The past of public history can be traced along many different paths, but at least one runs though the American Historical Association. My interest in this question was first shaped at a lunch for the National Council on Public History at the AHA’s 1997 meeting. Much of the discussion circulated around two key issues–a catalog of personal slights by academics and an argument that the AHA was established for academics and making a false claim of authority over the entire history discipline.
AHA Membership in History-related Positions, 1884-1940. Image credit: Robert Townsend
In probing how and why there seemed to be this deep gulf between academics and public historians, the causes seemed to recede ever further in the past. Looking back at the papers of the early AHA, for instance, there were quite a few people circulating around in the leadership who looked rather like public historians: Reuben Gold Thwaites, the head of the Wisconsin Historical Society; Solon Buck, of the Minnesota Historical Society and later the National Archives; and Waldo Gifford Leland, secretary of the AHA and an early leader in the development of archival standards. Even some of the more traditional academics, such as J. Franklin Jameson at Chicago and Lucy Salmon at Vassar, were actively promoting documentary editing, historical societies, and other activities now widely recognized as public history. Continue reading
Just as science has Science Communicators, I’ve proposed that history needs History Communicators. The idea of History Communicators, and how public historians may fill these roles, will be discussed in a panel at the National Council on Public History annual meeting in Nashville.
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
The Wikipedia entry that started the authors’ search, captured on February 17, 2013. Screenshot by the authors.
Continued from Part 1
Our suspicions about the too-great-to-be-true Moms at the “Mich” album cover led us back to the Wikipedia entry that had started our quest for details about this little-known moment in LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) history. When we looked at the edit logs, however, we saw that that important bit of historical information had been added quite recently. In August 2010, someone edited the entry to include the festival as well as the tidbit that Moms was one of the first XXX-rated comedians on the circuit, with a footnote that led to–you guessed it–Queers in History. Who made this addition? Did he or she have a secret archive of documents in the attic? We tried reaching out to the person who edited the Wikipedia entry, but the email address was dead. Continue reading
Moms at the ‘Mich’: Cover of the mysterious “lost” Moms Mabley album. Photo credit: Rateyourmusic.com
There are layers of history contained in the album cover for Moms at the “Mich.” Jackie “Moms” Mabley’s career ran from the queer Harlem comedy clubs of the 1920s to early race films, from the mid-century “chitlin’ circuit” to the family-friendly late-career movie Amazing Grace (1974). But this… this is a doozy, closer to the porn-comedy LPs of Blowfly than the lyrics of earlier lesbian entertainer Gladys Bentley. Continue reading
This 1820 watercolor shows an early view of the campus. Photo credit: South Caroliniana Library of the University of South Carolina
Written on the landscape of the University of South Carolina is an untold yet well-documented story of slavery. Enslaved people constructed the buildings of the university’s antebellum predecessor, South Carolina College, attended to the wants of white students and faculty, and performed countless tasks essential to running the college. This story is not unique in the history of American colleges and universities. Even in places where slavery was not widespread, the profits from slavery helped fund institutions of higher learning. Scholars have been slow to examine American universities’ historical association with slavery, and universities have been even slower to acknowledge it. The current momentum, however, favors expanding the discussion of these complicated topics. Continue reading
Digitized collections unsettle the role of tangible objects, like these antique duck decoys. Photo credit: Marcus Jeffrey
I’d never held a duck decoy in my hands before and certainly not one that was important enough to be in a museum’s collection. It was my first day as education curator at the Tuckerton Seaport Museum in Tuckerton, New Jersey, and along with Jackie Stewart, the director of the folklife center (it was her first day, too), I was organizing a small exhibit for the nature center. We arranged objects into a narrative about cultural experiences of nature, wrote labels, and tried to tell a story–albeit a short one–in that one vitrine. Even though this was the mid-2000s, it never occurred to either of us to go back to our desks and scour the Internet for photos of decoy carvers or ducks. We were focused on the physical objects housed at the museum.
What a difference a decade makes. Theresa Koenigsknecht’s recent posts on this blog, ”Surfing with purpose: Online collections as exhibit resources,” discuss how the availability of digital historical resources, particularly from the Internet Archive, shape how exhibits are created at the Indiana Historical Society. That digitization is the way of the future seems incontrovertible. In the ten years since that decoy exhibit, the amount of cultural heritage material that has become available on the Internet has exploded, giving small public history institutions access to resources that were previously unimaginable and helping museums make better use of their own collections. According to the New York Times, only two percent of a museum’s collections are on exhibit at any time (“The Good Stuff in the Back Room,” March 12, 2009), mostly because of issues of space. There’s just not enough room to put out all the interesting stuff. In that case, digitization seems like a godsend: take photos of it all and upload them to the museum’s website and, voilà, instantaneous access!
