The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume 2, Number 4, Pages 25-29
Fall, 1977

Museums, Scholars, and Popular History

By David Nicandri

In recent years Americans have been encouraged by writers, museums, and the media to become more aware of their history. This development is reflected in TV docudramas such as "Roots," grand historical exhibits such as those inspired by the Bicentennial, and bestselling historical fiction and nonfiction.

Historical scholars have tended to regard this development as a mixed blessing. Recently in an article in "TV Guide," Mark Harris, a professor of English at the University of Pittsburg, complained that the docudrama ''Hopes to achieve its objective without having done the work." He suggested that most popular accounts are "oversimplified and falsified. "

Is it possible to combine hard work in history with good popular accounts? David Nicandri, public programs director at the State Capital Museum, believes it is. In this essay he argues that good research and good popularization belong together and analyzes some of the forces that may encourage this trend.

Historical societies and museums were among the first institutional practitioners of the historical craft. In fact, except for former statesmen and literateurs who wrote history among their other works, these societies were the historical establishment. In this context, one thinks of the Massachusetts Historical Society founded in 1791, the New York Historical Society (1804) and the Wisonsin Historical Society (1854), among others. The earliest eastern societies were, either by design or practice, clubs for the social elite who made a practice of collecting the letters or artifacts left by great men. A significant source for the TV series "The Adams Chronicles," are the John Adams papers in the hold of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Where as the eastern varieties were usually private non-profit organizations (and the majority in that region still are), the old mid-western historical societies (born in the last half of the nineteenth century) were, because of populistic influences, agencies of state government. The societies in states like Ohio, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Kansas were nevertheless hybrid institutions in that their administrative structures and museums were supported by tax revenues, yet individual private memberships in the society were available too.

It was from these great mid-western historical societies that the Mississippi Valley Historical Review and attendant conference originated around the turn of the century. This was also the time, of course, of the "professionalization" of history, as Ph.D. programs on the German model sprang up in the nation's universities. The growing class of academic historians, carrying the banner of "scientific history," buoyed by the early successes of Turner, Becker and Beard, easily gained respectability and became the new historical establishment, supplanting the historical societies.

Several consequences arose from this state of affairs. The historical societies, demoted in the profession's pecking order, became mere depositories for materials used by the academicians and the students they sent to the manuscript stacks. Once the cutting edge of historical activity in the country, the historical societies became adjuncts to the scholastic scheme. Their eclipse also contributed to a decline in public awareness of history.

Many commentators have noted that nineteenth century Americans (admittedly of middle and upper class stripe) were far more cognizant of the nation's history and the elan of historical study than their twentieth century descendants. One reason for this is that history and its study have been spirited away to the university. Certainly academic historians have tremendous familiarity with some parts of history. But unlike "popular" historians, they have frequently addressed only themselves and their select students, the general American public has been left in the lurch. An inverse ratio has seemed to be working; the more historians seem to know, the less knowledgeable the American public is becoming of American history.

Thus we are faced with the ludicrous situation wherein only one of four citizens recognizes the Declaration of Independence (let alone appreciates its significance) and the Bicentennial could be facilely turned into the Buycentennial by the image-makers and market manipulators. Indeed, even domestic and foreign policy-formulating elites are less history conscious then their eighteenth and nineteenth century counterparts.

The professionalization of the historical craft was certainly good, if not inevitable. The unfortunate aspect of the situation was the imbalance between emphasis given to research and teaching on the one hand, to the neglect of the larger popular audience on the other. Local history and historical society enterprises increasingly lost prestige because the best historians went to the more glamorous universities, leaving in all too many cases the antiquarians in charge of the societies. Increasingly, historians avoided the public, the historical societies declined, and the stigma with being associated with the latter grew. As Louis Tucker put it: "A few years back, only academic failures were considered to be worthy candidates for employment in a historical agency." Working for a museum or historical society was akin to "being consigned to a kind of intellectual Siberia." When Tucker himself took a position with the now Cincinnati Historical Society, his colleagues at the College of William and Mary acted as if he had "departed for the nether world."

All of which is an interesting prelude to analyzing the present condition of the historical profession. As long as "academic history" was a growth industry, which it had been since its inception to the late 1960's, the trend toward isolating history in the universities sat well with most historians. Then the twin disasters of liberalized curricula, which de-emphasized history's position, and the overproduction of historians, combined to shake the academic establishment in the late 1960's. With registrations down and teaching vacancies virtually non-existent, a legion of young historians searched for meaningful positions. The lost uncle of the profession, state and local historical societies and museums, warily and sometimes smugly viewed this army, a few of whose members took professional positions. At first, and in many cases still today, the taste was too bitter for many graduates, as teaching had become the monolithic orthodoxy for historians.

