Oral History quotes and a video of historic images were juxtaposed with negative press clippings in the “I’m Not Who You Think I Am” section of the 2010 exhibit which examined questions of identity and perception within the Cape Verdean community. Photograph courtesy of the author.
Editors’ Note:This series showcases the winners of the National Council on Public History’s annual awards for the best new work in the field. Today’s post is by Elizabeth Belanger, author of “Public History and Liberal Learning: Making the Case for the Undergraduate Practicum Experience,” which won the 2013 G. Wesley Johnson Award for the best article published in The Public Historian in the previous calendar year.
In the winter of 2011, American Historical Association President Anthony Grafton declared that “history is under attack.” In the year leading up to his presidential address, history institutions like the National Archives and Records Administration, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services had seen their funding reduced. In academia, history faculty members bowed under the increasing weight of a national assessment movement that required them demonstrate student learning outcomes in the major. Across the board, in academia and outside, critics challenged the usefulness or even purpose of professional historians.
Those of us in public history would like to think that we are not intended targets of many of those criticisms. Our graduates are not groomed only for the academy, but rather educated to work in a number of career fields including archives, historic resource management, K-12 education, and museums, to name a few. We don’t expect that our scholars will be sequestered in ivory towers, but rather will work directly with members of the public, engaging them in important investigations of our past. But those expectations for those in the world of undergraduate public history may not be borne out as we would hope. My experiences with undergraduates suggest that only a few of the undergraduates who take public history courses go on to get advanced degrees in the discipline. For some of these students, the public history curriculum might consist of a single elective course, “Introduction to Public History,” which counts for their history major. Larger colleges and universities might have a public history track within the history major, but only a small percentage offer degrees in public history. If only a few of our students who take a public history class go on to work in the field, how do we justify public history in undergraduate programs? Continue reading →
The congregation of Cedar Grove Baptist, one of the two churches in Terra Cotta, in the 1930s Photo courtesy Dennis Waddell.
Editors’ Note:This series showcases the winners of the National Council on Public History’s annual awards for the best new work in the field. Today’s post is by Ellen Kuhn, Shawna Prather, and Ashley Wyatt, students at the University of North Carolina Greensboro and co-creators of the exhibit “Past the Pipes: Stories of the Terra Cotta Community,” which won the 2013 Student Project Award.
What creates a community?
In the face of significant social and economic constraints, a tightly-knit, self-reliant community developed in Terra Cotta, a segregated company town located a few miles west of downtown Greensboro, North Carolina. From the 1900s to the 1970s, members of this community worked at the nearby Pomona Terra Cotta Company, manufacturing clay pipes used to build sewer systems. Terra Cotta was the kind of place where family meant more than just blood kin; it meant giving food to the homeless man who lived in the woods nearby–even though residents had to feed their own large families on less than eleven dollars a week. It meant sharing one church building between Baptist and Methodist congregations, alternating services each week. It meant welcoming white children to play in their homes when a reciprocal invitation to play at white homes was never extended. Today, community in Terra Cotta means keeping bonds initially formed in the neighborhood alive through shared memories.
Now, these previously unheard voices are featured at the Terra Cotta Heritage Museum in a permanent exhibition that was created through a collaboration known as the Terra Cotta Community History Project. Continue reading →
You may have noticed by now that Public History Ryan Gosling has been reappearing in select locations. His handlers, Rachel Boyle and Anne Cullen, will be presenting a paper on last year’s PHRG phenomenon as part of a panel on “Connecting Communities” at the National Council on Public History meeting in Ottawa next month, and we’ve been very happy to have their help for some advance conference promotion. (You can get a preview of their presentation ideas here.)
PHRG won’t be the only live-tweeter at the conference, and this panel is just one of many (along with some special sessions and events) focusing on the digital dimensions of public history practice. Below is a round-up of what’s happening: Continue reading →
It is May 1, 1981. A jury of eight internationally renowned architects and sculptors has announced its pick for the design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, set to be constructed at the western end of the Constitution Gardens on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The unanimous pick is Maya Lin, a 21-year-old architecture student at Yale University.
So begins the new Reacting to the Past (RTTP) module, Memory and Monument Building: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, 1981-1982, currently in development.
Developed at Barnard College in the late 1990s by historian Mark Carnes, RTTP calls on students to play the parts of historical actors in key moments of great change. Students act out and react to historical episodes as though they are genuinely inhabiting that space. As they imaginatively enter the worlds of 1791 France in the midst of revolution, of 1861 Kentucky on the brink of secession, or of 1963 Birmingham in the throes of civil rights struggle, students are called upon to make historical arguments and then support those arguments with primary sources and contemporary secondary scholarship.
RTTP provides a unique lens through which to bring issues of historical memory into the classroom. Physical spaces–here, monuments and memorials–offer particularly compelling ways of measuring collective memory. The way we interpret the past through these concrete structures provides insights into how the creators of those spaces constructed the past, how they intended for audiences to do the same, and how those meanings can be challenged. Continue reading →
As a public historian and manager of historical research at Parks Canada for the past 12 years, I have sat on many hiring committees to hire historians, policy analysts, program officers and university students for a range of heritage and history projects based in our national office in Gatineau, Quebec. The hiring process for the Government of Canada is highly structured with interview grids, quantitative scoring and little opportunity for those of us on hiring committees to engage in exploratory discussions when candidates have made intriguing statements. In this context, we take special care to design our hiring process so that written exams, interviews, and reference checks support us in identifying the most outstanding candidates who can have productive careers at Parks Canada.
