How should public history graduate programs measure success? Photo credit: Wikipedia Lufkin tape measure
What constitutes success for a public history graduate program? A strong placement record? Student mastery of a set of professional skills? Or perhaps cultivation of our discipline’s habits of mind?
One might say, “It depends”–on whom you ask, when you ask them, and why you want to know. But does that ambiguity compromise our ability as program directors to represent our programs accurately and effectively to the students we serve and the administrators who oversee us? In defining success, should we pursue clarity or get comfortable with uncertainty?
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 →
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 →
Last Thursday, the US Supreme Court and a federal district court issued separate rulings striking down voter ID laws in Wisconsin and Texas. The Texas ruling should be of particular interest to public historians because of the extent to which history is at the center of US District Court Judge Nelva Gonzalez Ramos’s decision. Continue reading →
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 →
Don Denard is hugged by supporters as he arrives at the Decatur City Commission meeting, February 18, 2014. Photo by author
In December 2013, an African American man was detained by Decatur, Georgia, police after he was seen leaving his home. An officer issued a suspicious person alert based on the “reasonable articulable suspicion” premise–the legal basis for many states’ “stop and frisk” laws.
Don Denard has lived in the Decatur home he was seen leaving since 1987. He is a former school board member and an active participant in Decatur’s civic life. Yet on December 15, 2013, he was just another black man walking in a community that is becoming steadily whiter and wealthier and where all such men are regarded, as Denard says, with the presumption of guilt. Continue reading →
Unlike corporations that use historical images as a marketing strategy, museums, archives, libraries, and national historic sites are caretakers of history whose goal is not to distract from serious investigation but rather to promote it. We want people to understand context, to ask questions, and to dig deeper into sources. We appreciate the beauty of old objects and know that history can be fun. But ultimately we recognize that history has the power to motivate people to act in ways that have legitimate consequences in the world and on how human beings treat one another. So when a million people accept a feed such as @HistoryinPics at face-value, are we, perhaps, disappointed that an active and engaged citizenry has not stood up to challenge the whimsical imagery placed in front of them and asked “Can that really be so?” The practical consequence of people believing that John Lennon once played guitar with Che Guevara is probably little (this was one of the doctored images in the @HistoryinPics feed). The more urgent point is remembering that images can be doctored, human emotions can be manipulated, and we should always question what we see no matter how slick its presentation.
This strikes at the heart of the question about the public good and at the use of the word “History.” Had this account been called @ThePastinPictures, the outcry may have been more muted. The usage of the word “History” makes a difference. Continue reading →
Screen shot: History in Pictures https://twitter.com/HistoryInPics
Suppose you’d never heard of @HistoryinPics, and I told you that a new social media account had grown to more than a million followers by featuring a different historical image in its feed every couple of hours.
As a public historian, you might be intrigued. “Really?” you might ask. That sounds pretty cool.
In fact, how @HistoryinPics and its copycat accounts have grown has ruffled our collective feathers. From a cautionary article in The Atlantic about copyright to scathing attacks inSlate and on Sarah Werner’s Wynden de Worde blog about improper citation, inaccuracy (or downright untruth, in some cases), lack of context, and no links to actual historical research, the prevailing reaction has been negative.
Which led me to wonder: what’s at stake here? And can we have a conversation around this phenomenon that results in useful takeaways for public historians? Continue reading →