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→
“As I settle in a place, the place settles me.” Juhani Pallasmma, Forum Journal (Spring 2015)
More than fifteen months ago, my colleague at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Tom Mayes, embarked on a journey. For six months, he lived at the American Academy in Rome researching and thinking about one of the most central tenets of our profession: Why Do Old Places Matter? He wanted to tease out the reasons both easy to grasp and far reaching in order to allow preservationists to create a more complete picture of why we work to save places. In those fifteen months, I feel as if I’ve traveled alongside him, literally as part of my work at the National Trust, and intellectually in trying to answer and embrace the question in my own way.
Wilder Homestead Hill, South Dakota. Photo credit: Michelle McClellan
The summer before last, I found myself driving around the back roads of DeSmet, South Dakota, with people I barely knew but with whom I felt a kinship based on our mutual devotion to Laura Ingalls Wilder and her Little House books. We periodically stopped the car, got out, and gazed in rapt attention at….the prairie. Occasionally a fence line or post marked the spot, but sometimes our destination had been determined by the odometer, and there was nothing on the landscape to distinguish that spot from any other. Nevertheless, we oohed and ahhed in appreciation because this place had been the homestead claim of one or another of the people Wilder described in her books. By being there, right there, we hoped we just might move through time. Continue reading
As employees of municipal, local, state, provincial, and federal governments, government historians have been a core group of the National Council on Public History since its founding. Yet, for a variety of reasons, these practitioners have at times felt “out on the edge” within the organization. During the 2014 annual meeting in Monterey, a small group of government historians pondered this conundrum: What was the best way to insure that questions related to the experiences, challenges, and unique working environments of government history practitioners were better represented within the organization? Continue reading
Editors’ Note: Readers can find Part 1 here. This post continues a short list of what history, public and otherwise, as well as allied disciplines, can do in the face of events like those that have engulfed Baltimore.
Lillie Mae Carroll Jackson Museum, 1320 Eutaw Place, Baltimore. Restored by Morgan State University. Photo credit: Baltimore Heritage
Third, beyond documentation, history can support change in the present. History is rarely a direct catalyst for change–that comes from social movements. But it can be part of a public conversation that brings attention to the need for change, and it can serve as a means of empowering change-makers. The work of historians and our disciplinary allies can also inform policy, but we must research topics that are relevant to contemporary concerns and present our research in accessible ways. Public historians are at the forefront of these practices. Continue reading
The May issue of The Public Historian will explore the future of historic house museums. Historic houses are struggling to survive in the 21st century, but as Bill Adair and Laura Koloski describe, some are experimenting with strategies that are making old houses new again. -Lisa Junkin Lopez, guest editor
This piece is continued from part 1.
In Part 1 of this post, we discussed strategies employed by Philadelphia-area house museums for employing new methods and engaging new communities in order to repurpose and re-imagine historic house museums. In part 2 of this post, we will look at strategies for tackling challenging topics and using new technologies and techniques to realize these goals.
Facing difficult and controversial subject matter
Head Start programming at Wyck in Germantown, Philadelphia. (Need photo credit)
History, as we all know, is complicated. Historic house museums have not always been places that embraced this complexity. But there is room, and indeed, a real need to transform these sites into places where visitors can be engaged in complex stories and begin to grapple with the sometimes difficult aspects of our past.
In Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood, one site has re-made itself over the past several years to do just that. Staff research in the site’s archives revealed that the Chew family was the largest slaveholding family in Pennsylvania. As they explored this aspect of the site’s history with their neighbors and community, it became clear that it was essential to tell this story and to interpret the extent to which the Chew’s family wealth and privilege were tied up with their status as slave owners. What resulted was the Emancipating Cliveden project, a combination of new programs, new exhibits and new multimedia that explores these issues as part of the house’s core interpretive message.
