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→
Editors’ Note: This series showcases the winners of the National Council on Public History’s awards for the best new work in the field. Today’s post is by retired Department of Defense Historian, Frank Schubert. Schubert reflects on his experiences serving as a public historian at the Pentagon with a unique audience: directors and staff of the Department of Defense. Schubert reflects on the ways that the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath influenced the writing and publication of a book focused primarily on cooperative stability and peacekeeping operations, topics that became more relevant after the withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan beginning in 2014.
Looking back on nearly a decade as a historian inside the Pentagon, I can say that there are three things of which I am particularly proud. The first involved the design in 1996 of an exhibit on the career of General Omar Bradley for the Chairman’s Corridor. The second came when Department of the Army bureaucrats saw the aftermath of 9/11 as an opportunity to expand their office space by removing the library to a location in Crystal City. I managed to convince the director of the Joint History Office, for whom I worked, that he had to mobilize support to resist such a move. He did, and the library stayed. And the third was writing this little book, Other Than War: The American Military Experience and Operations in the Post-Cold War Decade. Continue reading
The Center for American Indian Research and Native Studies (CAIRNS) in South Dakota will present an innovative exhibit in early May 2015 called “Lakota Emergence.” The exhibit focuses entirely on the short Lakota emergence narrative titled “How the Lakota Came Upon the World,” published in 1917. The exhibit divides the 1,251-word narrative into 16 “passages,” and pairs each passage with an outstanding example of a practical or artistic object from the Sioux Indian Museum (one of the three Indian Arts and Crafts Board museums in the United States). The selected objects span a period of time from before the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty all the way to the early 1970s. All were created by Lakotas and were collected from within the boundaries of the 1868 Treaty, including what is now Pine Ridge, Rosebud, and Standing Rock Reservations, as well as the community of Rapid City.
In addition to the passages and museum objects, original artworks by distinguished and emerging contemporary Lakota artists will be featured, thereby creating what are called “vignettes.” These 16 vignettes will recount the Lakota emergence narrative in written words, museum collections, and contemporary artworks. Dr. Craig Howe, director of CAIRNS and curator of Lakota Emergence, says “the exhibit was conceived to illustrate that the emergence narrative continues to be a source of creativity, and that Wind Cave was and always will remain a landscape of special significance in Lakota cosmology.”
To borrow Shakespeare’s phrase, some public history work is born political, some becomes political, and some has politics thrust upon it. Whether we intentionally locate ourselves in controversial settings, have something blow up in our faces, or encounter less spectacular kinds of resistance or misunderstanding, we’re always on the edge of the political, even when we don’t set out to be.
This fundamental tension within the field will be the subject of a structured conversation at the National Council on Public History Annual Meeting next month, in a session called “Hardball History: Public Historians on the Edge of Politics, Advocacy, and Activism.” Between now and then, the participating panelists will kick things off with a series of blog posts that we hope will lead to some pre-conference discussion and help shape our session in Nashville. Continue reading
Public History Navigator screenshot
Every history major is familiar with this question, and while a few undergraduates may have an answer at the ready, many aren’t exactly sure what they want to do with their degree. For the past year and a half, the NCPH New Professional and Graduate Student Committee has worked hard to create a resource to better prepare undergraduates and graduate students to enter and succeed in the public history profession:
The Public History Navigator: How to Choose and Thrive in a Public History Graduate Program
Section one of this two-part guide investigates how to choose and apply to a graduate program and encourages students to find the right program and degree for their ultimate career goals. The second section includes tips on making the most of graduate school and how students can make themselves more marketable for the job hunt. Continue reading
Valetta Anderson at an Atlanta Studies Network event in 2014. Photo credit: David Rotenstein
Over the past few years, I have been writing about gentrification and how it intersects with history in an Atlanta, Georgia, suburb. Twenty-five months and more than 50 interviews after I started talking with people and documenting neighborhood change in the Oakhurst area of Decatur, I met playwright Valetta Anderson, who works at Atlanta’s Woodruff Arts Center. In 2008, Anderson’s play about gentrification in her neighborhood, Hallelujah Street Blues, had been performed during the 2008 National Black Arts Festival. A Chicago native, Anderson had lived in Oakhurst for 18 years and was a participant in one of Decatur’s first public gentrification battles when she and a handful of neighbors sued the city in 2003 over a proposed property rezoning and townhouse development. The experience became Hallelujah Street Blues, a unique critical commentary on Decatur from an African American writer.
Yet no one had mentioned the play in any of the conversations I had with neighborhood residents. Nor did it appear in the neighborhood’s listserv; the Oakhurst Neighborhood Association’s monthly newsletter The Leaflet; or the Decatur Focus, a bimonthly magazine published by the city. The play had actually been staged in Decatur before its debut at Atlanta’s Horizon Theatre, and it received some press attention during its downtown production, including a profile of Anderson in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a review in Creative Loafing, Atlanta’s long-lived alt-weekly paper. But it seemed strangely invisible–or at least submerged–in Decatur community memory. Its seeming erasure has led me to new questions about storytelling as a window on the recent past and a barometer for community values. Continue reading
Editor’s Note: This series showcases the winners of the National Council on Public History’s awards for the best new work in the field. Today’s post is by Sheila Brennan, project co-director with Sharon Leon of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media’s Histories of the National Mall mobile website.
