Selling History and Our Place in It

An important focus to understand the concern for “outsider” history is the framework of “what sells.” As noted by Filene, history is thriving in popular culture, whether on television, movies, or books. History sells whether the personal histories in the example of StoryCorps or generalized and glossy history like in the Disneyland’s Main Street, U.S.A. People seem to be interested in history, but more importantly they are willing to spend money to feel connected to a history. In our discussions this idea of a marketable history also came up. Our discussions touched on points about what makes Bryn Mawr marketable as a college for students to apply and for alums and outsiders to give money to the college. Either way, it is important for the college to make sure it tells a history that people want to consume, just like museums are attempting to do also. As stated by Filene, the success of a museum is measured through public support (23). In reading this article and the Trouillot chapters, I was reminded of the many museums of Jewish history that I’ve visited in the U.S. and in Europe. These are a rather recent occurrence in public history. For example, the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia was opened in 1976, the Jewish Museum Berlin was opened in 2001, the Museum of Jewish Heritage was opened in New York City in 1997. Often in Jewish history museums, family stories or family rituals are what are on display. As outlined by Filene with the Tenement Museum example especially, museums that incorporate a family history or a community history are popular because these are the stories that are more relatable to the general public. It is of increasing importance as the field of public history moves toward professionalization to not ignore the “simple” act of storytelling. As we move forward in our discussions I hope we do not move too far from the valuable personal and community narratives that the public often responds well to.

The piece of Trouillot that stuck out to me in relation to our project was the idea of the inherent ambivalence of the word “history.” We are both the actors and the narrators of our shared history (2), in this case the history of Bryn Mawr College. This creates a potential struggle, as we are both living and reflection on the history we are creating. Additionally, Bryn Mawr more than most places I have experienced, feels much more like it has a “legacy of the past” that does not come from anything that the past bequeathed itself (17). With our many “traditions” and “historically” specific way of doing things, it is difficult to get into what actually happened versus what we believe to be our past and therefore incorporate into our personal identities as members of the community. Bryn Mawr’s history and most likely the histories of many colleges are prime examples of what Trouillot describes as histories that have been produced outside of academia (21).