My recent visit to the annual National Council on Public History conference was fruitful and though provoking. My main takeaway is the importance of trust in historical work. Trust is the foundation the whole historical enterprise is built on.
Asking a person for documents or objects to accession into institutional holdings is a serious request. An old photo album or a collection of love letters, these are the physical archives of entire human lives. When historians, archivists, or curators and contact local holders of valuable information, prior relationships must be considered. Marginalized persons, ignored groups, people whose materials may have been rejected before will not be ready to discuss accession. They do not need strangers coming to their home to, in their view, dispossess them of familial identity and history.
Many of our institutions are working hard to increase ownership and inclusiveness with their neighbors. Still, these organizations exist in a reality created by their predecessors’ behavior. Objects turned away from accession, lack of invitations from museum staff for participation, and disinterest in the perspectives of the minority were all sharp blows. This is history in action, at the micro level. Museums must develop long-term plans to begin to construct a foundation that welcomes the lost participants from years gone by.
One suggestion discussed at the conference is engaging in low pressure, relationship building meetings. Walk the community, and introduce yourself to neighbors. Bring by some fresh bread or cookies and have a friendly get-together. In no way say “you are here to help.” That person has managed a memory of their family without your assistance up until now, don’t insinuate they need assistance. Just talk, look, and you may be surprised what resources you will find. Even just knowing what materials are kept where can be a hug boon to local research. They key it to be open-minded, patient, and diligent in communicating long-term.
This is going to be a long process. Decades (and even centuries) of neglect must be repaired to bring discussions and communal work to the level it deserves in underserved communities. By building trust, we can improve the history field, the museum education system, and our homes.