critical reviews of history exhibit practice in an age of ubiquitous display
Monday, August 2, 2010
Don't touch that dial!
Public historians sometimes see our our academic counterparts as tradition-bound and reluctant to engage the general public or to embrace new technologies. So it's worth taking note of a terrific radio program hosted by three academic historians: BackStory - With the American History Guys. The show bills itself as a "public radio program that brings historical perspective to the events happening around us today." Historians Ed Ayers, Peter Onuf, and Brian Balogh "tear a topic from the headlines and plumb its historical depths." The shows are topical and typically include not only the hosts but guest historians with special expertise in the topic at hand, other guests with something to say about the topic, historic sound clips, and short interviews.
As impressive as the show itself is the associated website. Each episode has a page that includes not only downloadable MP3 files but audio excerpts of show highlights, really extensive links to further readings, and a discussion board where listeners add their own perspectives on the topic. And of course you can subscribe to podcasts of the show via iTunes or through various RSS readers. The website is a wonderful resource for teachers--every episode could easily become a lesson plan with primary documents, short and accessible secondary readings, and audio.
Not every episode or every part of each episode works equally well. The jokey interchanges between the host sometimes feel forced, some guests are more scintillating than others, and speaking extemporaneously the hosts sometimes indulge in generalities or even get some minor point wrong. As an example of the latter, one of the hosts on the Fourth of July episode repeats the old myth that John Adams described Americans as divided over the revolution with a third in favor, a third against, and a third neutral. This is a myth that I frequently repeated myself until J. L. Bell set me right.
Quibbles aside, BackStory is a terrific public history project from three leading American historians, building on strong institutional support from the Virginia Institute for the Humanities, the University of Virginia; the National Endowment for the Humanities; the University of Richmond; the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and others. Backstory is model of what academic historians can do when they go public!
(top to bottom) Pub in Poundbury, UK (town built 1993); image of Rosa Luxemburg on portion of Berlin Wall, Potsdamer Platz, Berlin; circuitboard; 2009 model PT Cruiser by Chrysler; St. Louis Unions vintage baseball player