We have sometimes worked for supervisors, stakeholders, or institutions who are more interested in palatable fables than rigorous truths—with some feeling as though our ethics must be compromised lest we lose our job. Many fight the good fight at great emotional, mental, and financial cost—a cost especially compounded for women, people of color, Indigenous, LGBTQ+, and other marginalized folks. We may feel pressured to pander to tourists and coddle local lore rather than rock the boat. We might pass by or abandon important community collaborative projects that don’t have financial backing. We sometimes work second night jobs at restaurants to keep working day jobs at the museum and pay off student loans. Under pressure from anxious students, parents and administrators, we cater to the notion that public history leads to good jobs. We lead quiet lives of desperation in full knowledge that despite our historically-informed perspectives, we are not outside capitalism’s peculiar power to obscure inequity, patriarchy, and racial discrimination as “natural market forces.” Like everyone else, we are trapped in its snare.
If you work at a cultural nonprofit, think of all the time and energy poured into securing and abiding by grants or navigating the restrictions of wealthy donors. Now imagine devoting the same resources to listen to, engage, and serve the local community. I propose that a cultural cooperative offers a way to fundamentally reorient the economic and social relationship between a cultural organization and the people it aims to serve. A public history co-op in particular offers an alternative way to do our work while institutions crumble around us.
“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? Continue reading “Envisioning New Economic Models for Public History, Part I: Crumbling Institutions”