Saturday, April 10, 2010

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Public History and Engaging in the Historian's Craft

by Cynthia Wallace-Casey
PhD Student, University of New Brunswick

“We don't see things as they are; we see them as we are.”      (Anaïs Nin, 1903-1977)

In the fourth season of “The Sopranos”, Anthony junior sits at the kitchen counter of the family home, reading to his parents a history book about Christopher Columbus. His father, Tony Soprano, becomes increasingly more agitated as he realizes that his son’s version of history challenges his own well-established concepts about the “great Italian hero”.

“Your teacher told you that?” he asks his son; to which A.J. replies: “It’s not just my teacher, it’s the truth! It’s in my history book.”

In this postmodernist age, historians are ever challenged in their pursuit of “the truth”. For public historians, this challenge becomes even more complicated as we engage a third dimension to our quest: trying to understand our audience and their perceptions. In the end, we find that “the truth” is nothing more than our interpretation of events and it is an ever changing, ever evading, ideal.

The Past versus History
The past is not history. The past is merely a series of random events. History is the study of these random events, and historians try to make sense of the past by adopting standardized methods of historical inquiry that strive to achieve some measure of objectivity. Like truth, objectivity is an ideal that is sought but never fully achieved. Included in this historical inquiry are basic tools that allow the historian to: establish historical significance; examine primary as well as secondary evidence; identify continuity and change; analyze cause and consequence; establish historical perspectives; and ultimately understand moral dimensions of the past. Historians interpret the past, and in so doing they realize that their interpretations are shaped by their own biases and interests – but, in the words of Margaret Conrad, a good historian strives “to examine their own motivations, take pains to understand the context of earlier efforts to write the history of their topic, and concede that exploring the past from a variety of perspectives is the closest they can come to the ideal of objectivity.” This is the historian’s craft, and it is the pursuit of an elusive objective history that (I believe) differentiates the amateur from the professional.

In New Brunswick, written history – in the European sense of the term – was first introduced to the region by early explorers. The ancestral people of this region - Mik'maq, Wolastoqiyik and Passamaquoddy - all communicated through picture-writing known as gomgwejui'gaqan (Mik'maq), wikhegan (Wolastoqiyik), and wikhikon (Passamaquoddy), although this form of written history has not been fully appreciated as a documentary source. North America’s first European historian, Marc Lescarbot, visited Saint Croix Island, as well as the river St. John, in 1607 and upon his return to France, published a three-volume Histoire de la Nouvelle-France in Paris in 1609. Four years later, Samuel de Champlain also published his journals in France, and in 1672, Nicolas Denys published a two-volume Description géographique et historique des costes de l'Amérique septentrionale avec l'histoire naturelle du paèis, which was written while he resided in Nepisiguit (present-day Bathurst). These first histories were in keeping with the genre of the time, and were (for the most part) narrative travel accounts written for the purpose of promoting the “new world” in Europe. Today, these documents (although recognized as extremely biased and ethnocentric in their perspective) are valued by historians - not as histories, but as primary resources - for their insights into the authors’ activities and encounters with First Nations culture. With the distance of time, we’re able to recognize that such history books are not guardians of the truth, but merely representations of a unique perspective on the past, presented with the ethical intent of stating the truth as seen through the authors' eyes.

Professional versus Amateur Historians
Until the end of the nineteenth century, historians in Canada were (for the most part) educated amateurs “who came to the field out of enthusiasm rather than any formal training”. Increasingly, universities began offering courses in history and the emerging new academic history emphasized archival research, document analysis, and detailed accuracy with the objective of presenting the past “exactly as it was”. The lines of professionalism became very clear, as universities established independent disciplines of history, and researchers were expected to be more accountable for their work. In New Brunswick, the work of historians such as William F. Ganong (1864-1941), John C. Webster (1863-1950) and Pascal Poirier (1852-1933), although noble in their efforts, fell within the realm of educated amateur “hobbyists”, since they did not have academic training in their field, and history was secondary to their “true” professions.

Outside the academic field, however, professional public historians were finding their niche. Perhaps Placide Gaudet (1850-1930) could be considered New Brunswick’s first public historian, when in 1898 he secured a full-time contract with the Public Archives of Canada and eventually gained a staff position there as genealogist. Likewise, Dr. Alfred G. Bailey (1905-1997) can be considered New Brunswick’s first professional academic historian. Trained at the University of Toronto, Dr. Bailey began his career in public history as a curator at the New Brunswick Museum in 1935, and then became head of the newly established department of History at the University of New Brunswick in 1938. These individuals were pioneers in their profession, and marked the rise of a trend within New Brunswick towards the pursuit of the past as more than just a hobby.

With time, many more academically trained historians found work in public history, within such institutions as the New Brunswick Museum (1842), Parks Canada (1950), Historical and Cultural Resources (1960 - present-day Heritage Branch), Musée acadien de l’Université de Moncton (1963), Centre d’études acadiennes (1968), Provincial Archives of New Brunswick (1968), Kings Landing Historical Settlement (1974), Village Historique Acadien (1977), and Metepenagiag Heritage Park (2007). Countless others have also found opportunities to volunteer their academic training to the hundreds of small museums and heritage preservation projects operating within all corners of the province.

By the late 1980’s, public history institutions were being called upon to be more accountable to their public funding sources. Pushed to operate more like a “business”, these institutions turned a great deal of their attention to public programming as a means of generating visitor revenue. In turn, the visiting public became much more discerning in their expectations, and so public historians faced new challenges in meeting the needs of their audiences.

The Role of a Public Historian
In essence, Margaret Conrad defines the difference between public and academic historians as resting in the manner of delivery and audience:

Academic historians research, write, and teach in university settings, often – but not exclusively – for each other; public historians also research, write, and teach, but they perform these tasks outside of a university milieu, often use methods other than written texts for presenting their work, and usually address a more diversified audience.

The key term in this statement is “diversified audience”. This (I believe) sets public historians apart from other professional historians. For although public historians work within the same standards of historical inquiry, there is a third dimension to their discipline – that of the recipient of the information and their perceptions about the past. It is not enough to simply present history; the public historian must know their receiving audience, know how they absorb information, and know how to deliver the information in a manner that is specific to their intellectual needs. When public history is practiced well, it is not enough to simply present an interpretation of the past; one must be able to guide the recipient through a process of valid historical inquiry – to engage them in the historian’s craft; enable them to reach their own conclusions; and (ultimately) guide them to their own understanding of what they hold as “true”.
Such an ideal is extremely difficult to achieve – and within the realm of public history, sets the professional apart from the amateur.