The relationship between audience and content in public history projects is mostly a question of authority, that is, who has the authority to decide the content and what role the audience plays in the public history project.
At the beginning, public historians saw “the public” the synonym for a generalized and somewhat passive “audience” and as a result, public history programs initially focused on the products of the history work not the process. The public historians saw the public history as new avenues and methods for communicating their ideas (A New Kind of Technician, XXI). However, in mid-1970s, the historian J.Ronald Grele made his call for the change of role of historians in public history, he proposed that “every man can become his own historian.” The task of public historians should be the facilitators rather than communicators of history, “the task of the public historian, broadly defined, should be to help members of the public do their own history and to aid them in understanding their role in shaping and interpreting events.” (A New Kind of Technician, xxiii). Some historians did not agree with this, they still emphasized scholarly authority, arguing that public historians must produce responsible narratives and challenge prevalent myth about the past. Since public history projects are in nature collaborative, I think it is questionable to place the authority to decide the content only in the hands of the historians. As a scholar argues, history should serve public good, “providing a window through which average Americans might catch a glimpse of the past and recognize their own place in the nation’s story.” (Conclusion, Towards a New Genealogy of Public History, 159). Like Grele, it emphasized again the facilitator role of historians rather than the authority to transmit history to the “passive” audience.
The success of Chinatown history museum proves that to involve the public in the making of history exhibits can interest wider public and energize the history profession by the “dialogue-driven approach.” The contact with the public made the projects community-based. The people involved in the program was not only the museum staff and historians, but also Asian Americans, New Yorkers, East Side residents etc. As the founder of the Chinatown history museum said, “if we have learned anything since the Chinatown History Museum was founded, it has been that a community-based history organization can serve some real and important needs felt by our constituencies. But these needs can be effectively served only by engaging in continual dialogue with people.” (Creating a Dialogic Museum, 291). It broke the tradition that a few historians and historical organizations decided the interpretations of the history and culture of a community but involved in the collaboration of many different people to interpret the past and to define the experience and perception of China town. For example, in the Salvaging New York Chinatown exhibition, a photograph caused great public interest. It was a photo of a fourth-grade class from P.S.23 and many individuals came for to the identify people in the photo and their memories of the school. The museum decided to organize a reunion of those Chinese who attended school. Even Italian residents called in large number. This experience told us the dialogic approach created the space for historians, the public and the community to examine history today. Only with the public participation that the history could help to fundamentally question and revision who we are and what we should be doing.
The shared authority between historians and the public sometimes created tension. As the historian Barbara Franco said, “while we have a responsibility to monitor accuracy, our public partners are seeking understanding and meaning.” (A Shared Inquiry, 20) And sometimes the stories public historians want to tell are sometimes not the stories the public wants to hear. The one possible way to solve this problem is to acknowledge the heritage is stronger than history. Community history thrives in situations where people feel comfortable enough to confront their own pasts and share with others (A Shared Inquiry, 24). But sometimes the situation is not black-and-white. It takes negotiation, compromise and hard decision. Take the Meet Me at the Fair exhibition in Saint Louis as an example, the Filipino community thought the Igorot dog-eating stories were painful racist insults to other Filipinos but the historian still decided to exhibit the photo because the historian wanted to retain the interpretive control. The hindsight reflection of the historian that she should involved local Filipino Americans in the give-and-take discussion before putting the photo on the wall so that they may be able to agree on its value in the exhibit. This story also showed the important role the public played in the planning and staging of public history.
It’s not easy to do the public history well. As a historian, I understand historians’ insistence on accuracy and authority but we need to learn to practice with the public, not only for the public so that history can play a bigger role in the social progress of the society, providing a space of members of society to discuss, argue and reflect the varied pasts which are the touchtone for the present and for the future. Historians should join the public’s ongoing conversation, sharing the inquiry and authority of historians with the public in the formative stages of projects. It is an reciprocal process where the public and the historians can learn from each other.