Reimagining Public History in the COVID Era

This is a presentation essay I prepared for a conference in April 2021.

My talk today is about public history in the “COVID Era” — it is also about larger questions of relevance, service, and presentism. Over the past year, my day-to-day work as a public historian has changed to a degree that continues to surprise me. I became a public historian because I believe in the power of place. I wanted to work with people in and among landscapes that give us the room to step out of the present to understanding something universal about what it means to be human. On a practical level, this has meant having engaging discussions in auditoriums, on canal boats, in large mansions, and on the creaky floorboards of stuffy historic homes. Now, as with most people, I primarily connect with others through the internet. While this has allowed me to make new and far-flung contacts, I have also missed the sparks that come from directly interfacing with people in historic spaces. Before delving further into these topics, I want to talk about context. 

As I write this, more than 562,000 people in the United States have died from Coronavirus. I am starting with this fact, a kind of simple statement, because I don’t know anyone who hasn’t experienced great loss in the past year. Every one of us has had to adjust our lives in one way or many ways, and all of us have some awareness of this daunting figure. At the beginning of the pandemic, archivists, historians, and other practitioners of public history encouraged individuals, families, and communities to keep records of their lives in and out of quarantine. This may have seemed like a contained ask: an ideal spring or summer project for people spending more time inside, away from other activities. It felt like a promising moment to begin keeping a diary, or family log of new activities. I don’t want to diminish that moment by claiming there was novelty to it, but there was a sense that this was a small window of time worth remembering.   

A year later, we have many more deaths, a general exhaustion with quarantine, and few outlets or spaces set aside for mourning what haunts us. On national level, it was nearly a year into the pandemic before a leading figure called for a large-scale event for memorialization. Then President-elect Joseph Biden honored the first 400,000 on January 19, 2021 while acknowledging that “For many months, we have grieved by ourselves.” This event was for the dead and for the living; truly, a small gesture for the many who have suffered. None of this was expected or inevitable, and it remains hard to imagine talking about public history here and now without pausing for grief. That word can refer to grief in the sense of pain, the misery of feeling such sadness. Grief can also refer to a bother. This duality is well suited to discussions of Coronavirus. Many institutions, and many of our media outlets, have had less and less time and space for dealing with grief, as if it was simply in the way of “real life.” Despite this reluctance to face hard facts, we are indeed in a COVID era, and not just the throes of a pandemic.

Historians know that there was a similar nonresponse to the Flu Pandemic in the 19-teens and 1920s. There was no great halting of society, no mass memorialization, and a hundred years later, still few markers of that pandemic. Warren G. Harding didn’t create the term normalcy, but he certainly did bring it to the fore of American consciousness. We, too, have already heard those calls for a return to normal, and for what used to seem comfortable. With our historians’ brains, we might understand why people might find elements of the recent past a more alluring place. Still, we know that we cannot return to how the world used to be. One of the great challenges we face in moving forward is not just thinking about how we will all co-exist in close proximity again, but how we will recreate broken social bonds. Without openly and repeatedly talking about who we have lost, we cannot truly fathom the pain our audiences will be feeling for years to come.

This is not just because of the pandemic. The acts of violence against Black Americans, Asian Americans, and the attempted coup in January 2021 have taken a cumulative toll and further traumatized communities already under siege within systems of white supremacy.

When studying History, you may have wondered how people made it through other moments, particularly difficult ones. Now you know that the mundane acts of life seem to press on through moments of great upheaval. You have learned that even amidst marches of thousands in the streets and reports of mass burials, the world seems to keep going, and many are quick to smooth over the roughest edges of what others have just been through. Clint Smith has a poem that speaks to this: “When people say, ‘we have made it through worse before.’” He writes, “We are not all left standing after the war has ended. Some of us have become ghosts by the time the dust has settled.” 

Historians know that the people who remain have power over the stories we tell. Yet this past year has heightened my awareness (and I think others’) of the fact that a shared experience is still experienced radically differently. While we all have some level of fatigue surrounding these topics, reimagining of our field still demands a sharp focus on what we’ve been seeing, feeling, and living through, right up to now. This means honing a clearer and more sustained view of the present than most public historians have been trained to cultivate. In June 2020, The Brooklyn Museum posted a tweet about needing to postpone a regularly scheduled program. In solidarity with Black Lives Matter, the museum decided to “honor the space that our collective grief requires…” (June 5, 2020) In a more recent tweet, one of their social media authors wrote, “As we surpass the one year anniversary of the pandemic, we’re thinking about how exhausting this extended crisis has been and how we can seek rest even as we persevere.” (March 21, 2021) 

In such a small number of characters, this post models empathy, relevance, and a sense of community. This tweet also succinctly frames much of what has been happening within and around cultural institutions—the “extended crisis” that has seeped into our culture. Usually, a historical essay would not rely so much on very recent newspaper articles and social media posts. However, public history discourse is changing quickly and evolving online. My professional world (and probably yours, too) has gotten both smaller and more global through the web. In thinking about the state of the field or a “reimagining,” I want to situate the importance of these kinds of platforms and what it might mean for the future of our work.

