Finding Identity through the Past: Genealogy Meets Public History

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By Amanda Forson,

Part of a nation’s culture is its history. When groups of people forget where they come from, they lose a part of their identity. Seeking to re-create the sense of self, and their place within the general social framework, they often start by looking to a local, individual level, researching their own family’s history. Since family could be considered the basic unit of society, learning how one’s family fits into history may be the most direct route to establishing a sense of self. The process of learning how one’s family fits into the larger realm of history is one aspect of public history.Public history is “a joint endeavor in which historians and their various publics [collaborate] in trying to make the past useful to the public.”i Although taught at an academic level in various undergraduate and graduate-level programs , public history is a relatively new field, with its most discernable roots going back to the 1970s. This form of history usually includes experiential modes and models that may or may not be historically accurate. Collective memoryii is the general term for the modes and models of how people think about history. This “memory” is shaped by all sorts of different factors, many of which come from popular media, museums, and going to places where something of a historic nature occurred.

For someone beginning to have historical interest, a normal beginning introduction into history is popular media. Easier than hunting down and reading primary documents, movies often become a building block upon which to base certain parts of collective memory. A few examples from the film genre (listed in semi-chronological order) include: The Ten Commandments, The Passion of the Christ, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Braveheart, The Mission, The Three Musketeers, Last of the Mohicans, 1776, The Patriot, Amadeus, Amazing Grace, Gone With the Wind, Dances With Wolves, Far and Away, Roots (various time periods), Lawrence of Arabia, The Last Emporer, Ghandi, Fiddler on the Roof, The Grapes of Wrath, The Sound of Music, Schindler’s List, Life Is Beautiful, A Beautiful Mind, Apocalypse Now, Forrest Gump, and Hotel Rwanda. Unfortunately, a bibliographical list of sources is not often found at the end of movie credits, even though a few libraries, archives, and people may be credited with their efforts on the film.

Some examples from the “see the sites” category include: Colonial Williamsburg, Manassas/Bull Run, The Smithsonian, Mount Vernon, Ellis Island, The Winchester Mystery House, the South Street Seaport in Manhattan, The Hermitage, and many other places. For a list of the current designated historic places in the United States, check the National Register of Historic Places. For outside the United States, see the United Nation’s (UNESCO) World Heritage sites.

All of these examples help set the mental constructs for historical events that affected the lives of the people that are being researched. Public history includes genealogy in its local history and personal history aspects. These may be considered the “fun” part of history-where documents prove or disprove family stories and the research connects the family members to particular historical events.

A few organizations developed with the intent of helping with the professionalism and standardization efforts in the public history field include the National Council on Public History , the American Association of Museums, American Historical Association , and the American Association for State and Local History. The NCPH has excellent resources for specific educational programs and intern pursuits. The AHA is an overall bed of knowledge for anyone in any historical field. While specifically geared towards museums, the AAM has an intense array of links to help with making a museum exceptionally relevant to its audience. The AASLH is geared towards aiding historical-based programs and companies in finding ways of developing their strengths to fullest potential, including computer software and kits to make programs run more easily. All of these organizations help with different aspects of the historical field, and are the background behind what is seen in museums, and the experiences that help drive the public’s vision of their collective history and consciousness.

Stanton, Cathy. “”What is Public History?” Redux,” National Council on Public History Webpage. [Accessed 7 October 2008.]
“Collective Memory” Wikipedia .
[Accessed 8 October 2008.]

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