Part I Construing the Past as History:
Processes and Presuppositions
1 Historical Methods: From Evidence to Facts 3
2. Historical Synthesis: From Statements to Histories 49
Part II Comparing Histories: Forms, Functions,
Factuality, and the Bigger Picture
3. Texts as Archives and Histories 93
4. Things in and as Exhibits, Museums, and Historic Sites 133
5. Films as Historical Representations and Resources 175
Afterword: The History Effect and Representations of the Past 215
Understanding the past as history changes over time in how we know about the past, what we know about the past, and what we think important about the past. Historical practice over time as a result has its fashions of method, interpretation, and meaning. Do new times bring forth new answers to old questions? What do historians do today? How do they know what to do? Why do they do it that way?
Fashioning History offers my report on the discipline of history in the early twenty-first century as the historical profession tries to reconcile long-standing approaches to evidence and synthesis with the challenges posed in recent decades by the so-called postmodern critique of history as a way of understanding the past and by the explosion of sources and historical interpretations on the Internet and mass media. Each development questions in its own way how historians identify and interpret evidence, create arguments and histories, and give public meaning to the past.
Postmodern theorists questioned the very ability of historians to represent the past accurately or truthfully. As a consequence, such theory seemed to undermine the very authority of the profession, and many historians reacted initially with hostility. Few attempted much explicit accommodation. With the options and outcome now clearer after a few decades of dispute, we can examine to what extent postmodernism actually influenced the discipline and profession. This is not a book about what historians ought to do as some of my previous books argued but rather my take on what they do practice today.
The proliferation of historical sources and histories on the Internet has made the basic jobs of historians both much easier and more difficult and, in my opinion, more needed. The rapid and ever-increasing digitization of documents and other historical sources on the Internet has made the task of those who would infer the past from surviving evidence amazingly easier than in the days when only visiting archives and other repositories all over the world allowed access to the documents. At the same time the increased access to such documentation also multiplies those who interpret such evidence without the training professional historians receive in these matters. Such democratization of doing history frequently challenges the long-standing rules of method and interpretation that were and are the common grounding of professional historians. When the identification and interpretation of evidence and the creation and critique of larger arguments and stories can be asserted by anyone and everyone, what is the role of professional historians in testing the accuracy of facts inferred from the evidence surviving from the past or in evolving and evaluating the larger arguments, stories, and meaning given the past?
Traditionally during the last century books and articles on what historians did was answered mainly in relation to other books, articles, and learned editions of documents, which I have included among “texts” in Chapter 3. Beyond their schooling, most people today learn about the past from historical tourism or from television and motion pictures. Chapter 4 discusses how historians curate and design museum exhibits and manage and interpret historic sites of various kinds, based broadly on what I have characterized as “things.” Not only do most adults gain their knowledge today about the past from moving pictures and television but historians increasingly appear on screen as well as advise on documentary films and television shows. I discuss all these forms of moving visual imagery under the generic term “films” in Chapter 5. By examining these various types of history in relation to each other, we see better not only what historical practice actually encompasses today but also recognize more clearly the principles justifying and grounding historical practice in general. Such comparison provides deeper insight into the general as well as varied nature of history as a way of construing the past.
Because I treat texts, things, and films as equally valid approaches to interpreting the past, I have adopted the awkward consumerist word “products” as shorthand for all of these results collectively instead of always listing individually the multiple forms histories take today. Thus all kinds of histories are products, and conversely all products in this usage are histories of one kind or another. Likewise, a single history is a product just as such a product is called a history.
Historical methods and so-called methods books traditionally described how historians should derive their facts from their evidential sources, which were long equated mainly with texts. Even expanding methods to cover researching facts inferred from material objects and moving and other visual images covers only a small part of what historians must do in producing a history no matter what its form. Historians must also organize or synthesize various and often intellectually contradictory components into what they call a history. Thus I have devoted a chapter to the elements common to histories as finished or synthetic products (Chapter 2) in addition to methods and the idea and uses of evidence (Chapter 1). To indicate both methods and synthesis at times I have chosen the word “processes” to go along with products to signify that various methods and ways to synthesize exist. Moreover, I want to suggest by that word that both historical methods and syntheses apply to things and films in addition to the usual texts.
In an attempt to offer my readers a chance to consider their own conclusions on the topics I discuss, I have adopted two rhetorical conventions. I often pose a series of questions as a way of looking at a problem.
Although the book reveals my own answers to these questions in its organization and phrasing, I hope my rhetorical strategy affords readers an opportunity to consider their own answers to the same basic questions. Second, I try to present sides to an issue on (if not always in) their own terms for the same reason so that readers have some basis for their own conclusions. If nothing else, I want to suggest in my own efforts that fashioning histories has its own fashions. In this way I hope to illustrate as well as argue that the connections among histories as products, history as an approach to the past, and historians organized as a profession are various, dynamic, complicated, and perhaps problematic in the end.