Reflections on relocating (Part 1)

Sweetwater Creek State Park, near my new hometown of Atlanta, includes the ruins of a textile mill, destroyed by Sherman's advancing army. Photo credit: Adina Langer.

Sweetwater Creek State Park, near my new hometown of Atlanta, includes the ruins of a textile mill, which was destroyed by Sherman’s advancing army. Photo credit: Adina Langer

Almost exactly four months ago, I relocated from Lansing, Michigan, to Atlanta, Georgia. Although both are capital cities, Lansing and Atlanta have little else in common. I traded the Midwestern winter and speedy grid-like roadways for mild autumn breezes through dense tree-cover and much-to-be-avoided traffic-choked interstates. Of course I also traded a dominant heritage of the fur trade, mid-19th-century westward expansion, and the rise and fall of the auto industry with one of British colonialism, railroads, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Civil Rights. I also traded one public history community for another. In this post, I share my first impressions and aspirations. In nine months, I will report again on my progress toward my goals. Continue reading

Rethinking diversity: Chris Taylor, molding future public historians

2013 Fellows at the MN Historical Society Collections |Courtesy Chris Taylor

2013 Fellows at the Minnesota Historical Society Collections.  Photo credit: Chris Taylor

This is the third post in a series on issues of diversity in the public history field. Each post in this series is based upon oral interviews conducted with public history professionals. Each interview was conducted in a traditional interview question and answer format. All interviews were edited and condensed based on relevancy and to retain a reasonable length for the posts.

In developing this series, I sought out examples of public historians who are combating the diversity issue in creative and proactive ways. I looked for individuals who not only hoped to change the pool of future public historians but who employed tangible solutions that other museums and institutions could build on. One such individual is Chris Taylor, Diversity Outreach Program Manager at the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS).

Like many of the students he works with, Taylor took a nontraditional pathway to public history. His background in social sciences and education provided him with a unique opportunity to engage in the year-long Coca Cola Museum Fellows program, which exposed him to topics surrounding diversity and inclusion in museums. The experience inspired him to pursue a History Museum Studies graduate degree at the Cooperstown Graduate Program, which is led by pioneering African American museum professional Gretchen Sullivan Sorin. As a young museum professional, Taylor implemented a program at MHS modeled after the Coca Cola Museum Fellows program, and the MHS program has enjoyed nine years of success. In fact, the MHS Diversity Outreach Program was recently named the Diversity Outreach Department, making the society one of the only historical institutions in the United States to establish a permanent department focused solely on increasing its diversity and inclusion efforts.

Continue reading

Rethinking diversity: Modupe Labode and Juanita Moore

This is the second post in a series on issues of diversity in the public history field. Each post in this series is based upon oral interviews conducted with public history professionals. Each interview was conducted in a traditional interview question and answer format. All interviews were edited and condensed based on relevancy and to retain a reasonable length for the posts.

Dr. Modupe Labode and Students | Credit: Courtesy of Dr. Labode.

Dr. Modupe Labode with students. Photo credit: Courtesy of Labode.

I began my exploration of this topic by interviewing two public historians who have proven track records addressing diversity issues in public history: Modupe Labode, Assistant Professor of History and Museum Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, and Juanita Moore, President and CEO of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History in Detroit, Michigan.

At the National Council on Public History (NCPH) Annual Meeting in 2009, Labode helped spearhead a working group titled “How do we get there? Racial and ethnic diversity in the public history profession,” which served as a platform to “discuss the profession’s lack of diversity and share ideas about remedying the situation.”[1] As the CEO and President of the nation’s largest African American history museum, Moore has achieved a stellar career as a public historian of color, and she remains committed to mentoring and providing opportunities to other public historians as they enter the field. My conversations with each of these women demonstrated that though some changes have been made, there is still much work to be done to bolster the field of public history to include those from diverse backgrounds.

Why does our field suffer from a lack of diverse professionals?

