Making History a Communal Experience

By John Heckman – The Tattooed Historian

John Heckman is better known to online audiences as “The Tattooed Historian.” After obtaining his graduate degree in history and working alongside the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, John began his brand of history in 2015 and sought to help the history field reach new and more diverse audiences. Through his work across many social media platforms, as well as his podcast (The Tattooed Historian Show), John has had the opportunity to work with universities, not for profit organizations, the U.S. National Park Service, the U.S. Department of Defense, and many more in the United States and Canada to ensure that the past is not forgotten. He currently resides in Pennsylvania.

There is an anecdote often heard in the United States, and attributed to a legendary politician from Boston, Tip O’Neil. “All politics,” he’d say, “is local.” Politics is always present in our day-to-day lives in some form or fashion. We are permitted to do certain things and prohibited from doing others. It is the proverbial elephant in the room, whether we like that fact or not.

Our ancestors were also creatures of politics. Wars, treaties, land acquisitions, education, and so many other things were a product of politics at some particular point in time. So, if it is true that “all politics is local,” then can we also say that “all history is local?” I believe that while we grow up in a society that teaches us to understand historical narratives at a macro level, we tend to overlook the micro-histories which surround us in our local areas. This lack of attention to local history is a new wake-up call for those of us who love the past.

Curiosity is what fuels our desire to understand historical narratives. For some, this flame is extinguished when history becomes too technical. We think of history only in the context of a classroom environment and not in the communal way. For millennia, humans have gathered to hear tales of their ancestors, heroes, villains, and what has shaped their world. I believe it is time to make history a communal experience that’s very much part of the present day.

Defining Moments Canada has provided us with a blueprint for how to make local history a shared experience. Through micro-histories on the Spanish Flu, visitors to the website can experience what life was like for ordinary Canadians living in towns and cities across the nation. Utilizing story mapping techniques and digital technology, DMC gave face to local heroes of the Second World War for “VEDay75.” These intimate stories are passed over every day by our society because we sometimes take local history for granted.

It is time that we confront the idea that local history does little to impact larger historical events. The grassroots of history and the memory is rooted in local history. Storytellers of the past entered many of our lives very early on. For example, our relatives may have spoken about their experiences during the Second World War. Perhaps it was a teacher who asked you to conduct oral histories from the local population about a certain place and time. Experiences like these are countless and provide us with the idea that macro history can become micro in an instant; what was once unfathomable can become more defined. And that leads us to a greater understanding of the world around us.

What I am asking is simple: Make space for discussions in your community. Perhaps these can occur in the library, or the coffee shop, or maybe the pub. Once per month, before the pandemic, I hosted a program called, “The Tattooed Historian Presents,” at the Garryowen Irish Pub in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. This event gave locals a chance to gather, have a drink or some amazing food, and hear about some chapter of local history from a featured speaker. These evenings brought people together for a few hours of fun, education, and networking.

How can you take models such as these and make them come to life in your city or town? There are so many activities we can do to put local history in the spotlight, such as starting local history projects to highlight the lives of those who shaped our neighbourhoods. These presentations can take place in a local small business whose owners can use a helping hand after these trying times. Or we can assist with cleaning up a small local cemetery, the final resting place for many who loved this neighborhood as much as you do. Once the cleaning is complete, friends can gather and show where their relatives are buried and talk about their lives. After all, each headstone offers up a biography; as historians, we must teach as many of these stories as possible.

Or, consider a heritage marker along the route to work. How often do you stop to experience these sites and consider what makes them historic? How often do we simply drive by without giving it a second glance? If you stop for a few moments, think about the new things you may learn. Perhaps someone who lies eternally in that plot of ground witnessed a historical event that fascinates you. It is possible that a wayside marker along the road has a significant meaning to your family or close friends.

By recognizing that history is local, we make it more personal. When history seems to affect us as individuals, the past becomes more powerful. We seek that connection to a historical event which inspires creativity, patriotism, or hope. If local history is overlooked because it is seldom seen in books or film, we lose pride in where we came from. Historic events occurred where you live or grew up, although sometimes you must work to find them. That quest is what fans the flames of curiosity.

Projects such as those I described earlier underscore the fact that we may share a communal bond. It can also point out our shortcomings as a society and help us to understand how these failings impacted our own communities. By uncovering the good and the bad, we inform future generations that we have done our best to learn from as many stories as possible. Then these stories may be passed on to our children, so the narrative becomes a thread in the fabric of our existence. After all, one day we will all be history — local history.