Initiatives for Putting History to Work


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This New York History Blog often carries posts about historical exhibits and events designed to bring historical perspective to current events. Providing historical context for the public might be called “putting history to work.”

Historian Edward L. Ayres, president emeritus of the University of Richmond and the current president of the Organization of American Historians, has launched a new online project, sponsored by the University, called BUNKHISTORY. The project is meant to confront Henry Ford’s famous 1916 statement that “History is more or less bunk” by showing its relevance and importance.

The project combs the internet for interesting articles, maps, videos, etc. “to create a fuller and more honest portrayal of our shared past, and reveal the extent to which every representation is part of a longer conversation.”

The project launched in September and is still being tested and developed. The BUNKHISTORY website makes this case for history:

  • “History is not something that happened once and then is past, but rather asserts itself in the present and future in unpredictable ways.
  • History is not one national story or set of facts to memorize, but rather all the evidence we have about everything that has happened up to this minute.
  • The past is being remade constantly, partly because we discover new patterns within it, and partly because we ask new questions of it.
  • History can be presented in any form, from a narrative to a database, from a film to a museum, from a song to an archive.
  • Something that happened 200 years ago can send more energy through the system of memory, power, and contestation than something that happened ten years ago. Art and culture move history, just as politics and economics do. Anonymous people often move history.
  • Much of what is important in history moves beneath the surface of events. Things that happened without obvious consequence in their own time can help shape lives for generations that follow.
  • Knowing what actually happened, based on evidence and scholarship, is necessary for meaningful judgment. The ways we remember the past, on the other hand, are often as powerful as what actually happened.”

Those points are worth noting in part because they assert that history is dynamic and our view of it changes with the times; that it led to present times; and that how we understand it shapes how we understand current institutions and issues.

Some other initiatives might also be of interest:

  • Ohio State University and Miami University in Oxford, Ohio sponsor an online forum called “Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective.” It features articles that “focus on the long-term trends and patterns, search for the foundations of today’s events, and explore the often complicated nature of a particular current event.”
  • The American Historical Association launched “Everything Has a History: Bringing Historical Context to Current Events.” in 2016, videos where historians “provide context for the pressing issues facing the country and the world.”
  • Back Story With the American History Guys”  is a public radio program and podcast featuring Ed Ayers and others that brings historical perspective to current events and news stories.
  • Made by History,” launched by the Washington Post in July 2017, is intended to provide “historical analyses to situate the events making headlines in their larger historical context.”
  • In Britain, “History and Policy,” a partnership of university history departments, publishes white papers and reports with historical perspectives on current events.

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Bruce Dearstyne

About Bruce Dearstyne

Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne served on the staff of the New York State Office of State History and the State Archives. He was a professor and is now an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies and has written widely about New York history and occasionally writes about New York history issues for the “Perspective” section of the Sunday Albany Times Union. Bruce is the author of two books published in 2015: The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State’s History (SUNY Press) and also Leading the Historical Enterprise: Strategic Creativity, Planning and Advocacy for the Digital Age (Rowman and Littlefield and the AASLH). He can bereached at dearstyne@verizon.net.

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