Nov. 22, 2006

Identify Yourself

I have a confession: I’ve been thinking about class discussions outside of class. Whereas I once used to occasionally contemplate how to transform my essay title into a brilliant eight-word alliteration (historians love alliterations), I now find myself chewing on ideas brought up in class as I walk home.

My reader is probably thinking that I am transforming into an unbearable, over-achieving dork. Well… that might be true, but listen: I’m a Public History student who is still trying to understand what “public history” is. Today I encountered three people who together helped me to understand what a public historian can and can’t do; if I hadn’t been thinking dorky school thoughts, I might not have put the pieces together!

On my walk to school, I unexpectedly ran into a cousin who also attends Western; we rarely see each other outside of family get-togethers, so it was fantastic to be able to catch up while we made our way to campus. After class, I saw a guy who was a part of the same exchange to Trois-Pistoles that I participated in. I never had the opportunity to speak to him in Quebec though, so it didn’t seem meaningful or necessary to talk to him today. On my way home, I walked past a young man who I had gone to high school with. Although we had both been in band, he was a couple years younger than me and I don’t think we ever shared a conversation. Today, I gave him a half-smile and continued on my way.

I felt a little guilty for not taking a minute to say “Hey – I know you!” On the other hand, the only person of the three that I had shared a significant relationship with was my cousin. At best, I am probably a poor networker for not strengthening the other two relationships; at worst I could be called anti-social. I doubt that I am alone in making that choice to not talk to another person. Few people like walking away from a conversation thinking, “Well, that was awkward!” I think I took the time to talk to my cousin because we are connected by stronger links. We have shared the same experiences, are related to the same people, and see each other on a somewhat regular basis. In short, we identify with one another on a number of levels. I had been thinking about national identity as I was walking home (When you’re hungry, you need to keep your mind occupied), and these encounters seem to put some pieces together for me.

It’s important for us to be able to identify with others, isn’t it? Last week in Public History, we tried to understand why people in one country would choose to identify with one another. What makes a person from St. John associate more strongly with a person from Calgary than a person from Bangor, Maine? As Canadians, we supposedly share a set of values and experiences that give us a sense of pride in our identity and distinguish us from the citizens of other nations. Although there are certain current events that we can identify with, the stories from our collective past also form a significant portion of the experiences we would consider “shared.” If this is the case, historians would appear to be essential in developing a Canadian identity.

A Canadian identity? It would appear that historians should also be asking for a raise because it’s a pretty tall order to come up with one, inclusive, grand narrative that tells the story of all Canadians. Recent readings and class discussion have underscored what a Herculean task it would be to create a national story that everybody – scholars, governments, minority groups, and members of the diverse Canadian public – would be happy with. We are also coming to the realization that exhibits will continually change as historians discover new evidence and that, ultimately, public history is strongly influenced by both economic considerations (It’s hard to put up continually put on controversial exhibits if your sources of funding are uninterested in stirring the pot).

The public historian needs to be a touch more pragmatic when facing these problems, so I would be willing to forfeit my raise if I were allowed to develop identities. I chose not renew the relationship I shared with the two men I encountered today. Canadians will place an emphasis on the elements of their identity that they see as most important. My role as a public historian is to present a number of stories and a number of values. In so doing, I hope to encourage people to think critically: “What do I agree with?” What do I think is rubbish?” “Why do I think this way?” Perhaps this sort of public history will entrench more regional identities; however, I said the public historian need to be a touch more pragmatic. The absurdly optimistic public historian inside of me hopes that this sort of history will not only make people feel better about their individual identity but also drive Canadians towards a consensus on what it means to be Canadian.

The Public History students’ exhibit at Museum London seeks to present one identity of London. It is our hope that visitors will come away with the sense that Londoners both embrace inventions and foster innovation. Will everybody who comes to the museum share this sense that London is a city of inventors? Will you identify with this community? Hopefully you’ll be considering these questions while you’re visiting.
And don’t worry – if you keep thinking about what you learned from the exhibit after you leave, I won’t think you’re a dork!