Reflection: How Can a Public Historian Present the “Right” History?

6 May

by Gemma Tennyson-

As public historians, many strive to present history in the best representation possible. We all attempt to not have any prejudice, but is that really possible? Maybe in a perfect world this could be true. Every interpretation of history is going to be biased in one way or another. Sometimes it is not only the preference of the creator of the exhibit, but others invested to the project. There will always be outside forces that public historians have to consider when presenting histories, including audience, their own governing authority, and co-workers’ preconceptions about the given subject. Each of these are contributing factors in any public history field.  The question is how, as public historians, do we tell the “right” history with all these outlying pressures?

Public historians need to realize who will utilize their exhibits, displays, etc. Obviously there are going to be restraints because the point is for people to come to see the exhibit. How can a public historian create an exhibit that pleases a mass audience?  I am a firm believer in presenting the truth. This is one thing that should never be compromised. An audience will take much more from a well researched truthful story than misrepresentations that have other intentions in my personal opinion. The audience is an important part, but there is only so much emphasis on them. There will be issues if you try to please the audience too much because it leads to other intentions not related to the end goal. If there is too much importance given to the audiences then you are biased by the fact you want a large audience in spite of the information they will receive.

Another important issue than many public historians have to deal with is the governing authority of the institution in which they are employed. This is also the same for working with community partners or corporations. This causes all sorts of issues for public historians. How can you make a good exhibit that is within a budget and pleases the bosses while still achieving the set goal? Can you present the best representation possible while still representing the interest of the employer? This is a question of ethics depending on the job.  This type of problem needs careful consideration not to present a biased history, but also to present a history that will be accepted by the employer.

I have asked a lot of questions above. Each of these are common issues throughout the public history field.  I would be the first to say I don’t have all the answers because all situations are going to be different. As a public historian, it is important for us to begin to think about and experience some of these problems. I think that as long as we start facing these issues sooner than later it can help us develop a better understanding to draw from as we each enter the workforce.


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