How the Great Chicago Fire Festival burned history

One of the floating Victorian houses awaiting a burning that never quite arrived during the Great Chicago Fire Festival on October 4. Photo credit: Richard Anderson

One of the floating Victorian houses awaiting a burning that never quite arrived during the Great Chicago Fire Festival on October 4. Photo credit: Richard Anderson

As a public-historian-in-training and recovering theater nerd, I attended last month’s Great Chicago Fire Festival with high hopes. Redmoon Theater–one of the city’s most innovative companies–staged an elaborate pageant on the Chicago River commemorating the infamous 1871 fire that destroyed much of the city. Organizers promised the festival would “unite Chicago’s neighborhoods and celebrate Chicago’s grit, greatness, and renewal following the fire of 1871.” Unity and celebration certainly seemed palpable among the estimated crowd of 30,000 packed three-deep along the bridges and esplanade overlooking the river. I appreciate any effort to bring strangers together for a shared experience, especially one related to history. Yet the evening left me disappointed. The Great Chicago Fire Festival presented a version of history too sanitized and too simple. Redmoon lacked the courage to ask more discomfiting questions about the presence of the past in Chicago today. Continue reading

What I learned on my (public history) summer vacation

Participants gathered for a farewell photo on the final day of the seminar on the campus of Shanghai Normal University.  Photo credit: Richard Anderson

Participants gathered for a farewell photo on the final day of the seminar on the campus of Shanghai Normal University. Photo credit: Chen Xin

This summer I traveled to Shanghai, China, with a group of fellow students and faculty from Princeton University for an immersive seminar in public history, memory, and preservation. The trip provided an opportunity to think about public history in a transnational framework, which is important to me for two reasons. First, public history remains far too parochial in the United States, despite efforts in many corners of the discipline (and on History@Work’s International Perspectives section) to fashion a more expansive geographic and cultural lens. Second, I’ve been struck by how many of my Princeton classmates most enthusiastic about public history specialize in fields outside North America. As a historian-in-training who studies–and resides in–the United States, I see both a need and a demand for transnational approaches to public history. Continue reading

Survey announcement: Help us gather data for the Graduate Program Consumer’s Guide

ship in heavy seaDuring the coming year the National Council on Public History will prepare a Graduate Program Consumer’s Guide. The Consumer’s Guide will serve as a tool for anyone weighing the pros and cons of pursuing a degree or certificate in public history. Robert Weyeneth, president of the NCPH and director of the public history program at the University of South Carolina, outlined the rationale for the Consumer’s Guide last September in a series of posts for History@Work. Collectively titled “A Perfect Storm,” the posts addressed the widely held perception that a “jobs crisis” exists in the field of public history. Weyeneth argued that NCPH can and should commit its organizational resources to ensuring that public history programs offer the highest quality training to the next generation of practitioners, who will undoubtedly face a highly competitive job market.

As a first step toward producing the Consumer’s Guide, the New Professional and Graduate Student Committee of NCPH announced plans earlier this winter for a survey soliciting feedback from History@Work readers. The committee will participate in creating the Consumer’s Guide, and we are eager to hear from current public history students, long-established professionals, and everyone in-between. What kind of information do you think the NCPH should include in the Consumer’s Guide? Please follow this link and answer a few survey questions. Your feedback is indispensable to the process of crafting a Graduate Program Consumer’s Guide that will benefit our field and the next generation of practitioners. We hope that the survey will also stimulate discussions that continue during the upcoming NCPH meeting in Monterey.

~ New Professional and Graduate Student Committee

Student consumer’s guide

ship in heavy seaIn September of last year,History@Work published a series of posts by Robert Weyeneth, president of NCPH and Director of the Public History Program at the University of South Carolina. Collectively titled “A Perfect Storm,” the posts addressed what Weyeneth identified as a broadly shared concern among public history professionals (inside and outside academia) that a jobs crisis exists in the field. Weyeneth used the series to consider how NCPH should and could respond organizationally to the storm. This post, from NCPH’s New Professional and Graduate Student Committee, represents one aspect of the organization’s response to the putative jobs crisis.

