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→

A good-enough platform for change

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Today’s post is also the introduction to the born-digital publication “Public History in a Changing Climate,” available now to NCPH conference registrants and to other readers by summer 2014.

In a television interview last year, American writer and neo-agrarian icon Wendell Berry spoke about the “dreadful situation” facing young people who are grappling with the cascading environmental, economic, and social challenges linked with runaway capitalism and anthropogenic climate change.  Berry noted that the recognition of our big problems creates an expectation of equally big solutions, but added that our own answers and fixes have too often been part and parcel of those problems, because we’ve tended to impose them in a way that ignores the limitations and needs of the environments we inhabit.  Real change, he said, means learning to listen in new ways to the non-human world and refusing to be rushed or impatient even while acknowledging the urgent need for action.  “I think of them,” Berry said of younger people entering this arena, “and I say well, the situation you’re in now is a situation that’s going to call for a lot of patience.  And to be patient in an emergency is a terrible trial.”

The idea of being patient in an emergency strikes me as useful for public historians to think about but from the opposite direction.  Rather than being impatient activists who need to be convinced of the value of patience, we tend to be inherently deliberate practitioners who haven’t collectively acknowledged that we are in fact in the midst of an emergency. Continue reading

“Seeds of Change”: A pop-up museum for Monterey

plantsHeading to Monterey for the National Council on Public History’s annual meeting next week?  Don’t forget to pack your contribution to NCPH’s first pop-up exhibit, “Seeds of Change:  Public History and Sustainability”!

Generated entirely from participant contributions and built onsite at NCPH, “Seeds of Change:  Public History and Sustainability” will examine how issues of sustainability converge with the work we are doing in public history.  We hope that the exhibit will facilitate conversation and serve as a forum for discussion about the conference theme.  We invite conference attendees to share their experiences with sustainable practices and to brainstorm creative ways that historians can help general audiences comprehend, historicize, and complicate discussions about sustainability. Continue reading

A cry for help: collegial syllabus revision

By Berdea (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons.

Photo credit: Berdea, via Wikimedia Commons

My public history courses are complicated.

Over the eight years since I took over as Director of Public History at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), I have found myself juggling and re-juggling course content, trying to achieve just the right mix of reading, discussion, research, and practice. I worry constantly about how to balance quality control and authority against student creativity and development. This worry manifests in every decision I make about each course: How much description of the assignment should I include? Which readings will be most effective for advancing students’ understanding of both the roots and the practice of core methodologies? How can I break assignments into manageable bites? What is the difference between graduate and undergraduate study in public history? What are the learning goals? What kinds of assignments will be enjoyable and meaningful for students? Continue reading

What’s your new “Situation Normal”?

protester with sign

US federal government workers at an August 2013 protest of budget sequestration and employee furloughs. Photo credit: American Federation of Government Employees

As I sit down to write this post (and by the way, this is my first “official” history blog post), I am pondering what my “New Situation Normal” is as a public history practitioner for a federal agency. How has my work reality changed, for good and for ill, over the past 16 years? Certainly, technology and social media provide public historians with avenues to new and varied audiences. And with the Internet’s narrowing of time and space, interesting and exciting possibilities now exist for researchers and public historians.

However, there have been less positive workplace changes, namely budgetary and staffing constraints, which have created stresses and reprioritization at work for many American public historians in the public and private sector—as well as in other countries—regardless of agency or organization. Continue reading

Intimate lives on display: Monticello and Mount Vernon

Photo Courtesy of Ad Meskens (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

Mount Vernon.  Photo Credit:  Ad Meskens (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

Jennifer Tyburczy’s brilliant observation that all museums “have played an important but often overlooked role in the institutionalization of categories of sexual ‘normalcy’ and ‘perversity’” can also be applied to house museums and historic sites. House museums, as sites for interpreting private lives, are engaged in complex ways with presentations of sex and sexuality. The most famous and oft-visited house museums in the United States are George Washington’s plantation Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson’s mountain-top plantation, Monticello. Mount Vernon receives one million visitors each year and Monticello some 500,000. Monticello and Mount Vernon serve as case studies to illustrate the physical and inter-personal ways in which house museums convey information about the Founders’ personal lives. Continue reading

My dark secret, or How I learned to stop hating American history and start loving it

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Brian Joyner. Photo credit: Michael Spain Smith

Several years back, I was a new public history practitioner working for the National Park Service (NPS).  A series of fortuitous events led me to the NPS: a stint at a historical society, a freelance job for the Smithsonian, an informational interview with the NPS Office of Diversity and Special Projects, and a quick gig with a partner organization. I started enthusiastically editing and writing about historic preservation and diverse communities, but I was carrying a dark secret: I knew little about preservation or public history. Yes, I was a history major from the University of Maryland (Go Terps!), but my senior paper was on the Conversion of Constantine the Great to Christianity and most of my studies were in topics that predated the North American colonies by at least 1000 years.

The truth was that United States history bored me and made me angry. Continue reading