Making a Public Historian: The Contract

This year for my course on the Practice of Public History we’ve introduced Master Classes, which have given our students the opportunity to learn directly from some of the best practitioners in the field.  But because I want to make sure that my folks understand that public historians practice their craft in a dizzying variety of contexts, often far away from museums and historic sites, our presenters this term have been documentarians, broadcasters, and authors: Ric Burns, Susan Swain, and Tony Horwitz, so far.  The best Master Classes, of course, are those in which everyone learns, including the instructor, and ours have borne out the truth of that statement, as Ric, Susan, and Tony have augmented our reading, thinking, and discussions in considerable ways.  That’s especially true because this semester we set ourselves the collective task of constructing a more effective vocabulary for talking about and explaining just what public history is and, more to the point, how it should be done.

One of the most striking concepts to emerge from our Master Classes has been that of the contract that exists between public historians and their audiences.  We had spent weeks talking around it, with the occasional rhetorical dive into the duty of the public historian to historical truth.  We read James Sheehan’s principles of historical practice and Rolph Truoillot’s exploration of “pastness” and the importance of narrative, along with various descriptions of connecting theory to practice in books like the Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums and others.  We’ve had a number of conversations about the unspoken promise that public historians make with their guests, at a museum or historic site or even through a website, about the underlying integrity of their information and interpretation.  And I’ve shared one (or six) too many stories of my own experience about learning to be a public historian from some of the best in the business, a tutelage that always impressed on me the signal importance of “getting it right,” and then learning how to make that education engaging, even entertaining.

But words like “duty” and “promise” can be pretty vague, which is why I was struck by the succinct and subtle power of the word “contract” and how it applies to a public historian, as described by Ric Burns during his Master Class last week. Ric, as one of America’s premier documentarians, explained the intellectual framework that guides his craft and that should apply to everyone in the “guild” of historical storytellers, all of us in the business of explaining the past to the present.  Ric has an implied contract with his audiences that every scene he puts on the screen, every talking head he puts in front of their eyes, and every fact that supports his narrative are true to historical method.  Given the extraordinary, even visceral power of the medium of film to inform and persuade about our historical memory, Ric recognizes and is shaped by the tremendous responsibility that imposes on us to, first and foremost, do no harm in mishaping that perspective for others, and to further ensure that it accurately adds to our understanding of people who can longer speak for themselves.  It’s a contract between him and the audience that what they see will be historically correct, insofar as he is able to deploy every resource to ensure it.  It’s a high standard, but one that separates the historical documentarian and author from the narrative filmmaker and the novelist, who can invent.  We cannot invent, but only fill in the gaps of what we don’t know with the most informed and authentic of imaginations.  We can evoke, but not create.  Moreover, there is considerable power in breaking that contract, crossing that invisible yet critical line, because — as Colleen Dilenscheider reminds us — mission, integrity, and reputation are our greatest, but most delicate, assets, and once lost, for our guests and donors, almost impossible to regain.

Susan Swain reinforced this notion in her Master Class on Tuesday by explaining the seriousness with which the entire team at C-SPAN — which really should be called the Public History Channel, given the nature and scope of their historical programming, from a series like Landmark Cases to highlighting small museums and artifact collections on their famous traveling buses.  C-SPAN’s rigorously mission-based approach to all projects depends on fairness, transparency, a commitment to not distort any viewpoint, and a devotion to public involvement (not a bad rubric for the practice of a public historian).  And that demands accountability, from staff as well as audiences, to hold them to their core mission, because, again, any departure from it — even by a camera operator — could undermine confidence in the entire venture, and invite erosion of support.

These two complementary examples, which reinforce our readings and discussions, have made a considerable impression on me as both an academic historian who works on loyalists in the American Revolution and as a public historian who attempts to help heritage sites develop survival strategies.  And I hope it has helped sharpen the focus of my students — all of whom are in the midst of writing their own contracts as an assignment.  But it is on the side of accountability that has the broader utility of the contract, whenever any of us sees a historical program or visits a heritage site.  How do they represent the contract? How much are they willing to bend its terms, or ignore them altogether?  Is “accurate-ish” an acceptable standard for an institution ostensibly committed to helping the future learn from the past or is everything up for grabs, including historical standards, when faced with declining revenue?  Or, upon breaking the contract, in furtherance of whatever other goals, should the words “history” and “heritage” be revoked, or at least put into inverted commas, when applied, or misapplied, to an organization?  That is a question for audiences to ask, and a valuable one at that.  And that, perhaps, is what makes, and breaks, a public historian.