Pebble Hill

The house is less of a historic house museum and more of just a house that has history. Honestly, I think they should either really dedicate some time and energy into introducing period pieces that have a sense of cohesion and story than just an assortment of furniture that the donors don’t want or don’t mind parting with. I think the anarchic approach seems the most logical unless there is a significant change of heart with the donors.

The possibilities really are endless if they decided to take a more anarchistic, public-oriented approach. Plus, I think one could convince the donors that the more people that come means more people appreciating the house which may eventually lend itself to them being more generous. I think a very interesting and easy idea would be to use the new building to teach a class like Public History or for Dr. Noe’s Civil War class. It could also be a great spot for graduate classes since a lot of grad students tend to commute and it has easy parking. It would be wonderful if they could use it as a study space during finals/a normal workweek for the surrounding apartments. They shouldn’t underestimate the power of convenience in the average college student for things like this. I also think that a nice little coffee or food truck could be placed there during the week simply to draw the surrounding college students and business people there for lunch or dinner on a pleasant afternoon or evening. Plus the use of food truck wouldn’t tie the house to a specific restaurant and the food trucks could be interchanged for necessity or variety. I could see it being home for small art shows or concerts because it has a good spot, being right on the border of communal/family living, for connecting college kids with the parents and real people that actually live in Auburn. Plus a lot of this could take place on the front lawn, in full view of the house and highly visible for passersby to join the fun. But the house doesn’t really feel like it has much to say from a historical perspective. Yes the house has history but it doesn’t feel all that connected to the history because it’s not furnished in an original period and the history of the house isn’t terribly compelling. I think they are better served getting to appreciate the house as a more abstract representation of our past and as a unique and somewhat rare example of antebellum architecture (I can’t remember exactly what style it is). I don’t see much correlation between its historic interpretation and its current use. I’m also not sure there is much, if any obvious historic interpretation being presented by the house.

Responsibilities of a Public Historian?

What are the responsibilities of a public historian in these turbulent days of “fake news” and disturbing games of “Choose Your Own Facts”?

I think historians in general have a duty to the public and their fellow man to speak up about the past on how it compares to the future. Everyone knows the old adage of “Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it” and in this case it can work to our advantage. If the new tax bill is eerily similar to the 1928 tax bill right before the great depression, then a depression or economic historian has a right or a duty to speak up. The limiting factor of this is “staying in your lane” so to speak. Historians must stick to what they know best before when they’re making these politicized and activist statements. Another factor is seniority. I think it should be a top down approach where the well-respected historians begin the more public form of activism. How can these ideas be applied to public history? Going with the approach of duty, I think that a more distinct definition of “museum” needs to be enforced that removes some of the outliers that should not be labeled as museums.

Everyday feels like we’re edging more and more to a post-factual society where people can enjoy the historical narratives that fit their definition of truth regardless of fact. With this being the case, I think historians, public historians in particular, need to redefine what can be called a museum. For instance, does the Creation Museum in Kentucky that depicts Jesus riding a dinosaur, Noah’s arc, and features a petting zoo and a zip-line count as a museum? I don’t think so and I doubt many, if any, pubic historians would think it’s a museum either. It becomes harder to define when one introduces things like Colonial Williamsburg. The really hard part becomes, how do these “museums” get differentiated from things like the Smithsonian? A re-labeling of these “museums” would suffice but what would you call these ex- “museums”? Could the Creation Museum be re-labeled as a theme park or a religious business? That becomes harder to mandate because the government would need to be involved to enforce this differentiation and I personally don’t think it would go well with the current administration, or really most politicians in general. My solution is that it could work in a similar way to the Michelin Star system for restaurants. If they approved of a museum, they could rate it highly, but if they disproved of a museum, they could refuse to recognize it as a museum by giving it no rating at all. I would personally stay away from public condemnation of “museums” like the Creation Museum simply because that may feed their reputation. How would this review process work? Respected public and academic historians, constituting a review board, could get a tour through the museum while receiving advanced explanation from curatorial staff about the interpretation and facts that is being presented and used. The board could introduce a suggestion box in/around the museum to get appeals from the public as well. An important distinction is that the board is not there to agree or disagree with the interpretation, but simply discern if it’s based on evidence that is sound reasoning and accurate information. Another parameter for reviewing museums is size. One group cannot review every museum in the United States, so an admissions quota would be created to go after museums that have actual impact on a greater number of people rather than wasting time on a random house museum in Connecticut.

