Trust, Risk and Public History: A View from the United States

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James B. Gardner


In the public history and museum communities today there is much difference of opinion over the concept of ‘radical trust,’ which basically argues for us to give up control and trust the public to develop content for our websites and exhibitions and provide direction for our work. Most public historians and curators are happy to share authority with the public, but are we now expected to yield all authority? Are we now taking historian Carl Becker’s well-known phrase ‘everyman his own historian’ and updating it to ‘every person his or her own curator’? What is the role of historical knowledge in a world of opinion? Unfortunately, at the same time that many of us are embracing risk online, in a world we have little control or even influence over, we seem to be stepping back from risk taking in our museums, on our own turf. We’ve become risk averse—afraid to make mistakes, afraid of trying new approaches and tackling the historically controversial or the ambiguous. Rather than the ‘safe place for unsafe ideas’ that Elaine Gurian proposed, we have become no more than safe places for safe ideas. We need to push back on both fronts. Public historians should be thought leaders, not followers—not wait to see what the future holds for us but rather try to shape that future.

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