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→

An uneasy fit: History in historic preservation


The FBI Headquarters Building in Washington, DC, is an example of Brutalist architecture that is under scrutiny to determine if it should be saved. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Eleven years after earning a 1966 PhD in history from Washington State University, J. Meredith Neil arrived to work as the first historian hired to the relatively large staff of Seattle’s historic preservation office. He pulled strongly from his experience, and I’d dare say frustrations, in that new role for his 1980 article for The Public Historian, “Is There a Historian in the House? The Curious Case of Historic Preservation.” Neil argued that historians needed to be involved in preservation to prove that history was relevant, democratic, and as important as aesthetic or economic claims for preservation. From South Carolina’s equalization schools to Brutalist architecture, history has been successfully used to argue for the preservation of places that may not have initially been appealing for reasons of architecture or economics. Working for a State Historic Preservation Office, I have also seen that, while history and preservation often intersect, they do not always share motivations, people, or goals. The engagement of historians in preservation is critical, but the best preservation successes happen with a diverse network of support. Continue reading

Canadians and the NCPH

Canadian parliament building. Photo credit: commons.wikimedia.org

Canadian parliament building. Photo credit: commons.wikimedia.org

The field of public history has a long history of its own in Canada.  The first programme was founded at the University of Waterloo in Ontario in 1983 (though it has since been disbanded), and the University of Western Ontario followed suit in 1986.  By the time Concordia University in Montreal, where I completed my PhD, established a programme in 2004, public history was a burgeoning field in Canada.  The National Council on Public History (NCPH) has long recognised the importance of public history in Canada, holding the annual meeting there four times, beginning with Waterloo in 1983, twice in Ottawa, 2001 and 2013, and Victoria, British Columbia, in 2004. Continue reading

Editing in public: Online identity and the Wikipedia Edit-a-thon

wikipedia1Recently I attended two “Wikipedia Edit-a-thons.” The name evoked images of committed scholars and students gathered together to pursue an all-nighter that would generate scores of new articles, hundreds of meaningful edits. What actually transpired was the opportunity to address questions of public history and online scholarly identity.

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Resource or burden? Historic house museums confront the 21st century.


Jones House in the Snow by l. hutton

Jones House in the Snow.  Photo credit: L. Hutton

In 2002, Richard Moe, then president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP), asked a troubling question in the Forum Journal: “Are There Too Many House Museums?”[1] Subsequent publications, conferences, and other forums have debated and reiterated Moe’s concerns that house museums are–besides facing dismal financial straits–too often “tired, antiquated, and disconnected from their communities.”[2]

Although many historic houses have been saved from the wrecking ball because preservation-minded community members transformed them into museums, Moe argued that the sustainability of these museums over the long term remained in grave doubt. Part of this sustainability problem comes from the fact that nearly every town, large or small, has at least one house museum. As of 2013, according to NTHP president Stephanie Meeks, there are an estimated 13,000 house museums in the United States. Nearly 65% of these museums have no full-time paid staff members, and 80% have annual budgets no larger than $50,000–a drop in the bucket when one considers expenses needed for furnishings, artifacts, salaries, and house maintenance.[3] As Donna Harris maintains, while historic house museums can function as “icons of local identity,” the flip side of this is that “familiarity can breed oblivion among many house museum neighbors and locals.”[4]

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Keeping the faith: Political cartoons in and out of the archives

https://www.flickr.com/photos/29233640@N07/16227778545/ Photo credit: Robert Couse-Baker

“I am Charlie” has become the expression of solidarity of people around the world in support of the French weekly newspaper following the January 7, 2015 attack.
Photo credit: Robert Couse-Baker

The killings at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris this week have prompted a passionate defense around the world of political cartoons as free speech, a form of journalistic expression that exemplifies (and occasionally pushes the boundaries of) a free press’s role as critic and gadfly. In thinking about historical precedents and comparisons for the horrific attack, I’ve been struck by a couple of things.

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Can historians help planners make better futures?

Editor’s note: The National Historic Preservation Act will turn 50 in 2016. While this is a time to celebrate how the NHPA has transformed public history, it’s also an appropriate moment to convene a national conversation on the Act, its legacy, and its future. The editors of History@Work and The Public Historian have commissioned a series of blog posts by a diverse group of historic preservationists about the NHPA. Each writer will reflect on an article from The Public Historian chosen by our readers and others that has been made freely available by University of California Press, and posts will appear monthly.

The Futurama exhibit at the 1939 World's Fair inspired many urban planners whose interests were in a hypermodern future rather than understanding the past. Courtesy, Wikimedia Commons

The Futurama exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair inspired many urban planners whose interests were in a hypermodern future rather than understanding the past. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Urban planners have accepted many of Stephen Grable’s arguments in “Applying Urban History to City Planning: A Case Study in Atlanta” (1979). Using a mixed-use development in Atlanta’s Bedford-Pines neighborhood as his focus, he complained that planners ignored the insights of urban historians, who would have told them that one development could not curb the momentum of people moving away from the central city.[1] Without historical perspective, he suggests, planners, architects, and developers make unrealistic assumptions about human behavior, leading city officials to make poor decisions.

Today, however, planners take history more seriously. They include local history in master plans for cities or communities. Some planners have become historic preservationists, using their knowledge of land use regulations and urban design to protect older buildings and historic sites. Students in accredited planning programs are required to learn the history of planning and human settlement. Continue reading