History is as inherently political as the society it represents. Taking a fearless look into the past — with all its complexity — informs, inspires and contextualizes our modern discourse in invaluable ways. History organizations hold a sacred public trust to collect and preserve the heritage of everyone they represent (sometimes as it happens), even when that means putting themselves in the line of fire amid ongoing social change.
When the History Center was started in 1953, its creators set out to tell the story of San Luis Obispo County’s founding fathers. Over the next 60 years, as America’s ideas about equality and civil rights evolved, history organizations across the country widened their focus to include the lives of women, people of color and others who have traditionally had less power and influence — and less access to resources, institutions and sites of public memory. The richness of understanding that we gained through these added stories is impossible to overstate.
But we still have a lot of catching up to do.
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Many groups within our own community have never been invited to contribute their stories, and we risk losing them forever in the present generational shift. Understanding this, national organizations are leading the way to build equity into our history practices. In 2014 the National Parks Service announced an LGBTQ Heritage Initiative (https://www.nps.gov/articles/lgbtqheritageadminhist.htm). The American Association of State and Local History (https://aaslh.org/), which “values history as a key component to a democratic and well-informed society,” has published books and articles highlighting the importance of LGTBQ history projects across the country.
As far as we know, the History Center has never been on one side or the other of any political debate. Its only interest is in collecting, preserving and sharing original objects and documents that can be used to deepen our collective knowledge. We’re incredibly proud of the work the History Center has done over the past several years, especially when it drew fire for exploring stories that connected a little too closely with current events. If our opinions can’t stand exposure to historical facts, it may be time to rethink them.
Eva Fina is former executive director/curator of the History Center of San Luis Obispo County; William McCarthy is president of the center’s Board of Directors; Zachary McKiernan is chair of the center’s Public History Committee; Julie Moore is board secretary and past president; and Steven Ruszczycky is co-founder of the Central Coast Queer Archive Project.