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→

Raising the curtain: From extreme exhibits to artists in residence

Editor’s Note: In “What I’ve Learned Along the Way: A Public Historian’s Intellectual Odyssey,” outgoing NCPH President Bob Weyeneth issued a call to action to public historians to include the public more fully in our work by “pulling back the curtain” on our interpretive process—how we choose the stories we tell. In this series of posts, we’ve invited several public historians to reflect on projects that do exactly that, assessing their successes and examining the challenges we face when we let the public in through the door usually reserved for staff.

“Quakers and the Challenges of Freedom”  Mixed media on canvas, Curtis Woody, 2014.

“Quakers and the Challenge of Freedom,” mixed media by Curtis Woody, 2014, was inspired by the collections at the Sandy Spring Museum, MD. Photo credit: Curtis Woody

If it’s true that museums only exhibit 2% of their collection, opening rarely or unused collections to people other than curators is one way for a museum to pull back the veil on the interpretive process to draw them “into an explanation of why some subjects are discussed at the site, but not others.”[1] The Sandy Spring Museum, a community history museum in Sandy Spring, Maryland, has always had an extremely small staff and has never employed a curator, making much of our collection off-limits. We are experimenting with ways to make it more accessible by allowing people without museum training the opportunity to work with our collection. Two projects, an Extreme Exhibit Makeover and an invitation to local artists to make work inspired by our collections, are attempts to connect community members more meaningfully with the museum, give them hands-on experiences that show how curatorial choices shape the interpretation of history, and bring new perspectives to our collections. Hopefully, along the way, the participants, staff, and visitors had some fun, too.

Extreme Makeover-Exhibit Style

The Extreme Exhibit Makeover brought together a dozen individuals who had never worked together before and had no affiliation with the Sandy Spring Museum to improve our permanent exhibits. Participants were selected through an application process and put on one of two teams, depending upon their experience. In the end, each team had a designer, a researcher, an artist, an educator, and other assorted museum professionals. Continue reading

In our hands

Editor’s Note: This is the second piece in a series on the “crisis” in the humanities. A post introducing the series can be found here.

Bradstreet Gate (also known as 1997 Gate), Harvard Yard, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Photo credit: Daderot, Wikimedia Commons.

Bradstreet Gate, Harvard Yard, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Photo credit: Daderot, Wikimedia Commons

Not long ago I was invited to a small university in California to talk about the crisis in the humanities. When I arrived I was greeted by a professor of philosophy, faculty members from the literature department, and a historian. We sat together in a small classroom overlooking a peaceful, park-like setting. But they all seemed worried, so I asked them how things were at their university.

“Well,” they said, “things were not going well.” Student enrollment in humanities courses and the number of majors were down. The president had reeled in a multimillion dollar gift, but none of it would be earmarked for the humanities. You could hear in their tense voices that they felt they were living in crisis. I pointed out that they might feel like there was a crisis at their university, but the humanities outside of the university were not in crisis–in fact, they were in great demand. It was an awkward thing to say, but there really is a gulf between the fate of the humanities inside and outside academia. Continue reading

Never let a (humanities) crisis go to waste

Flower featured in the film The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive, and Secure Nation. Photo credit: American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Flower featured in the film The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive, and Secure Nation. Photo credit: American Academy of Arts and Sciences

Last August, fans of the Colbert Report saw Duke University President Richard Brodhead encourage study in the humanities as essential to a balanced education. The interview segment can be seen here. Brodhead’s appearance was part of a marketing campaign engineered by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) that was designed to advance support for the humanities in much the same way that the National Academy of Sciences had promoted Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) with its 2007 report Rising above the Gathering Storm. Brodhead’s appearance may have been unusual for taking the case for humanities education to such a popular audience, but it reflected the AAAS’s conviction that a national dialogue on the importance of the humanities was necessary to its future. Continue reading

Lifting our skirts: Sharing the sexual past with visitors

Editor’s Note: In “What I’ve Learned Along the Way: A Public Historian’s Intellectual Odyssey,” outgoing NCPH President Bob Weyeneth issued a call to action to public historians to include the public more fully in our work by “pulling back the curtain” on our interpretive process—how we choose the stories we tell. In this series of posts, we’ve invited several public historians to reflect on projects that do exactly that, assessing their successes and examining the challenges we face when we let the public in through the door usually reserved for staff.

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene 1864 Simeon Solomon 1840-1905 Purchased 1980 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T03063

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene, 1864. Simeon Solomon.  Photo credit:  Tate Museum

In his presidential address, Bob Weyeneth calls for public history sites to “lift the curtain” and reveal to the public the “interpretive fluidity of history.” I have good news for Weyeneth from my little corner of the profession. When interpreting Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) history, we can scarcely do anything but display the messy underpinnings of our work. With regard to same-sex love and desire, sound evidence and clear-cut categories rarely exist. In place of definitive statements, usually the best we can offer is a scant handful of clues. Let me first describe the aspects of LGBT history that lend themselves to Weyeneth’s suggestion, then consider one example of these ideas in practice: the alternative labeling project at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum (JAHHM) in Chicago.[1] Continue reading

Project showcase: “Cotton Memories” sessions

Cotton Kingdom SymposiumAs part of a larger project focusing on the history and legacy of cotton-picking and sharecropping in the Mississippi Delta, the non-profit organization Khafre, Inc. is holding weekly sessions throughout the summer of 2014 to gather memories and oral histories from people with roots in the Delta region, especially older African Americans with first-hand knowledge of work in “America’s Cotton Kingdom.” Khafre is based in Indianola, Mississippi, and is led by C. Sade Turnipseed, an educator and cultural preservationist who is compiling the data for a doctoral dissertation in the Public History program at Middle Tennessee State University.

Khafre, Inc. and Turnipseed are working to inspire a “community-driven historic preservation” movement that brings together heritage tourism with community empowerment and commemoration. They hope to reframe public perceptions of cotton-picking, sharecropping, and tenant farming through public education programs and the establishment of a “place” planned as the Cotton Pickers of America Monument complex (Sharecroppers’ House Museum and Sharecroppers Interpretive Center), designed by sculptor Ed Dwight for Mound Bayou in Bolivar County.

This fall will see the third annual “Sweat Equity Investment in the Cotton Kingdom” symposium and Cotton Pickers Ball event at Mississippi Valley State University in Itta Bena, a gathering that combines performance, scholarship, memorializing, and fund-raising. (The poster for the 2013 event is shown above.) The summer 2014 “Cotton Memories” sessions will take place in two locations: da’ House of Khafre in Indianola on Wednesday afternoons and at Mound Bayou City Hall on Thursday afternoons. More information about the sessions and the larger project can be found on Khafre’s website.

NPS LGBT initiative: An opportunity for public historians

Chicago Pride Parade, 2006. Photo credit: Adam Dixon, Wikimedia Commons.

Chicago Pride Parade, 2006. Photo credit: Adam Dixon, Wikimedia Commons

In late May, the National Park Service announced a theme study of sites associated with the histories of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals and communities. In a recent History@Work post, Sheila Brennan reported on the first public meeting of the advisory group for this initiative. I also attended this panel discussion and would like to encourage readers of History@Work to participate because your critical public history perspectives can contribute to the success of this project.

Although I no longer work for the National Park Service, I have been a staff NPS historian and, in the 1980s, worked on the National Historic Landmarks (NHL) program staff. In that time, the NPS embraced more heterogeneity in its telling of American history. This LGBT initiative continues the Park Service’s efforts to expand the scope of history at its sites and in the National Register of Historic Places and NHL programs. The initiative also offers public historians an important opportunity to contribute to a much-needed historical project. Continue reading