And now an alternative career, for when I get tired writing my own books. From today’s Washington Post:
…Bruce Weindruch, founder of a D.C. area business called the History Factory….has taken the subject of business history and found a way to build a successful business around it. The History Factory builds Web sites, makes films, writes books and creates exhibits for clients around the world, be they massive oil producers such as Saudi Aramco or the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel in downtown Washington.
He leads a team of 35 historians, archivists, library scientists, writers, curators, designers and businesspeople at the company’s home office in Chantilly. And he makes a nice living doing it.
“This is what you do when you commercialize a traditionally academic discipline,” Weindruch said.
When clothier Brooks Brothers wanted to mark its 175th anniversary, Weindruch’s team combed the company’s records to publish a book and create a corporate celebration. When Shell Oil wanted a sprawling museum for company offices in Houston, the History Factory designed it.
Well, mixed reactions here. It’s not any more commercial than the History Channel, that’s for sure. And at least they’re up front about the purpose. And since I make a nice living from history, I shouldn’t be snotty about this enterprise. But although calling yourself a heritage management firm veers over towards newspeak, shouldn’t there be a word other than “history” for “bringing to life the events that define your organization…to create powerful and persuasive communications tools”?
I mean, really: if your motto is “Making History–Today,” is history really what you’re doing?
Mixed reactions indeed on this end. The term “history” seems problematic to me on a number of levels. The comparison it brought to my mind was social science textbook production, which caters the desires and biases of the major markets, Texas and California in particular, but also to tiny ones. In “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” James Loewen writes about how all history books have to tiptoe around a number of buyers’ concerns, including the rule in Texas that nothing should appear to damage or contradict or otherwise disrespect “authority” — loaded term there — and that all Presidents must be portrayed as brave, bold, and powerful even if they mainly sit around drinking and making plans to invade Latin American countries. This is buyer-drive history; but producer-drive history seems just as egregious. Of course no historian or writer is objective, and
all history is selective narrative; but still, choosing and shaping material to glorify a company and its executives has crossed a line. This is marketing a company, not freely exploring its past.
I attended several of your classes last spring at the Midwest Home School Convention in Cinci and took copious notes in the writing class for high school. It was Wonderful!!!! I used the notes with my children right away and then put them away until this year. I went tonight to get them out to begin our home school year and they are GONE!!!!! I cleaned out my house this summer and I am afraid I scooped them up with something else. I feel LOST….actually it’s more like a meltdown!!!!!! 🙁 Anyway, I have your book, The Well-Trained Mind, plus the other writing books from your booth at the convention, Writing Great Research Papers, The New Oxford Guide to Writing, A Rulebook for Arguments and Essential Literary Terms. I am thinking that what you taught has to be in there somewhere! But, even though I have read most of the book and searched it carefully, I cannot find anything on response/reflection papers. Would you please tell where to look? Or could I just purchase the tape from that class? Any advice would be SO APPRECIATED!!!!
Mixed reactions here, as well. I’m certainly sympathetic to the academic POV, but my nature is also to give a wide berth to creative commercial enterprise. I used to tell my high school students to follow their interest, that there was a place for them *somewhere* out there if they pursued it (i also made it clear that this did not guarantee financial solvency). So if people like history, but don’t have it in them to take it into the academic arena as a career, why not do something like this? I mean, maybe doctors who do Botox for a living aren’t really practicing medicine, but they’re providing a service that people want and will pay for.
The hard part for me when I was way back when I did worked at an ad agency and was assigned a client that creeped me out (thinking of a client or two named in the article). For example, a particular pharmeceutical drug’s patent was about to run out, so they were conjuring up *all kinds* of things to treat with it. I wanted to shower with a wire brush by the end of the day. But it was what I did in order to do the really cool projects along the way.
Sorry if that’s a bit meandering. It’s late, and I’m a bit punchy.
I’ll confess that my husband and I have a vague dream about driving a Winebago through the countryside, alternating gorging at archives and libraries with stopping in underappreciated areas to write local histories. So my response was cool, what’s their human resource address.
But aren’t many of the primary sources that we use in historical research the output of just such efforts to chronicle a group’s accomplishments? I’ve certainly benefited from the local history tomes that were popular around the turn of the century when doing family research. I strongly suspect that the entries were paid for my my ancestor’s families. Government produced histories aren’t unbiased. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and other similar work have a strong viewpoint and are sometimes the result of direct patronage.
I think there are also some good, if small, museums that are descended from corporate historical collections. The Cincinnati Fire Museum certainly owes a lot to the fact that Ahrens Fox had it’s fire truck manufacturing in Cincinnati for decades. The Hawaii Maritime Center in Honolulu owed much of its collection to the former holdings of a shipping company.
You can argue that a historical center that is part of a corporate entity will only show one side of the history. But too often, the alternative is that no side of that history is preserved. It is expensive to start and run a historic site or museum. At least one with a corporate name has a body that might find it worth PR points to keep going. The Hawaii Maritime Center became part of the Bishop Museum and was closed in May 2009 until further notice.
Actually, Bruce is talking about maybe 20% of what the whole business does. The majority is day-to-day archival work, document preservation, and plain-old archival research. Typical questions I answered for clients while I worked there: “When was our company actually founded?” “What did we do for employees in previous times of crisis (national or local, economic or natural)?” “Did our company profit from slavery?” I have a master’s degree in history, and frankly found my work at THF to be more genuine than the navel-gazing nature of most journal articles I read and research I was asked to perform (I use “perform” purposely) in grad school. I interviewed 4-star generals, learned the insider secrets to crisis communications, and read heart-breaking ledgers detailing the sale and purchase of slaves. That was about as real as being a historian gets, I think.