Or is it? Physical objects have a different aura than their digital counterparts. And despite the sense of ease that “plug and play” technologies often give us, serious digitization projects are neither easy nor cheap. Continue reading
Continued from Part 1.
Creative Commons offers several levels of easily-applied licenses to facilitate digital publishing of images while offering some protections to owners and creators.
Navigating copyright for images is tricky and presents one of the biggest challenges in my work as an Exhibitions Researcher at the Indiana Historical Society. Although I admit to only a rudimentary understanding of copyright, this is where open access comes in very handy. While it is certainly important to support other cultural institutions and individuals by purchasing images, the back and forth involved in determining copyright, ensuring a file is a high enough resolution, or waiting for a physical copy to be delivered doesn’t always fit into a production schedule. That is why I increasingly rely on sites with hassle-free permissions and files I can download immediately. We still always credit the source of photos used in our exhibits even if they are open access.
Issues of copyright become even more complex with online materials, and new legal conventions are emerging along with digital collections. Continue reading
Digital collections like those of the Internet Archive have drastically expanded the resources available to exhibit creators. Photo credit: Internet Archive
Thanks to the exponential increase in availability of digitized collections, possibilities in exhibit research have drastically expanded. Digital collections have become essential tools that help ensure the success of projects with limited budgets and tight deadlines, which most public historians might agree is just about every project. At the same time, it is often overwhelming to sift through the wide range of options. How can researchers, curators, and designers best utilize and understand the many resources provided through digital repositories and open access collections?
I recently responded to a tweet by Mary Rizzo asking for examples of people using the Internet Archive, an open access digital collection, in their public history work, and she suggested I write a blog post about using tools like this. As an Exhibitions Researcher at the Indiana Historical Society, my initial reaction was to think “I don’t know much about open access collections, I just use them.” Considering again, however, I realized that even though I was trained during the era of digitization and I use these resources as second nature in my work, I’ve still gone through a learning process in my job. Continue reading
Editor’s note: We are beginning a new series on the Consultants Corner, Ask a Consulting Archivist. In the series, we will interview archivists about their careers, including how they first got started in consulting work, challenges they face, and current projects. We will soon begin similar series with consulting preservationists and curators/museum professionals. Adina Langer leads our first interview, which is with Maija Anderson who, in addition to consulting, works as Head of Historical Collections & Archives at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland.
Maija Anderson surveying an archival collection on-site. Photo credit: Max Johnson
How did you get involved in consulting?
I value the idea that everyone’s history is valid and important and that everyone should have power over their histories. As a university archivist, I’ve always been encouraged to contribute professional service by teaching what I know. I’ve always done mini-consults with anyone who has questions or needs a sounding board, just as a professional courtesy.
My first independent client was a collector of fine-press books. She had purchased some production files from one of her favorite book artists and wanted to make them presentable within her book collection. I think I was really lucky that my first client was a woman entrepreneur.
Editor’s Note: This piece continues a series of posts related to the Guantánamo Public Memory Project, a collaboration of public history programs across the country to raise awareness of the long history of the US naval base at Guantánamo Bay (GTMO) and foster dialogue on its future. For an introduction to the series, please see this piece by the Project’s director, Liz Ševčenko.
“My most vivid memories of Guantánamo was everything just being free down there and the closeness of all the people. There was no crime, none whatsoever. It was summer all year round.”
The Guantanamo Public Memory Project online stories collection. Photo Credit: Guantanamo Public Memory Project
Anita Lewis Isom first arrived at Guantánamo Bay forty years before the orange-suited detainees that would make the US base infamous around the world. Her description of an idyllic life at the base seems far removed from the images of leg shackles and barbed wire typically associated with Gitmo in its current function as a “black site,” an extra-legal and extra-territorial space. Images of Gitmo as prison and military base and as island paradise are not, however, mutually exclusive. Indeed, it is in part its isolation that makes Gitmo such an effective black site and its tropical location that has long made it an attractive destination for military families. Continue reading