Because it doesn't quite look like history as I know it.
Alexandra Lord has a column in today's Chronicle, the blurb for which reads, "It was only after leaving academe that a historian learned how to use, interpret, and preserve historical artifacts."
It's an interesting column, describing her experience with physical artifacts once she leaves her academic position to take up a job as a public historian. But I'm also a little baffled at some of the ways she characterizes academic history, ways that make me wonder how her training was so different from my own and why she is generalizing from it.
The first thing that I find a little odd is a conflation of interpreting objects with preserving them:
The academic tendency to prize the written word has led many historians to view documents as the means by which we learn about the past. And, like most historians, I received no training in using, interpreting, or preserving historical artifacts.
It's true that I don't know how to preserve historical artifacts, but I don't know that that precludes me from using them and interpreting them, and I'm not sure why these two things are so closely linked here. Moreover, there are many people who can preserve artifacts but know very little about their historical context or meaning - these two skills don't need to go together, and I think they serve different purposes.
She also notes:
When I decided to become a public historian, I had to delve more deeply. I needed to understand not only how people in the past used objects but also how those objects shaped their understanding of the world.
I don't understand how the latter is incompatible with academic history - isn't that precisely what historians of material culture do?
Shifting from scholarship to teaching, she describes showing images of 18th-century machines for administering shock therapy to her students, and when they asked her how they actually worked, she realized that she didn't really know.
The irony, of course, is that I had always considered myself quite savvy when it came to using images in my teaching...But like many of my colleagues, I used those images as background wallpaper. They helped students visualize the past, but we did not analyze or explore any of the objects or images in detail.
Again, I think this is painting historians with too broad a brush. Because she herself did not analyze or explore objects or images in detail in class doesn't mean that other historians don't. I could probably do more with this, of course, and yes, sometimes I show pictures as wallpaper - but I often do make images the subject of analysis in class, as do other people I know. At the same time, I think that the issue of using images/physical objects in teaching isn't necessarily the same as the issue of using such things in historical scholarship (though certainly they can be related).
In a fascinating example that may apply either to teaching or research, she discusses the use of buttonhooks at Ellis Island to turn immigrants' eyelids inside out to check for disease.
Having now held countless buttonhooks in my hands, my understanding of the era's medical inspections has shifted radically. Some buttonhooks snag on material, making it easy to understand how and why some medical inspectors might have become casual about wiping the buttonhook on a Lysol-saturated rag in the interval between each exam. Small buttonhooks are difficult to hold and may have caused more pain than a medical officer intended. But a large buttonhook can be surprisingly intimidating even to those who are not about to undergo an exam. (Try pulling one out during a lecture and you will never fail to strike fear among your listeners.) Buttonhooks with elaborate engraved handles hold dirt.
This is a great example of the use of physical objects, what they can reveal historically. But:
The more I have explored those buttonhooks, the more I have come to understand the complexity of the eye exams and the differing reactions of the people who gave them and the people who underwent them. My newfound understanding could never have come from written documents.
Okay, I understand that it would be hard, viscerally, to grasp the impact and experience of buttonhook medical exams without seeing an actual buttonhook, from written documents only. But the implication is that she had to leave academe to find this out, and what I don't understand is how the use of a buttonhook is the exclusive preserve of public history. In my understanding of academic history, there's nothing that precludes looking at physical buttonhooks. And I'd suggest that many academic historians do such things.
Finally, I want to consider this statement:
Working on a restoration project at a major historic site has introduced questions that I would never have thought to ask while in an archive. Should the hospitals at Ellis Island be fully restored? If so, to what era should they be restored? Can the site be accurately restored while ensuring that it is accessible to the disabled? Addressing such questions has led me to explore how historians decide which parts of history are most relevant and why -- issues that never came up when I was an academic historian.
Now, I'll grant you that I've never had to worry about maintaining the historical integrity of a site while providing access to the disabled. Her point that recreating a historical site will bring questions of relevance screaming to the fore, in a more urgent way than historical writing, is a good one. But I'm really startled by the bolded passage above - that a historian would say that their academic training/experience never considered which parts of history are most relevant and why. Was my training really so different? Because I believe the people running my graduate program would be horrified if someone left the program saying that they had never considered which parts of history are relevant and why.
