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.