Local history as a potluck potlatch

Thousands of communities in the US nurture a community within the community. This is all the people who care about local history.  

And there is the community within this community.  That’s all the things the community knows, or thinks it knows, about itself.

Most of these local history societies stage a speaker’s series.  They invite someone who is, say, expert in the civil war to come share their knowledge in a 40 minute talk, with drinks afterward.  It’s convivial and interesting.  If the gods are kind, the speaker knows her stuff and how to communicate it.  

There is another possibility.  Call it Potluck or Potlatch.  In this event we canvas and compile the historical knowledge of locals in a real time event.  Everyone brings what they know and shares.  

The way to run this is in the manner of a Harvard Business School classroom, drawing people into the discussion and organizing information as we go.

Naturally, we would want to begin with the declaration that we have the utmost respect for formal history and professional historians, and that we won’t ever want to challenge or diminish this kind of history.

But we also want to say that we want to see how much history we have in our community that qualities as “living history” and “informal knowledge.”

There is after all a larger trend that says our culture is moving from passive recipients of knowledge to active participants in the assembly of knowledge.

And in any case, the local historical society has always had an extra-academic purpose: a chance to meet and engage with your neighbors in shared enthusiasms.  

Community-assembled history would give me a much more vivid sense of my neighbors than the sometimes dreary process of watching them as they listen to an expert.  

There are several potential problems with this scheme.  One is that local blow hards will try to commandeer the proceedings, grasping it as an opportunity to show how very knowledgable they are. But it is up to the person is leading things to step in and gently encourage them to give way that others might participate!

The far graver problem is that the community would encourage and perpetuate local falsehoods and misconceptions.  All part of the fun.  Everyone wants to be credulous and scrupulous in equal proportions.  (This too is a trend.)  No one should come to a local history potluck / potlatch with the idea that the history will be definitive.  No one should leave with the conviction that they have certain knowledge.  

The idea is to share and to celebrate what the community believes to be true about itself. Everyone is free, indeed they are encouraged, to repair to their studies, consult the masters, and determine just how much false currency circulates in their home town.  

I propose the HBS model but of course there are lots of ways of solving the problem.  The idea is to have a facilitator who is good at drawing people out, getting historical assertions up on the board, leading the discussion as a discussion, gentling stick handling the puck away from the blow hards, making everyone feel welcome, and otherwise making this bonfire of knowledge burst into flame.  

If someone says, “Sir, how dare you trivial with something so sacred as our history,” you may reply, “History is much too important to be left to the historians.  This is a living trust, richer when shared, aerated and given voice.”

5 thoughts on “Local history as a potluck potlatch”

  1. grant

    this is gorgeous stuff as ever.
    There is a movement bubbling from many sectors in my small hometown to produce just such an event or events. So thank you for this.
    I would love to hear more, in particular and for no reason at all, about this observation about the desire to be “credulous and scrupulous in equal measure.” It could be that I just love the line.

    1. Peter, thanks for your kind words, very interested to hear that Hudson Valley is working on this approach. That phrase was meant to get at what I take to be our willingness to embrace both storytelling that doesn’t have much historical veracity and the sober sided, thoroughly professional accounts. Thanks again. Grant

  2. If I may, and in no particular order:

    – first, as always, thank you for prompting such stimulating thoughts: your blogs do occasionally read more like throw away comments, but they have the advantage of getting the cogs turning and I guess that’s the point!

    – A given is your work and your research, so I accept that analogies with a contemporary image conscious commercial world is important for your audience, but why refer to a business school model when there are many community organizations which are doing just that, trying to moderate people’s perceptions of local history in order to translate it into some kind of communal framework? The work of Common Ground in the UK is perhaps one of the better attempts of this kind (commonground.org.uk), their project called ‘Parish Maps’ in particular which encouraged local communities to put forward their perception of local history through the construction of space, recording place names, their variants and the stories around them, for example. Another mapping one, a more recent and North American endeavour, is the Kitikmeot Place Name Atlas in Nunavut. But there are plenty of other examples, not least in anthropological literature on oral history, not all successful of course.
    I would even argue that much anthropological fieldwork in the more traditional mould is indeed akin to your description of such potluck-potlatch, although one might argue that the motivations of a career anthropologist might not differ hugely from that of a self-promoting ‘academic’ local historian on a talk tour.

