Sunday, April 5, 2009

Capstone Session: Relationships, Generations and Considerations of Power

Unfortunately, I missed the opportunity to hear the summary comments presented by my colleagues at the conference capstone session. However, I arrived in time to listen as the speakers and audience members engaged in a conversation about the relationships through which public history is constantly reinvented. Hearing that made me feel less conspicuous; I had missed the more formal commentary because I was having breakfast with my colleague, Benjamin Filene.

Benjamin and I both accepted jobs heading public history programs in the fall of 2006. Both of us came to academia after some time as practitioners of public history. And, we have both integrated a hands-on, partner driven approach to public history education in all of our courses. We have made a habit of touching base at the NCPH Annual Meeting, and I value the opportunity to think through the challenges and pleasures of public history education with him.

I have similar relationships with a host of other colleagues across the country. Having opportunities to connect with them and discuss the issues that arise from our common commitment to collaborative and engaged forms of scholarship enables me to re-invent my courses. Taken as a whole, these relationships are the foundation from which we participate in the constant evolution of our field.

Given this, I was struck by two things about the conversation in the capstone session.

Spurred in part by comments made on Friday morning by James Brewer Stewart, there was much talk about how the “new generation” of public historians will transform the field. Stewart had drawn our attention to the culturally and historically specific perspective that today’s students bring to politics and to history. Undoubtedly, this generation thinks globally, interacts technologically and re-imagines regularly the location and content of their work. During the capstone session, many picked up on his perspective, arguing that the “older generation” had laid the foundations of public history, and today’s young professionals will remake it.

I don't dispute the fact that today's students and new professionals bring fresh perspectives to the practice of public history, not to mention a new web of relationships that will most definitely enable our field to continue its evolution. However, the suggestion that this is a unique generational change might be misleading.

Vivian Rose put the pieces together. Her comments on the centrality of relationships in our work help explain why the field has always been fluid. Public history happens at the intersection of a series of complex personal and professional conversations that challenge distinctions between experts and audiences, curators and professors, “us” and “them,” older and younger.

In addition, Modupe Labode reminded me that, more important than observing the ways in which new scholars will undoubtedly re-imagine the field, we must be mindful of the play of power underneath even the most mutually beneficial relationships. Often power is made invisible by collaborative work and engaged professionalism. None of the relationships that compose public history are removed from considerations of power and authority, and some are more fraught than others.

I suspect it will become increasingly crucial to address questions of power. At this year’s annual meeting, discussion about the impact of the current dire economy on our profession was somewhat muted. However, problems of economic disparity are becoming increasingly evident. Some of us remain in relatively safe jobs while many of our colleagues and collaborators face layoffs, budget reductions and unstable, piecemeal employment. As these issues become more pressing, differential power relationships will become more evident, and we will all need to rethink our role in the web of personal and professional relationships that compose our field.

Art and Remembering Slavery

Providence and this conference offer visitors many opportunities to reflect on slavery. A project by Roger Williams University Brown Professor Julian Bonder and his partner Kristof Wodiczko will remember the French city Nantes as the major slave-trading port with a giant-earthworks cut: the physical wound of slavery, filled with the waters of the Middle Passage. Bonder's design students presented an array of thoughtful public space macquettes, including African face masks with hidden mirrors that offer a reflection of the user's complicity.

A poster stand by the New-York Historical Society detailing "Run for Your Life Underground Railroad projects, demonstrated the kind of national networking that invites the public to learn more about fugitive slaves and the impact of the early African American public sphere. Given the NCPH's conference themes this year, the community of contacts was especially important on this topic.

This landscape of human rights was amplified with the screening of the film Scarred Justice, the Orangeburg Massacre -- a moving documentary about the tragic shooting and wounding of students at South Carolina State in 1968. Filmmaker Judy Richardson noted how documents from Freedom of Information Act requests could provide evidence for the never-conducted investigation that today's citizens demand.

While leafing a local magazine, I discovered that Providence runs an "I Buy Art" project to encourage businesses to sell original artwork, and engage the public in the vibrant art-making activity in the city. If it weren't Sunday am at Plenary Time, I would run out and shop for an original right now!

Showcasing Digital Projects

Public history is happening on the web. In Friday's Digital Projects Showcase, we saw 10 presentations about web projects in various stages of development. The session was unfortunately in a small, narrow room where sounds of revelry penetrated from the reception outside, and many of the projects were presented with screenshots rather than live. A better presentation might be as a digital poster session where interested parties could explore the projects hands-on and ask questions directly. This could also help the developers evaluate usability for historians and researchers. For now, I've linked to all the projects so you can explore on your own.

