What do Public History’s methods have to offer Anabaptist History (and the Anabaptist Future)?

Mainstream (that is, acculturated) North American Anabaptist denominations have made efforts to reach outside of ethnic and geographical boundaries in many ways over the last century and a half. Beginning with the resettlement of Mennonite Refugees in the 1870s and continuing with mission and service efforts at home and abroad, these efforts have had varying amounts of success (however success is quantified). If this is a continuing social and evangelical goal for these denominations and the populations that compose them, the discipline of public history can provide strategies and techniques to achieve it.

Public history is a field that doesn’t like to be pinned down. Academic programs branding themselves as “Public History” sprang up in the 1970s in response to a shortage of jobs in academia, but the work the newly minted public historians did had a long history. Many of the products of the discipline—exhibits, archives, lectures, oral history, monuments and markers—were the only history products that existed prior to the nineteenth century and the Rankean professionalization of academic history. In the early twentieth century, public history had flourished in the form of the Works Progress Administration and the National Parks Service.

In the last half century, the field of public history has tried to define itself, often settling for the distinction that it is concerned with history outside of the academy. Yet at the same time public history has proliferated within the academy, with new public history programs emerging every year. Part of this explosion of interest is pragmatic: with fewer tenure-track jobs in the humanities available than the number of graduate students, departments must prepare their pupils for life outside of the academy. In part, however, public history is the logical extension of the social history movement of the 1960s. Public history often seeks to decentralize history through such tenets as shared authority. In the prologue to Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History, Denise Meringolo argues that public history is “practicing history not simply in public but rather for the public” (italics in original). By engaging in collaborative work with inter-disciplinary methods, Meringolo suggests, public historians who self-identify as such primarily see their work as public service.

So what would specifically Anabaptist public history look like? Or to put the emphasis differently, what would public Anabaptist history look like? Or what does it look like? Within the field of Anabaptist History, we already have many institutions that could be called public history: archives and libraries, local and regional historical societies, and interpretive exhibits in museum settings, to name a few. In several cases, multiple elements are present together, as in the Mennonite Heritage Center in Harleysville, PA, and Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, which combine exhibit space with library and archives. Efforts such as Lancaster Roots, a calendar of cultural events by the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society and 1719 Hans Herr House & Museum, take history out to churches and invite people in with specific programming on cultural crafts, as well as lectures.

However, these institutional settings tend to be intrinsically conservative in nature. Jarrett M. Drake has written about the oppressive experience of archives, which protect the resources within them through the tyranny of “silence, solitude, and surveillance.”1 Furthermore, archives often exclude people by virtue of their accessibility—located far from public transport or open for limited hours—or simply by the hoops would-be researchers must jump through—registration, fees for copying through convoluted mechanisms, etc.

On this blog in recent months we’ve seen calls to “deterritorialize” Anabaptist History from Felipe Hinojosa and Jason B. Kauffman. What could that look like?

The Lancaster Longhouse at the 1719 Has Herr House & Museum (created in collaboration with Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, the Circle Legacy Center, and local American Indian groups) is one example of public history in an Anabaptist context, though its creators may not have envisioned it as such. The digital archive of a (relatively) diverse Anabaptist web presence by Mennonite Church USA’s archive (begun under Colleen McFarland Rademaker’s tenure as archivist) is another way forward.


Lancaster Longhouse at the 1719 Hans Herr House & Museum

This is the work of history but it has bearing on the present and future reality. The Longhouse and the MC USA web archive are both attempts to share authority with communities that have been held at arm’s length, at the the periphery, by Anabaptist denominations and academia. If Anabaptist denominations want to move toward a more diverse population (racially and otherwise) within North America, the techniques of public history present one way toward reconciliation and engagement with populations that have been excluded, offended, or oppressed by the church and/or the academy. This could also be an opportunity to connect with Amish and Plain communities who have been left out of the academic history of the last fifty years other than as subjects of academic work (and the Lancaster Roots approach is especially suited for this outreach). At the root of all of those efforts must be a willingness to cede truth-telling power, truly collaborate, and have projects and the greater church move in directions that weren’t expected or hoped for.

