“Structure vs. story” could be historians’ equivalent of the “nature vs. nurture” debate. At heart, many historians are storytellers trying to connect to the humanity of our ancestors. At the same time, humans live under conditions not of their own making and we can’t understand individual stories without understanding big-picture, structural impacts of forces like capitalism, war, or slavery. Public historians are not immune to this push and pull between our individual stories—what we personally can accomplish to dismantle white supremacy or the patriarchy in our own lives and cultural organizations—and the structural realities of who has the money and power to fund institutions, serve on boards, and hire or fire public historians. I see fellow professionals doing great work in traditional institutional settings, but phenomenal employees and even leaders cannot always undo the multi-generational impacts of imperialist, racist, and patriarchal institutional policies. While we cannot stop doing the good work of institutional reform, we also need to address the question of structure—can we envision new ways to move forward?
I was raised by Catholic parents who were profoundly impacted by the Charismatic Renewal in the 1970s and 1980s, when they heard a prophecy: “Institutions as we know them will crumble, but a time of glory is coming for God’s people.” I earnestly believe in this prophecy. Institutions are crumbling around us: capitalism, higher education, democracies, and especially the Catholic Church. The crumbling process is painful, scary, and often violent, but maybe these institutions need to collapse so that a time of justice and peace can come for all people. I feel the same way about cultural organizations—many need to die or be made new. In the meantime, we also need to start envisioning and living what comes next.
The prison abolition movement compellingly demonstrates these principles by advocating for the total abolition of incarceration and creating spaces for pursuing restorative justice. I am inspired by this movement and still have a lot of work to do to as a white cis woman to learn, listen, and change my behavior to align with a world without incarceration. Meanwhile, I am compelled to apply the transformative model of prison abolition to public history by working to dismantle oppressive institutions, reducing harm where possible, imagining alternatives and then living them. Once again, there is a lot of work to be done. In my next post I will explore one small step toward envisioning a better way forward: the public history cooperative.