It is tempting to believe that a combination of education and experience is enough to turn one into a good public historian, and make one desirable to hire. However, my years of reading and listening to candidates suggests it takes so much more than that. Continue reading →
In a recent post on History@Work, Zachary McKiernan discussed the utility of an international vision of public history. In many ways, this post encapsulates the rising interest in public history practices outside North America. The recent creation of the International Federation for Public History (IFPH) is a prime example of this. The IFPH embodies the ideas recently put forth by Robert Weyeneth in his post “Writing locally, thinking globally.” The next annual NCPH meeting in Ottawa will bear the mark of this internationalization of public history, as many panels and activities will deal with projects and practices outside North America.
It is in this framework that the working group on public history teaching was designed. Our working group is by no means the first attempt to address the teaching of public history. Its specificity lies in our wish to explore the international dimension of public history teaching practices. The idea of organizing such a working group emerged in the many conversations I have had with the members of the IFPH steering committee. My objective is to widen the scope of discussion on public history teaching practices and to take into consideration other programs that have blossomed in different parts of the world. Continue reading →
We are interested in applying a new theoretical approach to public history, and we need your help.
The theory is called “threshold concepts.” Jan Meyer and Ray Land (both education specialists) developed threshold concepts as a way of explaining how students grasp (or don’t grasp) particular disciplines. Their work is usefully explained here. Each discipline, Meyer and Land explain, has a core set of ideas that one must master to become an expert practitioner. These ideas are so fundamental that they become a habit of mind to those within the discipline, which often makes them difficult to explain to students and other outsiders.
A key element of threshold concepts is that they are “troublesome knowledge.” While completely familiar to those within a field, threshold concepts appear counter-intuitive to outsiders. How many people can explain the concept of the limit in calculus, the idea of signification in cultural students, or the theory of imaginary numbers in a way that makes sense to a novice? For historians, one common example of a troublesome threshold concept is the notion that there is no unitary account of the past. Historians understand that history is full a competing narratives that differ, in part, because of the different life experiences and perspectives of historians themselves. That’s troublesome for many students or the public as a whole, who are more comfortable with textbook approach to history. Continue reading →
This is the third post in a series to discuss the genesis of the idea for the “What Employers Seek in Public History Graduates” session at the 2013 National Council on Public History meeting in Ottawa. Session panelists will continue to share their thoughts on the topic in entries in the coming weeks.
Before the rapid proliferation of museum studies and public history programs began in the 1960s and 1970s, almost all museum professionals held degrees in traditional academic disciplines related to the content areas of their museums. People who worked in historic sites and history museums usually had degrees in history. Typically, museum-specific skills and knowledge in areas such as collections care, exhibit development, and interpretation were learned “on-the-job.” In today’s economic climate, fewer museums and heritage sites can afford to hire entry-level professionals who must be trained on-the-job to do the work of public history. Of course, it is still important to be well-educated in history, but today’s employers seek more.
I recently completed a national study for my doctoral dissertation on this very topic. I surveyed 38 leading practitioners from lists of board members of the American Association for State and Local History and the American Alliance of Museums from the last ten years. The very detailed survey took 65 competencies with definitions, divided into five major areas, and asked museum leaders to rate the level of mastery of each item that they believe is needed for entry-level museum professionals. Continue reading →
Academic interest in public history is growing, and an increasing number of history departments are looking for a public historian to train students for public history jobs. But what does it mean to start a public history program? Is it as simple as hiring a PhD with a field in public history and telling them to get going? Is there more to it than that? Continue reading →
The Newberry Library’s Dr. William M. Scholl Center for American History and Culture is pleased to announce the release of a new historical web resource, the Chicago Foreign Language Press Survey, a collection of translations of approximately 50,000 newspaper articles originally published in Chicago’s ethnic press between the 1860s and the 1930s. The articles from 22 ethnic groups were originally translated during the 1930s as a project of the U.S. Federal Works Progress Administration (WPA).
The 1930s project intended to offer English-speaking researchers and students access to primary materials on ethnicity and urban life in one of America’s great polyglot cities during a formative span of its history. In subsequent decades the Survey has been invaluable to scholars and students of Chicago history, and it has been used effectively in high school and college classrooms.
The new digital collection, made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, provides broader and better organized access than has been possible with paper and microfilm. The Survey translations have considerable value for teaching and research in immigration studies, urban and local history, modernist and comparative literary studies, the history of popular culture, and many other fields. They can reward browsing for curiosity as well as targeted research.
Please direct all inquiries to the Newberry’s Dr. William M. Scholl Center for American History and Culture, email@example.com.
~ Anne Flannery, Assistant Director of Digital Initiatives and Services, Newberry Library
Image: WPA index card with typed translation of undated Chicago Tribune article on “Our Polish Citizens.”