Histories of the National Mall map slice. Image credit: Sheila Brennan
Every year, nearly 25 million people visit the National Mall and wander from monument to museum vaguely aware of the rich history of the space. Histories of the National Mall is a place-based public history mobile website designed to allow visitors to access that history while on the Mall itself. Created primarily for tourists and a secondary audience of history enthusiasts not physically in Washington, DC, Histories is accessible from any web browser on any phone, tablet, laptop, or desktop. The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM) at George Mason University developed this site with support from a grant in 2012 from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The National Mall has a history of its own that is nearly invisible when walking its paths, and there is very little interpretation available on the Mall. Most visitors see what appears to be a finished product: a deliberately planned landscape with memorials, monuments, and museums symbolizing the history and values of the United States. The Mall, however, is a contested public space and its meanings, uses, and purposes have changed over time. In its earliest days, the Mall was a messy place where transportation arteries and commercial markets existed and was bordered by lively neighborhoods. Visitors, and many DC area residents, have no knowledge of the unregulated zone of muddy grounds, vegetable gardens, grazing cattle, or the slave pens that existed before the completion of the Washington and Lincoln Memorials. Continue reading
Film canisters in the National Archives, Washington, DC. Photo credit: MrTinDC
Having laid the groundwork, the History Relevance Campaign (HRC) is ready to take a big step forward and needs your help. The HRC started a little more than two years ago, with early conversations taking place at the annual meeting of the National Council on Public History in Ottawa and continuing at last year’s annual meeting in Monterey. Since then, organizers have been talking with many people in the history field in the US and refining a “Value of History” statement. Many NCPH members have contributed to the HRC efforts thus far.
Several weeks ago the HRC unveiled a new website. The website offers information on the variety of projects underway to raise the profile of history in our society. As we’ve said all along, this is not a new conversation, but unless we create a unified voice, shout more loudly, and demonstrate our relevance, history will continue to stay nice but not necessary. We want people to value history for its connections to modern life and to use historical thinking skills to actively engage with and address contemporary issues. Continue reading
Photo credit: Suzanne Fischer
Doing public history, in all its diverse manifestations, requires certain specialized habits of mind. One of the most vital but also the most mysterious is synthesis.
When I begin work on an exhibition, such as the one I’ve been developing for the past two years, I read as many books and talk to as many people as I can, and then–I wait. I wait to wake up at 5 am with an exhibit concept plan fully formed in my head. I wait to discover an important idea by talking it out with a friend over coffee. I wait to be suddenly struck in the middle of a meeting with the solution to a convoluted conceptual problem that I immediately scribble down as if I’m taking notes on whatever the meeting is actually about. I wait–and I trust the process because I know it works and because I have developed and exercised my synthetic powers before and I know that they require patience. In comes 100 scholarly monographs, out comes 30 accessible fifty-word labels, without fail.
Though it can feel magical, especially once you’ve internalized the work it takes, synthesis is a creative skill that public historians can learn and teach. Continue reading
Student exhibit panel. Photo credit: Ellen F. Arnold
At Ohio Wesleyan University, I teach an upper-level medieval history course, “Constantine to Charlemagne.” This is an undergraduate class, with 18 students of varying backgrounds. The course addresses a time period (ca. 300-850) often slandered as barbaric and backwards, so my goal is for students to see the richness, texture, and vibrancy of the period along with the political and economic troubles that befell certain areas. Over the course of the semester, as we work to understand a period famous for both its lack of historical sources and its network of diverging and converging cultures, we work together on how to explain and re-frame this period for a public audience.
A public history project like the one my students are embarking on this semester is unusual for medieval history courses. Though some medieval history professors and graduate students do discuss and practice public engagement through K-12 classroom visits, and libraries with important medieval manuscript collections are also reaching out to schools, the relative dearth of medieval history in American public history programs does not encourage many of us to think about the practice. Also, at many small schools like Ohio Wesleyan, there are no separate courses in public history. Yet more and more of my students are interested in public history, museum studies, and archival work. This project developed as a way to introduce students to the basic issues of museum design and audience engagement and to help them imagine a space for history that extends beyond the classroom. In our case, we are dusting off the ages and making a pop-up museum.
The past of public history can be traced along many different paths, but at least one runs though the American Historical Association. My interest in this question was first shaped at a lunch for the National Council on Public History at the AHA’s 1997 meeting. Much of the discussion circulated around two key issues–a catalog of personal slights by academics and an argument that the AHA was established for academics and making a false claim of authority over the entire history discipline.
AHA Membership in History-related Positions, 1884-1940. Image credit: Robert Townsend
In probing how and why there seemed to be this deep gulf between academics and public historians, the causes seemed to recede ever further in the past. Looking back at the papers of the early AHA, for instance, there were quite a few people circulating around in the leadership who looked rather like public historians: Reuben Gold Thwaites, the head of the Wisconsin Historical Society; Solon Buck, of the Minnesota Historical Society and later the National Archives; and Waldo Gifford Leland, secretary of the AHA and an early leader in the development of archival standards. Even some of the more traditional academics, such as J. Franklin Jameson at Chicago and Lucy Salmon at Vassar, were actively promoting documentary editing, historical societies, and other activities now widely recognized as public history. Continue reading