Monday, May 11, 2009
History Is Not For Wimps
Have you ever considered how history gets a bad rap? You know, the "dusty," "old," "boring" stereotypes. Not unlike some of the criticism leveled at many museums. The Washington State History Museum in Tacoma, where I used to work as a curator, decided that the public perception of history needed, well, dusting off. To present the public with a more muscular, tough-stuff image of history, the museum ran an ad campaign called "History is Not for Wimps." Banners, posters, and newspaper advertisements featured faces from Washington history - some well known but most anonymous - and then annotated them. A photo of a miner trailing a pack horse behind said "A Trip to the Grocery Store: Six Days Round Trip." Rosa Parks' arrest mug shot said "Didn't Give Up Her Seat Or Her Pride." No, they most certainly did not use this shot of me clinging to a climbing wall when they chose their final poster designs. My colleague, Gwen Smith, fashioned this one - it's a toss up whether it was more for her benefit or mine.
As I was unpacking the deeper layer of boxes and folders from my cross-country move, I uncovered Gwen's mock poster. Since I'm preparing for a session at the Civil Rights Conference in Augusta on Monday, this find prompted me to reflect on the crossover between inquiry-based learning theory, Outward Bound, and the more dangerous episodes in history. Inquiry-based learning approaches in schools stem from Outward Bound's legendary wilderness programs. The core of Outward Bound isn't simply field trips into the wilderness or the outdoors; the heart of the theory entails pushing ourselves OUT of our "comfort zones" where new levels of awareness and learning can take place. Often, history - especially the "comfortable" versions of history - offers us stories of progress, heroism, or accidental tragedies. Yet cultural historians also must navigate the far more dangerous stories, those where humankind can be its own worst enemy. Like roping up to climb a rock face, researching and teaching some of the uglier chapters of history can be risky, yet isn't the peak - the search for social justice - worth that risk? History remains not for wimps.