More traditional public history institutions can make changes to deterritorialize their collections. Archivists can identify collections that have been overlooked—those that provide a window into the lives of the evangelized as well as the missionaries, the lives of women as well as men, and the lives of Anabaptists whose sexuality was not recognized as legitimate by their social and religious communities, among others—and invite scholars to tell the stories they contain. Traditional methods such as historic preservation can be used in areas outside of the traditional Anabaptist enclaves—some of the first 1-W or MVS units could make fascinating historic house museums. Some changes could be painful. The Heinrich (Henry) Voth collection in the MC USA archives could be repatriated to the Hopi Reservation, for instance, even though the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) doesn’t extend to photographic materials.

The work of public history is not apolitical. As an example of the aims and methods of public historians in this country, it is instructive to read the National Council on Public History’s editorial in the wake of the presidential election.2 The whole piece is worth a read, but here’s the crux of the argument: 

Promoting education and dialogue will likely not be enough to ensure that human rights are respected. Public history exhibits and projects provide people with tools to parse how fear and self-interest can be manipulated, but if we want to walk our talk, our institutions will need to continue to strengthen emerging practices of direct engagement and civic action that we see around the field.”

While standing up for immigrant, minority, and refugee rights fits comfortably within Biblical calls to action, historians working in MC USA-affiliated organizations may find that advocacy for other vulnerable groups, such as LGBTQ Americans (which is also within the scope of “the least of these”) puts them in political or ethical quandaries at work. Historians may find themselves, in the coming years, in the public arena against their will, as our own Tobin Miller Shearer did this week when he was listed by an alt-right group for “advanc[ing]leftist propaganda in the classroom.”

This work is not simple. As Philipp Gollner cautions,  it will be easy for white progressive voices to drown out others, even while seemingly asking for input.3 The Mennonite world that I grew up in was proud of its humility, multiculturalism (even while being predominately white), and progressivism. Yet that very progressive identity can shield against self-reflection. Humility, self-examination, and willingness to listen when others tell you that you are wrong are all necessary in this work.

More pragmatic concerns are where the financial and social capital would come from to develop more innovative public history programming. The Anabaptist historical institutions that exist have long histories, yet little surplus that they could gamble on an ephemeral program that may or may not have the desired effect. Our colleges face tough financial times, and the departures of Lancaster Conference and others from MC USA  have put fund-raising throughout the Mennonite non-profit world in jeopardy in ways that may have knock-on effects.

So what does public Anabaptist history look like in a North American context and what should or could it look like? Our institutions have been resourceful with the budgets they’ve been given, but also tended to take conservative forms. I want to see Anabaptist Historians (the folks who contribute to this blog as well as the broader field) try new ways of making history that get out of our fellowship halls and our college campuses and our archives and combine the concerns of our religious community—pacifism, social justice, and the Dominion of God—with the methods and verve of public history. As public history moves toward disruptive techniques that cede control and challenge traditional narratives, public Anabaptist historians should do the same. As the greater discipline hears a call to activism, public Anabaptist historians should embrace the same call, especially where it aligns with the ethics we espouse in our congregations and households. We should approach the challenges that come—including funding shortfalls and awkwardness—with humility as well as fervency.

  1. Jarret M. Drake, “Libraries and Archives: Towards Belonging and Believing,” On Archivy, October 22, 2016 https://medium.com/on-archivy/liberatory-archives-towards-belonging-and-believing-part-1-d26aaeb0edd1#.fb37008sb 
  2. National Council on Public History, “A Response to the Election,” History at Work, November 11, 2016 http://ncph.org/history-at-work/a-response-to-the-election/ 
  3. Phillip Gollner, “Who Calls Whom Racist, and What’s The Privilege With That?” Anabaptist Historians, November 4, 2016, https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2016/11/04/who-calls-whom-racist-and-whats-the-privilege-with-that/ 

3 thoughts on “What do Public History’s methods have to offer Anabaptist History (and the Anabaptist Future)?

  1. As the archivist for the repository where the H. R. Voth papers are held, I find it frustrating (maybe I should use a stronger word like infuriating) that the Voth papers are always talked about, especially in Mennonite circles, without the commenter ever bothering to find out what the facts of the matter actually are.

