Transcript of History Relevance 101
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Written by Lindsey Beckley, based on talks given by IHB staff members Dr. Michella Marino and Jill Weiss Simins
Produced by Jill Weiss Simins
Beckley: What do you expect out of a museum? A chronological recounting of a specific facet of history? Old stuff with little labels telling you what it is and where it’s from? Around the nation, museums, historical societies, and other cultural institutions are going beyond the expected to meet the varied needs of different communities. In Brooklyn, New York, the Weeksville Heritage Center hosts a Farmers Market, a program started after the community around the center was designated a food desert. Just outside of Washington D.C., on the morning after the 2016 presidential election, staff at President Lincoln’s Cottage decided to stay open late to act as a forum, sending out the following message on their social media platforms:
Voice Actor: We recognize that people are expressing a need to come together peacefully when we are a House Divided. As a National Monument, where Lincoln came to deal with epic division and chaos in our country, we are committed to providing a secular place of reflection and serving as your beacon of hope. Our lights are on for you. All of you.
Beckley: And right here in Indiana, when state legislators in the General Assembly enter their chambers, one of the first things they see are monitors displaying important stories from Indiana history – stories that show the influence of yesterday’s lawmakers and that may, in turn, offer lessons for today’s decisions. Produced through a partnership between IHB and the Indiana State Archives, this project, called Indiana History in Session, is an attempt to remind legislators of the legacy they’re creating each day.
These programs are nothing alike – they have different audiences, different run times, different methods, and different goals – but they all go beyond what is typically expected of historical institutions. They all address current issues using historical context. They show why history is relevant and the impact history has on our everyday lives. In this episode, we’ll be discussing the history relevance campaign, which is the movement behind some of the most innovative programming in the field today.
I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Talking Hoosier History.
As you may have guessed, this episode is going to be a little bit different from our usual fare. Last Fall, IHB partnered with the National Council on Public History and Conner Prairie Interactive History Park to host a history relevance workshop. Public historians from organizations in Indiana and surrounding states gathered for a day of hard questions, discussions, and (we hope) ideas on how to infuse the practice of history relevance into their organizations. Today, we’re bringing those same discussions to our listeners – both those who are in the public history field and those who are just interested in history.
We hope that public historians use this episode as an introduction to the History Relevance movement – something to spark inspiration in our fellow educators. But these ideas aren’t just for those of us working in the field – they’re for everyone. We hope that through the course of this episode, you think about what you expect from your historical institutions – and what you should expect. We’re going to lay out our case for why history is just as important to the modern world as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. That’s right. We’re taking on the almighty STEM right here and now.
But before we get to that, we should get ourselves acquainted with the origins of the History Relevance Campaign. Throughout this episode you’ll be hearing from leading figures in the movement, Tim Grove and Richard Josey, both history consultants who led the workshop last fall – some of the audio is of a bit lower quality than you might be used to, but the content is worth it. First, I’ll let Tim Grove give you a little run down of the history of history relevance:
Grove audio from workshop: It all started here, actually, in Indianapolis at History Leadership Institute. I was in town and we started talking about it one night. And it was – I guess it was 2012 because the movie Lincoln was out and I was saying you know, lots of people are going to see the movie Lincoln but a lot of those people don’t visit historic sites, don’t go to museums. You know, what’s up with that? People do like history. They claim to like history. They’re interested in their own genealogy, their own past. Why are we not engaging them more?
I was working at the National Air and Space Museum at the time, which is a unique place because it focuses on history and science. It’s a history of technology museum but depending on who you ask, people would say its science. They do have hard core planetary science research going on – a division devoted to that – so they are science but they’re also history of technology. But at the time, the secretary of the Smithsonian was focused on STEM and he kept talking about STEM and he had just made this proclamation that we’re now going to focus on STEAM, and add the “a.” And that was just too much for me.
So I went on a rant with my colleagues in Indianapolis and I said, you know, why is history always left out? And that’s not a new question. In no way is it a new question. It’s not a new conversation. We’ve had this conversation before. But whatever we’re doing is not working. We need to do more.
If you think about history as a brand and STEM as a brand, which we started doing – this little group started talking about the branding aspect of it – STEM has a huge strong brand, right? And history doesn’t. So this group started talking about how can we raise the brand of history, the profile of history?
