History is under fire every day. I read stories in the paper about an angry mob taking down a monument; about an institution voting to change the name of a prominent building; about a multi-cultural and historical musical being chastised because it heralds a story of oppressors. The list goes on.
This blog may be the hardest thing I ever have to write. I applaud these people for speaking truth to power, and I will defend their right to do so. And yet, I am worried that in their zeal for necessary change, they will throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.
Even now as I write this, I choose every word carefully so as not to offend. And yet, I know someone or many someones will find fault with what I have to say. I argue that this is the basis for exactly the kind of constructive discourse that leads to positive change.
The truth is that it should be alright if I make a mistake. We are all imperfect, even as we strive to be the best we can be. The human condition is such that in each of our lifetimes we will do things we regret or that future generations may condemn us for. Yet, within our lifetimes, we also have the capacity to learn and grow. If we do not grow quickly enough, we can lay the groundwork so that the next generation can evolve to be better than the one before it.
The significance of recording history is that it is the documentation of how we as a species can and will evolve. History is the most powerful tool we have. What is chosen to be recorded is what is remembered. It is a statement of what is valued and what is not.
Sadly, it is our history that “History is written by the victors.” A myriad of cultures have used it to erase the vital stories of the impoverished, the victims, the outcasts and the powerless.
It is essential for Museums and Cultural institutions to take the lead in shining a light on the stories of these forgotten people and their contributions, uncovering a past that has been obliterated by centuries of “cultural superiority”. However, I urge us not to take up the mantle of obliteration. It is only by recognizing and acknowledging both the good and the bad that we are able to discover the truth, and to learn from it.
Museums as institutions of influence also need to take the lead in ensuring that the influential figures of our past are given credit for the changes they helped to make while being held accountable for their choices and actions that may have caused irreparable damage.
Let us consider the founding fathers. Some were defiant in their defense of slavery. Others came to regret their participation in that institution and took personal but not political action. Almost all remained publically silent on the subject, even if they believed it to be wrong. Yes we should call them out. Yes we should show them to the public, warts and all.
We are obligated to shed light on the failures of these men, and to discuss the long term negative effects still impacting our national community. Yet while we expose these failures, we also need to acknowledge the positive role these men have played in bringing our nation to this tipping point in history. Today the streets are teeming with millions of empowered people in protest.
Isn’t this empowerment a product of the foundations laid over 250 years ago by these self same, albeit flawed, Founding Fathers who sought to create a country “for the people, by the people?” Because of the processes that these leaders put in place, this country, however slowly, has evolved with each generation. We are a nation that embraces the power of the people and today those people are wielding that power to be heard and to make future change.
How will the future look back on this decade? How will it evaluate the decades and the centuries that lead up to this moment? How will future moments be recorded and remembered?
We are the guardians of history.
About the author – Amy Hollander
Amy Hollander is a storyteller, exhibit designer and a strategic planner with 20 years’ experience in the Museum field. She established her company, Cloud Mill, LLC to help museums navigate 21st century challenges. She works with institutions to strengthen their programs, policies and performance. Her focus is on developing comprehensive strategies that utilize modern tools and employ holistic solutions to address existential issues.