CHNM's Hurricane Digital Memory Bank

Mass Memories Roadshow from UMass Boston, "a state-wide digital humanities project that documents Massachusetts history through family photographs and stories," through community scanning events, and their Mass history social network (on Ning).

Annapolis GIS, which provides access to locational data around urban archaeology in Annapolis.

PhilaPlace, about Philadelphia neighborhoods and communities, launches in September. It uses Collective Access as a backend.

Venerable community collections project Maine Memory Net has been facilitating some innovative collaborations.

Lehigh Digital Library's Beyond Steel. Want to know who lived in a particular house, what plant they worked for, if they owned or boarded? Beyond Steel can tell you.

The Knowledge Cube, still in the planning stages, from Clarkson.

Virtual tours of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, still under development.

(I regret to say that I missed the last two presentations, and can only find a link to one of them. Sorry, civil war mappers from WVU!)

Mapping Memories of Fox Point maps oral histories of Fox Point, Providence, and creates "memory maps" for each person's experience of the place.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Traces of the Trade

The final session I attended today was a showing of the documentary Traces of the Trade, made by Katrina Brown. What an amazing film to show at a public history conference! Brown, who found out that her ancestors had been some of the major slave traders in the U.S., gathered some of her family members for a trip from Rhode Island to Ghana to Cuba, to trace the triangular trade. Particularly important was the way in which Brown demonstrated the economic basis of slavery. Abhorrent, evil, unspeakable, slavery 'made sense' in economic terms in that past time and could be connected to businesses ranging from distilling rum to textile manufacturing. For public historians what might have been the most striking moments were those at museums in Rhode Island and Ghana. In the former, Brown's ancestor's mansion had become a house museum which refused to let her film inside because she was raising the issue of slavery. As one of her relatives said, it's not like the town will change its sign to say "Welcome to Bristol, the Slave Trading Capital of the U.S." Conversely, in Ghana, the group tours the slave forts where captured slaves were held in cramped, dark, infested surroundings until they could be shipped to the Caribbean. The history of slavery is not only remembered there, but also dealt with, as show in a healing ceremony that the group, somewhat uncomfortably attends.

Traces of the Trade:

Awards luncheon

Among the prizewinners honored at this year's awards luncheon were (top to bottom, standing with NCPH Vice President Marty Blatt), Meghan Bishop (Tryon Palace) and Santi Thompson (Thomas Cooper Library, University of South Carolina), co-winners of the New Professional Travel Awards; the "Baltimore '68: Riots and Rebirth" team and New Mexico state historian Estevan Rael-Gálvez (for the New Mexico Digital History Project), and Hannah Howard and Kristen Foster from University of North Carolina Charlotte, co-winners of the Student Project Award.

Other award winners were Cary Carson (the G. Wesley Johnson Award for the most outstanding article published in The Public Historian in the past year), Manon Perry and James W. Steely for excellence in consulting, and Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh (the NCPH Book Award for Massacre at Camp Grant: Forgetting and Remembering Apache History).

The awards luncheon was dedicated to the memory of Dr. Noel Stowe, a founding member and past president of NCPH.

Young Professionals Reflect on the Value of Public History Education

This afternoon, I had the privilege of eavesdropping on five young professionals who led a roundtable discussion designed to help current graduate students make the most of their public history education. Teresa Sherwood, curator of the Wyoming Territorial Prison State Historic Park; Erin Rose, curator of education for the Fort Casper Museum and Historic Site; Jennifer Lemak, Historian of African American History at the Albany State Museum; J.R. Fennell, Director of the Lexington County Museum; and Alex Bethe, Historian at the Naval Facilities Engineering Command addressed a series of questions about how their graduate education had prepared them for work in the public sector.

The session was lively and informative, and the students in attendance clearly enjoyed the opportunity to gather advice and impressions from recent graduates. As one of several public history educators in attendance, I found the session enjoyable, instructive and gratifying. The panelists confirmed that the structure and requirements of our graduate programs are largely effective in preparing students for work in the public sector, and they provided insight into the kinds of courses we should consider for the future.

