The morning after Fort Wayne’s first Black Lives Matter protest in 2020 ended with police firing tear gas into the crowd, Todd Maxwell Pelfrey, Executive Director of the History Center, was hard at work. Not toiling away in the castle-like historical museum at 302 E. Berry St., but walking the streets of downtown to collect any remnants he could find from the night before—rubber bullets, tear gas canisters, even empty milk jugs protesters and bystanders used to soothe their burning eyes.
“It was a thoroughly surreal experience because that’s a role that public historians aren’t accustomed to playing,” Pelfrey says. “We aren’t accustomed to being that close to the frontlines of history.” Todd Pelfrey
Coincidentally, Feb. 12, 2021, marks the 100th anniversary of the Allen County-Fort Wayne Historical Society, and for Pelfrey, this milestone year on the heels of 2020 is a reminder of just how much the role of public historians has evolved in the U.S. during the last century.
Like most historical institutions of its time, the Fort Wayne History Center began in 1921 as a decidedly antiquarian organization where “relics ruled the museum,” Pelfrey says. Yet, while it has been collecting artifacts since the 1920s, it didn’t pay much attention to current events or to the broader cultural stories and context surrounding its collections until the public history movement of the 1970s.
When the Black Lives Matter movement and COVID-19 pandemic swept the nation in 2020, this trend toward collecting history in real-time was accelerated across the U.S., causing public historians, like Pelfrey, to reconsider the role they play in documenting historical events for posterity.
“Should we be in a bunker waiting for objects and stories to come to us, or should we be on the frontlines of history?” Pelfrey asks.
Rather than passively waiting on artifacts, which tend to arrive at museums roughly 70-80 years after their period of significance, Pelfrey and other public historians are taking a more aggressive approach to curating collections, showing up on the scenes of current events like journalists to gather information and artifacts themselves.
Along with collecting remnants from protests last year, Pelfrey sought out an invitation to witness the first COVID-19 vaccinations in Indiana, performed by Parkview Health. A tiny vial and medical syringe from that experience now await viewers on the History Center’s website and as a part of its 32,000-piece permanent collection.
“We’re starting to apply a lot of these tactics because the last thing we want is for something of exceptional historical value to be lost,” Pelfrey says.
In a way, this newfound urgency to preserve history is a result of 2020, too. As the History Center was called upon to mediate tense cultural, social, and political discussions surrounding the protests and pandemic, Pelfrey says his team has often found themselves looking to similar events of the past for context—namely, the Civil Rights Era and the Spanish Influenza pandemic. Yet, shockingly little information about these two monumental events in history has been preserved in their collection.
“Although we certainly have some background information about the Civil Rights Era and the Spanish Influenza pandemic, we didn’t have—and still don’t have—the three-dimensional objects, or the photographs, or the documentation to describe those stories,” Pelfrey says. “So it can make it very difficult for historical organizations to provide the much-needed context for communities to have informed conversations about the past in the present, without that bedrock of historical information.”
In the era of alternative facts, fake news, and misinformation campaigns, these holes in history can contribute to a lack of cultural memory, at best, and can be exploited, at worst.
Pelfrey attributes sparse collections from the Civil Rights Era and Spanish Influenza pandemic, in part, to the fact that the field of public history itself was still in its infancy at the time these events occurred. Thus, local historians simply weren’t gathering artifacts and stories about current events the way they might now.
“Every one of our 208 charter members of the Historical Society lived through the Spanish Influenza pandemic, yet, not one object was acquired during that time,” Pelfrey says. “That certainly, and perhaps more than anything, illustrates how more than 200 local individuals who had a profound appreciation for the field of history didn’t collect contemporary pieces.”
As a result, Pelfrey and other public historians have been “playing catch up” the past several decades, piecing together the information they do have from bygone eras based on the stories published in local periodicals, for instance.
“There are no local stories that we couldn’t address to some degree,” he says. “But as far as illustrating those stories with objects and images and an abundance of personal reflections, that’s what’s lacking.”
In this way, Pelfrey explains that the intent behind voraciously gathering artifacts like rubber bullets and vaccine vials today is not about relegating complex and ongoing challenges, such as racial unrest, to the past. Instead, it’s about preserving evidence of these events and cultural stories before they are lost or obscured in time.
“It’s not saying: ‘Let’s shut the book on that, and move on,’” Pelfrey says. “We’re specifically collecting materials now for the benefit of future generations.”
Along with the artifacts Pelfrey gathered on the streets, the History Center has been reaching out to members of the Fort Wayne community who had vastly different experiences during the protests to “actively and sympathetically” collect stories from various perspectives, Pelfrey says.
That brings to mind another way the role of public historians is evolving across the U.S.: Moderating the proliferation of information available on websites and social media.
While modern technology has made history more accessible in some ways, it’s also made the History Center’s work, sifting through the abundance of information that exists, more challenging.
During the next 100 years, Pelfrey sees the History Center’s role as a trusted resource in society becoming even more valuable, equipping communities with the nonpartisan intellectual and cultural footing they need to have critical conversations in the present and to better understand the past—not rooted in memory, but enriched by it.
“There’s an interesting, and all too often challenging, divergence between history and memory,” Pelfrey says. “They are two incredibly different things. History involves the stoic presentation of empirical fact; whereas, memory is based on emotion. Memory has been described as ‘an embrace of the past,’ so both memory and history begin at the exact same place—at a specific point in the past—and from there, they diverge. The challenge for public historians is presenting history in an honest and well-researched fashion, while using the emotional value of memory to amplify those stories and to make them relevant.”
The History Center is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2021, utilizing its “Socially History” series on Facebook and Instagram to highlight a different decade of its collection every day this month, starting on Friday, Feb. 12.
The History Center is currently open to visitors willing to wear masks and socially distance. Its digital collections are also available to browse online.
It hopes to share collections related to the historic events of 2020 both in-person and online later this year.