Beckley: How do you go about changing the perception of something as broad as history? How do you “re-brand” a discipline that is thousands of years old? First, you need to understand what the current perception is.
Voice Actor: History is real simple. You know what history is? It’s what happened.
Beckley: That’s conservative political commentator Rush Limbaugh’s view of it. And that’s what a lot of people think – history is simply an accounting of names and dates and events. But it’s not. That’s just the past – a series of facts strung together – and that perception of history has been making high schoolers and college freshmen loathe the subject for a century. This is the brand we’re trying to change. But how did we get to this brand in the first place?
Well, that’s a question with a complicated answer. Let me just pull one thread out and examine it for our purposes here. Dutch Historian Pieter Geyl defined history as “an argument without an end.” Not facts in a book. Not labels in a museum. An argument. Historians are constantly revisiting previously “settled” topics, and bringing new perspectives and new evidence, with them. They revise history. Politicians and the media throw around “revisionism” like a dirty word. But that’s history. Learning and revising is the whole idea of history. If history didn’t change – if it were simply “what happened,” then there wouldn’t need to be more than one book written about any one topic. There wouldn’t be a 34 foot tower of books at the Ford Theater Education Center– each telling a slightly different version of “what happened” – all dedicated to the life and times of one man – President Abraham Lincoln.
You may be thinking, “But surely, not every one of the books in that tower tells the true story of Lincoln’s life, right?” And while I haven’t actually read more than 10 or 15 of the books in that tower, I can tell you that no, not every one of them is factually correct through and through. Not every interpretation is equal. And there is scholarly consensus on certain facts. For instance, historians generally agree that Abraham Lincoln was our 16th president. It’s when you’re fleshing out the story that interpretations can vary. But that’s why history, and a better understanding of what history actually is, is so important.
Every day, we, as historians, and you, as human beings living in the world, encounter claims – whether they be on the news, in a dusty filing cabinet, or on social media. And with each new claim we encounter, we have to choose whether or not we are going to trust the source it’s coming from and thus believe the claim being made. In order to do this, we need to engage in “historical thinking,” a type of critical thinking that can be learned through the “doing” of history.
Tim Grove, who we heard from earlier, lays out five key elements of historical thinking in his article, “Historical Thinking is an Unnatural Act,” from the Spring 2016 issue of History News.
Voice Actor: One: Multiple Perspectives
Beckley: Always keep in mind that there are several ways to look at a story – whose perspective are you seeing? Whose is missing?
Voice Actor: Two: Analysis of Primary Sources
Beckley: Think about what claims are being made in the source. What claims are left out? Given your prior knowledge of the topic and other sources, do these claims seem valid?
Voice Actor: Three: Sourcing
Beckley: What are the questions related to the source? Why was this document, photograph, video – or whatever it may be – produced? Why did it get saved? Who created it? What were their biases? These questions surrounding sources could be endless.
Voice Actor: Four: Context
Beckley: What else was happening around these events that could impact your understanding of the story? What led up to the events being told? Were there unseen influences? Context can completely change a story.
Voice Actor: Five: Claim/Evidence Connection
Beckley: Is the claim you’ve encountered based on evidence? Does the source provide that evidence? If not, why?
In short, historical thinking is turning a critical eye on sources being presented to you. We all come into each situation, whether that’s reading a historical document or deciding who to vote for in an election, with preconceived notions, opinions, and biases. It’s nearly impossible to be completely neutral, but when we employ historical thinking, it makes that a little more achievable. And it’s okay if we change our minds on a topic as we go along – that just means we’re learning and growing!
And when we use this kind of solid historical thinking as a method for understanding a current issue, interest, or problem – whether it’s examining your family’s roots or the roots of the healthcare debate – we make history relevant to today. We call this application HISTORY RELEVANCE. And this – the application of historical thinking outside of the field of history – is what makes history – real history – so important, even if it is hard to fit into the STEM acronym.
So, we’ve established, I hope, that history is useful. But are people interested?
According to Norman Burns, the President and CEO of Conner Prairie, who spoke at the History Relevance workshop, they are.
Burns’s audio from workshop: Ninety-one percent of Americans think it’s important to learn about history to build a strong foundation for the future, and that curiosity in history is expanding in generations across the nation. And I found this very encouraging, especially with millennials. Fifty-five percent of millennials say they’re more curious about history today than they were even last year.