    Heinrich R. Voth was a General Conference Mennonite missionary in Oklahoma in the 1880s (Cheyenne and Arapaho) and in the 1890s in Arizona (Hopi). He became known as a major early ethnographer of Hopi language and culture. His extensive photographing of private/secret religious ceremonies and his early 20th century publications with the Field Museum of detailed ceremonial descriptions are widely reviled among Hopis who are knowledgeable about cultural/historical matters. Voth’s surviving photos, field notes, and other documents are at the Mennonite Library and Archives.

    The MLA has been in regular contact with the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office since at least 1994. HCPO staff have visited the MLA in person to review the Voth collection (and also the Kauffman Museum to review the handful of Hopi-related artifacts there). We have routinely provided scans or other copies of Voth materials as requested by the HCPO. I personally asked the head of the HCPO back in 1994 what requests or requirements they would have related to the Voth materials. As a result, our policy is that any ceremonial/sensitive material (photos, field notes, etc.) cannot be used for publication or research unless the user consults with the HCPO. (This is the same policy as the Northern Arizona University archives, which houses archival materials for the HCPO.)

    In 2011, after scanning a number of Voth photos requested for a Hopi exhibit on traditional agriculture, I realized that technology had progressed to the point where I could digitize the entire Voth photo collection onto one device and give it to the HCPO. It took me about 3 years to scan and organize around 2300 negatives and prints (over 100 gigabytes). In March 2015, I took the USB drive in person to the Hopi tribal offices in Kykotsmovi. They requested that this be done at a meeting of the full tribal council, so I had to give an improptu speech about the photo collection and its context and answer questions from council members. It was a major high point of my archival career.

    The HCPO, like most historical organizations, has limited resources and has to set deliberate and considered priorities. They have limited space for archival storage (and store some of their materials at NAU a couple of hours drive away, as I said above). Their major long-term priority right now is the retrieval of ceremonial artifacts (and reproductions of such artifacts); you might have noticed occasional news articles about their efforts over the last few years to stop auctions of Hopi items by art auction houses in France.

    I have heard MCUSA administrators suggest that, because Hopi culture tends to be somewhat conflict-avoidant and frowns on ordering people around, they won’t tell us what they really want in connection with repatriation matters. This is a blatant, paternalistic, racial stereotype. If one pays attention to what the Hopis are actually doing (by reading the Hopi Tutuveni newspaper, for example), one can see in cases like the French auctions or in the case of the recent book Mesa of Sorrows that the HCPO aggressively pursues its priorities. They rallied the entire Arizona congressional delegation, the US attorney general, the US ambassador to France, and other governmental officials to press their case in France. So I have no doubt that if and when they have new requests related to Mennonite archival materials they will make that known very clearly.

    By the way, I don’t think it can clearly be said that NAGPRA does not cover archival materials. I’m not aware of a definitive ruling on this. When I asked the administrator of the NAGPRA program in the National Park Service this question several years ago, she told me that it was an open question.

    More broadly, I really don’t like how archives and archivists are so often portrayed as arch-reactionaries when, on the contrary, they have been thinking about and acting on issues of diversity and inclusion for literally decades.

    John D. Thiesen


    • Thank you for your very thoughtful and thorough response, John, you provided a lot of context for me and for our readers. I applaud you for the way in which you’ve acted as a facilitator and caretaker for these sensitive cultural artifacts and provided the HCPO with digitization. That is not an easy job and it is a valuable service. Thank you for the work you do! I apologize for my tone in referring to your archive; it was unnecessarily flippant for such a sensitive topic. I regret that I did not do my due diligence in learning the current status of the collection.
      You are very right that archivists’ thoughtfulness about issues of access and diversity is admirable and has run ahead of other parts of scholarship. I would argue, however, that archives are intrinsically reactive in that they are collections of material created by others. You cannot create an archive before there is something to contain. The very effort to conserve is conservative. I intended my suggestion that the Voth collection “could be repatriated” not as chiding your institution for malpractice but as an example of the kind of proactive, radically decolonizing moves that I think archives could and should make. Waiting for oppressed people to ask for their stuff back is its own kind of oppression.
      Thank you for reading and taking the time to respond, John. You’ve given me a lot to think about. Plus now I want to go read up on NAGPRA more closely!

      Ted Maust


    • John, I’m rereading your comment after some months – this is a fascinating story, if you’d be interested in working it up for a full post, I think it would be of great interest to readers. – Ben


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