Navigating Distance by Marla Miller

Part I[i]

Sometimes the best place to think about local history is four thousand miles from home.

In early June, I had the great good fortune to participate in “The Role of Historians in Public Life,” a symposium organized by Tammy Gordon of North Carolina State University and Jaroslav Ira of Charles University, at the North Carolina State European Center in Prague. Having a longstanding fondness for Prague and the Czech Republic, I was eager to learn more about public history and heritage practice in places where I have never been a practitioner, but rather an appreciative tourist.  But I didn’t expect to enjoy a conversation so productive for thinking about local history, both as a genre of public history practice and as part of my own scholarly identity. And so, in this and the next post, I share some highlights from the symposium, as well as some reflections on how those experiences resonated for me as an academic, public and local historian.

Over the course of the symposium, eleven speakers addressed topics in and around public history and heritage management.   My own paper, “Pedagogies of Activism: Helping Students Confront Mass Incarceration” (which focused on our experience at UMass Amherst as a contributor to the Humanities Action Lab’s project “States of Incarceration: A Global Dialogue of Local Histories” joined a panel exploring how public historians address social problems.  Maja Konstantinović of the NGO Antikomplex discussed her organization’s fascinating effort to explore, reconcile and support memory culture in the Sudetenland. And anthropologist Linda Kovářová’ of Charles University and Anthropictures (an Anthropological Studio for Applied Research) shared insights from several compelling “social innovation projects” that aimed to expand and support sustainable development in “structurally damaged and peripheral rural regions and small towns.”

This conversation at intersections of public history and social action was advanced by other presenters as well. Kenneth Shefsiek of UNC-Wilmington commented on the “quiet activism” of cultivating empathy in historic house museums. For instance, Lisa R. Withers—a doctoral candidate at NC State University—described her insights as an oral historian researching school desegregation.  And organizer Tammy Gordon gave a powerful presentation on the extraordinary work she has been doing in Raleigh, North Carolina, as Historians for a Better Future confront the racist history of monuments in the town square.

Questions of temporal distance threaded through most of the day’s conversations.  Jakub Jareš of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes opened the topic as part of his fascinating look at how contemporary history is (or, more correctly, is not) represented in Czech local museums. Having considered some thirty museums around the country in a range of settings, Jareš found that the vast majority stop short of engaging recent events.  Most fall silent around 1948, when the Communist Party seized control of the Czech government.  Other timelines end surprisingly earlier (the museum in the Moravian capital of Brno narrates its history only to 1919, for instance, and the City Museum of Prague ends its story as early as 1784.)  Jareš remarks raised complex questions about time, proximity and historical distance that would linger through the day.

In discussion, Hana Havlůjová, a Lecturer at the Department of History and History Didactics in the Faculty of Education at Charles University, pointed out that one way that more contemporary history does get presented in the Czech Republic—and a phenomenon relevant to public historians in the US as well—is in exhibits that tap the appeal of nostalgia, a place, she observed, lays “between history and memory.”   Linda Kovářová added that while contemporary history is often missing from permanent exhibits in large museums, it may get attention in temporary exhibitions (in the Czech Republic, I learned, local history is less dependent on the avocational, and/or self-trained staff; any permanent exhibit is likely to have been created by museum professionals, while temporary exhibits offer space for local initiatives).  As an example, in her remarks Kovářová reported a growing interest in the Aš region among the “safeguards”—members of groups that once patrolled the boundaries of the Iron Curtain—in­ coming together for pastkeeping purposes, their interests being less, she explained, about situating themselves or that work in larger geopolitical narratives than to “meet and remember ‘how it was’” (her organization’s “community coordinators” bridge local interests and professional expertise, helping participants place their experiences in a larger frame).  In underscoring the importance of attending to contemporary events, University of Essex Professor Alix Green, citing the value at looking at Brexit in the context of its historical roots and precedents, noted that “the present is a hugely valuable resource.”

Another theme across several papers was, unsurprisingly, local history and economic development. Linda Kovářová’s described efforts to tap agritourism (e.g. around hop production in Žatec region, which grows the Saaz hops so popular among both industrial and home brewers) that would be very familiar to public historians across the U.S.  She also discussed efforts to address a common problem in my home region: what to do with historic but empty churches as church attendance plummets (this very issue was the topic, just two weeks later, of the Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife “Our Vanishing Landmarks,” where the efforts of the Preservation Trust of Vermont and New Hampshire Preservation Alliance would be very familiar to their Czech counterparts).  Lud’a Klusáková, Professor of History and chair of the Seminar of General and Comparative History at the Faculty of Arts at Charles University, shared the findings of REACH (Redesigning Access to Cultural Heritage) in her presentation on “the uses of the small towns’ heritage as adaptation strategy,” which focused the various ways heritage resources have been engaged across small towns in the Vysočina region.  And Alix Green, drawing on her work with the John Lewis Partnership (a large retailer in the UK), called for more public history presence in business history and corporate archives.

Lastly, in a session on “Interventions in Local History,” Jaroslav Ira, Assistant Professor at the Seminar of General and Comparative History at Charles University, contemplated the “social functions of local history in small towns.” How, he asked, do small towns represent their heritage?  What is the role of local history practice in the rhythms of the town’s social and cultural life?  In a way, Ira’s remarks brought us full circle, to Jareš’ proximity question.  How does history function in small-town settings when both the historical events and their narrators are so deeply embedded, still, in still-unfolding trajectories? What conditions constrain local history practice?  Does the size of a given place matter?  Tammy Gordon closed the day with her powerful presentation on the very physical intervention she and others have made in Raleigh, and the skills, training and straight-up courage that those very personal interventions demand.

Unsurprisingly, another theme throughout the day, one also familiar to U.S. practitioners, was the difficult work of interpretation and the need for more and better training in facilitation, dialogue and cultural competencies.  While Freeman Tilden’s Interpreting Our Heritage is, I learned, being translated into German and may someday appear in Czech, given efforts by the Czech Association for Local Heritage Interpretation, participants acknowledged the book’s limitations, noting the vast differences between the interpretation of, say, woodland habitats and sites of genocide.

In assembling these presenters, Gordon and Ira aimed to help public historians from their respective locales better understand and learn from their counterparts whose practice unfolds elsewhere around the globe.  Anyone who has had the opportunity to participate in international conversations about public history has come to appreciate the extraordinary value of learning more about the work of peers and colleagues around the world—what sounds familiar, what sounds unfamiliar, and how recognizing both put the contours of our own work in greater relief—that is, the rewards of collapsing distance.

Click here for part II

[i] I’d like to thank Tammy Gordon and Margo Shea for their thoughtful engagement with this post.

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