Overall, her argument is an important one - that physical objects can lead to insights difficult (or impossible) to obtain only from looking at documents. I have absolutely no objections to that argument, and as with the buttonhook example, she has some nice ways of demonstrating that fact. In fact, her column reminds me to look for opportunities to incorporate more attention to physical artifacts in my research in future. (Um, when I'm next in Europe where those physical artifacts are, of course.) I'm also not going to argue that intense immersion in the physicality of the past doesn't result in a different understanding than one derived from documents. I'm just surprised by the characterization of academic history she creates along the way. While academic history probably could benefit from greater attention to physical artifacts, the academic history she describes doesn't look quite like the one I know.
Then again, some of the difference in attitudes and approaches here may derive from historical fields. Maybe historians in Lord's field are especially resistant to using physical artifacts. To a medievalist, however, physical objects are at once rare and necessary. They're rare, and far fewer survive than from the nineteenth century U.S., so the opportunities to use them are more limited. Thus, they may not offer quite the same revelatory possibilities as physical objects from other eras - not in kind, but in degree. Conversely, however, medievalists have so few sources, relatively speaking, that we tend to use any and all we can find, including physical artifacts. And, too, there's a fairly robust tradition of recreating the material culture of the Middle Ages (e.g. the SCA, Society for Creative Anachronism). Granted, the SCA has a tense relationship with academe at large, partly doubtless due to the focus on the written word that Lord attributes to academe, and partly because some of the people in the SCA (according to a friend who used to be in it) want to run around in loincloths and pretend they're Conan the Barbarian. But there are also lots of people who recreate other elements of the medieval past, especially but not limited to weapons, armor, and military training, in a rigorous, academic fashion. While I may simply be reinforcing Lord's argument by pointing to non-academic groups, there are also serious scholarly studies of medieval textiles that rely heavily on understanding and recreating production techniques.
Moreover, medievalists using manuscripts often must consider those manuscripts as physical artifacts as well as repositories of the written word. They're not as dramatic as buttonhooks, but they have a fundamental physicality that medievalists ignore at their peril. (No, not all medievalists use manuscripts in way that requires considering their physical nature - most administrative records, for instance, are much more important as repositories of information than as objects. But if you work at all with books, you have to think about their material culture.)
And there are other, more modern fields that rely pretty heavily on physical artifacts - here I'm thinking primarily of African history (though my knowledge just comes from being acquainted with Africanists in grad school). Given the lack of written documents in so many African societies until relatively recently, Africanists must use physical artifacts, as well as oral history, and I suspect the questions of relevance that Lord sees as so prominent in public history are equally pressing in African. My sense is that similar issues apply as well to people studying some aspects of Latin American history, or Asian history. Classicists (though not more modern) certainly grapple with this.
After all, archeology is a whole academic discipline requiring the immersion in physical artifacts, and many of the fields I've described rely heavily on archeology. Former College offers a minor in archeology and offers students the opportunity to spend summers working on a nearby (U.S., 19th century) dig. One might argue that archeology isn't the same as forging through a jungle of overgrown brush to examine gravestones, but from what I hear many archeological digs are more arduous. Experiencing physical objects through an archeological dig may not be the same as roaming the abandoned buildings of Ellis Island, in the immediacy of historical experience it offers, but most fields don't have the luxury of roaming through their subjects' abandoned buildings, because they no longer exist.
In my comments here, I don't mean to deny that the course of true love between public history and academic history has always run smooth. There have been and will continue to be significant conflicts between them. But I don't think the attitude towards physical objects that Lord attributes to academe is quite accurate - if there is a difference, it's of degree rather than kind. Now, if we're talking about how best to present history to the public, then I think we run into a much greater divide between the use of the written word and the use of physical artifacts. But that's another question altogether.
(Apologies for sloppiness, I wrote this quickly and it feels like the result of trying to corral an octopus - bits keep flailing out of control.)