Beckley: So – history is useful. People are interested and growing more so every day. We just need to work on our branding and outreach to connect the two. And that’s where the history relevance campaign comes in.
Historical organizations, libraries, and museums across the country, like those discussed at the top of this episode, are participating in the campaign, which is attempting to communicate the value of history to the public. The goal is to use historical thinking skills to address contemporary issues and recognize how history has value in our daily lives. To this end, the campaign has identified several ways that history is valuable to us today. The values are split into three different categories. First, is the value of history to ourselves – to each and every one of us – at a personal level. Within this category are identity and critical thinking. Here’s what the value statement says on those topics:
Voice Actor: Identity – History is valuable to ourselves at a personal level. When we look into the stories of our families and our communities, we find stories of sacrifice and achievement of injustice and triumph that can shape our personal views and the values that guide us through our own lives.
Critical Thinking – History leads to personal development of life skills. It teaches us to evaluate evidence, consider multiple perspectives, develop contextual understanding, and it provides historical perspective. It teaches us to interpret and communicate complex ideas clearly and coherently.
Beckley: The next category is Communities – how is history of value to the community in which that history took place? Again, from the values statement:
Voice Actor: Vibrant Communities – a place becomes a community when it is wrapped in memory. When we tell and commemorate our histories we open up discussions with our neighbors and recognize our responsibilities to each other.
Economic Development – When communities build strong heritage institutions and a sense of historical character in neighborhoods they become desirable destinations. This attracts tourism, revenue, and business opportunities and builds the local economy.
Beckley: The final category, and perhaps the one most often overlooked or misunderstood: What is the value of history to our future? How do these two diametrically opposed ideas, “history” and “the future,” interact with each other? The values statement lists three distinct ways in which history is valuable to our future (and not one of them is that “history is a circle” or that it repeats itself).
Voice Actor: Engaged Citizens – Democracy thrives where people both actively express their opinions but also listen to others who may disagree. Building these discussions on a historical foundation can clarify misconceptions, reveal complexities in arguments, ground views in evidence, and provide ideas for solutions.
Leadership – History shows us examples of effective leaders and role models who we can learn from and who can inspire us to become today’s leaders. Looking to leaders of the past can help guide today’s leaders’ values and ideals.
Legacy – When we value history, we preserve history. And this preserved historical knowledge is crucial to preserving democracy. Through the documents, artifacts, images and stories that we save, we provide a foundation for future generations to understand what it means to be a part of the civic community.
Beckley: At the top of the episode, we mentioned a few examples of History Relevance in action. Now, let’s take some time to go over a few more inspiring examples of how the campaign is influencing work – both around the nation and right here in Indiana. As we go through these, keep in mind those values we just went over – Identity, Critical Thinking, Vibrant Communities, Economic Development, Engaged Citizens, Leadership, and Legacy. We’ll go back to this list to see which of these values are most obviously present in each one.
During the history relevance workshop, Richard Josey added a few additional aspects of relevance to think about when looking at an institution or project.
Josey’s audio from workshop: I want you all to think about relevance in three different spheres, or in three different ways. The relevance of history to society, which lends itself to sort of that big picture – the macro, if you will. The relevance of an organization to its community – and when we think about the community, let’s define that not just in a geographic sense, you know, in geographic terms. But in all the different ways in which – how we think about your organization’s community. And also the relevance of an organization to the individuals it engages through its exhibitions. Through its mission. Through its programs and the like.
Beckley: So, keeping both the values and those spheres in mind, let’s see what history relevance looks like in action. First, let’s start with the national stage. At our relevance workshop, Tim Grove and Richard Josey brought in some really strong examples of organizations doing this work. The first example is an advertisement from the Tenement Museum in New York City, which tells stories from the 1860s to the 1930s of immigrant families who lived in the building where the museum is located.
Audio from advertisement: America is a great nation. It’s lived through these amazing advancements, right – the Civil War, the Great Depression. We remember the politicians, you know, we remember the people who are thrust into power and leave their legacy. But it’s people that live through those events. It’s people that die in those wars. It’s people that build the bridges. The stories we tell are about those people, and not that many places tell those stories.
What we do here at the Tenement Museum is we collect the stories of ordinary new Americans – people starting their lives here. And we see what they did to survive.