While not without it’s flaws, this idea would provide a system that could effectively weed out some of these “museums” that seek to promote a specific ideology over adherence to fact. In this modern age of propaganda, the truth becomes whatever people say it is, so I believe there should be an internal governing body of museums. This could work on a peer-reviewed system that allows respected curators and public historians to set parameters around what is a museum.

Ask A Public Historian: Dr. Brown

Dr. Tommy Brown, an archivist at Auburn University Special Collections and Archives sat down and answered a couple questions about public history and his career as an archivist.


What led to the career that you have now?

I am an archivist now, but for eleven years I taught public high school. I enjoyed the teaching part of it and quite frankly I enjoyed most of the students, but teaching public school was becoming more and more challenging. I’d always wanted to work on a Masters and PhD in history, and so after teaching for about a decade. I decided it was time to work on my PhD here at Auburn after I received a Masters while I was teaching. While teaching was the usual route for most PhDs, I chose the archives. I came over to the Auburn Archives and did an internship. I was actually going to use the archives track as a fallback if I could not get a teaching position. I did my archive practicum and I enjoyed it so much. Then I got an assistantship here and that just kind of sealed the deal for me. I thought, “This is really cool and I like this.

Who is the “public” in your public history?

The public in my public history is Auburn University students, both undergraduates and graduates, professors, administrators, and finally the general public.

What advice would you give someone who would like a job in your field?

Specifically in archives, the old way of doing it was to get a PhD in history and you go into archives. A lot of historians in 50s, 60s, and 70s, when they couldn’t get teaching jobs then they would work in archives, But if you want to do it now, you would need a Masters of Library Science. There are very few jobs in archives that don’t require a Masters of Library Sciences, which I have mixed feelings about. I think a good historian makes a good archivist. Good librarians may or may not make good archivists. I mean, its not rocket science don’t get me wrong, but I’m biased.

What’s the relationship between any formal training you received and the job you have now?

My archives training at Auburn prepared me specifically for this job. Now again, I don’t have a Masters of Library Science degree but the people who are getting those degrees now have to concentrate. If you concentrate on archives, that in theory prepares you to be an archivist.

In many ways, it has the feel of a profession but also that of a trade, meaning that you can take all the classes you want but when you start doing it your say now that was not quite the way I was trained. I feel like the people who I took courses from here at auburn were archivist, or had formerly been archivist; I got really good training that was valuable for what I’m doing here.

Restructuring the Survey

Although some of the survey questions were awkwardly worded, I did really enjoy how thoroughly the survey went through all possible definitions of the past, like familial, ethnic/racial, etc. Some of the questions took on a different turn with the advent of the cell phone like the questions about “have you looked at photos/taken them?”. With the cell phone, those have become instant and mobile so I feel like they happen all the time compared to looking a physical printed photographs and the survey could incorporate this distinction in some way. Because of how often we are online, I would have added is question about mobile sites for news and their credibility; like, what do you think about the credibility of Facebook or reddit as a source for information about the past? Another area the survey didn’t cover is how often these people interact with various media sources about the past. For instance, Ian, my survey-ee is a chemical engineer and doesn’t have to take a collegiate history class which may have led to him feeling that high school teachers are more trustworthy than collegiate.

Disappearance of Davis: What Next?

On May 11th 2017, the City of New Orleans removed its statue of Jefferson Davis, the first and only President of the Confederacy.  Jefferson Davis’s statue was removed due to its pro-slavery and discriminatory subtext, but this removal met significant resistance by those claiming Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy as part of local history and heritage. New Orleans has not yet designated a place or forum for the statue to be displayed, so for now, it remains in storage of some kind. This begs the question, what are we to do with historical monuments that have been or will be removed? One proposal is that these monuments should be placed in a museum type setting that can provide a better context for this monument and others like it. As part of this contextualization, curators need to make a distinction between the depicted figures in their respective eras and the creators of the statue in their respective era. In this particular instance, Jefferson Davis’s monument was installed in 1911, a full fifty years after Davis declared his presidency and in the heat of segregation and Jim Crow laws. Because of the later date of this installment, the monument can be seen as a representation of the revisionist history of post-Reconstruction. Another curatorial addition for this particular monument would be the public’s response to it; for instance, someone graffitied “slave owner” across the  base of the statue for all to see. By doing this, curators could display responses of the public, both in protest of and in defense of this monument.

Power and Production of History Reaction

Trouillot, the author of Silencing the Past: Power and Production of History, looks at the different ways in which cultures and individuals have grappled with history. Trouillot asks the reader to examine the different interpretations of history by attempting to nail down what a “fact” truly is and how elusive that definition is. I found Trouillot’s example of how the stories and narratives can change base on the way in which the listener interprets the question very fascinating to ponder.