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.