There were several points on which all the panelists agreed. First, classroom and real world projects that provide students with real-world experience are most effective for preparing students for work. Second, and closely related, graduate internships allowed the panelists to apply skills they had learned and practiced in the classroom in a variety of site and project specific circumstances. All the panelists agreed that even the most mundane internship work –such as accessioning artifacts or moving collections—had provided them with marketable skills and experiences. Third, the panelists confirmed that traditional graduate history coursework is directly applicable to the work of public historians. Interestingly, panelists particularly pointed to historiography classes. While most admitted that such courses were the least enjoyable in their studies, they agreed that the value of historiography coursework became more evident over time. The ability to recognize the evolution of historical scholarship has proven to be a necessary skill, enabling young professionals to understand how and why site interpretation had changed over time. Further, all the panelists agreed that basic skills in historical research, writing and analysis are as indispensable to public historians as they are to historians who work in universities and other research institutions.

Two topics attracted a bit more diversity of opinion.

Each of the panelists had a slightly different opinion about the best approach to a capstone project. Two students had completed traditional capstone projects –a Master’s Thesis and a dissertation. These young professionals argued that producing a more traditional final product had provided them with the opportunity to demonstrate their specialized expertise as historians. Other members of the panel produced non-traditional capstone projects. They argued that the ability to create a historical product geared for public consumption had enabled them to develop a portfolio of marketable products. In either case, panelists agreed that following a complex project through from research to completion had been a crucial educational experience.

Panelists also offered different observations about the best approach to graduate school. Some panelists felt strongly that a direct path from undergraduate through graduate school was most productive. They argued that delaying school would ultimately have prevented them from pursing a graduate degree in the first place. Others thought, in retrospect, that a few years in the work force would have enabled them to focus their professional development more clearly, understand the applicability of course work more fully, and select their program more thoughtfully.

Finally, panelists made some suggestions about courses they felt were lacking in graduate study. In particular, students observed a need for courses that provide training in a variety of museum software programs and new media development. They also suggested that a course in preservation law and state specific cultural policies would have helped prepare them to understand the legal jargon and contexts that structures their day-to-day work. During the course of this discussion, it became clear that current and incoming graduate students are thinking critically and carefully about the necessity of pursing graduate degrees. Some discussion from educators in the audience indicated that PhDs are becoming increasingly necessary for administrators and curators, particularly in middle sized and large institutions, and an increasing number of public history graduate students are strongly considering more advanced study.

The never-ending question

The "Whither the Field?" session sponsored by the NCPH's 30th anniversary committee turned into a free-ranging discussion about the necessity to define public history and its standards in way that was, well, definitive and able to be communicated clearly to academics, employers, and the public at large.  At the end of the session, Jann Warren-Findlay from Arizona State University pointed out, somewhat bemusedly, that she had been hearing essentially the same discussion over the whole history of the organization, which suggested that on some level, this is likely always to remain an open question that reflects the multi-facetedness and adaptability of public history.  (See the NCPH website for an organizational stab at addressing the question--and there's room to add definitions there, if you feel inspired to contribute yours.)

One point that struck me in the discussion was that while nailing down a definition probably isn't going to happen, the field and the NCPH do have histories, and we might do a better job of communicating those, as a way of passing along our own institutional culture (and dilemmas!).  Some of that is on the NCPH website, too--click here for more on our own history.


"I'm a secretary, but I probably make more money than most of you." The woman who said this, who left the room before I could get to talk to her, encapsulated a central point of the working group she had attended, "Public History as Work." Organized by Cathy Stanton and Amy Tyson, this group's purpose was to analyze public history as work and public historians as laborers contending with insecure working conditions that may be more like adjunct professors, contract workers, or fast food workers, than traditional white collar professions that require similar amounts of education. Yet the woman quoted above offered her observation as someone working towards becoming a public historian, even though this may be an example of downward mobility for her, at least in terms of economics. What our lively discussion demonstrated in part was the ways in which work and class in this postindustrial economy cannot be understood without thinking in cultural terms. Are public historians compensated in prestige? Does our cultural capital lead to social capital that may result in a more secure life than, say, a secretary? And, an issue that was raised again and again, what kinds of authority do public historians have among academic historians, the public and historical institutions in the knowledge economy?

Public History Educators: Bearing Witness as an Ethical Imperative

At this morning’s breakfast for public history educators, I was reminded again of the imperative of bearing witness. The annual breakfast meeting serves as an information gathering session for members of the NCPH Curriculum and Training Committee. This morning, listening to the questions raised by our colleagues who teach public history in colleges and universities across the country, there was ample reason for optimism about the future of public history. There was also a clearly articulated urgency regarding our role as advocates; participants agreed that we must speak for both the value of history and the needs of our students and colleagues during dire economic times.

