Preservation is another word that comes up, often connected with values. How often have you heard of a need to “preserve our values”? Preservation is defined as an activity or process of keeping something intact and free from decay. This brings to mind the visual of an insect trapped in amber. It is a beautiful artifact. It is something to place on exhibit and study, but is no longer living or breathing. Preserving seals something into a rigid form to capture a moment in time.
In my job as an archivist, I gladly preserve artifacts and documents. However, I am not comfortable with the concept of preserving history. This is a crucial distinction for me. Objects such as letters, organizational minutes, recorded interviews, and photographs serve as historical sources. History is the act of studying and engaging with the past through those sources. We bring our own times to that process and use objects and memories (our own and those of others) to inform our understanding of the past. Those stories will likely evolve and change through added information and inclusion of narratives previously unavailable or ignored.
It is not uncommon for me to encounter people who consider history and heritage as synonymous terms. Often values are held up as coming from an institution’s heritage. Heritage is the legacy and often told as a single story. It is the inheritance granted by those who came before. A heritage is usually considered as a positive gift to be uncritically cherished. I fully support acknowledging and naming a heritage, but that is not the same as enshrining it. Insisting on preservation of a heritage is a slippery path. The benefits of the past are lost when actions are taken to preserve without openness to new interpretations and a willingness to learn. We did not all receive the same inheritance. Recognizing the interwoven nature of a multitude of legacies brings new opportunities to enrich our present and future.
One of the core values listed and prized at many Quaker institutions is the testimony of equality. People are understandably attracted to Quakerism as a leading social justice denomination. Quaker narratives hold up facts from history, such as early Quaker women ministers and Quaker opposition to slavery, as proof that the Society of Friends is on the right side of history. How can an institution be sexist or racist with so many stories demonstrating centuries of commitment to equality?
I recently had a conversation with someone struggling with the sexism they encounter in a Quaker institution. They asked me, “How can this be? It actually feels worse than some places that do not claim to draw on a heritage of equality as a core value.” For me, this is a key example where the inherent dangers of preserving heritage though values collides with what I hope is the actual intent of Quaker testimonies. The stories told are of women being equal and a heritage of equality. The narrative is a single story which risks silencing the voices of those who have had experiences counter to that narrative. Those experiences are then seen as the exceptions, likely perpetuated by outsiders or those who are “un-Quakerly,” rather than evidence of systemic practices and misogynistic culture existing within a Quaker meeting or institution. Instead of looking within institutional practices, values statements risk being (mis)used to dismiss or downplay valid critiques. The testimony of equality has led to similar missed opportunities regarding issues of race and also a lack of awareness regarding class differences and other diversity issues within Quaker communities and institutions.
-Gwen Gosney Erickson
Gwen Gosney Erickson found her spiritual home among the Society of Friends (Quakers) growing up in North Carolina. Gwen is an archivist, librarian, and historian who explores how historical narratives inform our human experience. She observed Quaker organizations close up living at Quaker House in Fayetteville in the 1980s with posters of the peace testimony. She appreciates expressing positive aspects of her heritage by spending time on the front porch and sharing okra with neighbors. You can read more of her writings, see videos, and hear interviews at https://www.gwenge.com/
(includes contact form if you wish to reach her with questions or feedback).