The Power of Possibility

Adapted from Chapter 9 of An AASLH Guide to Making Public History

As one looks at the history endeavor today, it is certainly rife with opportunity. Early in my career, Kent Whitworth, director of the Kentucky Historical Society and coauthor of Chapter 10 of An AASLH Guide to Making Public History, shared a phrase with me that best sums up this principle. “Stewardship is the open hand, not the closed fist.” The phrase certainly has multiple meanings in multiple contexts. But as it pertains to our history work, it is a reminder of our obligation to keep in mind the opportunities to serve our communities and stakeholders — the possibilities inherent in our work.

Louisville, Kentucky, where AASLH met in 2015, inspired the Power of Possibility theme. One of the major cities of the upper South, Louisville was founded along the Falls of the Ohio, the only navigational hazard on the entire nearly 1,000-mile length of the Ohio River.

1876 map of Louisville showing the Falls of the Ohio

About the Falls, Thomas Rodney declared in 1803:

“I must now say a few words more about the Falls. They are a terrable [sic] place to pass through when the water is as low as now. . . . The rocks are so cragy [sic], the channil [sic] so crooked, and the water so furious and rapid that it requires the utmost care and dexterity to avoid the danger.”

The Falls Rodney wrote of are why Louisville was settled in the first place. As settlers migrated West, a city developed to offer provisions, rest, trade, and help. Louisville’s growth springs directly from these early visionaries who seized on the possibility the hazard provided.

This offers a model for the history enterprise. Rather than hazards, how can we instead see the issues that vex the field today — issues of funding and sustainability, of relevance, and of leadership, for example — as possibilities and opportunities?

As 2015 AASLH Louisville Annual Meeting Program Chair Kyle McKoy of Mercer Museum and Fonthill Castle (and formerly of the Indiana Historical Society) and 2015 Host Committee Chair Scott Alvey of the Kentucky Historical Society wrote, “We fail to thrive, when we limit ourselves to see only a choice between two options; public programs or academic research, contemplative or participatory experiences, content mastery or skills development, existing membership or new audiences.”

The key is in the simple difference in two phrases when making decisions.

“If we truly are dedicated to not just survive, but to positively impact the
future,” McKoy and Alvey noted, “we must reject the exclusionary ‘either/or’ and replace it with ‘and.’” The power of possibility is a rethinking of our individual (and collective) modus operandi. “We can be simultaneously creative and disciplined, consistent and fresh, informative and fun. The challenging environment may or may not change, but our thoughts must.”

History professionals; teachers; public, avocational, and academic historians; and others present history in this manner on a regular basis. There are several hundred, probably thousand, examples of this happening at the very moment I write (and you read) this. People are engaging with history in ways that are meaningful, insightful, and even fun. The simple fact is, that despite how school-based history is often taught as rote facts, names, and dates, millions of Americans love history. This is the great possibility for the field of history.

It is how we seize on these possibilities that are critical for the present, and future, of our field. What are the hazards in your way and how are you working around them? How have you made the most of the opportunities? Where have you replaced “or” with “and”? I’m very interested to hear of your successes and your challenges in these endeavors.

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.