On Using Artifacts to Teach History to the Public


Massachusetts Historical Society

Sara Georgini of the Adams Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society has a great piece at the blog of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History on the way public historians use artifacts to explain the past.

Here is a taste:

Try to tell the story of America’s drive for liberty from two battered silver teaspoons. Toggle between an eight-year-old’s question about New England’s colonial slaves, and a veteran teacher’s query about the Declaration’s oddball archivism. Pilot classes through the ratification debates, antebellum reform movements, and get to the Civil War by lunch. Public history is nonstop teaching. We work with and for visitors to reinvent the syllabus daily. After nearly a decade of work at the Massachusetts Historical Society—the oldest organization of its kind in America—I’d like to reopen the public history playbook and talk pedagogy. How and why we should teach the American past (especially narratives of war and peace) in museums, libraries, archives, and galleries is rarely part of the graduate history curriculum. Yet, our humanities hubs often serve as arenas for some of our most difficult social dialogues. Rangers and curators impart much of the same survey material that professors do, by working on a different canvas. Functioning as the world’s classroom, public history deploys manuscripts and artifacts, piling the past onto your weekday. War stories—even sagas as well-documented as the American Revolution—flex to undergo our modern rewrites. Working with their audiences, public historians who retell stories of revolution and civil war must find an ideological key to put artifacts in context. I start small, with a spoon or two, and build.

History and memory have long been flashpoints of inquiry for this scholarly community. I look forward to the conversations that we’ll have in October on that theme (Huzzah, USIH colleagues, on your acceptances! Stay tuned right here to the blog for all conference news). As part of prepping for our public history plenary, I’ve been mulling over the kind of intellectual history involved in curating and presenting “history’s stuff” to the public. Material culture embodies ideas, and trying to trace evidence of one big-ticket concept—in this case, liberty—means threading together a layered set of artifacts that show-and-tell how people thought and acted in the past about it. By choosing objects, we pick voices. In setting up the narrative, we might move around plotlines, try on a local accent, or distort old landmarks. As we curate, the news beats on. Confederate statues fall; descendants of Montpelier’s enslaved families excavate the past; and once again, congressmen brawl on and off the front page. It is a busy time to be a public historian, ready to interpret “how people thought about X” for exhibit labels, docent tours, teacher workshops, class trips, and tourists. When it comes to storyboarding “grand narratives” like the Revolution or the Civil War, finding a resonant balance between history and memory can be a challenge.

Keep reading to see how Georgini explains the “world of the American Revolution in 5 artifacts.”