J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Constitution and Consensus

The Boston Review is running an essay by William Hogeland on the challenges (or lack thereof) of public history. It’s framed around a visit to the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, an independent museum within Independence National Historic Park (i.e., the National Park Service isn’t getting the resources to create modern museums, even about something as crucial to the federal government as the Constitution, so the private and non-profit sector has stepped in).

Bill situates this museum in a long tradition of public commemoration:

From the Parthenon to Trafalgar Square, from the bronze Andrew Jackson of New Orleans to the gilded General Sherman of New York, from Arthurian legend to Serbian epic, history geared for a whole people usually celebrates founding moments, famous victories, hair’s-breadth escapes, tragic losses. It does not always promote fascism. It does tend, almost by definition, to rally nationalism. Thought and nuanced feeling get stifled by a thrill.

In a real democratic republic, where the whole people is supposed to be required to think, a different kind of public history is needed—lively and accessible, yet able to inspire without falsifying and to encourage consideration along with awe.
It’s notable that four of the six monumental examples in that opening are from societies or struggles that we associate with the rise of democratic republic: ancient Athens, the defeat of Napoleon, Andrew Jackson, William T. Sherman as liberator. There are, as Hogeland notes, many more monuments for dictators and monarchs, and dictatorial systems.
Those narratives encapsulate for the general public what scholars know as a “consensus” reading of American history (though many reject the category as simplistic). The term has various meanings and shadings, but refers generally, as its name suggests, to shared American values, transcending political divides and social conflicts and making us, for all our differences, one nation. Breathlessness about the Constitution is a fairly crude manifestation of the consensus approach, which involves more than simple admiration. It has been supported by many of our more sophisticated historians, who argue that the Constitution put into legal operation essentially American commitments and attitudes, which, despite flaws and setbacks, tend to endow more and more people with freedom and equality.

Consensus history thus gives intellectual underpinning to an American liberalism that many self-described conservatives espouse as well. No serious presidential candidate, whatever he plans to do in office, questions the historical consensus, which is ultimately positive, ready-made for the sound bite, and by definition widely accepted.
Indeed. Nor is a presidential campaign the right enterprise to open up a debate on those questions. That would be like an N.F.L. team asking whether participatory or spectator sports are better for society, and starting that debate during a game.
You wouldn’t know it by listening to campaign speeches or by visiting the Constitution Center, but there is no agreement about consensus history or the democratic purpose of the Constitution. A hundred-year war rages in history circles over what was really going on at the founding when it comes to equality, liberty, and law, and how those relationships affected the writing and ratification of the Constitution we live by every day.
I think it’s worth noting that museum exhibits in any field are rarely venues for such deep debates. Even when presenting conflicts and uncomfortable truths, they are by their nature the production of many minds trying to communicate to a broad range of visitors. The very nature of a public institution might require the result to reflect consensus thinking.

Bill reports that his Boston Review essays on “political agendas in public history” will become Inventing American History, to be published by M.I.T. Press in April ’09.


Bob said...

As a long-time museum person, I think this is a perfect illustration of the role that can be played by brochures and booklets in museum. (Yes, this is an official, pedantic, museum-nerd comment.) The big visuals are what people like, are drawn to, and remember. But every gallery ought to have an unobtrusive rack on the wall where you can pick up a (free) two- or five- or ten-page leaflet that takes you deeper into the subject in an academic sense, with citations to professional work. When people go home, those are the things they should carry with them, along with their memories of the dramatic displays.

Monica Edinger said...

Thank you very much for drawing my attention to this article. Much food for thought in the related issue of presenting history to children in museums, classrooms, and books.