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→

Cuban-Americans seek to institutionalize, streamline, their past

Proposed location for Cuban Exile History Museum. Image credit: maps.google.com

Proposed location for Cuban Exile History Museum. Map credit: googlemaps.com, Google Earth

On July 17, Miami-Dade County Commissioners—several Cuban-Americans among them—approved a controversial plan to construct a Cuban Exile History Museum (CEHM) alongside Biscayne Bay. Few would deny the importance of the Cuban community to Miami’s rise from sleepy getaway to sprawling “gateway to the Americas.” The museum project, however, raises troubling questions about not only the development of seaside green space or the apparent clout of one group in city government but the slippery politics of the past in a changing Miami present.

Located behind American Airlines Arena in the heart of downtown, the proposed site for the CEHM has been the source of public wrangling for some time. After rejecting a proposal to build a soccer stadium on the plot, commissioners gave the exile museum the go-ahead. Conservationists and non-Cuban constituents alike have grumbled at the inside political baseball seemingly favoring the city’s preeminent ethnic voting bloc.No one, though, seems to be debating just what would go into the new building in the first place–the kinds of exhibits it would feature or stories they might tell–let alone how this new institution would sustain its mission over time. Continue reading

Producing history and ironwork in an urban crucible (Part I)

blacksmith in shop

Sam Smith holds an axe head and displays other objects he has fabricated and some of the raw materials (many of them salvaged) that he uses in his work. Photo credit: David S. Rotenstein

Sam Smith’s blacksmith shop is part living history laboratory and part urban sustainability experiment. He is a former history major who turned passions for the past and metalworking into a business that produces objects, artisans, and history in contested space on the edge of a gentrifying Portland, Maine, neighborhood. His business, The Portland Forge, is a local craft shop that could succumb to a global process that is displacing artisans and small-scale industrial operations in cities worldwide. Continue reading

Surfing with purpose: Online collections as exhibit resources (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1.

Creative Commons logos

Creative Commons offers several levels of easily-applied licenses to facilitate digital publishing of images while offering some protections to owners and creators.

Navigating copyright for images is tricky and presents one of the biggest challenges in my work as an Exhibitions Researcher at the Indiana Historical Society. Although I admit to only a rudimentary understanding of copyright, this is where open access comes in very handy. While it is certainly important to support other cultural institutions and individuals by purchasing images, the back and forth involved in determining copyright, ensuring a file is a high enough resolution, or waiting for a physical copy to be delivered doesn’t always fit into a production schedule. That is why I increasingly rely on sites with hassle-free permissions and files I can download immediately. We still always credit the source of photos used in our exhibits even if they are open access.

Issues of copyright become even more complex with online materials, and new legal conventions are emerging along with digital collections. Continue reading

Surfing with purpose: Online collections as exhibit resources (Part 1)

city directory

Digital collections like those of the Internet Archive have drastically expanded the resources available to exhibit creators. Photo credit: Internet Archive

Thanks to the exponential increase in availability of digitized collections, possibilities in exhibit research have drastically expanded. Digital collections have become essential tools that help ensure the success of projects with limited budgets and tight deadlines, which most public historians might agree is just about every project. At the same time, it is often overwhelming to sift through the wide range of options. How can researchers, curators, and designers best utilize and understand the many resources provided through digital repositories and open access collections?

I recently responded to a tweet by Mary Rizzo asking for examples of people using the Internet Archive, an open access digital collection, in their public history work, and she suggested I write a blog post about using tools like this. As an Exhibitions Researcher at the Indiana Historical Society, my initial reaction was to think “I don’t know much about open access collections, I just use them.” Considering again, however, I realized that even though I was trained during the era of digitization and I use these resources as second nature in my work, I’ve still gone through a learning process in my job. Continue reading

A side or B side? Postindustrial artisans walking a fine line (Part II)

Continued from Part 1.

parking lot

“The B side” of the Fringe building was seen by one potential developer as part of what needs to be fixed in Union Square. Photo credit: Cathy Stanton

