I was recently reading an article from Lapham’s Quarterly, “They,” that discusses the political and psychological aspects of how people group themselves and then react to that grouping. The article drew inspiration from a Rudyard Kipling poem “We and They” (full poem here). The article goes on to site examples throughout history of war, unrest, and political scheming that originated with the “us” versus “them” mindset. I will admit that the farther I read into this article the more my mind wandered to my own programs and how I used the terms “we,” “us,” “you,” “they,” and “them.”Suddenly I had all of these questions about how I interpret information. Was I unintentionally setting up a false distinction between groups of people throughout history? Was I co-opting a group’s culture and history as my own? Am I making my audience feel like a part of history or separating them from it? Ultimately, how much does it matter to my site’s story?
I would imagine that every historic site has some form of “Us vs. Them.” Maybe it is Colonists/Loyalists, Native Americans/Europeans, Union/Confederate, or simply Family/Everyone Else. Maybe it is a combination of all of those and more. I work at a state museum, so we have programming that deals with many different topics, cultures, and conflicts. Even when the conflict isn’t the story we are telling there is usually some element of one group as opposed to another. If our story is one of conflict (wars being the most obvious example) then do we need an “Us vs. Them” narrative?
I reflected on the programs that I give with a focus on how I define groups. The one that stood out to me is our prehistoric Native American program. We give students an overview of the progression of Native American culture from Paleo to Mississippian within my state by discussing the changes in culture over the course of thousands of years. Very few of the students that come into our museum are Native American and, as far as I know, none of them are a few hundred years old, but I have found that I use “we” when describing their actions. “As we move from hunting and gathering toward agriculture…”, “We begin to develop more intricate…”
This is something I do in other programs that we offer, but it stands out the most in my Native American program. I know that I do this as a way to connect the visitors with the story. I am also using “we” to stand for human beings very generally and their overall behaviors. I want students to discover that the differences of race, ethnicity, culture, origin, or time period don’t erase the similarities that we share. Stepping into the perspective of any group can give you a better understanding of what life was like for them.
I’m interested in who your “Us’s” and “Them’s” are at your site. How do you tell their stories? Do you try to tell all sides? Do you just present the facts of what happened and allow your visitors to make the connections to the story where it matters most to them? Can it be insensitive to tell the story of a culture other than your own? I encourage you to leave a story about a time when you have had to deal with this issue below.