I have always thought of public history as a tool to assist us in mediating unchartered territory. More specifically, museums can serve as public forums to tackle persistent forms of oppression that have escaped clear resolve. This vision seems particularly relevant today. There is a wide gap between understanding the inaccessible civil liberties and rights black people struggled for and acknowledging operations of oppression that persist into the present day. Rather by willful ignorance, genuine unawareness, or fear, much of the American public lives in that gap. Through exhibits, collections, community outreach projects, and continued dialogue, museums can assist the public in mediating that gap where we have not gained much traction. Continue reading →
Project narrator David Campbell explains to the media in August 2002 why he will not leave his encampment, known as Camelot, while the city bulldozers wait to move in. Photo credit: Steve Cagan. Used with permission from the collection of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless.
On May 30, 1995, wearing an orange construction helmet, I stood behind a makeshift barricade on E. 13th Street in New York City. Hundreds of squatters faced off against larger numbers of riot police who were armed with a tank and supported by snipers on the surrounding buildings. They had come to evict people from five buildings, and as they moved in, we locked arms to prevent them from gaining entrance. One by one they arrested us and dragged us away as the media reported the event live throughout the day. While we lost the buildings and over one hundred people lost their homes, the action paved the way for the remaining squats in the neighborhood to become legally recognized.
We had a sense we were making history, putting our mark on a long tradition of radical activism in the community. It was a history told though stories on park benches; documented in old photographs; archived in personal collections of dog-eared papers, yellowed flyers, and ‘zines; and memorialized with graffiti and punk anthems. The history was sustained by the elders, who had little materially to show from life, but captivated the attention of irreverent younger people who affectionately heard their stories as a boast and a challenge. To make history, we needed to know the history. Knowing the history necessitated knowing the people and knowing the people required being on their side. Continue reading →
Banners telling the stories of particular El Paso buildings were the first iteration of the Museo Urbano project. Photo credit: Bruce Berman
Hardball history that places historians at the center of politics, advocacy, and activism can be a difficult journey, but it can also be inspiring. My introduction to public history coincided with the 2006 unveiling of a controversial downtown revitalization plan in the city of El Paso, Texas. The plan included the demolition of more than thirty acres of El Segundo Barrio, a historic and predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood.
I was twenty-two and a senior at the University of Texas at El Paso. I learned about the downtown plan in a political science class, where everyone was given a brochure and a map of the area slated for construction. In place of churches and homes were shopping malls and parking lots. The woman giving us the presentation also mentioned that residents who could not afford new tax increases would need to be relocated. I was not the only student that had questions about the plan, the residents, and the process. The same semester I was also taking a Mexican-American History class taught by Dr. Yolanda Chávez Leyva. Her class incorporated the rich history of the area. Ironically, I had Dr. Leyva’s class right before the political science class. Continue reading →
“You know who has money to help you.” I responded to this truth by listing three millionaires from whom I would not accept funding for Museo Urbano, the public history project housed in the Department of History at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). The response hit hard. “You know you’re walking the high road, but you don’t have any shoes on.” I smiled at the image, but inside my heart sank.
Funding has been one of the most difficult challenges in my career as a public historian. It is an issue that I have grappled with since my days as a student activist in the 1970s. How do we fund social justice initiatives while still maintaining our sense of ethics and responsibility? Whose money is acceptable and whose is not? Continue reading →
To borrow Shakespeare’s phrase, some public history work is born political, some becomes political, and some has politics thrust upon it. Whether we intentionally locate ourselves in controversial settings, have something blow up in our faces, or encounter less spectacular kinds of resistance or misunderstanding, we’re always on the edge of the political, even when we don’t set out to be.
