Sunday, November 8, 2009

Readings for November 9

Nancy Raquel Mirabal, “Geographies of Displacement: Latinas/os, Oral History, and the Politics of
Gentrification in San Francisco’s Mission District,” and Eric O’Keefe, “Auctioning the Old West to Help a City in the East.” As well as the addition, "The End of History: What is Plan B?"

This week's 'theme' so far as we have one, is Community Engagement. How does history engage the communities in which it is experienced. As can be seen from this week's readings, experience and engagement does not necessarily have to be of the history of that particular area.

I'm not entirely sure what to do with the "Auctioning the Old West to Help a City in the East" article. Besides from the shady quality by which the artifacts were acquired (nothing like not telling your taxpayers where their money is going), I suppose I did not find odd the desire to tell that part of Harrisburg's history. I think it is a provocative shift of scope to frame Harrisburg as the beginning of the journey to the 'frontier'. Even if in the 19th century it was no longer the edge of the wilderness, it is an intriguing make people see that at one point most of the country as 'new' and that past Ohio was considered an adventure (which for many it still may be...but not in a bison, native American sort of way).

However, I did enjoy Mirabal's article. I am a big fan of using individual memories to tell the histories of an area, for without them, histories become silenced. In this case, these individual memories tell the story of an area quickly moving away from the culture that defined it for many years. Are these memories, however, community engagement? Are the oral histories which Mirabal and her cohort collected going to enact social change? Possibly. They certainly seem to hope so, if going by nothing else than the title of the project "La Mision: Voices of Resistance." It would be interesting to see if since the dot com boom has busted, whether the older residences and cultures have returned. Do the previous residents of the Mission area have shared authority, and better yet, are they utlizing it?

On a slightly different note, Cary Carson's article about the death of history museums. He begs public historians to look at the people walking through the door and focus on the quality of museum that those visitors are seeing. He notes that public historians are, in one way or another, history teachers. I feel that many (most?) public historians would agree to that, but as we have discussed previously, are they to be stewards only to the visitors and not to the collections? His Plan B, which is pretty much pandering to the short attention span of Americans (thanks, Sesame Street), leads us on the slippery slope of sanitizing history so that when people visit, they can be immersed without feeling uncomfortable. Immersion history often leads to a linear progress view for most visitors, the 'oh look, they were stupid and we're so advanced' view of history, something which I personally try to discourage to the best of my ability. Not to say that history museums do not need to shift focus to keep the attention of their visitors, but is just 'giving them what they want' really an effective tool to being a historian or a history teacher?

And really, the idea of a history soap opera kind of makes me ill.

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