The Way We Do the Things We Do: Making History-Making Visible

Historians in the News
tags: historians, academia, archives, writing

Benjamin Filene works at the North Carolina Museum of History, Raleigh, NC.

Sometimes being on unfamiliar ground leads to new perspectives on one’s home turf. Through a Fulbright fellowship, I spent this winter and spring exploring the public history scene in Finland. Toward the end, I was invited to Bergen, Norway, to give a keynote for the annual meeting of the Nordic Association for American Studies, whose conference theme was “Monuments.” I titled my talk “Etched in Stone vs. a Fluid Past: Monuments, Museums, and History-Making in Public.” My point that was that the Confederate monument wars in America have not only surfaced lurking racism but have shown that we history professionals have failed to convey to the public how history really works: that history-making is an act of interpretation and assembly—that these statues are not eternal statements, but historically contingent ones tied to power. How, I asked, can historians “pull back the curtain” and reveal the process of history-making in action? I shared some thoughts about how we might do so in scholarship, in the classroom, and in museums. But at the time, I worried it might all sound too theoretical or idealistic.  Then I went on to Stockholm and saw striking examples of what I had in mind in three different museums!

Of the three, the Swedish History Museum most directly explores how museums construct the past. Its exhibition History Unfolds introduces the museum itself as a “Reality Machine,” one that creates history and reflects contemporary ideas of identity and power.

The exhibition then offers visitors tools and case studies for thinking about how that process of reality-formation works. For instance, it displays a helmet from 600 C.E. When the helmet was unearthed in the nineteenth century, its elongated form was used to bolster a theory of the racial distinctiveness of the Swedes. Then in 1915, the exhibition notes, artist Carl Larrson incorporated these helmets into a painting showing the sacrifice of a Swedish king at a mythical “heathen temple.” Larsson felt that the helmets “make us believe in the original nobility and greatness of our race.”


Read entire article at American Association for State and Local History

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