So how did the small-scale artisans at Fringe fit into the proposals put forward by the master developer candidates at the March meeting? The short answer is: ambiguously. They were clearly seen by the developers as both part of the hipness of the neighborhood and part of the set of problems–what in an earlier era of urban redevelopment was more bluntly termed “blight”–that the proposals aimed to overcome. This was made particularly clear by one presenter who showed slides of what he described as Union Square’s assets—a collage of logos from new-economy businesses, including Fringe’s—but then pointed to what he called “the B side,” ugly and problematic things that still needed to be fixed in the neighborhood. His slide for the B side included an image of Fringe’s entrance and loading-dock on the utilitarian back side of the IH Brown building, and he seemed unaware that the logo and the loading-dock belonged to the same enterprise. Lacking the high-tech polish of Artisan’s Asylum or GreenTown labs, Fringe is harder to pigeon-hole–and thus perhaps easier to overlook–in discussions about affordability and inclusivity within urban redevelopment. Continue reading

Behind the velvet rope: Revealing process with museum tours and programs

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.

Beauport, the Sleeper-McCann House, in Gloucester, Massachusetts is now interpreted as the home of a gay man.

Beauport, the Sleeper-McCann House, in Gloucester, Massachusetts, is now interpreted as the former home of a gay man, Henry Davis Sleeper.  Photo credit:  Historic New England

As a public historian working in a museum, Robert R. Weyeneth’s call to “lift the veil” and bring the public into the interpretive process is welcome–and necessary if we want to broaden the kinds of stories we tell. As Jennifer Pustz writes in Voices from the Back Stairs, “the influx of academically trained historians on museum staffs and the subsequent influence of social history on exhibitions and interpretation have resulted in a broader definition of authenticity that can encompass the whole truth, warts and all, and the history of all Americans.” [1]

Why, then, are many museums and historic sites so reticent to explore diverse stories? Do they fear the public’s reaction? If so, why aren’t we involving the visitor more in the process of historical interpretation? Continue reading

A side or B side? Postindustrial artisans walking a fine line (Part I)

street scene

Somerville’s Union Square has been relatively affordable within Boston’s expensive real estate market, but an impending city-led revitalization plan is already boosting prices in the neighborhood. Photo credit: Cathy Stanton

On a cold March evening this past winter, my students and I caught a bus from Davis Square, near Tufts University, to attend a public meeting in Union Square, at the other end of Somerville, Massachusetts. Within the generally-pricey Boston real estate market of the past two or three decades, Union Square has remained relatively affordable and as a result has been something of a haven for artists, artisans, low-income immigrants, and small, often marginal businesses. The March meeting, though, was part of an ongoing “revitalization” process that had already started to bring big changes to the square. Candidates vying for the role of “master developer” for the square were strutting their stuff, trying to demonstrate both familiarity with the neighborhood’s bohemian character and capacity to coordinate more than 2.3 million square feet of new development in seven blocks currently assessed at $26 million.

My class was conducting ethnographic research focusing on a collaborative of small artisanal businesses in a former industrial building in Union Square, and we were curious about how these kinds of companies–tied to currently-hip ideas about “maker culture” in some ways, linked with the longer history of small-scale local craft production in others–would appear within the image-making that was sure to be going on at the meeting. Continue reading

NCPH and international public history

International Federation  for Public History / Fédération Internationale pour l’Histoire Publique logo. Credit: IFPH/FIHP blog

International Federation for Public History / Fédération Internationale pour l’Histoire Publique logo. Credit: IFPH/FIHP blog

Public historians attending a National Council on Public History (NCPH) Annual Meeting during the organization’s first thirty years of existence (1979-2009) rarely benefited from opportunities to learn about or discuss public history practices beyond the borders of the United States or Canada. A glance at the conference program from the 2009 meeting in Providence, Rhode Island, for example, shows that little attention was given to any international topics beyond a few sessions addressing the need to devise strategies for working with international tourists to public history sites in the United States. Some Canadian scholars attended and participated in these annual meetings, but ultimately international scholars looking to promote their public history work or network with like-minded scholars during NCPH’s first thirty years regretfully lacked a strong platform in which to do so. Continue reading