This is the blog feed for HIST 5810/6810, Fundamentals of Public History at Auburn University. You’ll be using this space for weekly assignments throughout the semester (there’s more information about this on our syllabus.) You should check this space frequently to reply to your classmates’ posts—all the more important in the midst of a pandemic where we won’t have the same opportunities for connection and conversation. There are instructions for how to make posts and use this blog on our Canvas site. (Note–this is an external WordPress based site embedded in our Canvas. You can see the site at publichistory.elijahgaddis.com.)
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.
What are a public historians responsibilities? A good question especially in today’s less than friendly political climate where any thing and every thing is a controversy to some one no matter how careful you are to be controversy free and try to please every one. Or as the situation for historians is best described by Cathy Stanton in her rephrasing of Shakespeare ” some public history work is born political, some becomes political, and some has politics thrust upon it”. After reading her post “Hardball history: On the edge of politics, advocacy, and activism” I get the feeling that she is arguing that the public historian has a responsibility to side with and support certain controversies with their scholarship and academic background and for the most part I agree… to an extent, we do owe it to scholarship and the public to inform and teach as much as we can about certain controversies and to dig up and present as much information as we can about the history of issues, but we have to be careful as historians to not go past the line of historian and into that of trying to be a politician. We have to separate our history and our scholarship from political advocacy lest we fall victim to having politicians and other interest groups twist and corrupt both the historical scholarship that we have worked so hard to present and the historical memory of an event to suit their political agenda. There are to many sides and angles with in the political world all angling to try and get one foot up on the other, we shouldn’t let history become a casualty of such political one-upmanship for this is how history itself is erased and simply becomes another tool of oppression. It’s one thing to say ‘oh well I’m not worried about that, the current government would never do that, they’re on my side’ but that’s the thing about government, the people in charge change, just because they’re on your side in one election cycle doesn’t mean they will be the next time, so giving the tools of history to be politicized to one election cycle means your giving it to all of them. History and public historians have a responsibility to the public to pull history out of the political quagmire and show to the public ‘hey look, this is how it really was’ with out any political spin or agenda attached. Public historians have the unfortunate responsibility of having to walk the tight-rope of historical truth, political advocacy, and public opinion. That isn’t to say in small doses or when properly balanced any of these things are necessarily a problem far from it, they’re quite good things, it’s just when historical accuracy and scholastic integrity is sacrificed at the altar of political agenda that problems begin to arise. We have to be careful not to become that which we fear and that’s all I’ve got to say on the matter.
Is the archive public? if it is how much of it should be public and how much of it shouldn’t be? Why should the archive be public or not?
All good questions to which of course there are varying answers to depending on the archive in question and the situation, which of course isn’t the most firm or hard line answer but when is any thing in terms of public history and its ethics really hard line? well okay some things can be hard line but most things really aren’t and all depend on the situation at the time. Personally I think most archives should be open to the public at least some degree, that doesn’t mean that the public can come in and check out the objects and books with out supervision of any sort of oversight at all but they should at least be able to view the objects if they ask and have a member of staff present to ensure the safety of the object in question. I believe the public has a right to at least some level of access to archives be they governmental, university, civil, or other wise because but that access comes at the price of having to be under supervision while in said archives.
Lets look at the Auburn Special Collections and Archive as an example. The Auburn Archive has some public aspects but it’s not fully open to the public. The public can’t just waltz in willy nilly and ask to be taken back in to the stacks or view certain collections and the public can’t take portions of the archive with out asking but there is still an open to the public face and the public is allowed in to view the archive and some of its material that is out in the open and they are allowed to request and view some of the objects so long as they are being supervised with the objects themselves. The biggest problem over all with the auburn archives is the lack of publicity in it’s existence. It’s in the basement of the library and there’s really not much directing traffic to it. I think a change that could help make that archive more public is just a little more publicity regarding its existence, how can the public make use of an archive if they don’t know it exists after all? the only other change I could suggest to the Auburn archives is perhaps a bit of modernization in the department itself, it is in the basement and it has that sort of basement feel to it, giving it that sort of stereotypical basement dwelling archival feel to it, thats probably not necessarily their fault given they need a good area with climate control and space is limited for both the university and the library but if they could manage a better location that would aid in making it more public
The object is a mid sized military style hat with a metal pin in the middle of the front flap. It is made of a medium weight suiting material in an olive drab color. It appears well taken care of with no visible signs of distress or mistreatment. While it is a costume piece the hat itself is nondescript enough and well constructed enough that it can be worn at any time of the year. The object appears to have been either hand stitched or stitched with a sewing machine rather than mass produced. Beyond the basics the hat itself is a costuming piece and reproduction of a hat found in the Star Wars series of films on the officers of the villainous empire which implies a level of cultural significance behind the hat itself.
