When we’re looking at the future of public history, one of the most visible trends to follow has to be how we as members of a larger community represent what we deem to be the most important aspects of our past. I know that sentence is incredibly generic, but what I mean is what kinds of memorials and monuments do we build?
We’ve spent a lot of time talking about monuments that have already been built, but even tearing those down isn’t much of a financial burden on the communities they exist in. Yes, there’s often an emotional or cultural argument to make, but renting a crane and a truck usually won’t destroy a city’s budget.
On the other hand, monuments that cities decide to construct can be quite expensive — and thus often require a greater amount of cooperation and agreement. For that reason, I think the constructive actions that we as communities make say more about how we understand our historical context than the deconstructive ones do. With that in mind, let’s look at the biggest public history monument and museum which have been built in Alabama in the last five years: The Legacy Museum and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
These two sites are both in Montgomery, and both were built and are managed by the Equal Justice Initiative. First, if you haven’t been to both of these sites, do so as soon as the pandemic ends. Second, I think the most powerful aspects of these two sites — and the ones most relevant to this entry — are how they connect the past horrors of slavery to the modern experiences of Black individuals. They do this in a number of ways.
First, the museum very clearly lays out the path that our society took from slavery to mass incarceration. It literally has you follow a path where the information is presented chronologically until you get to the present day. When I went, they literally had a former inmate working at the museum to tell his own story. Second, the memorial ties the history of lynching to modern day action by having a duplicate of each metal box which a county can claim if they prove that they are taking adequate steps to address Black inequity in their community. Basically, the memorial is extendable, but only on the condition of substantive action toward justice.
This combination of historical context and modern-day activism is where public history will continue going. Gone, hopefully, are the days where history and historical artifacts are presented in a marble hall, suffocated behind glass panes, and devoid of any relation to contemporary realities. In their place, we are going to see more installations, more museums, and more historical sites which demand the audience participate, not by raising their hands or trying to answer trivia questions, but by actively self-reflecting about their roles in perpetuating systems and institutions.
Then, — and this might be the most important part — we as public historians should call our audiences to action. Afterall, self-reflection without action isn’t worth much.