According to Labode, individuals that are historically underrepresented in museums are generally underrepresented in the humanities field. This plays a major part in reflecting what we see in public history. Consider Moore’s point that, for a while, museum professionals did not come from fields as specific as public history or even from graduate programs. Thus, the field potentially fails to attract diverse professionals because they may be engaged in fields or graduate programs without direct links to public history. Furthermore, many are unsure of how to enter the field in the first place. I can attest to this issue: as an undergraduate student, neither my academic mentors nor advisors were able to point me in the direction I needed to take to pursue museum work. It was only after I endured several exhaustive appointments with a career counselor and took a series of online exams that prearranged my career goals that I was even made aware of public history. Continue reading

Graduate school and the consulting historian

Central Experimental Farm, Ottawa Photo Credit: Pete Anderson

Central Experimental Farm, Ottawa
Photo Credit: Pete Anderson

Academic careers are hard to come by these days. Public historians will not be surprised by the posts on the active #altac hashtag on Twitter or the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada’s (SSHRC) recent “White Paper on the Future of the PhD in the Humanities” that observed that only between 10 and 15 percent of those who enter PhD programs will be employed at a post-secondary institution [1]. A declining number of tenured and tenure-track positions, coupled with an increased reliance on precarious labor in the form of adjunct and temporary appointments, has destabilized the academic job market for graduates. Deep budget cuts to museums, archives, and other research-oriented institutions–not just in history and the humanities, but also in the social, physical, and life sciences–make finding “traditional” public history jobs increasingly difficult as well.

As a second-year PhD student working towards defending my dissertation proposal and completing my qualifying exams this term, I do not have the answers to questions about the utility of a PhD, but I am interested in designing my project with an awareness of the challenges facing new graduates. As Abby Curtin notes in her recent post on History@Work, while theses provide opportunities to explore rich historical questions, it doesn’t mean one shouldn’t be strategic in project design or have an eye towards future employability. Continue reading

Producing history and ironwork in an urban crucible (Part II)

townhouses on wharf

Portland’s waterfront has been the site of considerable redevelopment in recent decades. Photo credit: Wendell

Continued from Part 1.

Portland’s gentrification and redevelopment attracted the attention of Loretta Lees, a United Kingdom professor with family in Maine. She documented the rehabilitation of residential, commercial, and industrial properties and the reconfiguration of public spaces in Portland’s upgrading downtown neighborhoods. New people, new capital, and new regulatory regimes aimed at protecting new investments collided in Portland’s streets and squares. Lees honed in on the city’s youth culture and its clash with business owners and city officials in competing to use adapted old spaces.

The Portland conflict Lees documented occurred in a global process that sanitizes and homogenizes urban spaces via socially engineered diversity initiatives. Since Portland isn’t New York or some other big city, its downtown gentrification provided Lees with an opportunity to observe urban conflict on a smaller scale. Continue reading

Producing history and ironwork in an urban crucible (Part I)

blacksmith in shop

Sam Smith holds an axe head and displays other objects he has fabricated and some of the raw materials (many of them salvaged) that he uses in his work. Photo credit: David S. Rotenstein

Sam Smith’s blacksmith shop is part living history laboratory and part urban sustainability experiment. He is a former history major who turned passions for the past and metalworking into a business that produces objects, artisans, and history in contested space on the edge of a gentrifying Portland, Maine, neighborhood. His business, The Portland Forge, is a local craft shop that could succumb to a global process that is displacing artisans and small-scale industrial operations in cities worldwide. Continue reading

In our hands

Editor’s Note: This is the second piece in a series on the “crisis” in the humanities. A post introducing the series can be found here.

Bradstreet Gate (also known as 1997 Gate), Harvard Yard, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Photo credit: Daderot, Wikimedia Commons.

