History @ Work

History@Work is a multi-authored, multi-interest blog for all those with an interest in the practice and study of history in public. Learn More→

Interpreting the past, wrestling with the present

Chicago’s Jane Addams Homes opened in 1938 during the first wave of public housing construction by the federal government. Jane Addams, whose Hull House Settlement stood less than one mile away, encouraged New Deal officials to choose a site in her Near West Side neighborhood. The last remaining building from the complex, pictured above, has been slated to host the National Public Housing Museum.

Chicago’s Jane Addams Homes opened in 1938 during the first wave of public housing construction by the federal government. Jane Addams, whose Hull House Settlement stood less than one mile away, encouraged New Deal officials to choose a site in her Near West Side neighborhood. The last remaining building from the complex, pictured above, has been slated to host the National Public Housing Museum. Photo credit: National Public Housing Museum

Last year, I served as research resident at the National Public Housing Museum (NPHM), which focuses on the history of public housing across the country but especially in its home city of Chicago. The NPHM will one day occupy the last remaining building from the New Deal-era Jane Addams Homes in the Little Italy neighborhood. One weekend, as I volunteered at the museum’s information booth during Little Italy’s annual street festival, a passerby asked incredulously, “This is going to be a museum?” nodding to the NPHM’s future home. “But weren’t these projects?” Residents like this man had wondered for years what would happen to the boarded-up building and surrounding empty lots. Sensing an interpretive opportunity, I engaged him in a long conversation about the history of public housing and the museum’s goal of illuminating the racial and class assumptions that marked “The Projects.” I don’t think he walked away as a champion of the NPHM, but the museum exists in large part to stimulate just such conversations. Continue reading

Project Showcase: College Women

college-women-betaWith the support of a one-year Foundations planning grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the seven women’s colleges once known as the “Seven Sisters” recently launched College Women: Documenting the History of Women in Higher Education. College Women brings together digitized letters, diaries, scrapbooks, and photographs of women who attended Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Smith, Vassar, Wellesley, and Radcliffe (now the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University). These materials, documenting women’s campus cultures, have long been preserved in the libraries of the seven schools; College Women makes them available online and searchable together for the first time. Continue reading

Defining success: Seeking clarity or accepting uncertainty?

A 50-foot (15 m) tape measure produced by the Lufkin Rule Co. in Saginaw, Michigan at some point after 1929 (patent 1,713,807).

How should public history graduate programs measure success? Photo credit: Wikipedia Lufkin tape measure

What constitutes success for a public history graduate program?  A strong placement record?  Student mastery of a set of professional skills?  Or perhaps cultivation of our discipline’s habits of mind?

One might say, “It depends”–on whom you ask, when you ask them, and why you want to know.  But does that ambiguity compromise our ability as program directors to represent our programs accurately and effectively to the students we serve and the administrators who oversee us?  In defining success, should we pursue clarity or get comfortable with uncertainty?

Continue reading

Do you hire public historians?

three people at table

Participants at the “speed networking” session at the 2016 National Council on Public History Annual Meeting. Photo credit: National Council on Public History

Do you have a role in hiring public historians? Do you review applications and weigh in on hiring decisions? Or do you make those decisions yourself? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, we need you to take the public history employer survey. The joint task force on public history employment and education has developed the survey as part of its efforts to understand the current state of the public history job market. Although job opportunities have improved from their low point in 2008-2010, questions remain about the overall health of the field. To better understand employers’ expectations and needs, the task force seeks information about what employers look for in hiring historians at all levels. The results will be used to identify emerging areas of activity, align training with employers’ expectations, and provide professional organizations with information needed for advocacy, constituent support, and formulating policy. Continue reading

“Why this topic?”: Inspiration and growth through writing history

 The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.  Photo credit: Flickr user trini_map

The Schomburg Center at the New York Public Library. Photo credit: trini_map

As I scrolled through my list of unread emails a couple weeks ago, I paused on a subject line that was at once nostalgic and saddening: “A Celebration of the Life of Dr. Vivian O. Windley.” Dr. Windley was a well-respected educator and highly regarded volunteer at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Although we did not know each other personally, some brief remarks that she and another volunteer made to me in 2009 regarding a request for oral history interviews have profoundly influenced my understanding and appreciation of writing history. Continue reading

