Read-in event for Black History Month. Photo credit: Vanessa Macias
Every year, my college celebrates Black History Month and Hispanic Heritage Month. These celebrations feature musical performances, student art shows, guest speakers, and panel presentations that touch upon culture, community issues, significant men and women, landmark achievements, and current events. They are high-quality performances that attract large audiences of students, faculty, and members of the public. Yet from my perspective, the college’s scheduled events could focus more on the history of African Americans and Hispanics in the United States. It is imperative to include a discussion of historical themes and issues related to these groups to truly fulfill the mission of these special months. History can be celebratory, yet it can also be difficult, and these months should highlight both narratives. Minimizing discussion of history robs participants of a more profound experience that could challenge previously held assumptions. Continue reading →
Early last year, the NBC television show Community produced an episode entitled “Pillows v. Blankets.“ The episode depicts a pillow fight that reaches epic brother-against-brother proportions by involving the entire Glendale Community College campus. It very cleverly relates the war’s progression through text messages (complete with emoticons), emails, and Facebook updates. Footage of pillow skirmishes comes from cell phones. Episodes of Community often parody elements of popular culture (a particular favorite is an episode that mocks the show Law & Order). For this particular conflict, the writers looked to Ken Burns’ popular documentary, The Civil War. The conversation below spooled out from our (Priya Chhaya and Vanessa Macias’) mutual love of pop culture and history.
Vanessa: I was so happy to hear that you found Community’s “Pillows v. Blankets” episode as funny as I did! I thought it was just the history nerd in me that was tickled by the spot-on parody of Ken Burns’ documentary, The Civil War.
Priya: I know. Part of the reason I found the episode so enjoyable was just how seriously it took the conflict, thus underscoring the Civil War’s over-dramatization in that much-beloved documentary. However, in being so obvious the Community episode illustrated the way in which our lives have changed from the 1860s. I’ll readily admit that watching the film is one of my favorite memories of my high school history class. At the time it was only a few years old (the documentary came out in 1990) and emphasized what I would later learn was social history—telling history through the eyes of ordinary people on the ground, rather than just military formations and movements. Who didn’t love hearing about the first-hand accounts and letters–or looking at the great photographs—which made the documentary so groundbreaking.
Vanessa: I remember being captivated by The Civil War when I first watched it years ago. Now the format is ripe for parody. “Pillows v. Blankets” is an effective imitation of all the signatures of the “Ken Burns Effect”—the somber voiceover, sepia-toned battle maps, fiddle-heavy soundtrack, and slow tracking shots of photographs. I stopped airing segments of the documentary in my US History classes for fear that my students’ eyes would glaze over and become heavy each time the mournful “Ashokan Farewell” plays. How can I expect my students, whose daily lives’ include instant communication via social media and text messaging, to become engaged in a documentary format that even I find slow and outdated? Continue reading →
Earlier this summer, as temperatures soared above 100 degrees in El Paso, I was tucked away in a cool room inside the University of Texas El Paso Library’s Special Collection department. I was working with the Casasola Photograph Collection, which holds prints and negatives from the popular Casasola Studio that was located in Downtown El Paso, Texas. Open from the 1920s to the 1990s, this studio photographed countless El Pasoans in formal portraits and on special occasions.
My job was to assist with rehousing, numbering, and scanning negatives from the immense Casasola collection that holds an estimated 250,000 negatives. Continue reading →
The gallery’s images (all from participant photos), color scheme, and typography were selected so that the space reflected the specific characteristics of the featured neighborhoods. The mural (to the right of the column) and wood paneling on the theater help to balance the shiny digital graphics. This view of the gallery shows one of the featured neighborhoods, the research computer table, oral history theater, and floor map activity. Courtesy of El Paso Museum of History and J. Ramirez Photography.
In 2004, I completed my MA graduate program in History with a sure sense of what was going to happen next: teach for a year, and then start a Ph.D. program. By 2007, I wasn’t sure if a Ph.D. was in my future and started exploring other options. I contacted the director of the El Paso Museum of History with a simple question: are there any internship opportunities at the museum? That question led to volunteering for a couple of museum events and then, after the museum received an IMLS Museums for America grant in 2008, they contracted me to be the project manager for an exhibit about El Paso’s neighborhoods. For five years, I oversaw the project’s development from concept to fabricated exhibit. It was an invaluable experience that confirmed just how satisfying and frustrating it can be to work in public history. Continue reading →