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.