Opinion: History can inform, shape our present

Khushnam Mirza / SCAD-Atlanta, illustration, editorial, 2014

Credit: Maureen Downey

Credit: Maureen Downey

Khushnam Mirza / SCAD-Atlanta, illustration, editorial, 2014

I hear that America has a democracy problem.

Before I start getting emails or the AJC starts getting crank letters to the editor — yes, the United States of America has elements of both a republic and a democracy and is referred to as anything ranging from a constitutional democracy to a federal constitutional republic.

Semantics aside, the U.S. relies on participation by its citizens and confidence in the system to ensure “we the people” have a government that’s working by and for everyone. In our current moment, I don’t need to lay out the evidence that this isn’t happening. The sense that trust in the system and institutions is lacking is consistent across ideologies, though we disagree on why this is the case.

As an organization whose mission is to connect people, culture, and history to create a better understanding of our collective past, Atlanta History Center experiences these splintering disagreements firsthand. Disagreements over our history, culture and democracy are real — though they are not new.

We do not and have never agreed on how to interpret our past. Though historical facts seem self-evident (names, dates, events), there is often disagreement on how best to understand those facts and what they mean for us today. That tension is part of what makes museums necessary. In our daily lives, we don’t often have the luxury of time to think, question and consider. Atlanta History Center strives to create those opportunities both in person and through online offerings. Our history is complex, upsetting and can be unpleasant. It’s also inspiring, surprising and, often, amazing.

Sheffield Hale, an Atlanta native, is president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center

Credit: contributed

icon to expand image

Credit: contributed

How does this effort relate to our democracy? The History Center believes that an effort to help us better understand our collective past can strengthen our community and, with that, trust in our democratic institutions. History belongs to all of us and informs our common present and our shared future. A crucial understanding is that our history has been experienced differently by our ancestors. Our personal awareness of the past is ordinarily seen through that lens of historical family and community experiences – a past as divided and confusing as our lives today.

Each day, we grapple with how to talk to people across political, racial and economic divides about complex issues. It’s complicated even within the world of museums. I came into the museum profession from corporate and nonprofit law. Disagreements over how to approach history within the field surprised me.

It’s a balancing act, whether we’re trying to discuss historical episodes of racial injustice without getting the “critical race theory” label slapped on us or pushing back on the trend to use exhibitions as an opportunity to connect every subject to oppression. We must stay in that place where we can talk to everyone about hard topics and account for our audience’s wildly different life experiences and perspectives. My legal training and experience taught me the importance of precise language in plain English, not overclaiming or overgeneralizing -- and showing your work.

Our experience in the “history wars” led to the development of our Guiding Principles, which outline the methodology for how we present approachable and evidence-based history as an institution. By focusing on methodology and not ideology, we strive to be effective in providing opportunities for perspective. Not every argument is about winning and defensiveness is rarely effective. We also engage with our audiences from a place of mutual respect, knowing that having honest, open conversations with a healthy dose of grace is essential to building trust. Words matter and we commit to showing our work.

From our Guiding Principles: “Atlanta History Center believes in clear, thoughtful communication that will stimulate curiosity while being straightforward on the facts. We will not be neutral regarding well-documented historical conclusions that might be considered controversial in the public sphere. Through our presentation of difficult history, we do not seek to shame, label or discourage visitors; rather, we seek to engage with them through exhibitions, programming and outreach that encourage discussions that are empathetic, historically informed and inclusive of all members of the community.”

Using the Guiding Principles, we sought a strategic focus for the next 5 years. We looked at these principles as well as our resources and physical assets to determine our role.

Our Board of Trustees approved a new Strategic Plan that takes us through 2026, the 250th anniversary of the country and the 100th anniversary of Atlanta History Center.

From our Strategic Plan: “We will focus on the role that Atlanta History Center can play in a functional democratic system and hold democracy at the center of our research, scholarship and storytelling. As people across our city, state and country consider what it means to create a democracy functioning by and for everyone, Atlanta History Center will use its resources to explore the history of the components that make a healthy democratic system, including methods of civic engagement, widespread and informed voter participation, civil rights and community leadership.”

Our view is that the other issues in society cannot be reasonably resolved unless we have a functioning democracy that has participation, trust and a belief in the necessity of compromise, and that we as a history organization have a responsibility to be part of the solution. Our contribution is through the commitments we’ve made in our Strategic Plan and the approach we’re taking through our Guiding Principles.

But of course, it’s not just history organizations that can improve the conversation: every organization that roots itself in community is called to participate. I am optimistic. A better future doesn’t happen through collective handwringing in the Op-Ed pages of newspapers across the country (this one excepted). It happens when each of us and our organizations look at the causes of the fragmentation of our democracy, not just the symptoms and make a plan for what we can each do individually and collectively to help.

Atlanta History Center is grateful to be part of a strong, resilient Atlanta community. We hope that through studying history, fostering important conversations and learning from other organizations, we can encourage our entire community to get involved in helping to restore trust in our democracy.

In a democratic republic, it truly takes all of us.

Sheffield Hale is president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center.