We’re going to go into that building – 97 Orchard. It was built at the same time as Lincoln was president.
It was important to me that the Tenement Museum become a storytelling museum. People remember stories much more than facts. If the facts are hung onto the tree of a story they become relevant – they become memorable.
Ruth’s genius was to identify an abandoned tenement – a condemned building – as a museum. In effect to put up a sign and say this is a place where we can tell America’s most important story.
The mission of the museum is to engage people in the power of the past to make them think about the present.
Beckley: The ad goes on to show docents leading groups of attentive adults and spellbound school children through the spaces once occupied by the people who built New York – the construction workers, the seamstresses, and the factory workers. Then, toward the end, there’s this:
Audio from advertisement: I had this Chinese immigrant who came and after the tour I said does anybody have anything to say about what they saw? And this Chinese woman, she goes, “I never knew that this happened in New York in the past and that people lived this way and now I see my own life in a completely different light.
Beckley: What a powerful reminder of what history, when done right, can do. I think that’s every public historian’s dream, right? Change lives through the power of history. And that’s happening at the Tenement Museum. Now let’s relate it back to what we’ve covered today.
When thinking back to those spheres Josey covered – relevance to society, to community, and to the individual – in this case, the relevance of the Tenement Museum to each of those spheres comes from the same place. They tell the stories of people who are often forgotten by history. Now, I’m not an immigrant but I do connect with that – it’s very unlikely that my name will ever appear in the pages of a history book or on a panel in a museum, and the same is true for the vast majority of people in the world. And yet, we are the ones who build the world. We live and work and love here. Yes, the Tenement Museum is telling the story of immigrant families who lived in their building. But, in a way, they’re also telling my story, or at the very least, one I can connect to. And when people can connect to a story, they can empathize with the people in the story. Creating empathy is the first step to creating acceptance and if just a portion of the 200,000 annual visitors to the Tenement Museum are impacted in this way, well, that’s a fantastic example of history having a tangible effect on the present.
Now let’s turn to the values we went through earlier. Which of those seven values are most prominently featured here? First and foremost, is Identity. They’re redefining who we might see as our founders. Yes, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and the men at the Philadelphia Convention framed the Constitution. But it was the masses who lived out those sentiments, who fought to preserve them, endeavored to extend them to all, and who came to America seeking them. Thoughts like those can really affect your personal identity and shift your mindset if you let them.
Also very prominent in the Tenement Museum are the values of Creating Vibrant Communities and Economic Development. The founders of the museum took a boarded up, crumbling building that was more likely to be condemned than to become a tourist destination and turned it into one of the most innovative museums in the nation. And they did that through telling the history of the community surrounding it. They now lead neighborhood walking tours that tell the history of the broader community and offer English Language Workshops in which new immigrants, just like immigrants from all times, learn the language of the nation they’ve chosen to call home.
I could go on and on about the importance of the Tenement Museum and its use of History Relevance but I want to turn to another example.
We’ve talked about History Relevance on the national stage but this is Talking Hoosier History so – let’s talk about history relevance in Indiana. Actually, let’s talk about History Relevance right here, on this show. You might recognize that we often end our show with a section talking about how the topic of that episode is still affecting Hoosiers today – whether that’s tying redlining to gentrification or the story of a formerly enslaved family to the present state of the American judicial system. And we try to choose topics that are a little bit off of the beaten path, or at least take a new approach to familiar stories. That’s not an accident. We aren’t telling these stories just to tell them. We want to challenge our listeners’ understanding of our history and of what the lasting effects of that history are on their fellow Hoosiers. We hope that all of our listeners come away from each episode with a new perspective on our past and a better understanding of how that past effects our present and our future.
Now, I’m going to turn to another program here at IHB – the Indiana state historical marker program. The marker program is one of IHB’s central programs and my boss, Dr. Michella Marino, talked at our workshop about how we are working to keep this 80-year-old program relevant.
Before we go to that clip, let me give just a brief overview of the program. Putting up a historical marker is a collaborative effort between IHB and the community. A community member or organization applies for a marker. We evaluate the applications, approve those which qualify, conduct additional research on the topic, work with the applicant on the text that will be on the marker, and then once it’s installed, we come together to dedicate the marker, along with the community.
