Sunday, September 16, 2007

The “Public” Part of Being an Historian

As I begin my graduate school experience I have found myself rather conflicted as I attempt to define the kind of Historian I want to be/become. As a Public Historian, this type of self reflection seems especially important as it will be my job to try to appeal to a large and diverse audience. This itself seems to be a bit of a daunting task, which has been demonstrated quite clearly by the current War Museum Controversy.

The conflict that has erupted in Ottawa at the War Museum in the World War Two section over 67 words written about the British and Commonwealth countries’ “Bomber Command”, demonstrates the challenges the Public Historian will inevitably face; it will always be virtually impossible to please all members of the community, especially when dealing with emotional historical events. The issue is over a panel that explains how the morality and effectiveness of Bomber Command is still being debated today. Canada's National Council of Veterans Associations found the thought that people actually debate this fact to be offensive, and after two years of protests have finally succeeded in convincing the War Museum to re-write the panel. Margret MacMillan, who was asked by the War Museum to read and give her opinion on the Bomber Command panel, stated that the wording was correct, and any adjustments would make Canada appear cowardly.[i]

I share MacMillian’s sentiments and was quite disappointed about the War Museum’s decision. I first became acquainted with the debates that exist among Historians on this topic in my fourth year history class, when after being exposed to extensive literature on World War Two and Bomber Command, it was clear that neither the Historians writing on this topic nor the twenty five students in my class could agree on whether this aspect of the allied strategy was integral to winning the war. In addition, as Brian Gifford explained in his article in The Globe and Mail, not even Veterans agree about the outcomes of Bomber Command; Gifford’s father, who was a fighter pilot in Bomber Command, has become convinced that some of his missions were a mistake.[ii]

Regardless of whether I agree with the outcome at the War Museum, I have realized that it is through my analysis of this single issue that I have begun to better understand my role as a Public Historian. Writing History is not about attempting to paint the most pleasurable picture of the past, but instead it is the Historian’s responsibility to try to present the past to the public in an honest way. Therefore, the type of Historian I aim to be, is one who pleases the public through the presentation of an interesting but balanced view of the past.

[i] “War Museum to Rework Controversial Bomber Panel” in Arts
[ii] Biran Gifford, “The Bombing of Germany”, in The Globe and Mail, Print Edition 31/08/07 Page A14

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