Pragmatic Historian
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Taking History Seriously

I am irritated.

I read a story on NPR News about a Pennsylvania guy who stole artifacts, mostly firearms, from about a dozen museums in the 1960s and ’70s. He got caught in 2018 after trying to sell one of the guns.

His sentence?

One day.

One.

Day.

I am irritated because this sentence shows how unseriously the courts, and by extension, society in general, take thefts from museums.

Oh, well, it’s just an artifact, no big deal. Not enough that this guy stole artifacts from a number of museums. Not enough that he put stress on these institutions or their staff. (Having dealt with a theft at the museum I run, this stress is not abstract to me.)

Oh, well, it’s just history. Who cares?

I and all the other historians and cultural caretakers of museums and their artifacts, that’s who. And possibly the donors of all those artifacts. That’s who else.

Oh, and also anyone who understands that museum collections weave together the history of a community, a history that reveals a community’s identity through the people who live(d) there.

Do you know who else understands the power and importance of history?

Dictators.

They know that if they control or destroy a community’s history, they can bend the people of that community to their will.

Russian president Vladimir Putin is doing it right now, through attacks on Memorial, “the celebrated Russian historical society and civil-rights organization,” due to its study of past repression in the country. [Applebaum, Anne, “Falsifying Russia’s History Is a Step Toward More Violence,” The Atlantic, December 8, 2021]

Anti-democratic forces in the United States are trying to do the same by attacking the history that is presented in schools and at museums because it is too inclusive in sharing the stories of everyone, not just those who are powerful and wealthy. For deigning to lift up the history of those who have been scuttled by society, historians and history teachers are accused of rewriting history.

As British historian David Olusoga writes in a piece in The New Statesman: “Historians should repeatedly point out that the “rewriting of history” is not some act of professional misconduct but literally the job of professional historians.” [Olusoga, David, “Historians have become soft targets in the culture wars. We should fight back,” The New Statesman, December 8, 2021]

Just so we’re clear, “rewriting history” as defined by historians means continually searching for and examining historical documents, artifacts, archaeology, photos, structures, and other materials in order to uncover history that has not yet been explored and presenting it to the public or in academic settings so that others can learn about it. It is an additive process.

In a blatant case of projection, dictators and other autocrats love to accuse historians of rewriting history while they practice a subtractive form of rewriting history. They erase whatever they don’t like (often literally destroying archives and artifacts), focus on and glorify past leaders like themselves, and otherize specific populations, marginalizing them so their supporters have someone to hate. Autocrats keep control of their supporters by whipping up their fear and hatred, which is then used to bully others into silence and submission.

History is serious business.

It’s well past time we start taking it seriously.

And that means giving stronger sentences to those who steal from museums.

It also means, as David Olusoga suggests, calling autocrats on their disingenuous use of the term “rewriting history” and resisting mightily when they attempt to erase history.

Thoughtful comments welcome.