Oct. 5, 2006

The Public Historian in the Intellectual Commons

The Intellectual Commons: a place where knowledge can be shared by all. Individuals who come to the intellectual commons are free to deposit new information or make use of what is already available. Some will be great contributors; others will make use of the commons without ever contributing. Where are these commons? All around us: in classrooms and conferences, in books and blogs, in museums and movies, in editorials and educational television (perhaps even in some un-educational television).

The unifying quality of the intellectual commons that remains constant regardless of the medium is that the intellectual commons is always sought by people who wish to engage in an exchange of knowledge. How can the budding public historian employ this knowledge as he or she engages in a pursuit to share good history with others?

In this week’s readings for Public History, one author argued that Canadians were in need of a dominant historical narrative in order to develop a unified Canadian identity, while two other authors outlined research indicating that Americans put a different personal emphasis on the dominant American historical narrative, thus making their own. Aren’t these two authors commenting on the same phenomena? People are taking an interest in the elements of history that they are able to identify with. As people identify more strongly with particular elements of history, they take on a greater sense of ownership for those elements. Historians are the perfect example of this idea: they have taken such an interest in the subject of history that they have built a profession around the study of history and carved out niches of expertise, jealously protecting or arguing for what they accept as the proper narrative or theory. Conversely, the genealogist researching her roots at the time of First Contact will have little regard for how many soldiers and artillery pieces the North and the South brought to the Battle of Gettysburg.

“So what?” The communication of factual information, current research, and ideas supplementing what is already known should be a responsibility of those who choose to study history. Interestingly, the ownership that that non-historians have shown towards elements of the past has created intellectual commons outside of academia. Wikipedia is an example of such a common, and its design and content do not keep to accepted scholarly forms.

The public historian needs to be aware of these competing (or at least, co-existing) commons and create a space (be it exhibit, virtual exhibit, blog, database) that encompasses the needs of everybody who has ownership of and wishes to exchange knowledge regarding the past. Exhibits, for example, should be accessible, compelling to a variety of audiences, and open to interpretation at the same time that they are factual and indicative of the best-argued-for narratives. Content does not need to be cheapened (nor should it) for a public audience, but it may need to be presented in a different way.

Creating an exhibit that meets all of these specifications is challenging in and of itself, but it seems that it would be particularly difficult to hint at historical narratives without pigeon-holing that exhibit. Here are two suggestions: Could the text next to exhibit pieces and pictures ask questions instead of merely giving facts? Could a space be created at the end of the exhibit where the guest could become the creator and add a comment or an idea or a theme for subsequent guests to read and evaluate? It is vital to recognize that individuals coming to the intellectual commons can and do have a significant part to play in telling history; therefore, it is the public historian’s job to encourage dialogue from all parties within the commons.