    – But this brings me to a crucial omission in your text: the question of insider vs outsider and the value judgments that are inevitably brought to bear when ‘expert’ knowledge is contrasted with local perceptions. Indeed, the ‘expert historian’ and the ‘moderator’ are very often outsiders (and it may be that this is a necessary condition). I have worked on occasion as an observer of such projects, an apprenti anthropologist watching the moderator, if you like. What I saw were people saying what they thought the moderator would be interested in hearing and these people were not the whole community. Admittedly, this may have as much to do with the quality of the moderators (and with the kind of community) as with the not so genuine local interest in the project, but what was clear in all cases was that key players in the local community (key in terms of their ‘informal knowledge’) refused to engage simply because they didn’t see the point: why go talk to the man/woman from the Big City? More importantly, why attend a ‘historical meeting’ to construct/debate all the things which they deconstruct/construct in any case every single day in everyday conversations on street corners, at the hairdresser’s or in the local pub?

    – which brings me to the quality of talking/listening: communal storytelling and professional accounts are different not only in the content of what is being said and its perceived veracity, but in the fundamental way in which people engage with the experience. Talking and listening are qualitatively different depending on the context. There is talking to an audience willing to suspend disbelief and there is talking to an audience that is applying a critical mind to what is being said (inevitable when ‘experts’ are talking to locals). Similarly, one can listen for the sake of the narrative only but also listen while confronting personal knowledge with what is being said. Indeed, what you describe as ‘the sometimes dreary process of watching them as they listen to an expert’ conflates the 2 groups. ‘Listening’ is not necessarily passive. In my experience, limited, I grant you, locals always take the comments of outside experts with a healthy pinch of salt, precisely often because they have knowledge that the expert lacks but which they also (probably rightly) feel might be ridiculed in this context. Nowhere more so than in small local communities is the sense of what is appropriate to say where/when/to whom more acute.

    – Which brings me to a tweeking of your expression ‘informal knowledge’. Perhaps ‘active knowledge’ would be better? Indeed, though I like the idea of promoting ‘informal knowledge’, it obviates the fact that historians/experts themselves rely heavily on past records of such ‘informal knowledge’, records which have an aura of age (making them ageless, in fact…) which currently debated (or active?) knowledge does not. The difference between informal and formal knowledge is often thought of as ‘personal(ized)’ vs ‘public’ history. Not to say that experts don’t also refer to information more akin to gossip in their descriptions, but key in this is that this information is usually disengaged from current social interactions. Ginzburg’s cheese and worms, if you will.

    – A side point relates to historical depth: in North American communities, the sense of belonging to a community and what that community is about requires historical constructs in the way that many say European communities don’t bother because they just ‘are’, so to speak. This also perhaps puts communities on a different footing when confronted with the expert: in Europe, while the expert may be very knowledgeable, communities tend to take the expert as a source of information equal to their own where in North America the need to document a more recent history makes the relationship with the expert less ‘equal’. Just a thought!

    – Finally, the potlatch analogy is great as it may indeed be the best way to go about history: an orgy of knowledge prompting envy and admiration, knowledge that is brought out and displayed, confronted, debated, dismissed and embraced by all who are part of the community.

    Apologies for the garbled response from someone who is very much a non expert!
    I just wish I knew how to write brief comments!

  3. This is something I’ve been chewing over for sometime and hadn’t pushed
    myself to think it through until I read your posting here, Grant. After
    recently attending a regional conference on Native Americans in the post 1812
    era in Ohio, most of the conference attendees were public citizens. Their
    shared enthusiasm was refreshing and it seriously got me thinking about
    the importance of public education. Why don’t academics do this more?
    Why aren’t our collective histories shaped, reshaped, etc. collectively?
    It really bothered me how much I was perceived as an “expert” at this conference.
    If only! I could write so much more. Just wanted to comment here briefly
    …although one thing I still struggle with is the reenactment scene.

    1. Melissa, thanks, experts become facilitators, maybe that’s the transition we’re looking for. Best, Grant

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