History Comes Alive. Public History and Popular Culture in the 1970s

#popreview, saggistica

Washington D.C., 4 luglio 1976. Foto di Jim Rhodes, pubblicata su Flickr con licenza CC 2.0

di Marta Gara

History Comes Alive. Public History and Popular Culture in the 1970s
(M. J. Rymsza-Pawlowska, The North Carolina University Press, Chapel Hill, 2017)


In History Comes Alive, M. J. Rymsza-Pawlowska describes the pivotal change in the perception of the   occurred in American popular culture during the 1970s. In the author’s perspective this new attitude towards history was highlighted and boosted by  the Bicentennial celebrations.

In face of  the well-known references in 1970s’ media, cultural institutions and fashion to the 1950s, the Progressive Era and the Colonial period, Rymsza-Pawlowska originally tries to point out what actually changed in the  popular relationship with the past, comparing it especially with the prevailing one in the 1960s. In the 1970s, unlike some years before – when historical events were seen as distant, unvarying and sometimes read as model experiences to learn from, the past  came forward  through feelings, tales of common people’s lives and a lively interaction with the present day. In the 1970s, history is not  just informational: it  becomes emotional.

In the framework of US cultural history, Rymsza-Pawlowska’s work greatly supports the literature’s trend reevaluating the 1970s as a culturally multifaceted period marked by a grassroots activism on a community base. Unlike  the dismissing judgements of 1970s as “me decade” or narcissistic triumph expressed by the cultural critics of the same period (Wolfe, Lasch, Bell), Rymsza-Pawlowska accepts the postmodernist assumption of a spread disenchantment towards the future – as opposed  to the wishful believes prompted by the 1960s’social movements and state policies – and pushes her analysis further. She claims that the 1970s’ popular culture and politics also contributed to revise the US interest in the past bringing forward plenty of innovations. She chooses to analyze self-consciously “historical” media and events to better understand those developments. As a consequence, each chapter is dedicated to a different cultural platform through which the sense of history  has been disseminated in the 1970s: television (chapter 1), state and federal Bicentennial celebrations (chapters 2, 6), museums and exhibitions (chapters 3, 4) and reenactments (chapter 5).

In order to contextualize her thesis, the author retraces the long-standing history of diverse public history practices: preservation and conservation in museums, oral history, reenactment, collecting present day ephemera to build invented archives of everyday life, sensory engagement as exhibition tool, living history museum, etc. This extends the scope of the book towards a broad overview  of the public history’s development, connecting the larger focus on the 1970s  with some cultural and political turning points from the late XIX to the early 1980s.

Moreover,  the author especially stresses how US institutional power used public history in the 1960s and 1970s. She provides a detailed archival reconstruction of the work of the two federal agencies dedicated to the Bicentennial celebrations—the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission (ARBC) and the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration (ARBA)—,from the Johnson’s to the Ford’s administrations, connecting their work  with the changing popular attitude towards the past. Rymsza-Pawlowska pays special attention  to the  raising concern of grass-roots organizations over Bicentennial celebrations, especially the People’s Bicentennial Commission led by Jeremy Rifkin. They aimed at saving the populist’s and minorities’ perspective on the public narrative of US history and exposing through the anniversary their strong criticism to  Nixon’s and Ford’s administrations.

In 1970s, the usable past clearly became a bone of contention between the Establishment and the social movements. However,  the author does not elaborate further  such a critical concept in historical knowledge and in building public history practices.

Indeed, in the monograph, public history as a scientific research field  remains on the sidelines, despite the fact that its  founding moment is conventionally dated back to 1978, when the US journal “The Public Historian” was launched. The author actually mentions the changing attitude of academic historical research between the late 1960s and the early 1970s as an output of the 1960s social movements. She makes reference to the raise of “New History” and the attention since early 1970s to the social history and the histories of ethnic and sexual minorities. Nevertheless an answer is still lacking in History Comes Alive: it can’t be that the academic interest in public history in the late 1970s was a sort of response to the popular turn towards the emotional interpretation of the past of the same decade? Maybe another research should follow this query, since Rymsza-Pawlowska legitemately let the scholars movements outside from her inquire.

Thanks to “History Comes Alive” the developments of some self-consciously “historical” events and products stand out as a successful methodological key to figure out a comprehensive image of the 1970s popular culture in U.S. and this is a very valuable achievement in the current historiographical revision of such a critical decade.