Wednesday, April 1, 2009

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.

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