Before describing our committee’s goals, we would like to briefly summarize Weyeneth’s points. He wrote that the “perfect storm” combines the proliferation of public history programs, especially master’s-level certificate programs, with the accompanying growth in the number of public history MA’s, the dearth of entry-level jobs in the field for these new public historians, the range in quality of training received by some of these graduates, and the mismatch between program curricula and the demands of the contemporary public history job market. Weyeneth argued that quality, not quantity, is the fundamental issue related to public history employment. Certificate programs are not necessarily pumping out too many MA’s, but they may not be equipping their graduates with the skills appropriate for the “twentieth-first-century economy and the digital revolution.”

Weyeneth concluded that NCPH, as the major professional organization for the field, can do much to encourage and facilitate high-quality graduate training for the next generation of public historians. Drawing on the example of the organization’s best-practices documents for undergraduate programs, certificate programs, and internships, Weyeneth proposed that NCPH produce a student consumer’s guide to public history programs. This new guide will empower students to be “more active and critical consumers of education.” It will provide information about various programs and also equip prospective applicants with a set of questions to ask “when they study websites, e-mail program directors, or visit campuses.” The consumer’s guide will enable students to find the program with the right fit and, in turn, identify the career paths they desire.

In the coming weeks, the New Professional and Graduate Student Committee will solicit feedback from readers through a tool like Survey Monkey. We want to capture a range of experiences and perspectives, so we are eager to hear from current public history students, long-established professionals, and everyone in between. Our survey will ask what kind of information you think NCPH should include in the consumer’s guide. Based on your own experience, what knowledge or resources do you think would best enable people to actively shape their own graduate student experience and navigate the field as new professionals? What do you wish someone had told you at the beginning of your public history career? Keep an eye out for our call for feedback in a subsequent post. The practice of public history is inherently collaborative, and we hope you will join with us to shape the future of public history education.

~ New Professional and Graduate Student Committee

We need public histories of organized labor

Thousands march on Lansing, Mich., to protest anti-union legislation called "Right to work." Photo by PW/John Rummel(

Thousands march on Lansing, Mich., to protest anti-union legislation called “Right to work.” Photo by PW/John Rummel

Two thousand and twelve was another wrenching year for American workers and labor unions. The time seems right for public historians to recover organized labor’s past and to place that history at the center of our current public policy debates. What kind of year was it for workers?  The economic “recovery” has been tepid, and corporate profits are recovering much faster than wages. Unemployment hovers just under 8%. Workers who kept their jobs are logging more hours and performing more tasks for the same pay. How did unions fare in 2012? The mostly successful strike at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and the highly publicized Thanksgiving actions against Wal-Mart were encouraging. Still, following legislative attacks on public-sector unions in Wisconsin and Ohio, and a similar campaign of vilification by my governor in New Jersey, anti-union “right-to-work” laws were enacted in Indiana and Michigan. There was heavy symbolism in Michigan–so long portrayed as the cradle of organized labor and the epicenter of the once-mighty United Auto Workers–embracing the union-busting mechanisms provided for by the 1947 Taft-Harley Act.

As the reference to Taft-Hartley suggests, current anti-union animus is nothing new. Continue reading

Grad students and new professionals at the conference

Graduate students and new professionals headed to the NCPH/OAH Conference in Milwaukee–let’s get to know each other! Please join the NCPH New Professionals and Graduate Students Committee for a social outing at Milwaukee Ale House (233 North Water St., downtown Milwaukee, a short walk from the Frontier Airlines Center) on Thursday, April 19th, from 7:30 to 10:30pm. Stop by for drinks or a bite to eat following the conference opening reception. Email Richard Anderson at with questions. We hope to see you there!