Reflections: Labor History and Public History

8 May

by Jeremy Manczuk-

My primary interest–in the broadest sense possible–in historical studies is labor history. Prior to taking this class I would have said–but only if asked–that I had a reasonably solid grasp of the issues and debate surrounding the field. Unlike the majority of my classmates, I am not a museum studies major and I have never had a class in the program. Before this semester, in fact, I had not stepped foot in a history museum for many years. This course in public history has not only introduced me to unfamiliar ways to view the motives behind museums, the intricate tightrope-walk nature of the relationship between academic historians and public activists as they attempt to create a historical narrative both can live with, and the precarious profession of the historical preservationist but it has also taught me of the many ways–both sophisticated and simplified, short and near-sighted – that labor issues can be presented to the interested public.

Perhaps the most intriguing of these possibilities is the notion first proposed to our class by Cathy Stanton in The Lowell Experiment: Public History in a Postindustrial City and reinforced by Michael Wallace in Mickey Mouse History and Other Essays on American Memory of the trap public historians can fall into by creating the impression of a simple, easy-to-follow linear narrative of rising industrialism, a peak of labor production, and the eventual demise–a retreat into the realm of heritage–of the work a community once invested itself so heavily into. For Stanton and Wallace, and me for that matter, this approach does not satisfy the need for a more developed approach to introducing the cyclical nature of the rise and fall of labor opportunities within a given community based on the larger story of capitalist endeavors and abandonments. The demonstration of this type of continuity, without question, is a difficult task to aspire to. It is certainly much easier and takes less imagination to craft a display of worker’s tools or to hang a photograph of a group of miners but it leaves matters of great importance–matters that should be considered and discussed–unacknowledged.

In my opinion the notion of continuity–and how best to engage it in the multi-faceted province of public history–has been one of the most essential themes of the semester. As we have talked about several times–and as I have repeatedly considered as I prepare to write a blog posting or think about our cooperative efforts with the Lincoln Place Heritage Association–we cannot effectively interpret the past unless we are also willing to contemplate the present.  If we separate the two the result is stale and uninteresting. The same is true, I think, for the analysis and presentation of labor issues. If we disassociate then from now, if we isolate here and there, the effort we put forth and the description we employ are ultimately inept and unhelpful.

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