Bradstreet Gate, Harvard Yard, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Photo credit: Daderot, Wikimedia Commons

Not long ago I was invited to a small university in California to talk about the crisis in the humanities. When I arrived I was greeted by a professor of philosophy, faculty members from the literature department, and a historian. We sat together in a small classroom overlooking a peaceful, park-like setting. But they all seemed worried, so I asked them how things were at their university.

“Well,” they said, “things were not going well.” Student enrollment in humanities courses and the number of majors were down. The president had reeled in a multimillion dollar gift, but none of it would be earmarked for the humanities. You could hear in their tense voices that they felt they were living in crisis. I pointed out that they might feel like there was a crisis at their university, but the humanities outside of the university were not in crisis–in fact, they were in great demand. It was an awkward thing to say, but there really is a gulf between the fate of the humanities inside and outside academia. Continue reading

The “new normal”: Is there one?

panel participants

Lee White and Angela Sirna during the “New Normal” panel. Photo credit: Max Van Balgooy

“Sequester” was a dirty word during last year’s conference season. At the March 2013 conference of the George Wright Society in Denver, attendance was down nearly 75 percent because of travel limitations put into place right before the meeting. At the National Council on Public History meeting in Ottawa a few weeks later, I noticed a number of my colleagues were absent. Travel cutbacks were just at the top of a long list of issues caused by the recession and then the across-the-board US federal budget cuts known as sequestration. I was deeply disturbed by what I saw in Denver, and this was before I watched the gates close at Catoctin Mountain Park (where I was working at the time) in October 2013 when the federal government shut down. I hoped that public historians could talk openly at this year’s meeting in Monterey and share responses to their “new normal.” Fortunately the program committee agreed, and on Thursday, March 20, we held an open conversation in a session titled “Situation Normal? Ways Past Sequestrations, Shutdowns, and Budgetary Woes.” Continue reading

Survey announcement: Help us gather data for the Graduate Program Consumer’s Guide

ship in heavy seaDuring the coming year the National Council on Public History will prepare a Graduate Program Consumer’s Guide. The Consumer’s Guide will serve as a tool for anyone weighing the pros and cons of pursuing a degree or certificate in public history. Robert Weyeneth, president of the NCPH and director of the public history program at the University of South Carolina, outlined the rationale for the Consumer’s Guide last September in a series of posts for History@Work. Collectively titled “A Perfect Storm,” the posts addressed the widely held perception that a “jobs crisis” exists in the field of public history. Weyeneth argued that NCPH can and should commit its organizational resources to ensuring that public history programs offer the highest quality training to the next generation of practitioners, who will undoubtedly face a highly competitive job market.

As a first step toward producing the Consumer’s Guide, the New Professional and Graduate Student Committee of NCPH announced plans earlier this winter for a survey soliciting feedback from History@Work readers. The committee will participate in creating the Consumer’s Guide, and we are eager to hear from current public history students, long-established professionals, and everyone in-between. What kind of information do you think the NCPH should include in the Consumer’s Guide? Please follow this link and answer a few survey questions. Your feedback is indispensable to the process of crafting a Graduate Program Consumer’s Guide that will benefit our field and the next generation of practitioners. We hope that the survey will also stimulate discussions that continue during the upcoming NCPH meeting in Monterey.

~ New Professional and Graduate Student Committee

What’s your new “Situation Normal”?

protester with sign

US federal government workers at an August 2013 protest of budget sequestration and employee furloughs. Photo credit: American Federation of Government Employees

As I sit down to write this post (and by the way, this is my first “official” history blog post), I am pondering what my “New Situation Normal” is as a public history practitioner for a federal agency. How has my work reality changed, for good and for ill, over the past 16 years? Certainly, technology and social media provide public historians with avenues to new and varied audiences. And with the Internet’s narrowing of time and space, interesting and exciting possibilities now exist for researchers and public historians.

However, there have been less positive workplace changes, namely budgetary and staffing constraints, which have created stresses and reprioritization at work for many American public historians in the public and private sector—as well as in other countries—regardless of agency or organization. Continue reading