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→

Film and history: An invitation

Photo credit: Tomás Fano

Photo credit: Tomás Fano

To moviemakers, history is an endless source of human drama.

To historians, movies are a powerful art form that can accurately represent the past, seriously distort it–or both.

As historians and other professionals concerned with presenting or preserving history, you have a perspective on the role of history in movies that is critically important.

Which is why Smithsonian magazine and the National Museum of American History are inviting you to take part in this survey. It is being conducted in conjunction with the “History Film Forum: Secrets of American History” festival at the museum November 19 to 22. Continue reading

Reflections on relocating (Part 2)

The author's son. Image courtesy of Adina Langer.

The author’s son. Photo credit:  Adina Langer

Last December, I shared this post about my then-recent relocation from Lansing, Michigan, to Atlanta, Georgia. I wrote about my efforts to make connections in my new community and to nurture my career as a public history consultant and educator. Ten months later, I am writing from an altered vantage point; over the summer, I decided to apply for and ultimately accepted a new job as Curator of the Museum of History and Holocaust Education at Kennesaw State University.

Although I am very excited about my new job, I was trepidatious about writing this post. I have been co-chair of the National Council for Public History Consultants Committee since 2012, advocating for consultants within the public history community and trying my best to offer advice to young professionals and those seeking to make an adjustment to consulting. Ironically, I believe that an analysis of my decision to leave consulting in favor of a full-time job can offer some additional insights for those interested in pursuing a consulting career. Continue reading

The room is now so still

The restored Den at the Frances Willard House Museum in Evanston, IL. Photo courtesy of Leslie Schwartz Photography.

The restored den at the Frances Willard House Museum in Evanston, IL. Photo credit: Leslie Schwartz Photography

This post had its genesis in an undergraduate course, “Doing Local and Community History” (taught by Amy Tyson) at DePaul University in Spring 2015. Through the course, the author, then-senior Juan-Fernando León, partnered with the Frances Willard Historical Association in Evanston, IL.  Drawing on archival research he conducted at the Willard Archives, he was inspired to write the following.

In 2006 the Frances Willard Historical Association completed a faithful restoration of a key room in the Frances Willard House Museum in Evanston, Illinois: the upstairs den. Serving as a library and study for suffrage and temperance reformer Frances E. Willard (1839-1898), the restored den visually freezes the space to a single moment in time: in this case, a period between 1889 (when the den was renovated) to 1898 (when Willard died). But what of the space’s longer history?

Continue reading

Trashy history: Infrastructure as historic property

Editor’s note: This post continues a series commemorating the anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act by examining a past article published in The Public Historian, describing its significance, and relating it to contemporary conversations in historic preservation.

United Irrigation District Canal, Mission, Texas (photograph courtesy Texas Dept. of Transportation)

United Irrigation District Canal, Mission, Texas.  Photo credit:  Texas Dept. of Transportation

Everything is bigger in Texas, even its infrastructure. The state counts more than 50,000 bridges, with approximately half of them being at least fifty years old, along with historic roadways, culverts, retaining walls, irrigation ditches, paving materials, curbs, roadside parks, and Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) offices. All of these resources are under constant use and strain and often break due to age or overuse. TxDOT’s mission is to update and improve the road infrastructure, abandoning historic materials and designs that no longer work for today’s traffic needs. Are any, all, or some of these older examples of infrastructure worthy of preservation? Should infrastructure even be on the list of the “Nation’s historic places worthy of preservation?” As a historian with the TxDOT, I handle questions regarding infrastructure as historic properties on a daily basis. Continue reading

“APUSH” re-revised

College Board logo. Image courtesy Wikimedia commons.

College Board logo. Image courtesy Wikimedia commons

In a surprising turn of events, the College Board re-revised the Advanced Placement United States History curriculum framework, releasing its newest version at the end of July. While the move by the Board, which had instituted a public comment period seeking feedback on the framework back in February, is not overly surprising, the reaction among many historians and among the opponents of the original revised framework is. Both historians and critics are largely satisfied. Continue reading

No mere morality play: Why we need Confederate memorials now more than ever

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of posts addressing recent debates over Confederate memory and symbolism in the wake of the shooting of nine parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina.

St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. Photo credit: Doug Kerr. Wikimedia Commons.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. Photo credit: Doug Kerr. Wikimedia Commons

In the wake of the June 17 shooting tragedy in Charleston, SC, numerous cities, institutions, politicians, and members of the general public have engaged in an array of important discussions about Confederate imagery and iconography. These discussions have illuminated for a large segment of the public the integral link between slavery and the coming of the Civil War and have prompted important conversations about the evolutionary meanings and appropriations of Confederate symbolism since the war. They have also resulted in necessary revisions of public displays of the Confederate flag, most notably the removal of the flag from the South Carolina state capitol grounds. However, these discussions have also produced a wave of interest in the wholesale destruction of Confederate memorial landscapes, including the removal of century-old Confederate monuments, plaques, and artwork.

