Sunday, 24 March 2013

What is the role of public historians in the "history wars?"

The Canadian history community is currently in the midst of a 'history war,' pitting various research interests and narratives against one another. As with most other 'history wars' throughout the English-speaking world ( see Enola Gay or The Valour and the Horror, for example), one aspect of the current situation involves competing narratives embodied in the federal government's promotion of a certain memory of the War of 1812, the rebranding of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, and a re-emphasis on the role of the monarchy in Canadian society.

While this side--the battle between different interpretations of our shared past--is familiar to many working public and academic historians, there is another trend also at work in the wider Canadian community: a perceived epistemological shift away from governance based on facts and reasoned argument to governance based on belief. John Ibbitson of the Globe and Mail discusses this towards the end of his lecture regarding the collapse of the 'Laurentian Consensus' (do a find for "belief" and go to the third hit for this section).

This can be seen in a number of areas: the removal of the CAIRS database that tracked all Access to Information requests received by the federal government from the internet; the cancellation of the long form census; the challenge faced by arms length watch dogs and regulators such as the Parliamentary Budget Officer or the former head of Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, among others; the closure of the Experimental Lakes Area; the silencing of federal scientists; and, most recently and most worrisomely for public historians, the new Code of Conduct at Library and Archives Canada which limits the ability of employees of LAC to volunteer or speak on topics related to LAC (broadly defined) on their own time.

These two fronts, the interpretation of Canadian history and the shift to governance based on belief, are at the same time separate and innately related. For example, the arguably most important threshold concept of all history professions is that the narrative of past events is up for debate, that different sources tell different stories about the same event and that everyone experiences life differently. The debates regarding the use of nuclear bombs or the aerial bombardment of cities during the Second World War are perfect examples of the kind of tension produced by the existence of conflicting narratives of the past. 

By taking the role as mediators between past events and present publics, public history professionals have to navigate a minefield full of hard political and ethical questions in order to present an accurate picture of what happened within the confines of their institution's mandate and position, which may be defined based on a pre-existing belief in what happened that is not based on a critical reading of all the sources.

What, then, is the public historian's role in the history wars? In particular, what is the role of public historians as employees, contractors, and consultants at government funded institutions and also as private citizens who are deeply interested in the past? Where is the line between professional institutional behaviour and free speech? What are the risks involved in presenting critical histories to the broader public or speaking out on topics about which one is passionate? Do government funding priorities and codes of conducts create 'chilling effects' that limit critical interpretations or even professional outreach and personal volunteerism?

I am not going to propose any answers to these questions, but I do invite comments. Also, during the Nation Council on Public History's upcoming conference in Ottawa, I'll be facilitating a "Dine Around" session on precisely these questions. I'm also working on a list of links related to Canada's current history war that should be interesting for those who care about public history.

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