. When creating historical fiction know that it is impossible achieve a level of detail about a historical subject or era to the same extent that an academic book would be able to. The goal is to “create a filmic reality that allows the audience to believe a story as if it were true.” (p. 109) On the other hand you have to depict something that is plausible and to do that you need to make it as historically accurate as possible which also requires a lot of historical research on subjects that may not be well documented like common everyday tasks. In addition to these principles Cauvin describes how public historians should write for a mass nonspecialist audience, small words, straight to the point and so on. A important point that Cauvin makes on historical fiction is that this approach calls for creative and entertaining writing which is not exactly easily found in the academy. A important note to mention is that historical fiction is not limited to novels, tv or movies but also includes forms like children’s books, comics, graphic novels and digital public history platforms like wikipedia and blogs.
The other reading this week deals with the questions at the top of the blog post and how a group of academic historians struggling with how to connect to wider audiences realized that they did not know “how people outside their own circles understood and used the past.” (p.2) From this seed came the idea that a survey of Americans would allow them to find out “how people used the past in their daily lives, to map out patterns and to define starting points for deeper investigations.”(p.3) The book Presence of the Past is the result of that survey and its first chapter is sort of a broad overview of what they learned, with the other chapters focusing on specific themes that emerged. One of the big things that they learned from this survey was that the past features prominently in American’s lives, that what makes them interested in history is less national narratives but rather familial and intimate memories. A common theme from the survey responses, which were conducted through interviews over the phone, was that someone’s entry point in being interested in the past came through those types of connections or events. A relative’s hobby of collecting coins or a family reunion is a common way for people to connect with the past. What was also interesting was how common it was for these same people who in some cases had a very intense interest in the past were bored, not interested or thought it irrelevant when they were taught history in school. To relate a personal example, I basically do not remember at all the contents of my required Pacific Northwest History class that I had to take in high school other than I, and the rest of my classmates, were forced to write and perform a rap song to pass. The larger point still stands however, most people experience things personally and for most people traditional historical narratives seem very far removed. It is the task of the public historians to bridge that gap and engage in a conversion with the public about the past.