Archives and Public History: a Visit to Paley

Archives cause me some issues. I truly struggle thinking about archives as public history institutions, at least not in their current iteration. We defined public history as history done outside the world of academia. While institutes such as the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and City Archives are technically outside academia, they are certainly not public friendly. In fact, these institutions seem to be so unfriendly to outside use that they make for pretty uncomfortable experiences to average Joe. However, since most universities classify archiving under their public history programs, I digress.

I found the discussion at the end of our tour to be intriguing. The idea of activist archiving reminded me of the film The Watermelon Woman by Cheryl Dunye. In the film, Dunye searches for “the watermelon woman” that she saw in an old film. On her search, she delves into archives (specifically a fictitious lesbian archive known as CLIT) to find the actress. The film is an interesting commentary on the erase of narratives by previous archivists and historians a like. Dunye creates her own historical narrative in archives because it simple did not exist. To this day, there is still minimal historical archiving of LGBTQ black women. Here lies the issue of archiving. There is always a preference or a bias (whether inherent or intentional) that affects the choices made in archives. The tumultuous past (and present in most cases) of race relations and sexuality narratives resulted in the erasure of Dunye’s identity from archiving. Also, historical terminology, employed by archives and past societies alike, misplace identities under vague terms or complete medical misdiagnoses.

I can see the idea of activist archiving provide valuable contribution to historical narratives by providing an opportunity to local groups to document themselves. Here, we can see the relation between the “novice” and the “expert” bloom. Communities are the “experts” of their own pasts and have the authority to tell their own stories. They are aware of their own history and know it should be preserved. I believe the information garnered from these communities provides the “raw” material for archivists and historians a like. Archivists can assist the community in detailing their data in its “raw” form. Historians, who Miller says don’t like crossing institutional boundaries (which I think is completely not true), can then “cook” the data.

Philadelphia’s current form of archiving is suffering from a PR-problem. They institutions have made themselves unapproachable. This is something I say from personal experience. Dealing with HSP felt like a nightmare and I am an academic (or someone who hoity-toity types think should be “doing” history). Something I touched on in my practitioner profile rings true here:

Kathleen McLean touches on this haughtiness in her essay “Whose Questions, Whose Conversations” briefly. She writes: “And she [a gift writer with a doctorate] was intimidated by museums. ‘I don’t know the rules. I know there’s a code of behavior, but it eludes me.’

I think as long as this code of behavior and perceived superiority is in place, archives will not be enjoyed by the public, and ergo will not be “public history” institutions in my opinion. In fact, half of the reason I am interested in public history, and archiving in particular, is because I would love to break down these barriers.


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