Numerous historians, such as Jill Ogline Titus, Blain Roberts and Ethan Kytle, and Gordon Rhea, have smartly delineated the differences between Confederate flags and historical, memorial landscapes. I strongly support these historians’ findings, and am in favor of the proposed creation of “counter-monuments” to slaves, African American abolitionists, United States Colored Troops, and Civil Rights activists which, I feel, would conform to the best practices of sharing authority, community engagement, and both activist and cathartic civic dialogue upon which our field has long prided itself. However, I worry that St. Paul’s Church, in Richmond, Virginia, might be contemplating the removal of its own memorial landscape in its discussions about the future of its Confederate memorial Tiffany-stained glass windows. Although the congregation’s discussions to this point are far from conclusive, I believe the importance of these discussions to the overarching debate about Confederate iconography bears address here. Continue reading

The fifty-year stumbling block

Editor’s note: This post continues a series commemorating the anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act by examining a past article published in The Public Historian, describing its significance, and relating it to contemporary conversations in historic preservation.

The Beauvoir Estate, the home of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, seven months after suffering damage during Hurricane Katrina. Source: FEMA

The Beauvoir Estate, the home of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, seven months after suffering damage during Hurricane Katrina.  Photo credit: FEMA

Assessing properties for listing in the National Register of Historic Places is rarely an easy process. Not only does it call for a combination of skills in architectural description and analysis, a convincing nomination relies on the ability of the author(s) to place the property in its historic context and within existing literature about the property’s period of significance. Then comes the application of what National Park Service Bureau Historian John Sprinkle has wisely described as the “so-called” 50-year rule: the property must be at least fifty years old unless it has “exceptional importance.” Sprinkle’s 2007 article, “‘Of Exceptional Importance’: The Origins of the ‘50-Year Rule’ in Historic Preservation,” for The Public Historian analyzes how the rule came into being, how it may be interpreted, and how it has impacted historic preservation in the United States for two generations. Continue reading

Continuing the conversation about preservation and climate change

waves and shore

Aftermath of Hurricane Ernesto near Newport, Rhode Island, 2006. Photo credit: duluoz cats on Flickr

Newporters like to boast that their city is home to the largest concentration of American buildings pre-dating 1800. It’s a hard claim to verify, but tallies aside, the City-by-the-Sea in Rhode Island is undoubtedly a patchwork of architectural delights reflecting its history as a powerful colonial entrepôt, a Gilded Age resort, a naval base, and currently a vibrant tourist destination. The streets along the waterfront are a charming jumble of historic wharves, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century homes, commercial spaces, and houses of worship that are as active today as at any point in the past. Newport has always drawn its vitality from the sea, and this same element now poses a serious threat to the city’s heritage. That threat–and possible responses to it–will be the focus of an upcoming conference called Keeping History Above Water. Continue reading

Genealogy and the problem of biological essentialism

Space-filling model animation of B-DNA, made with qutemol. Image courtesy Jahobr, Wikimedia Commons

Space-filling model animation of B-DNA, made with qutemol. Photo credit:   Jahobr, Wikimedia Commons

Editor’s note: In “On Genealogy,” a revision of the plenary address delivered in October 2014 at the International Federation for Public History’s conference in Amsterdam, Jerome de Groot argues that widespread popular interest in genealogy, and the availability of mass amounts of information online, challenge established historiography and public history practice. He invites other public historians to contribute to a debate about how we might “investigate, theorize, and interrogate” the implications of this explosion of interest in genealogy. We invited four scholars to contribute to this discussion. Carolina Jonsson Malm is the fourth of these scholars.  To read the three prior posts, see Paul Knevel, Sara Trevisan. and Regina Poertner

There are many possible explanations as to why genealogy has become one of the most popular hobbies in our time. The last decades’ growing interest in local history and life stories could be one. The increasing public awareness of genetics and the potential of genetic engineering another. People’s sense of rootlessness and lack of social relations in a rapidly changing world yet another. Whatever the reason, it is undeniable that genealogy has become almost a social movement, involving millions of people around the world. In his article, “On Genealogy,” Jerome de Groot suggests that genealogy in many ways can be described as “a democratization of access to the past.”   As a result of the new digital technology and the improved accessibility of public records, anyone with time and inclination can search for their ancestors in databases and online. People whose lives and fates are not part of the traditional academic historiography are uncovered. Everyone gets their fifteen minutes–at least in the family historian’s genealogical tree. Continue reading