The New York Times blog recently posted a piece about the recent AHA conference in New Orleans. Touching briefly on panels about horses and trash in history, the author pauses momentarily to describe a discussion about “The Public Practice of History in a Digital Age.” While debate ensued over the status of narrative in the discipline, the academic monograph as “fetish object” in Claire Potter’s words, and how what counts for tenure may be hamstringing the profession, the panelists came to agree on one thing: Jon Stewart is a public historian.
Why? Because he is good at “confronting politicians with inconvenient truths about the past.” Continue reading
Public history has been at the forefront of democratizing historical knowledge and utilizing nontraditional modes of inquiry—from oral history to personal archives—since its inception. In that time, it—we—have substantially affected the larger practice of history in the academy. But, to vastly oversimplify, the promises and possibilities of the digital have risen as a challenge to all historians to rethink how we disseminate our work and, at the same time, to spur conversations that question and critique the role of technology in the 21st century. Continue reading
(Continued from Part 2.)
(Photo: Mary Rizzo)
During a slow moment on the Love Letters tour, while the couples snuggle each other casually, I ask Barbara to talk more about the effect of the murals. A nurse by training, she tells me that she sees them as having a public health impact—images of hearts helping people’s hearts—and improving people’s attitudes. “I’ve seen the neighborhood change for the better,” she contends, “but I can’t put my finger on it.” No one else asks a question. The murals, she adds later, are not loved by everyone. Some people don’t want them in their neighborhood, though she doesn’t know why. Others have critiqued MAP for their process and expense.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of any public tour is the possibility for unexpected interactions and how these are or are not incorporated coherently into the tour itself. Continue reading
“There was this young man from West Philadelphia,” our tour guide, Barbara, told the group of us assembled on hard plastic chairs. “He was a tagger, a graffiti artist, kept getting in trouble. He finally got sent to jail, and when he got out his girlfriend told him she didn’t want him around their baby anymore. But he was determined to win her back and since she worked at SEPTA [Philadelphia’s transit authority], he painted the murals that we’re going to see today along the train line to prove his love.”
We all knew that, strictly speaking, this wasn’t true. As described in my last post , Philadelphia’s Love Letter murals were created by Steve Powers as part of the renowned Murals Arts Program (MAP), not as some romantic gesture. But Barbara was following the first rule of being a good tour guide–don’t just tell facts, tell stories–and the baker’s dozen of us gathered for the Sunday tour were rapt. Continue reading
Founded in 1984 to combat graffiti, Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program replaced tags and bubble letters with larger-than-life murals that were designed collaboratively by community members and professional artists, becoming one of the most influential public arts organizations of its kind. Since that time, more than 3,000 murals—memorializing famous Philadelphians, commemorating immigration and migration stories, and acknowledging groups ranging from veterans to people with disabilities—have put a visual face on many neighborhoods, identifying and crystallizing their unique character.
“Daycare and Carfare” by Stephen Powers. (Photo by Adam Wallacavage, used with permission of the Mural Arts Program)
Yet, out of all of these, the most popular mural project, according to the Mural Arts Program, has been “Love Letters,” a series of 50 rooftop murals completed in 2010 that “collectively express a love letter from a guy to a girl, from an artist to his hometown, and from local residents to their neighborhood.” Continue reading