Overall, people who work within public history have had to use virtual platforms much more to communicate with their audiences. Before last spring, I had never done a Facebook Live program, used Webex, or hosted an event on Zoom. What’s more, I had not known how to edit videos or write captions. Within a few months, however, I learned how to do all these things, and more, together with my colleagues. I spent more and more time in front of a screen, communicating through texts, emails, and other chats more than before. Instead of serendipitous interactions with the public, I was reviewing comments online and answering messages.   

There were some upsides, particularly before screen burnout became so acute. In lieu of a carpet storytime face-to-face, I could read on Facebook live. This allowed me to reach an audience that may not come into the park. Likewise, I was able to expand the audience for facilitated dialogue programs using virtual platforms. Though “Hands-on” programs went to the wayside, in their place, we experimented with how we could reach people through screens. Since we couldn’t hand out the thousands of trading cards we’d made on local leaders for the 19th Amendment centennial, using the same research, we worked on videos featuring those women. Those videos have reached more than the sum of cards we printed.

While focusing on virtual media, we also thought about how to address the pandemic and/or histories of public health. A discussion on the flu pandemic or medical history did not seem quite right for our audience, not yet. Then the New York Times published the headline “US Deaths Near 100,000, An Incalculable Loss,” followed by the list of names, and that seemed to finally grab ahold of people’s attention. In response, activists Adrianne Benzion and Jessica McEwan used that same format for “The Incalculable Loss Project” to highlight “names with those of unarmed African Americans who died during incidents of police brutality.” These initiatives spurred me and my colleagues to look anew at another public health crisis. Using obituaries from Robert John Quinn’s “Memorial Books” collected during the AIDS epidemic, we made a one minute video on local men who’d died as a result of the disease and used the framework of an “incalculable loss.”

While working on digital media, I had the chance to connect with new partners, such as The History Project: Documenting LGBTQ Boston, whose team preserved the Quinn “Memorial Books.” In addition to building outside relationships, I know that my institution was not alone in using some of this “doors closed” time to further develop research that had been sitting in various desktop folders. My work group spent months making app-based tours. I was also able to contribute to a few similar local projects, and to work on a “ghost sign” initiative, recreating a painted advertisement from the bygone patent medicine era. All these projects were portable, personal, and generally far more accessible. They also did not require the direct guidance or interpretation of a professional, and could be read, watched, or consumed at any time. Even when the doors were closed, we were still able to build interpretive connections with people, wherever they might find themselves.  

While building new relationships, I was seeing new or different risks, too; there were pervasive fears of intrusions on Zoom, and the lack of trust that can pervade an online space. There was also far more “backend” work with editing, audio descriptions, captions, and more. I’ve been doing social media work as part of my job for many years and continue to do that interpretive work on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. What changed in 2020 is that I was doing more of it than ever before and spending far more time on in-depth research posts. I was also showing more people how to do this kind of interpretation, often in lieu of presenting to the public on tours or at historic sites. People who had not really thought of social media or digital media as part of their work were suddenly asked to learn a lot of new skills. I saw this not only at my own workplace, but at so many institutions whose work I follow online. On one level, it is extremely gratifying to reach thousands of people with something you’ve written on Facebook, though the true reach of that work is often quite hard to measure.

While I’d like to portray this as a great moment in diversifying skill sets, there’s another element to this story. Walking to my car in late March 2020, I recall hearing news that ⅓ of museums that closed their doors “out of an abundance of caution” would likely never open again. Often, people had to learn new skills last year because they had missing colleagues and their entire workplace had been turned upside down. With layoffs, staff shrinkages, and more, people had to suddenly adapt to new workloads without the benefit of the teams they’d had even a month earlier. At least at the start of the pandemic, I wasn’t hearing that much about this (in a way that felt productive) on a national, or organizational level. Where I was reading about this was through the personal feeds of people I knew and respected in the field. Over a few months, I continued to see news about institutions closing their doors, more layoffs, hiring freezes, and “eliminated positions.”

As some people packed for telework, some people packed their things for good, and others had no choice but to keep showing up for work. Sometimes it was hard to discern a real pattern, or logic, in who was doing what, and why. Many people in the museum field also had this sense of fear, I think, about what was coming next. Then a larger story broke. At one especially well-known museum  where interpreters frequently discuss labor and activism, there were two competing narratives last summer about what needed to be done to keep the place afloat. On the one hand, the Tenement Museum was actively campaigning for financial support, emphasizing how important it was to preserve stories of working-class people and resistance. On the other hand, workers fought back against the narrative that their layoffs were the only path forward. Tenement Museum union representatives argued that “the pandemic closure is being used as an opportunity to circumvent our unionization [.]” (July 31, 2020) This was not an isolated case.