During her talk, Dr. Marino covered a few examples of IHB’s use of historical relevance in this program. I’m just going to pull one example out of her talk. In 2019, IHB installed a marker for the free black settlement, called the Sugar Creek Community, in Boone County in rural Indiana. And in 2020, we’ll dedicate another marker to the Weaver Settlement in Grant County, which was also a free black community settled in the mid-1800s.
Marino’s audio from workshop: But today I want to focus on how this marker in particular returns history to the landscape, and directly hits on History Relevance components of Identity, Community, Engaged Citizenship, and even Ecotourism.
So these markers in particular challenge a long held belief that there isn’t much Black history in Indiana until the Great Migration or we’re focused on Indiana Avenue in Indianapolis. And that later on in the 20th century, Black people are moving into white spaces. This is partly because of Article 13 in the 1851 Indiana Constitution that bans Black people from moving into the State of Indiana.
But through research, we know that there were vibrant African American communities across the State of Indiana very early on in the state’s development. So, Black settlements were founded in the 1830s, 1840s, 1850s, and even after Article 13 is put into place. So by including and marking these stories, Indiana history is no longer one of Black people moving into white spaces – they were Black spaces to begin with.
Beckley: Something important to note about these communities is that oftentimes, there are very few physical remnants of them left. The houses, churches, and businesses have been converted or torn down and the descendants of those settlers have moved away. But those descendants, along with the current residents of those towns, are invested in preserving that history, giving IHB the opportunity to return some of that story to the landscape in the form of a marker.
Marino’s audio from workshop: So, again, we’re highlighting Identity through the marker, we’re hoping to inform and create an engaged citizenship by bringing in multiple perspectives, we’re showing a misperception about Black migration to the state in this story. And also markers can spur Ecotourism. A lot of people stop to read these still. They drive around the countryside looking for them. And we’ve heard multiple times about people planning their vacations or trips around the markers themselves. Which – good for them. I like Florida but whatever – you know, people can do whatever.
Beckley: So, markers in general, and these markers in particular, can add to a community’s understanding of its identity, get citizens engaged with preserving their own history, and even bring tourist dollars into the town – whether the trip was planned around markers from the beginning or a family stopped to read a marker and decided to stay for lunch at the café across the street.
Here we have a medium that, on its face, seems a little antiquated– historical markers are far from the high tech interactive and immersive exhibits at some museums – but we’re still able to infuse the values of the History Relevance Campaign into them and tell a compelling and relevant story because IHB as a whole has dedicated ourselves to doing so. It’s not always easy, but it’s always worth it.
That’s one of the results of embracing the History Relevance Campaign. Historical institutions can change themselves and their values just by learning how to make history relevant to their audience. And when history is relevant to your audience, they are more likely to think deeply about what they have learned and more likely to return to your institution for more.
And the results of exposing our audiences to history relevance are even more profound. When visitors are presented with different perspectives and challenging ideas, they are presented with the opportunity to practice the fine art of critical thinking and to grow as people. And if enough institutions are committed to doing this, and enough visitors are exposed to this kind of mindset, we can change lives and, if we want to be ambitious, we can change the world.
Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this has been Talking Hoosier History. Talking Hoosier History is a product of IHB, a division of the Indiana State Library. Talking Hoosier History is written by me, Lindsey Beckley, adapted from talks given by Dr. Michella Marino and Jill Weiss Simins. Production and sound engineering by Jill Weiss Simins. A special thanks to the National Council on Public History and Conner Prairie for partnering with us on the History Relevance workshop and to Tim Grove and Richard Josey for taking the time to walk us through the concepts behind history relevance. And, of course, thanks to Justin Clark for lending his voice to the show. You can find more resources about the History Relevance Campaign, the projects we mentioned in this episode, and other sources in our show notes which can be found at blog.history.in.gov. Find us on Facebook and Twitter at the Indiana Historical Bureau and remember to Subscribe, rate and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.
Thanks for listening!
Show Notes for History Relevance 101
The majority of this episode was based on talks given by Jill Weiss Simins and Dr. Michella Marino, along with the History Relevance Workshop led by Richard Josey and Tim Grove.
Learn more about the History Relevance Campaign here.
See the Value of History statement here.
Learn more about the Weeksville Heritage Center farmers market here.
Learn more about the programming at the President Lincoln’s Cottage here.