Forum on Who Owns History?

History in the Museum and in the Classroom: Introduction

Sarah Hanley, October 1996

Editor's Note: The following forum is based on a 1996 AHA annual meeting session entitled "Who Owns History?" This month we are publishing two of the papers presented at the session, one by Spencer Crew and the other by Gary Nash. Sarah Hanley, who organized and chaired the session, has written an introduction for the forum. We will publish a paper by Natalie Zemon Davis, who also participated in the session, in an upcoming issue of the newsletter.

The vexing question posed in this forum—who owns history?—was first posited by the New York Times in a query aptly spotlighting banner issues from 1995 when all manner of persons vigorously staked out shares in the enterprise of history. That year, the new National History Standards, guidelines drawn up and approved by a representative group of historians and teachers and passed through the AHA Teaching Division, were subjected to much praise and just as much criticism. The same year, the Smithsonian Institution's Enola Gay exhibition, which offered several interpretations of historical events, was found challenging by some, yet appalling by others. As the dust of warring opinions settled, including that raised by politicians wholly uninterested in the intellectual dimensions of the debate, it was clear that histories professionally recounted had clashed with memories thoughtfully revisited, creating a divide not easily bridged. The chasm pitted professional historians, scholars, and teachers against ordinary citizens. The professionals, committed to scholarly standards of evidence and interpretation, were accustomed to recounting stories about the past that challenged conventional views; the public, on the other hand, was determined to maintain and retell old stories that remained more accessible, even more satisfying, in their familiarity.

What kind of bridge might connect these different constituencies, professional and public? Should they be connected? How should historians grapple with such issues—in the classroom—in the museum—in the profession? What is the relationship of history to identity, individual and national? What is the link between the historical past and the national present and future? While lively debate is the sum and substance of complex efforts to retrieve versions of a past, what price might be paid for silencing new archival findings of scholars that do not accord with the old stories, findings that no longer support long-held views invested over time with emotional import, cognitive surety, and political capital? When history bursts out of current containers, themselves packaged in time, to whom will the public turn to make sense out of conflicting interpretations that are confusing or disenchanting? Grappling with these problems, which are epistemological at base, Gary Nash discusses the National History Standards and Spencer Crew addresses museum exhibitions. Natalie Zemon Davis, in her upcoming paper, focuses on college teaching. All three attempt to discern a reasonable space between absolute truths and approximate truths in the telling of history. All three appeal to those who are willing to join the debate, weigh the evidence at hand, and interpret information in accordance with a historical framework established by documentary, oral, and visual testimony from the forebears who bequeathed such knowledge and deemed it worthy of remembrance. In addressing the questions of who owns history, we are hoping to open up a larger forum for discussion among historians. Such a forum could be best addressed, perhaps, by requesting each of the affiliated societies of the American Historical Association to present a statement on the topic.

—Sarah Hanley is professor of history at the University of Iowa and executive director of the Society for French Historical Studies. She was a member of the AHA Teaching Division from 1991 to 1994.