The Local History Services team recently hosted an In Your Neighborhood lunchtime meeting in southern Indiana. I must say that if you have never found yourself in New Harmony, Indiana, you should definitely go. It is a great spot with beautiful architecture and dozens of interesting shops, I am certainly going back! When we have our lunchtime meetings we host them in order to get folks from local heritage organizations together to eat, meet and chat about a topic of the host institution's choosing. A few weeks ago our host, the Working Men's Institute, chose Dealing with Difficult History as the topic of discussion.
In preparation for facilitating this meeting, I read a few articles and, most helpful, one of the newer books from the American Association for State and Local History's Interpreting History series with Rowman and Littlefield. The book Interpreting Difficult History at Museums and Historic Sites by Julia Rose was immensely helpful in seeing all the things that must be considered when tackling a difficult topic.
The discussion at our meeting ranged from what qualifies as "difficult" history to how to help organizational staff be prepared for questions and potential conflict that might arise in public spaces when difficult topics are broached. We talked about the fact that there are all different types of difficult histories and they can be difficult in different ways and to different extents. There are difficult histories that might cause conflict to arise due to opposing opinions, such as discussing which state can claim Abraham Lincoln; those that may be hard to digest based on a visitor's own life experiences or the traumatic nature of the event, for instance terrorist attacks or school shootings. There are also those that might be hard because they challenge our understanding of a historical figure, like the new discussions of slavery at Thomas Jefferson's Moticello.
Risks are certainly involved with interpreting and tackling difficult histories. However, there are also risks involved in not tackling them. By keeping hard-to-discuss historical narratives outside the realm of the historical organizations, we risk them not being truly discussed at all. As the keepers of history and those charged with making all historical topics accessible to the public, we must present all sides of a narrative and teach visitors to think critically and study the facts to inform their present and future decisions.
History is difficult ... so let's talk about it!