Jenny Reeder


Connecting the Public Past, Present and Future: A New History
November 14, 2006, 8:09 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Nauvoo Illinois TempleLast week I had an insightful phone conversation with my old boss who is now over exhibitions and publications for the LDS Church’s history division. She was delighted to hear about all the different things I’ve learned in Clio Wired, and she mentioned several exciting possibilities in her department for digital public history projects within the Mormon church, particularly with their museums, historic sites, and publications. They have developed some fascinating online exhibits and want to do more, particularly for an international audience (see www.josephsmith.net and http://www.lds.org/churchhistory/0,15478,4154-1,00.html#FlashPluginDetected). With this in mind, I read this week’s readings on museums and public history with a different perspective.

A common theme weaved throughout the readings: people use history to connect to themselves, their multiple pasts, their families, and to their local and national communities. Rachel Coldicuatt, for example, discussed the importance of democratizing history by drawing on multiplicity. I think this is particularly relevant for the LDS Church as membership becomes increasingly international. Their exhibitions and publications need to portray that. In The Presence of the Past, Roy Rosenzweig ant David Thelen also talked about the connections that are made, particularly with family history, to draw people together.

This New History requires new methodologies and new possibilities to link professional and amateur historians. Rosenzweig poses the question: “Why not make use of the World Wide Web, which has emerged as a popular venue for amateur historians, to create virtual meeting grounds for professionals and nonprofessionals?” Kevin von Appen, Bryan Kennedy, and Jim Spadaccini discussed the trend to decentralize and democratize through “sociable technologies,” including blogs, podcasts, wikis, and open-source content management tools. I believe there is a wealth of possibility for Mormon history to utilize such interactivity and participation. I can only imagine podcasts being made available as Mormon families plan road trips to such Mormon meccas as Nauvoo, Illinois; Kirtland, Ohio; or Palmyra, New York or Sharon, Vermont. I love the idea of the Hill Cumorah Pageant being broadcast online, or of interactive maps highlighting the Mormon Overland trail.

However, I think the interactivity may also raise questions for an institution that seeks to present a faithful or sacred history. In a trend toward shared authority, I think a fear of lack of control will pose problems as people examine perhaps darker points in Mormon history, or question the white male perspective that seems to predominate. James B. Gardner raises the question, “How do we tell history as it really was rather than as we wish it had been?”

I think a greater strength will come from examining Carl Becker’s belief in “Everyman his own historian,” that an open and diverse Mormon history can also promote the personal connection and intimacy that Rosenzweig and Thelen pose in The Presence of the Past. As Gardner suggests, we can move beyond the need to sanitize or romanticize the past in order to deal with the present and, subsequently, the future. By opening new possibilities, new voices, new experiences, and new methodologies, we can reach a larger public and actually create a larger virtual community.

I’m meeting with Jill, my old boss, next week, and am eager to share with her from our readings and discussion. She asked if I would talk to her staff when I’m home for winter break. I would love your comments and suggestions.

 John Johnson Farm, Hiram, Ohio

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1 Comment so far
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Yeah, I guess the fear of losing control over a church’s history is ominpresent. It has seemed to crop up in many religious denominations, making the use of church records (which, of course, are some of the most complete out there for much of pre-19th century history) difficult at best.

But, on the flip side, if there is anything that lends itself to a “history by the masses” it would seem to be religious history. It is the history that most people have a much more direct contact with and it is something that most everyone has a personal story to share. Political history, for example, does not seem to resonate as much for the “everyday historian” except when the event is so massive (9/11, JFK assasination, etc.), but even then, those personal stories rarely get to the “real” political story behind the event.

Comment by SaS




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