A Twenty-First-Century Renaissance

Adapted from Chapter 7 of An AASLH Guide to Making Public History

Despite the fact that many history institutions have proven their worth as community leaders, our audiences still do not reflect the changing demographics of American society. Public history must address the disconnect why audiences (and the field itself) are trending older and white. People in communities across the nation embrace heritage, identity, and place — elements history can empower. Demographics are an issue certainly, but our challenges extend beyond engaging diverse participation.

The way we present history must change even for our current demographics as well. It is simply not enough to preserve the oldest house in town or to display cases of artifacts. We must do as public historian, my friend and fellow history geek Tim Grove documents in A Grizzly in the Mail and Other Adventures in American History. We must “show that history is not the boring subject of a childhood classroom but a rich and profound exploration of the tapestry of life.” History museums, historic sites, historical societies, historic house museums, and the like are the ideal places where this profound exploration occurs. These institutions are where connections happen.

In 2016, AASLH held its annual meeting in Detroit, Michigan, in partnership with the Michigan Museums Association. The city itself had gone through many profound changes throughout its history, as David A. Janssen, the 2016 program chair, writes here. As we worked together on a theme for the meeting that would reflect history’s role in individual and corporate life, we found one that resonated with the field as well, The Spirit of Rebirth. “Collectively and individually,” Janssen wrote in the meeting theme document, “we are constantly evolving, embracing new opportunities, and reacting to forces beyond our control. Navigating these contemporary challenges, while facing an unpredictable future, requires periodically rethinking our direction.” History organizations and history professionals are an essential part of this renaissance for communities. “We rely on the past for context, examples, and inspiration. The role of a public historian is especially critical during times of transition.”

Seizing the responsibilities and opportunities that role provides is critical to the public history profession. This requires a renewed commitment to staying abreast of challenges and opportunities writ large and small. “We must anticipate changes within our profession,” Janssen continues. “The shifting demographics of our audiences and our offices; the increasing pressure on our finances and partnering organizations; and questions about the relevance of our work in a nation beset by discordant political dialogue all require self-reflection.” Most importantly, he argues, “We need to review the assumptions that have served us to this point, question old processes, and ponder outdated interpretations.” This is the very definition of rebirth.

As I began to write my chapter that would presage Janssen’s own chapter, “The Spirit of Rebirth,” I thought back to some important work the field had completed nearly a decade before at the Kykuit II summit. The statements the field issued from that meeting resonate today, particularly in light of the need for a renaissance in thinking and methods of work:

1. Successful stewardship of the nation’s historic sites requires financial sustainability.
2. Sustainability begins with each historic site’s engagement with its community and its willingness to change its structure, programs, and services in response to the changing needs of that community.
3. The long-accepted tourism business model is not a sustainable business model for most historic sites.
4. Serving the needs of the local community (not the tourist audience) is the most valuable and most sustainable goal for most historic sites.
5. Attendance figures are not the most valid measure of the positive value and impact of the historic site experience.
6. Many professional standards and practices in the historic site field were borrowed from the museum community and, in practice, often deter creativity and sustainability at historic sites.
7. New standards of stewardship for historic sites should be modeled to reflect the distinct nature of these places.
8. Responsible site stewardship achieves a sustainable balance between the needs of the buildings, landscapes, collections, and the visiting public.
9. The buildings, landscapes, and collections are the means but not the ends of the work of historic sites.
10. Innovation, experimentation, collaboration, and a broad sharing of the resulting information are essential to achieving historic site sustainability on a broad scale.
11. Undefined collecting, coupled with professional standards and practices regarding deaccessioning, is an impediment to change and sustainability.
12. Program, challenge, and matching grants can reduce long-term sustainability by shifting focus away from operating and endowment needs and by encouraging the growth of non–mission-related programs.
13. Returning sites to private ownership with proper easements can be a positive means of ensuring long-term stewardship.

Read these statements in context from the Autumn 2007 History News.

I’ve included these findings whole cloth because a decade-plus later they remain relevant to the world of history organizations. In many ways they reflect the “How” of the business model of our institutions. And since the “business” of public history can be a sometimes messy and somewhat unfulfilling slough of budget-balancing, preservation challenges, and fundraising, it is important to again revisit the “Why” of our work.

As History Relevance articulates: History is critically important to ourselves in identity and critical thinking; to our communities as vital places to live and work and in economic development; and to the future in nurturing engaged citizens, inspiring leadership, and leaving a legacy for future generations.

For me, of all of the findings above, one sums up well the entire history enterprise, “Sustainability begins with each historic site’s engagement with its community and its willingness to change its structure, programs, and services in response to the changing needs of that community.”

I maintain there are two main issues facing the field at this moment, both are related to this notion of sustainability. The first is advocacy. We simply must do a better job of small “a” advocacy for our work, our institutions, and our field as a whole. The second is diversity and inclusion. Frankly, if we do not actively seek to expand our reach beyond our typical audiences (read: white, monied, educated), we will not be relevant. And if we are not relevant we are not sustainable.

I believe we need a renaissance in these two directions: advocacy and diversity and inclusion. Together these are two of the main pillars of fieldwide sustainability. What thoughts do you have? Please share them with me here.

A twenty-year veteran of the nonprofit world, Bob Beatty is founder of The Lyndhurst Group, a history, museum, and nonprofit consulting firm providing community-focused engagement strategies for institutional planning, organizational assessments, and interpretive direction.