This fundamental tension within the field will be the subject of a structured conversation at the National Council on Public History Annual Meeting next month, in a session called “Hardball History: Public Historians on the Edge of Politics, Advocacy, and Activism.” Between now and then, the participating panelists will kick things off with a series of blog posts that we hope will lead to some pre-conference discussion and help shape our session in Nashville. Continue reading →
Valetta Anderson at an Atlanta Studies Network event in 2014. Photo credit: David Rotenstein
Over the past few years, I have been writing about gentrification and how it intersects with history in an Atlanta, Georgia, suburb. Twenty-five months and more than 50 interviews after I started talking with people and documenting neighborhood change in the Oakhurst area of Decatur, I met playwright Valetta Anderson, who works at Atlanta’s Woodruff Arts Center. In 2008, Anderson’s play about gentrification in her neighborhood, Hallelujah Street Blues, had been performed during the 2008 National Black Arts Festival. A Chicago native, Anderson had lived in Oakhurst for 18 years and was a participant in one of Decatur’s first public gentrification battles when she and a handful of neighbors sued the city in 2003 over a proposed property rezoning and townhouse development. The experience became Hallelujah Street Blues, a unique critical commentary on Decatur from an African American writer.
Yet no one had mentioned the play in any of the conversations I had with neighborhood residents. Nor did it appear in the neighborhood’s listserv; the Oakhurst Neighborhood Association’s monthly newsletter The Leaflet; or the Decatur Focus, a bimonthly magazine published by the city. The play had actually been staged in Decatur before its debut at Atlanta’s Horizon Theatre, and it received some press attention during its downtown production, including a profile of Anderson in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a review in Creative Loafing, Atlanta’s long-lived alt-weekly paper. But it seemed strangely invisible–or at least submerged–in Decatur community memory. Its seeming erasure has led me to new questions about storytelling as a window on the recent past and a barometer for community values. Continue reading →
Film canisters in the National Archives, Washington, DC. Photo credit: MrTinDC
Having laid the groundwork, the History Relevance Campaign (HRC) is ready to take a big step forward and needs your help. The HRC started a little more than two years ago, with early conversations taking place at the annual meeting of the National Council on Public History in Ottawa and continuing at last year’s annual meeting in Monterey. Since then, organizers have been talking with many people in the history field in the US and refining a “Value of History” statement. Many NCPH members have contributed to the HRC efforts thus far.
Several weeks ago the HRC unveiled a new website. The website offers information on the variety of projects underway to raise the profile of history in our society. As we’ve said all along, this is not a new conversation, but unless we create a unified voice, shout more loudly, and demonstrate our relevance, history will continue to stay nice but not necessary. We want people to value history for its connections to modern life and to use historical thinking skills to actively engage with and address contemporary issues. Continue reading →
As public historians, we like to think we know something about narrative. We know that human beings construct meaning through stories, and that history is the art of constructing compelling stories from the traces of the past. Psychologists have demonstrated the emotional and inspirational power of “hero’s journey” narratives in which protagonists overcome great odds through self-sacrifice and determination, and return from the journey with wisdom and gifts to improve the world. Such narratives emphasize the hero’s “exceptional” qualities, the ability to triumph over adversity and to serve as a guiding light to others.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that opponents of recent changes to the AP US History (APUSH) framework are so concerned about narrative emphasis. In August 2014, the Republican National Committee adopted a resolution condemning a framework released by the College Board in 2012. The resolution claims that the framework “reflects a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes (Italics mine) negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.” The resolution calls on Congress to “investigate the matter” and withhold any funding to the College Board until a suitable framework is produced. Continue reading →
Mike Alewitz’s “The City at the Crossroads of History” mural was commissioned for the City Museum of New York, which has declined to display it. Photo credit: Mike Alewitz
Muralist and activist Mike Alewitz has finished his tribute to the labor and social justice movements, an imposing four-panel painting titled The City at the Crossroads of History–but the museum it was commissioned for doesn’t want it.
The Puffin Foundation, a grant maker that frequently supports politically left artists, engaged Alewitz to create the mural for a new gallery at the Museum of the City of New York. The gallery is now open with an inaugural exhibit about social activism without the mural, while the artist has launched a petition drive to try to have it displayed as originally planned. Continue reading →
History Communicators, like Science Communicators, will advocate for policy decisions informed by historical research; step beyond the walls of universities and institutions and participate in public debates; author opinion pieces; engage in conversation with policymakers and the public; and work diligently to communicate history in a populist tone that has mass appeal across print, video, and audio. Most important, History Communicators will stand up for history against simplification, misinformation, or attack and explain basic historical concepts that we in the profession take for granted. Continue reading →