This reaction among young historians was virtually inevitable considering the kind of career goals inculcated in graduate schools. On the other hand, the state and local historical societies and museums of the late 60's and early 70's were not adaptable to these changing circumstances either. The reason was that most professional historians, by and large, had long deserted the popular and informal history arena, leaving positions to be filled by "organization men" like retired admirals, dilettantish antiquarians, or significantly, by people with training in the arts. This latter group was attracted to museums, usually, because their graphic and design skills were particularly marketable. Thus, historical administration came under control of the non-professionally trained historian. This condition had significant effects, because, as academic history reached higher and higher levels of practice and confidence, local, popular and museum history fell to the depths of ancestor workshop and relicism. More importantly for the future, and perhaps symptomatically, local and informal history people had never really analyzed their product; what was being communicated; of what use was it; why was anyone patronizing their media? This happened because there were not enough historians present to force a dialogue on these issues. Even today, state and local history has a tremendous bibliography of technical literature, of the how-to-put-together-an-exhibit variety, but precious little theoretical knowledge, especially in the case of museums.

The situation is changing, however, Now that more trained historians are beginning to filter through state and local historical institutions, self-analysis is accelerating. At the same time, the self confidence of said institutions is clearly growing, and the content improving. More importantly, the American public is hungry for an informal historical product that the universities are frequently incapable of producing, but which increasing numbers of historians in the historical agencies are well situated and eager to supply.

What is the prognosis or formula for a united historical effort in the United States? Each of the protagonists must adapt to changing circumstances. First, many state and local historical societies and museums must raise their standards for reasons of professional self-satisfaction and to gain greater esteem from the American people. They must provide provocative critiques of American history as it relates to present conditions. In short, historical agencies must do what has not been done in their bailiwick since the turn of the century, find a past usable to the society of which they are a part.

Secondly, local and state historical institutions must liberalize their governing procedure to give professional historians room to grow. Too many local history museums' boards of trustees have a stranglehold over the historical content that university regents have not had since the 19th century. Historians in museums must have the freedom their university colleagues have or the old imbalance between the two branches will re-emerge. If given the opportunity to rise within the non-academic history establishment, today's historians will improve their institutions' product; now as staff members, eventually as administrators.

Finally, historical societies and museums must aggressively pursue and persuade the policy making and financial centers, whether private or governmental, that their institutions have an increasingly important role to play in the education of the citizenry. In this era of retrenchment, historical administrators must insist on increasing their instructive role. Museums and historical societies can become informal continuing education institutions, and the newly enlisted, previously unemployed, historians can help accomplish this goal.

Most academic historians have recently come to conclusions, for both economic and intellectual reasons, that society now has a greater need and wider role for them than in the past. This trend must continue to be emphasized. The academicians must not only provide the training for those that will replace them, but now also train those taking professional positions off-campus. That both legatees must be prepared to create knowledge and relate to their different audiences creates a heightened challenge and opportunity. For either history prospers off-campus or its sustenance in the classroom disappears. Perhaps there is a cause and effect relationship between public awareness of history and undergraduate enrollment in history classes. Crudely put, adults who say history is bunk have children under their influence. In conclusion then, I believe academic history needs the historical society and its popular audience as much as the societies and museums need the professors' knowledge and students.

There is a great irony in the way history has been written and taught in the universities and the way it has been treated by state and local historical societies and museums. The latter usually dealt with regional concepts and events as the largest themes, and the history of particular families at the smallest end of the spectrum. All the while, academic history concentrated on the biography of great men and the elites of national policy-making, and when dealing with the masses, even the minorities, did so in a wholistic, macro-historical manner. Of course, now one of the main currents of historical scholarship is state studies (used to test national hypotheses; one thinks of Robert E. Brown and Jackson T. Main's works on the American Revolutionary era) and family history. The latter, once sneered at as the province of genealogists, antiquarians and other interlopers, is now seen as the key to understanding the relationship between political behavior and cultural and intellectual history. Also, textbooks such as Jim Watts and Allen Davis' Generations have energed, using the microcosmic aspects of personal and family history as the starting point for relating to larger historical concepts and forces.

What all this means finally, is that local and state-wide historical groups and institutions are particularly well situated both to capitalize on the current trends in scholarship, and to cooperate with, assist and guide academic historians in their research and teaching. The present is the ideal time to end the schism between professors and their specialized audience and the historical societies and museums with their popular audiences. For "historical administration" it's time to mature conceptually and broaden its horizons. For academic historians, it's time to end the absurdity of discovering the forgotten underside of American history and then not bothering to inform the common man's sons, daughters and grandchildren of their findings.