On the positive side of the equation, the number of public history programs, concentrations and courses continues to expand. A significant number of people at the breakfast identified themselves as either coordinating new programs or working to extend public history course offerings and degree opportunities in their home institutions. Further, the expansion of public history is fostering a transformation in history education and scholarship more generally. Public history educators are engaged scholars, working to develop or improve partnerships with museums, archives, historical societies, secondary schools and other institutions. Such partnerships are mutually beneficial. They provide practical experiences for our students, and they help public history institutions document their value to the community at large. Public history educators are striving to assess and implement best practices for managing partnerships, running programs, and fostering scholarship. As part of this effort, we are deeply engaged in efforts to transform university culture around issues of promotion and tenure, and this effort is contributing to the evolution of more engaged forms of scholarship, teaching and service throughout the discipline of history.

However, breakfast participants also identified a number of serious ethical issues amplified by the national economic crisis. Because graduate programs tend to be counter-cyclical in relationship to the economy, the number of applicants to public history and history programs is expanding. Many incoming students are traditional students trying to delay entry into the job market, but many others are non-traditional students looking to make a career change when their jobs have been lost or threatened. University administrators, facing their own budgetary crises, are pressuring departments to increase their enrollments in order to ensure a steady stream of tuition revenue. At the same time, they are cutting the budgets that keep programs viable. At many universities, graduate assistantships and sponsored internships have been dramatically reduced. Some departments are forced to offer fewer courses in order to cut the cost of hiring professional adjuncts to teach crucial, skill-based courses.

The ethical issues we face have broad ramifications. Public history institutions are laying off curators, educators and archivists, forcing public history educators to consider their role in undermining job security for both our colleagues and our students. Our students –working in the context of courses or as interns—are a source of free labor, fulfilling responsibilities formerly held by colleagues who have lost their jobs. Upon graduation, new professionals are competing for jobs against more experienced colleagues as well as students. Many remain unemployed or under-employed for long periods of time, leaving them not only without a reliable income, but often without access to health insurance and other necessary benefits.

As public history educators, then, it seems clear that our engagement in these issues must expand to meet the needs or our students and colleagues. From our comparatively secure positions, we can identify funding opportunities that will come from stimulus monies distributed to the states. Patrick Moore from the University of West Florida urged public history educators to develop projects now that will provide opportunities for both our students and our unemployed colleagues to earn income from federally funded initiatives. Equally important, Briann Greenfield from Central Connecticut State University observed that public history educators must take our role as advocates for museums, historic sites and higher education even more seriously than we already do, making sure that politicians and funding agencies are well aware of the value of our work.

As educators and intellectuals actively promoting more engaged forms of intellectual inquiry and teaching, we have a responsibility to bear witness both to the plight of our colleagues and to the public value of history.

Never-Ending CIvil War: Bearing the Standard

Rangers, academics, graduate students, site interpreters, educators, archivists and humanities officials packed a session of the Civil War Sesquicentennial Working Group. Participants groped towards some new understandings of how public historians will be interpreting the 150th of the Civil War. Most comments were prefaced with a "I am not a military historian but..." So, the events this time will operate under a civilian banner. Moderator C. Vann West summarized saying "it will be a story about the Struggle and Definition of Freedom and Citizenship."

Bruce Bustard of the National Archives noted how the 100th anniversary exhibition did not even feature the Emancipation Proclamation. Matt Warshauer of Central Connecticut State correspondingly remarked that the Civil War Cenntennial in Connecticut did not mention slavery, colored troops or the Freedmen's Bureau. Comments demonstrated that precisely those themes will be front and center in 2011, making contexts and freedom struggles prominent in ways that suggest linkages to the American genealogy of civil rights.

In the absence of a central national coordinating body, state-level interpretations promise to offer multiple perspectives. For example, the National Archives will start its "war" with the Christiana, Pennsylvania "riot" over an 1851 incident of resistance to slave-owners seeking recapture of fugitives in the North. However, the National Park service has a comprehensive website in the works for January 2010.