Editor’s Note: The May issue of The Public Historian will explore the future of historic house museums. Historic houses are struggling to survive in the 21st century, but as Bill Adair and Laura Koloski describe, some are experimenting with strategies that are making old houses new again.-Lisa Junkin Lopez, guest editor
Martha McDonald performing “The Lost Garden” at The Woodlands. Photo credit: Ryan Collerd
We think we can all agree on two things: we love historic house museums, and we want them to have a future. That is where consensus in the field starts and stops. Although rumors of their demise are indeed premature, there is no question that house museums are in crisis, in desperate need of new audiences, new leadership, new sources of support, and most urgently, new purpose. We believe all of these needs can be met and that we are moving towards clarity about how this might be achieved, not through grand policy agreements but mostly through small-scale experiments at individual sites that are proving to be highly effective. The down side–sometimes these interventions can be highly disruptive and highly nerve-wracking.
In our work as public historians in the Philadelphia area, we have witnessed one fundamental element at all successful house museums–willingness to change and change big. The change isn’t formulaic. One size definitely doesn’t fit all. Each site has unique content, a unique neighborhood, a unique historical context, unique stories, unique collections, unique staff. But we have seen some COMMONALITIES among these changes, all of which have played out in DIFFERENT ways. Continue reading
Freddie Gray protest at the Baltimore Police Department Western District building at N. Mount St. and Riggs Ave. Photo credit: Veggies, Wikimedia Commons
Events in Baltimore during the last couple of weeks following the death of Freddie Gray apparently after a questionable arrest have precipitated a great deal of commentary, ranging from the thoughtful to the bloviating. Likewise, interest in a more activist, civically engaged public history has been generating considerable discussion, both descriptive and hortatory. In an effort to add something useful to the discussion, I offer a short list of what I believe history, public and otherwise, as well as allied disciplines, can do in the face of events like those that have engulfed Baltimore. Continue reading
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/Ship Pendant Victoria and Albert
Editor’s note: This piece is part one of a special online section accompanying issue 37(2) of The Public Historian, guest edited by Lisa Junkin Lopez, which focuses on the future of historic house museums. The contributions in this section highlight the voices of artists who engage with historic house museums as sites of research, exhibition, and social practice. In this piece, Rebecca Keller takes us on a wild ride in the form of a fictional professional association’s newsletter, envisioning a provocative future where technology plays a starring role in visitors’ experiences of the past.
CALL FOR PAPERS – 2016 Annual Meeting of the National Council on Public History and the Society for History in the Federal Government
Baltimore, Maryland, March 16-19, 2016
Formal preservation and interpretation of the past began as a movement to celebrate great men and elite spaces. Slowly, and with difficulty, this is becoming a more democratic and inclusive effort. We believe that public historians have an important role to play in the ongoing work to expand national, state, local, and global narratives. What are the most effective and engaging means for expanding interpretive practices and professional spaces in order to promote full inclusion of previously marginalized peoples and places? To what extent have new, more democratic and engaged public history practices changed museum collections and exhibits, preservation practice, law, and public commemoration? And what happens when formerly disenfranchised publics assert their right to tell their own histories? These questions get at the very meanings of public history and citizenship. As 2016 will mark the centennial of the National Park Service and fifty years of the National Historic
Preservation Act, in Baltimore we invite public historians to explore the promise, the successes, and the challenges of developing a more inclusive public history landscape in the twenty-first century. Continue reading
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.
Brucemore in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was bequeathed to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1981. Photo credit: Wikipedia
When Madeline Cirrillo Archer published “Where We Stand: Preservation Issues in the 1990s,” she sought to assess the challenges facing a movement that was a quarter-century old. In 1991, historic preservation was soon to be an interest of mine. Now, as the Director for Programs and Publications at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, revisiting this article and the period it chronicled has been an opportunity for me to see if the principles and thinking that drew me to the field and were the basis of my introduction to historic preservation still held true. Would the ideas and ideals still resonate with me (and others) today, 25 years later? How does preservation’s maturity compare to its “young adulthood?” Where do we, in fact, stand as compared to Archer’s predictions? Continue reading