“How a place learns to do differently”: Local History as Change-maker

A few years ago, at the American Association for State and Local History annual meeting in Louisville, I went to a session about the Missouri History Museum’s (MHM) response to Michael Brown’s death. Melanie Adams led the session, and the story she told was so thought-provoking that I still return to it from time-to-time when thinking about the relationships between cultural institutions and the public. Essentially, MHM established a partnership with the St. Louis police that brought community members and police officers together to engage in open dialogue about local policing, crime, and related issues. Adams noted that MHM has a number of these kinds of partnerships with stakeholders representative of a broad array of core community functions. The museum works to build spaces in which people can engage in dialogue about a variety of pressing community needs.

MHM’s actions are representative of the larger turn the public history and museum fields have taken over the past few decades toward the idea that cultural organizations should provide opportunities for people to come together to discuss and find durable solutions to present-day problems. This isn’t a new idea in 2018, of course, but these kinds of big shifts don’t happen overnight and there are still miles of row to hoe before this kind of relationship between public and institution becomes the norm, instead of exceptional exception.

One area with immense potential for this kind of problem-solving work is local history. I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the run up to the National Council on Public History Annual Meeting, which I leave for tomorrow (see my earlier post about this here). I organized and am presenting on a roundtable where we’ll discuss some of the ways local history has been used to influence political and social change in towns and neighborhoods across the United States. For my part, I’m interested in how local history organizations and local historians shape long-term processes of local change.

I’m not talking about historic preservation, though that’s certainly important. I mean local historians affecting long-term, structural change in their communities, where they wield local history like a hammer.

Local historians are thick on the ground, and have been since the early twentieth century. They’re folklorists, hobbyists, genealogists, politicians, professionally-trained public historians and historians, poets, librarians, artists, musicians, and others who build and transmit stories about their local past. And sometimes (often, even), they put this information to use toward some kind of contemporary goal.  

AASLH’s History News Issue 73, Vol. 1.

I had the opportunity to pull at this thread of possibility with Carol Kammen in the most recent issue of AASLH’s History News. Carol and I discussed how local historians can better serve their publics by using their resources and knowledge to help generate solutions to their communities’ most pressing issues. I won’t summarize the article here– you can read it (p. 3) and the rest of the issue for free here— but I will reiterate a few major takeaways: 

  • We– local historians and anyone else doing local history work– need to use local history to build bridges between diverse communities. Having a sense of one’s own past and place in history is a uniquely human experience that we all share. We should use local history to create spaces where people can come together and, as Carol says, “reflect on a complex past.”
  • Similarly, local spaces are often the front-lines for social, economic, cultural, and political issues of both personal and broader significance. Local history organizations and local historians have a responsibility to their communities to build opportunities for people to engage in historically-informed discussions of present-day problems.
  • We also need to continue the work of complicating hegemonic local history narratives. Many local historians work through local historical societies, which have, historically, been associated with white audiences. It has only been in the past half-century that histories of women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and other underrepresented groups have been seriously considered in academic settings, and even more recently in narratives dominant at the local level. But these local history stories have always existed. They’re created and preserved by the oppressed people who care for them. Omitting them from the historical record constitutes lying about the past. 

There are many local historians and local history institutions doing admirable and intentional change-making work. A couple of prime examples of how to use local history to bring people together in dialogue about contemporary issues include the Nashville Public Library’s Civil Rights Room (here) and the Cambridge Historical Society’s “Housing for All” Symposium (here). But the tide needs to turn faster. We need more of this in local history. To quote Carol: “Local history has a role to play in how a place learns to do differently.” Let’s get to doing differently, and let’s get to it now.

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