Jim Steele of Fort Fisher in North Carolina noted how state level control of historic sites means that the local politics powerfuly influence context. Ashley Whitehead of West Virginia University suggested that by talking about the history of changing historical perspectives, site interpreters can alert visitors that monuments reflecting older views about the culture of Reconciliation offer occasions to speak of how society shifts its memories. Lorraine McConaghy of the Seattle Museum of History and Industry plans to surprise people with stories of how settlers brought the Civil War with them to the Washington Territory. Incidents included fugitives slaves, active Knights of the Golden Circle and the official closing of a dozen pacifist or Copperhead newspapers.

Speaking about a two version exhibition about Lee and Grant at the Virginia Historical, and then Grant and Lee at the New-York Historical Society, Kathleen Hulser underlined the way in which similar objects can suggest different storylines and allow visitors multiple entry points through audio tours, Vodcasts, public programs and web content, to use material culture as catalyst for individual historical interests. The open pathway approach is also user-friendly for a new generation of visitors with their own set of questions.

Session participants suggested that the group plan a special issue of the Public Historian, and meet again at subsequent NCPH conferences to continue the valuable dialogue.
Priya Chhaya and Leah Suhrstedt from the Center for Preservation Leadership at the National Trust for Historic Preservation are both at the NCPH conference, and have posted this entry about it on the National Trust's blog, "Preservation Nation."

Curator's tour of site-specific artwork

Today at 9:00, a chance to talk with the curators of the art installation at the Nightingale-Brown House, 357 Benefit Street (a 15 minute walk from the hotel). Why at art show for the NCPH? Two artists mined the collections and history of the 1792 building to comment on the history in an interesting and profound way - not the way a historian would, but in a way that opens up new ways to look at historic houses, archives, and history more generally. More here.

Also at the house: Emancipated Memories, paintings by Cora Marshall based on advertisements for slaves, and runaway slave announcements

Thinking more about material culture

As a young professional and graduate student, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about using objects as evidence. I was delighted to attend a conference where I had the opportunity to listen to seven professionals discuss these very same issues.

In round table session The Objects of History Patricia West, James Gardner and Cynthia Koch presented practical and philosophical approaches that sprang from their own work experiences. West discussed work in her own site, Martin Van Buren National Historic Site as well as other historic house museums. Gardner discussed the reopening of the National Museum of American History particularly the use of large iconic objects reinterpreted for new generations. Finally, Koch of Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum explored ways objects, multimedia and images within the museum can better portray the experiences FDR in the White House as well as how he used his library office upon leaving office.

Gardner’s exploration of considerations for the Star Spangled Banner impressed me greatly. This priceless icon of American history is not only well preserved but also uniquely accessible for generations to come in a specially designed laboratory exhibit case. The exhibit itself is elegant and spare.

West offered suggestions to challenge us to “re-see” our own sites.
• Rethink to see what is not obvious (someone who is ill would always be in bed – don’t make the bed)
• Honor other points of view (servants, slavery, others who interact with a house)
• Reframe what you see, many changes are the problematic addition of
unthinking display mode. (Koch would certainly second this rule! As well as others I believe).
• Finally, focus on slightly less information but greater evocative impact. In essence regift what the site already has to use them in new ways to connect with the past.

Discussion ranged from the practical to the philosophical as well. Ending with a meditation on the power of objects to bring to mind the past in ways two-dimensional evidence cannot. This is one power of public history.

Friday, April 3, 2009

For when the rain stops

More bookish advice on places to go, things to see, when the rain stops and you want to get out of the hotel ...

Check out the
Providence Athenaeummore info »
It's wonderful private library, but open to the public. A 10-15 minute walk from the hotel, at 251 Benefit St, Providence, RI‎ - (401) 421-6970‎

20 Prospect St, Providence, RI‎ - (401) 863-2146

Brown's Special Collections library. Open Sunday 1-5.

Bearing Witness: Revisiting Public History as Service

At last year’s annual meeting of the National Council on Public History, the organizing theme that resonated across sessions was service. Who is it that we serve and how can we best serve them. This morning, keynote speaker James Brewer Stewart, suggested one possible answer: by bearing witness.

Stewart spent most of his career as a traditional historian, trained to be suspicious about scholarship that might distort our understanding of history by “making the past about the present.” However, over the course of his career, he came to recognize, in the words of William Faulker, that the past isn't dead, it isn't even past. Culture radiates outward, from past to present, and history can provide valuable insights about how best to address complex social problems.

