By Avi Decter and Ken Yellis
It is now more than ninety years since Carl Becker delivered his presidential address to the American Historical Association. “Everyman His Own Historian” has since become the most cited AHA talk, and its thesis still resonates in the thought and practice of public history professionals. The implications of Becker’s argument, however, are still being worked through by history organizations and public history practitioners. It is timely, then, to revisit Becker’s landmark address and to assess its utility in a new and different era.
Becker’s thesis is quite simple: “Every normal person, Mr. Everyman, knows some history.” Moreover, says Becker, at any given moment, everyone weaves new perceptions into their personal pattern of memory and knowledge; that is, in our particular consciousness, past and present merge in a living history. It follows, then, that what “we affirm and hold in memory . . . can not be precisely the same for all at any given time, or the same for one generation after another. . . . It is rather an imaginative creation, a personal possession which each one of us, Mr. Everyman, fashions out of his individual experience, adapts to his practical or emotional needs, and adorns as well as may be to suit his aesthetic tastes.”
If this view is correct, and we think it is, then most of the people who encounter our facilities, exhibitions, and programs bring with them their own historical narratives, beliefs, and memories. The museum experience (actual or virtual) thus becomes an encounter between the user’s version of history and the organization’s version. Sometimes these align. Sometimes not. Whichever the case, the familiar notion that visitors come to us empty of ideas and expectations, hoping to be “filled” with new information and new narratives, is certainly a false assumption, as Lois Silverman, John Falk, Lynn Dierking, and many others have contended.
In fact, a recent survey by the AHA, History, the Past, and Public Culture (2021), tends to support the idea that all of us are “suspended in webs of significance” we have spun for ourselves. For one thing, 92% of those surveyed expressed interest in learning about events in the past (Fig. 8). Moreover, they appear to learn about history almost continuously: two-thirds of all respondents pick up historical information and narratives from movies and television in the form of documentaries, fictional films, and news programs; they also pick up historical ideas from a wide variety of other sources, ranging from Wikipedia to video games to social media (Fig. 14), though they prefer to learn about the past from direct encounters with historical objects (Fig. 46)
The survey goes on to report that respondents prefer to encounter history “on its own terms and to actively investigate it rather than passively receive it.” So much for users as empty vessels waiting to be filled!
In fact, 62% of the survey respondents reported that knowledge of history should change, suggesting an openness to revising their own ideas of history (Fig. 112), and 89% said that “knowledge of others was just as important to know as was knowledge of [their] own racial or ethnic communities” (Fig. 70).
Viewing our users as “active agents who are pursuing their own agendas,” as Jay Rounds puts it, comports well with the emphasis on meaning-making that is evident across the museum field in general and public history in particular. Museum audiences are not just looking for new facts and new information; they are actively constructing knowledge through interaction with objects and texts, other people, and different kinds of cultural institution. People are, in short, on personal journeys, and along the way they assimilate experiences, ideas, and memories in personal narratives about their place in life and in history, just as Carl Becker argued all those years ago.
Becker’s insights and those of more recent theorists of museum learning have several clear implications for the practice of public history. One is that history museums and historic sites, even though they are the most trusted sources of historical knowledge, are neither seen nor used by visitors as exclusive or authoritative narrators. Instead, our sites should be viewed as contact zones, places for fostering participation and dialogue. Recognizing this, our history organizations need to be clear about what we are saying and how we are saying it, ceding agency (and final say) to our audiences and communities. This certainly does not mean that we have to present manifestly false or patently skewed interpretations, only that we should acknowledge our users as full partners in considering differing historical narratives and reflecting on what makes one more plausible, authentic, and accurate than another.
This means that our museums and sites are, or should be, places for conversations, even difficult conversations. We can start by acknowledging multiple narratives and interpretations of salient historical trends, events, figures, and movements; not with the intention of knocking down straw men and validating one preferred storyline, but rather to open up the conversation. Our goal for those conversations should not be consensus or acquiescence. Something more modest is in order: to foster civility in discourse and mutual understanding as an outcome. “I never thought of it that way!” may be sufficient, especially in a time when many traditional narratives have broken down and our polity is roiled by divisive disinformation and concepts in conflict.
If we want our historical narratives to be more inclusive and more complex, it’s a good idea to begin with the conviction that our users are themselves historians.
They may not be familiar with the latest historical scholarship nor trained in the academic study of the past, but as Carl Becker showed, they know how to call up memories of things said and done and learned and how to use those memories to guide their future attitudes and actions. If we welcome people as the historians they are, rather than passive beneficiaries of our authority and expertise, we are more likely to engage them and inform their interpretations and stories about our shared, but unstable past.
Avi Decter ([email protected]), principal of History Now, has worked in public history for over forty years, and is the author of Interpreting American Jewish History at Museums and Historic Sites. His many projects include the Boott Cotton Mill at Lowell National Historical Park; the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum; Louisville Slugger Museum and Visitor Center; and the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Ken Yellis ([email protected]), principal of Project Development Services, is a historian with four decades in the museum field. Yellis has worked extensively with the Museum Education Roundtable and has been involved in over a hundred history, science, and art exhibitions.