The hat is a significant indicator of cultural history being a representation of how people interact with a culturally significant piece of mass media entertainment and how people remember said media in their day. An often overlooked aspect of history particularly history regarding objects is how mass media and how society interacts and remembers that media influences their cultural memory and with a great number of fans creating and memorializing their favorite films through costuming and other forms of object history.
First and foremost, the monuments shouldn’t be removed, they are still a part of history and to destroy or remove them is to remove that history even if we don’t like that particular aspect of our past. That said, if we do remove them I don’t think they should be destroyed but rather moved into a museum or a park and placed beside monuments built to demonstrate the other side to the war, monuments dedicated to the union and abolitionists so as to create the full story of the civil war rather than letting these particular monuments stand on their own. Own their own they have a complicated and sometimes negative connotation in the public memory, if they where moved to be with other monuments or placed with in a location that could at least provide connotation to their collective memory.
The fact that the term ‘public history’ has yet to be defined by those working in the field should be taken as a sign of its multipurpose function in the role in sharing with the general public the role that the past has shaped the present day.
Honesty about the past is crucial. Whether it be at a battlefield, museum, or other historic sites, public historians have the responsibility to open up about both the history of the site and the institution. Shared authority is another important aspect of the public historian’s role. We must acknowledge the fact that many interpretations and memories can be associated with one single event. Although public historians most often times see themselves as historians first, recognizing that the general public and the non-academic historians have a legitimate role in shaping our understanding of the past is necessary to keep dialogue open between the two groups.
Public historians provide context when, perhaps, the traditional way of doing so is not available. For example, Rebecca Amato and Jeffrey T. Manuel both provide history tours that go beyond architecture to frame discussion about the local history. Instead they look to the law and its application as a theme to interpret the way various laws are used to justify both the good and bad of urban development in their respective cities.
Prior to this class I thought public history meant reaching out and informing the general public about historical truth. It was a means to let the public know what the academic historians were writing about and that our understanding of the past came from the work they have done. Over the course of this semester I have broadened my understanding of public history as not only informing visitors of the work being done those historians, but also to interpret to the visitors the role historical memory has played in remembering. The way in which we arrive at our beliefs has been an interesting topic to me throughout this semester as well.
A recurrent theme over the course of the semester has been not having a definite answer to most questions. I think this is due to the fact that as public historians we have to be flexible and adapt to the many different types of visitors we encounter. In other words, instead of looking at the facts and coming up with a single interpretation, we should look at those facts and understand that others may not draw the same conclusions. We have to be open-minded and have a sense of willingness to at least except that others may not feel the same way.
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.
In 1908 a wooden covered bridge was built over the Tallapoosa River in Daviston, Alabama. The bridge replaced a ferry that had been used by the local community to cross the river in the area. W.H. Wynn and his son built the bridge that stretched just over 850 feet from the south to the north bank. Five pilings were created with rock from the north riverbank and concrete to support the bridge. These pilings are all that remain of the Miller Bridge today.
Images of the bridge when it was at the height of its use tells a much different story than what can be seen from the same location today. One image in particular taken from the south bank of the river with a perspective of a lower elevation looking up at the bridge. This angle and perspective give a sense of how incredibly long the completely wooden covered bridge was. In the photo waves in the wood are visible where the bridge had changed shape over time and the weight of the bridge and its travelers had caused the bridge to sink just a few inches in certain spots.
The town of New Site, several miles from the north side of the Tallapoosa River, received a significant boost as it became better connected to the larger city of Dadeville on the south side of the river. The Miller Bridge offered a more reliable and quicker way to cross than the ferries that had been used to cross the river.
Just as an increase of travelers and the size of their transportation increased the Miller Bridge was replaced by a modern bridge of concrete and steel in 1955. When looking at the modern bridge today, it does not have the same dips and waves that developed in the Miller Bridge over time. It is has taken the sixty-two years of use with much less damage than the covered bridge did during its time. The road that had connected to both sides of the Miller Bridge has been reclaimed by the trees and natural growth. This gives the impression that the road was almost certainly a dirt road that could readily disappear with little trace. The two-lane highway forty-nine that is now connected to the modern bridge would take many years to erode without human intervention before it was unable to be seen. Looking at the place of where the Miller Bridge once stood, and the modern bridge is still in use illustrates a change in the area. The jarring noise of cars passing over the bridge as you stand where the Miller Bridge stood to serve as a reminder of the change in the type of vehicles that used these roads. It illustrates the changes in the number of people that used this road. With the creation of Horseshoe Bend National Military Park, it would have been impossible for the heavy machinery required to construct the park to cross the covered bridge.
While they could have traveled a different way, and come into the park from the north, the number of visitors would surely have, but too much stress on the already aging Miller Bridge. Today it is nearly impossible to visit the bridge and not be interrupted by the noise of logging trucks cross the Tallapoosa River. These increase in industry and tourist traffic of the national park leave visitors with a feeling of a much more modern urban area than the rural landscape that Miller Bridge impresses through photos.