Stewart's focus is the global slave trade. He observed that the contemporary problem of slavery might be solved, in part, by a re-configuration of historical memory. In early 19th century America, slavery was a crucial public issue. Respectable gentlemen counted slaves among their assets. Politicians, the press, and the clergy debated the morality of slavery, and well-meaning individuals posed numerous partial and gradual solutions to the moral dilemmas that the institution illuminated. Abolitionists, unwilling to accept the slow pace of change, demanded the impossible: immediate and total freedom for all enslaved people. Today, slavery –illegal and indefensible—has been driven underground. It is nearly invisible to average Americans and absent from political discourse.

Popular histories of slavery have been dominated in recent years, by a focus on the success of abolition. The Underground Railroad provides a vehicle through which the story of slavery has become palatable because it emphasizes individual courage and leadership and downplays the extent to which slavery dominated American political and economic life. Stewart challenged his more traditional minded colleagues to engage actively in the transformation of this popular narrative, in order to embrace a more useful the past. Nineteenth century abolitionists were audacious and relentless in their demand for an end to slavery. They provided platforms from which former slaves could speak for themselves, attracting empathy and leading the charge toward freedom. Historians might play a similar role, documenting and amplifying the voices of individuals whose lives have been directly affected by the contemporary slave trade.

Of course, Stewart was preaching to the choir.

In a variety of sessions that followed his talk this morning, public historians described their work in empowering a variety of collaborators to engage in the business of history. Public historians from inside and outside of the academy are amplifying the voices of indigenous peoples across Canada, farmers in the southern Maryland, and residents of Mill Towns in New England, allowing them to define the questions worth studying and the resources worth protecting.

Public historians are indeed in a unique position to hear and echo the needs of diverse publics, and we have a clear understanding that our work serves a larger political purpose. Our collaborative form of scholarly inquiry allows us to bear witness to pressing social issues, and our work helps lend legitimacy to the voices of vulnerable or under served communities.

The positive sides of presentism

Jim Stewart from Macalester College, this morning's keynote speaker, echoed Jill Lepore and others I've heard at the conference who have spoken about how public history and public historians tend to question the historical rule of thumb about not allowing present-day agendas and allegiances to inform how historians understand or interpret the past. Speaking on "Abolishing Slavery in Lincoln's Time and Ours: The Legacies of American Slavery and the Challenges of Human Trafficking," Stewart made a case for using historical knowledge to inform what he sees as a contemporary anti-slavery movement that is still just in the process of coalescing into a broad public project, within which the "millenial generation"--those born around the turn of the 21st century--are already among the most active. Stewart raised good questions about intellectual and social responsibilities, the nature of broad coalitions of social movements, and the importance of media in reaching and engaging particular audiences in a wired and global society.

Those interested in pursuing the ideas and issues raised in Stewart's talk may be interested in an upcoming conference, "Bearing Witness: Ending Slavery," an international forum to be held in Newport, Rhode Island in October 2009, and organized by Connecticut's Beecher House Center and the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation in Hull, UK. More information will be forthcoming on the websites of those two institutions closer to the October 15-18 date.


I love rubbing elbows with folks with fresh ideas and who read different books 'cause there are wonderful gems / truths that can now be appropriated for your own use.  Mark Kristmanson, the Director of Public Programming for the National Capital Commission in Ottawa, Canada used a great quote in his talk that needs to be shared from the French Historian / activist Marc Bloc.  Bloc said that "People tend to represent their times more than their parents".

In looking at whether to do a commemorative event, it bears keeping a keen awareness as to just who your audience may be.  In thinking about why a visitor center is needed for the Vietnam War Memorial, just think how much war a twenty year old has seen on TV: Gulf War #1, Kosovo, the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Afghanistan, the War in Iraq & Afganistan again.  Their sensitivies towards war is far different than those of us confronted with Vietnam and television has made it much more immediate, thus, perhaps more numbing.  So the "why a Visitor Center for the Vietnam War" may well reflect the need for it to be interpreted for the audience is a very different one.  These young people may be whom Marc Bloch was thinking about for they are far more representative of their times than their parents.
A thought,
Chuck Arning

The children will lead us

I just attended a fascinating session on "Historical Truths and Reconciliation: The Interpretation of African American and Enslaved Peoples." The participants debated and complicated traditional assumptions about how to address slavery and race within a public setting--whether that setting is a classroom, a historic site, or a museum. Many in the audience reminded us that children are often very receptive to discussing the legacy of slavery and segregation in American history--in a way that older generations (who are perhaps more painfully connected to this history) may not be.