Through April and May, I read posts written by people who loved their jobs and either feared or knew they’d never get them back. I felt as though I was watching a field shrink in real time; I’m sure I’m not alone. Over the past year, it’s been hard to know why some institutions are opening or closing at any given time. For some, it’s too expensive to stay closed, and for others, too much to open the doors with so few people coming through each day. In a New York Times article from February 2021, “Is Seeing That Renoir Essential?” Julia Jacobs reports: “Epidemiologists do not have a simple answer as to whether museums should be open — and whether people should visit them — at this stage of the pandemic.” Overall, “‘The decision making has been really erratic,’ said Laura Lott, president of the American Alliance of Museums.”

This is not really a surprise given how “erratic” and uncoordinated the response to COVID-19 has been in general. The question in the NYT headline can be readily answered: no, seeing a Renoir painting isn’t essential. But many other “non-essential” operations have also been open almost without interruption. Museums area also treated differently than other kinds of public spaces. The relationships people have to museums and public history sites are different, in part, because we insist (and often work to have others agree) that these are special places. The American Alliance of Museums put out a tweet on March 24: “The ways a #museum can inspire are endless: acting as a hub for education, providing services to those in need during crises, combatting social isolation, providing space and resources for healing, and more.” I think this can be true, but I also wonder if we prepared to do that without a longer and deeper reckoning—or another reorientation away from heavy reliance on screens and virtual work.

 We are torn, in many ways, I think between the reality of the pandemic and the deep wish that this period of grief come to a close. Many of us have to balance the pull of the virtual with the needs of visitors walking through the doors. As visitors arrive in greater numbers each day, it’s useful to ask why, and to consider what they are looking for, or what they need. People in the fields of parks, recreation, and museums talk a lot and often in vague terms about the healing qualities of art and nature. We also discuss the value of community. It has been surprising to me that there has not been more of a conversation about the value of museums as places to “escape” this current moment, but that is because these places are as much doors as mirrors. As with many other facets of society, the deeply embedded systems of racism and white supremacy that are endemic to our culture are also prevalent in public history: “23% of visitors to the parks were people of color, the National Park Service found in its most recent 10-year survey; 77% were white.” One article aptly called this “an existential crisis.” (“Existential Crisis” July 2020) 

 Truly processing the grief not just of the past year, but of the traumas that have been inflicted on many Americans for hundreds of years, requires careful work. It also means listening so much more to communities online, and to people who have historically been marginalized and even kept out of “public” spaces for our so-called “shared” heritage. I think this also requires a hyper attentiveness to the context in which we are all living and using our skills to better understand our world as it is now. While training to become a historian, I was warned about presentism. I still agree with the idea that we should not rush to judgments or evaluations of the past based on values or common assumptions from today. However, I am increasingly convinced that some of this thinking is rooted in a fear of making certain audiences uncomfortable, particularly audiences who have long been made to feel safe/supported at historic sites. Put another way, sometimes a caution about presentism is really a fear of recognizing or reckoning with historical injustices or changing the demographics of who comes through the door.

In 2019, I hosted a community dialogue on “race and place,” and considering the industrial north and the history of slavery. As part of that talk, I had the opportunity to interview Maiyah Gamble-Rivers (from the Center for Slavery and Social Justice, Brown University). She said something I won’t soon forget about teaching and public history: “actually learning true history or a more complex history, it leaves a lot of young people frustrated and angry, right?” When speaking to young people who go to a school named after a person who profited off the slave trade, Gamble-Rivers explains, “what would it mean for me to then show up to students at middle school and say, ‘Oh, your school is named after the slave ship captain, he did X, Y and Z.’ I can’t just drop that on them and then and then expect them to continue…there definitely needs to be a conversation about how we equip educators to do that work, but also how do we prepare students for that knowledge? Because so much of our education has been about preserving myths and preserving this country.” 

With more than half a million dead, we should think daily about the myths that serve a system that does not serve all of us. In my work as an interpreter, I often paraphrase Joe Hill and discuss the ways that workers have mourned and organized. Looking broadly at public history, it’s a good as time as any to do both of those things. I think museums and public history sites can be spaces for healing, but not by ignoring the hurt or the racism that has been deeply rooted in the field. When museum directors post job advertisements seeking candidates who will suit their “traditional, core, white art audience” (“White Art Audience,” February 2021) it’s hard to justify such places as essential during a pandemic. Although some institutions have gone beyond diversity and equity statements, I suspect a good number will avoid, or will lack the staff to undertake, such work. 

I want to end by talking about the value of working with people who aren’t historians, or public historians. On one of my Facebook live programs, a group of artists reached out to me to work on a musical about a workers’ petition. This chat evolved into one of the most satisfying collaborations I have ever been part of — the end product, an EP, features songs that so wonderfully bridge the past and present. A creative cast of women artists took something that’s been covered in endless books and articles and gave it a new pulse. The first time I was able to listen to the EP in the museum space that inspired the songs, I cried. It felt good to do something human in a place where people have worked, mourned, and organized for hundreds of years. I hope that more people are able to join me in that, soon, and that we can talk about the way these years have changed us.

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