Backstage passes

Discussing Susan Crane’s critique of the Enola Gay controversy (“the unfortunate lesson…was just how little publics know about what historians ‘really do’…”), Yellis suggests that “Museums can start being helpful in this process [helping Americans fight over history] by becoming much clearer about what they think they are doing when they make an exhibition.”

An exhibit should “show” more than “tell”—otherwise why bother with an exhibit rather than an article?—but I like the suggestion of adding meta text, the equivalent of a preface or, perhaps, a bio note. A little bit of transparency and contextualization, to be mulled over at leisure. When I visit museums, I have no idea who designed the exhibits. I don’t have any idea of which chef cooked my meal at a restaurant, either.* I rely on the institution’s brand and genre to tell me if I’m likely to be interested. We have celebrity chefs, but how many celebrity historians? (Honest question. If you did a survey of the public, what names would pop up? And is broad-based name recognition the appropriate way to define celebrity?)

The next question, naturally, is whether we want celebrity historians. Have sixty gazillion cooking reality shows lead to breakthroughs in cuisine? A greater appreciation for the profession among the public? An increase in the number of people aspiring to be a chef? (I’m skeptical about the first, suspect the second may be true, and suspect the third may be true in a less than positive way: there’s a distinction between wanting to be a celebrity something and wanting to do it, and there’s a sharp difference between what happens on television and what happens day to day in the workplace.) Would the personalization increase the public’s interest in the historian’s work? Would it inform their interpretation of it? Would it become a distraction (for the public or the historian)? Would it lead to polarized audiences, selection based upon preconceived notions of the historians’ biases? Would the public be able to more meaningfully contribute to the next History War…or would they merely pick their favorites based on who was more photogenic or had cute biographical details, rather than the most appealing professional approach? (And, if the goal was simply public participation and engagement, would those become legitimate metrics?)

This is not actually me being an intellectual snob…not much, anyway. (Okay, I’ll cop to being a snob about reality television.) But as far as assessing experts in other fields, my own metrics are pretty damn squishy: a constellation of reputation, perceived trustworthiness and competence and, yes, whether or not what I’m hearing meshes with my pre-existing worldview. I make the assumption that most other people use similar strategies. This raises all kinds of issues of authority, who is or isn’t qualified to opine on a given topic, and sets my inner democrat and inner intellectual snob at one another’s throats.

* This wouldn’t be the case if, for instance, I went to a better class of restaurant, where I would be paying extra for the brand of the individual, as well as the institution.