In turn, their discussion reminded me of James Stewart's excellent keynote address, in which he positioned the millennial generation as the torchbearers of the 19th century abolitionist movement. As I listened, however, I thought of the American history survey course I teach at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. I am continually surprised by the number of papers I receive that say something to the effect of, "now that Obama is president, this proves that equality has been achieved." Or, "We shouldn't dwell on these problems because I'm not responsible for what happened in the past." This--despite my constant classroom emphasis on the fact that the struggle for civil rights has not yet ended!

I agree that children and the millennial generation may indeed prove to be surprisingly receptive activists who will transform history classrooms and public history sites with their reinterpretations of slavery, segregation, and race. Yet I am perplexed as to how to address the almost willful refusal or apathy many (but,of course, not all!) of my college students have with regard to these subjects. As I prepare to teach American history and public history in the mountains of North Carolina in the fall, how can I help as many college students as possible make the transition from indifference to engaged activism? And is this my responsibility as a public historian?


Day 1. NCPH is a big enough conference that you could conceivably attend but not meet or talk with anyone new. It would be pretty hard though, especially with so much emphasis being put on networking. Yesterday, I attended a session on social networking and public history where Denise Meringolo and Melissa Bingmann became 21st century Emily Posts offering words of advice on the etiquette of facebook, linkedin and conference schmoozing to an audience of extremely interested graduate students (many of whom were on their way to speed networking afterwards).
Later in the afternoon, I saw a different example of networking in action. The Community Retrospective, 1968 Riots panel had representatives from Newark, NJ and Baltimore, MD, who had been involved in extensive community projects commemorating the 1967 and 1968 civil unrests in those cities. Each project was successful because of the number of stakeholders who became involved, the multidisciplinary approach, which included exhibits, conferences, theater, film and art, among others, and the impassioned direction of community leaders who marshalled their social networks in support.
Perhaps, most impressive to me, the network formed between and by the leaders of these projects. While Newark and Baltimore are very different cities, they share similar histories of the disenfranchisement of African Americans, bounded white ethnic neighborhoods, and federal disinvestment in the postwar period. What a powerful story to tell together--the story of urban unrest in a region, not only an isolated city. All history is local, but it is by sharing resources, knowledge, expertise and stories that it becomes powerful.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Our Speed Networking Experiment

This afternoon, twenty-five professional public historians graciously participated in an experimental session designed to help integrate graduate students and young professionals more fully into the conference: speed networking. Loosely modeled on “speed dating,” the session enabled fifty conference newcomers, rotating in pairs, to spend fifteen minute intervals with public historians from a variety of specialty fields. As one of a team of organizers, I think I can accurately say we were nervous about how the session would work, logistically as well as philosophically.

All early indications are that we need not have worried.

Prior to the speed networking session, Melissa Bingmann and I led an informal conversation about social networking. Last minute technical difficulties prevented us from demonstrating the social networking sites facebook and linkedin. However, based on our use of both sites for our own professional networking, we provided students with both formal and informal advice about how to build effective professional relationships. We confessed to the mistakes we had made in our own efforts to make and manage networks. Perhaps most importantly, we encouraged students to recognize networking as a long term process –one that includes the creation and nurturing of relationships not only with professionals in positions of power, but also with fellow graduate students and entry level peers.

Students and new professionals entered into the speed networking session well prepared to engage in conversations about their own work and interests. We encouraged them to recognize the session as an opportunity to break the ice, not a job fair. While it is not yet possible to measure the long term impact of the speed networking session, by all immediate evidence, the event was a great success. Graduate students reported feeling more comfortable after having been instructed in protocol. The imposition of a time limit and rotation schedule lent just enough structure to the networking process. Both students and professionals reported meeting people with whom they intended to remain in contact after the conference, and everyone said the event was both informative and fun.

Jill Lepore on what to do with "more history than we can handle"

So I'm not the only one who's been feeling that the proliferation of "historic" this and that over the past year or so ultimately devalues the whole idea of "the historic." Opening keynote speaker Jill Lepore, keying on a New York times article that talked about an "unprecedented pileup of historic news," bemoaned the lack of depth or analysis in most of the discussions of historic candidacies, elections, meltdowns, and what have you, and pointed out that the current feeling of "cuspiness"--being on the edge of momentous change--is, in fact, hardly new. Referencing the Studs Turkel model of oral history and clips from the New York Times "New Hard Times," which invites readers to videotape and upload their own families' stories about the last Great Depression, Lepore argued that such projects, driven by shorter and shorter news cycles, are deeply at odds with the historian's responsibility to make careful, in-depth analyses about the past. In an age where everyone is increasingly his or her own historian, Lepore made a case for the unique role of the historian in showing how the past relates to the present.

