Tag Archives: potluck

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.”