Public History on the Edge of Nowhere: A working group report

Photo credit: Giannis Angelakis

Photo credit: Giannis Angelakis

Our “Public History on the Edge of Nowhere” working group consisted of individuals from institutions that face issues of isolation due to physical location or a lack of awareness by the surrounding communities. In Nashville at the 2015 National Council on Public History conference, we sought to facilitate a group discussion centered on developing creative solutions for institutions lacking direct access to large populations. Continue reading

Smithsonian Institution welcomes new Secretary

David J. Skorton. Photo credit: Cornell University.

David J. Skorton. Photo credit: Cornell University

The wide scope of new Smithsonian Secretary David J. Skorton’s interests and expertise is a good match for the sweeping breadth of the Smithsonian Institution. Formerly president of Cornell University, Skorton is a cardiologist and biomedical researcher who is also an accomplished jazz musician. What, to some, may seem like an unlikely combination of scientific and musical ability and achievement fits well with a tradition of capacious Smithsonian leadership. Skorton’s background suggests a kinship with great Smithsonian secretaries of the past: Joseph Henry, the first secretary; Spencer Baird, his successor; and S. Dillon Ripley, who presided over the institution’s expansion and transformation in the sixties and seventies. These men were also scientists whose interests extended far beyond the laboratory to include the arts and humanities. If Skorton follows their lead, the venerable national institution has a bright future. Continue reading

Robert M. Utley: Founder of the National Historic Preservation Program

Editor’s note: This post continues a series commemorating the anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act by examining a past article published in The Public Historian, describing its significance, and relating it to contemporary conversations in historic preservation.

Robert M. Utley (third from right) as a panelist at the Denver "New Preservation" conference, 1968.  The National Park Service held eight regional conferences to explain the National Historic Preservation Act and its broad implications for preservation to the new State Liaison Officers for the act and interested members of the public.   Image credit:   Washington Office, National Park Service.

Robert M. Utley (third from right) as a panelist at the Denver “New Preservation” conference, 1968.  The National Park Service held eight regional conferences to explain the National Historic Preservation Act and its broad implications for preservation to the new State Liaison Officers for the act and interested members of the public.   Photo credit:   Washington Office, National Park Service

An able administrator and respected historian, Robert Utley was selected at age 34 by National Park Service Director George Hartzog to become Chief Historian. The new official spent most of his energies from 1964 to 1966 overseeing historians who made recommendations for the interpretation of historical units of the National Park System and others who compiled theme studies of potential National Historic Landmarks. But Utley also played a crucial role in developing the organizational structure needed to launch the new national historic preservation program. Continue reading

Project Showcase: Explore le Tour

Main-Logo-855x300Longer than the Olympics and arguably as prestigious, the most attended sporting event on earth is the Tour de France, which meanders through more than 2,000 miles of Europe’s most picturesque and challenging terrain. One cannot divorce the race from the surrounding cultural heritage and history. Yet this aspect of the Tour has not been fully integrated into the media surrounding the event.

This gap is what prompted me to create Explore le Tour as a side project to my full-time job in early 2015. The eventual concept is for Explore le Tour to become a comprehensive cultural and historical guide to the Tour de France route, where blog posts about specific topics are keyed to stage-by-stage maps and information. All this is geared towards enriching the television audience and traveler’s experience.

For those planning a trip to see the Tour in person, it offers ideas and context for things to see and do, many of which are off the beaten path. For the larger audience at home, the initiative serves as an armchair guide while watching the race on television. For Tour organizers, Explore le Tour offers an opportunity for increased fan engagement and possibly an expanded fan base thanks to the wide appeal of French culture across the globe. At the same time, the website moves to boost French tourism by marketing locations and events to the same global audience.

Join the peloton’s journey through France and history this July with Explore le Tour. Vive le Tour!

~ Alex Bethke is the Cultural Resources Program Lead for Navy Region Southwest in San Diego. He traveled to see the Tour de France in 2012 and launched Explore le Tour as a reflection of his three biggest passions, history, cycling, and travel.