There is much to be said for this argument, and much to question about plug-and-play approaches to collecting and disseminating stories about the past. But Lepore, in taking academic historians to task for failing to connect their work to wider publics, seemed strangely unaware of the existence and efforts of large numbers of her colleagues--public and oral historians, among others, many of them based in or associated with the academy--who have been working for decades to do precisely that. Academic historians are public history's most reliable "other," but the dichotomy between them is a false one in many ways, and it would have been nice to hear this highly articulate and public-minded historian say more about the many high-quality projects that are connecting past with present in the public realm. Her lament about the "vacuum of historical authority" in public discourse also sidestepped debates about the various levels of authority about different kinds of knowledge about the past--something that thoughtful practitioners of public history have had to concede they don't, after all, have a monopoly on.

Lepore's talk did get me thinking about all the appeals I've gotten lately to "share my story" with activist groups who want to use it to help sway policy-makers their way. "Has the stimulus impacted you personally?" a recent MoveOn email asked me. "Or have you heard any stories about how it is impacting your town? ...Can you help today by sharing your stimulus success story?" I guess it's cheaper than sharing my hard-earned dollars, as I was doing during the campaign season--but it does raise questions about how much currency stories do have when they're gathered and "shared" so easily and widely. I guess I'm agreeing with Lepore's basic argument here--it was just odd to hear her making her case to a room full of the very people who are working hardest to do the things she's saying are not being done!

MTSU gathering in Providence

Current and former Middle Tennessee State University students and partners are gathering at the Trinity Brewhouse this Friday at 6:30pm. Organizer and host is Dr. Van West of the Center for Historic Preservation at MTSU. Trinity Brewhouse is supposed to be the best microbrewery in Rhode Island, so be sure to check out their website for information on their award winning beers and their fantastic menu!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Good News, Bad News reports that "There are no bedbug encounters on record" for the Hotel Biltmore.

They will not be setting the river on fire during our stay.

The Cape Verdean Museum is reopening tomorrow (bus directions).

Former mayor Buddy Cianci is out of jail and has a radio show.

And Google maps shows a number of interesting watering holes near the conference hotel. Can anyone comment on the quality of these establishments?

View Larger Map


I know it's old-fashioned, but visiting bookstores in a new city is a great pleasure. Especially used bookstores. There's a fine one close by the conference hotel:
111 Mathewson St, Providence, RI‎ - (401) 521-2665
There's also a first-rate scholarly bookstore:
240 Westminster St, Providence, RI‎ - (401) 273-7900
A 25-minute or so hike through the Brown campus will take you to the Brown University Bookstore, newly renovated. An excellent selection, and a great coffee shop!

Things to do!

There's a lot going on in Providence! The city's Department of Arts, Culture, and Tourism tries to keep track of things - check out their calendar here.

Looking Back to Louisville

In an hour or so, I’ll be on a train heading to Providence for my second NCPH conference. Last year, I arrived in Louisville not knowing what to expect. Even though I’d been to lots of academic conferences, the public history field was something of an unknown quantity to me. I’d never formally studied public history even though I’d been working in it off and on for years and had a deep passion for it. So there I was, getting off the shuttle bus at the conference hotel, nervous, but also excited at the prospect of meeting hundreds of people with those same interests. Which I did, from documentary filmmakers to graduate students. Intellectually, I felt like I’d come home.

After finishing a Ph.D. in American Studies, I decided for a variety of reasons not to pursue an academic career, instead working in museums and historic sites. Today, I try to combine both realms. My ‘real job’ is as the Associate Director of the non-profit New Jersey Council for the Humanities, but I also research, publish and teach part-time. NCPH mirrors this bridging, which was demonstrated to me at the Public History and Civic Life working group I was on. Our conversation ranged from theoretical questions about what ‘civic life’ means to thoughtful consideration of concrete issues about how public history organizations can support civic life. One example: Kathleen Hulser from the New York Historical Society discussed how they had integrated civic engagement into their Slavery in New York exhibit by recording attendees’ comments in a video booth and uploading them to youtube. I’m still struck at the brilliance of this idea, which shows one of the strengths of public historians—the ability to bring big ideas into the real world. Looking back at Louisville makes me all the more excited for my arrival in Providence.