Public v. Private – Can You Have Your Cake and Eat it Too?

Cultural institutions such as museums and archives are, at times, awkwardly positioned between public and private interests. Private donors of funds and collections have a major stake in the functioning of a given institution, and this may, at times, compromise the public good. Although public historians want, above all else, to provide access to and education of resources and materials, how do you negotiate with an apprehensive or even defensive donor?

Perhaps you can, as a public historian, have your cake and eat it too. Maybe you can, in fact, make everyone happy. That is to say, evaluating issues of access and privacy with a donor or stakeholder can be a major part of upholding the public good; protecting intellectual property may also be a part of it, too. This is not to say that research and archiving should be highly regulatory. Rather, we may consider smaller aspects of these issues more closely.

For example, intentionality may be an important consideration. Archives redacting info in accordance with donor requests can be necessary for establishing rapport and preserving materials that, though manipulated, may otherwise be lost entirely. Brown and Kaiser in their Doing Recent History essay, would probably agree with this to a certain extent. On the other hand, collecting royalties on Martin Luther King Jr.’s likeness and quotations in an instance of fundraising for a MLK monument seems cruelly profit-oriented. Drakes, in her Doing Recent History essay, would likely agree with this as well. Although examples more simply illustrate how to negotiate public and private concerns, a hard-and-fast standard is nearly impossible to determine.

In addition, it is important to note that there are more individuals (and potential private donors) who do not have an understanding of this balance because private ownership, privacy, and expression are highly valued in the United States. Often these rights are far more appealing to people than the public good which, in this case, involves access. This does not make people bad, but it indicates there may be a lack of education and incentive in this regard. Historians with a populist, open-access mission will have to address individual concerns and if they can strike a balance, they will be oriented towards the public good.

– Lauren Ericson


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