Alexandra M. Lord: Historian says it's time historians start handling artifacts

Historians in the News

[Alexandra M. Lord is a public historian working in Washington and the cocreator of a Web site, Beyond Academe, designed to educate historians about nonacademic careers.]

... Like most academic historians, I was trained to do archival research. Although I love working in a cold, sterile archive, I have recently come to see that such a narrow approach to history, to almost any academic discipline, has serious limitations.

As a professor teaching at a land-grant university in a rural state, I came face to face with those limitations when I taught a class on the history of early modern medicine, my area of expertise. I remember feeling stymied as students asked me specific questions about 18th-century shock therapy. I had discussed the uses of mild electric shock on patients in my dissertation and published work, but I had never seen one of the machines outside of a glass museum case. To say that my understanding of how they worked was vague would be an understatement.

Later that year, I opened an envelope only to have photographs of different medical artifacts spill out onto my desk. A local resident had found my name on the Internet. Believing me to be the state's foremost expert on medical history, he thought that I might be able to identify the artifacts he had inherited from his great-grandfather. Staring at the photos, I realized how little I really knew about medical history.

The irony, of course, is that I had always considered myself quite savvy when it came to using images in my teaching. In fact, it was a slide of an electric-shock machine that had stimulated my students' questions. But like many of my colleagues, I used those images as background wallpaper. They helped students visualize the past, but we did not analyze or explore any of the objects or images in detail.

Why didn't I push my students to delve deeper?

The truth was that I was unable to do so myself. The academic tendency to prize the written word has led many historians to view documents as the means by which we learn about the past. And, like most historians, I received no training in using, interpreting, or preserving historical artifacts. In some ways the archival approach makes sense, but more often than not, it leads to bad or misleading history....
Read entire article at Alexandra M. Lord at the website of the Chronicle of Higher Education (CHE)

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