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→

Pulling back the layers: Participatory and community-based archeology

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.

Early on a July morning, as the sun rises above the trees that line the eastern half of our urban dig site, the crew prepares for work. They use modified milk containers to bail the rain of last night’s thunderstorm from the plastic-lined 1-meter square excavation units. We are all beginning to sweat as we remove the dripping plastic sheets from the squares, and resume our efforts to discover what we can about life in this 19th-century textile mill town.

Most of the crew, composed largely of Baltimore City High School students who live in nearby neighborhoods, prepare to man the screens. They will spend the next couple of hours searching soils, excavated layer-by-layer, for artifacts. A few with sufficient experience are asked to begin digging in the unit. We are at the bottom of a stratum, all of our notes are up to date, and we’ve drawn and taken photographs of the walls and floors of the unit. We’re ready to dig through the next level of soil, so I instruct my students: “Go ahead and carefully begin pulling back the next layer…,”

A HCAP student helps to survey a Hampden archaeological site. Photo by David Gadsby

A Hampden Community Archaeology Project student helps to survey a Hampden archaeological site. Photo by David Gadsby

One of archeology’s oldest and richest metaphors is “pulling back” layers of soil to reveal the remnants of a hidden past. Archeologists, concerned with drawing conclusions about the human past from multiple, sometimes fragmentary lines of evidence, can use their data to tell stories that complicate or revise conventional understandings of that past. In recent decades, a growing number of archeologists has sought to pull back the layers, or “lift the veil” on their research practices, to produce more inclusive interpretations of data, recruit people to form a more diverse discipline, and cede some authority to members of descendent communities and the public, as we did with the Baltimore project described above. Continue reading

Internationalizing public history

globe-constructionIn recent years, there has been a sort of awakening within public history. This awakening has been very noticeable during the annual meeting of the National Council on Public History, especially during the past four years. Where the attendance has traditionally been comprised of American practitioners and scholars (and a fair sprinkling of Canadians), the number of non-North American participants has been steadily growing. Every year, we have seen an increase in the number of public historians from Italy, France, Belgium, Germany, China, Venezuela, and Brazil, amongst many others. Their participation is leading to new understandings of what public history means around the world and new dialogue about teaching and practice. Continue reading

Humanities at the Crossroads: The Indiana case study

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

Pottery wheel demonstration at Conner Prairie living history museum in Fishers, Indiana. Photo credit: Derek Jensen, Wikimedia Commons.

Pottery wheel demonstration at Conner Prairie living history museum in Fishers, Indiana.
Photo credit: Derek Jensen

In the past few years, the airwaves have been filled with angst about the state of the humanities, primarily in college and university humanities departments. Humanities at the Crossroads (HAC), a national initiative to examine the future of the humanities in American life, was one of several responses to the crisis. The HAC planning group, however, felt that more research was needed, and they decided to focus on a single state, Indiana, as a case study.

Indiana Humanities became the lead organization for the Indiana Case Study. What could we find out about the humanities in Indiana? It was like the KWL exercise that educators use: What do we know? What do we want to know? What did we learn?

Continue reading

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