How the Great Chicago Fire Festival burned history

One of the floating Victorian houses awaiting a burning that never quite arrived during the Great Chicago Fire Festival on October 4. Photo credit: Richard Anderson

One of the floating Victorian houses awaiting a burning that never quite arrived during the Great Chicago Fire Festival on October 4. Photo credit: Richard Anderson

As a public-historian-in-training and recovering theater nerd, I attended last month’s Great Chicago Fire Festival with high hopes. Redmoon Theater–one of the city’s most innovative companies–staged an elaborate pageant on the Chicago River commemorating the infamous 1871 fire that destroyed much of the city. Organizers promised the festival would “unite Chicago’s neighborhoods and celebrate Chicago’s grit, greatness, and renewal following the fire of 1871.” Unity and celebration certainly seemed palpable among the estimated crowd of 30,000 packed three-deep along the bridges and esplanade overlooking the river. I appreciate any effort to bring strangers together for a shared experience, especially one related to history. Yet the evening left me disappointed. The Great Chicago Fire Festival presented a version of history too sanitized and too simple. Redmoon lacked the courage to ask more discomfiting questions about the presence of the past in Chicago today. Continue reading

Humanities at the Crossroads: The Indiana case study

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

Pottery wheel demonstration at Conner Prairie living history museum in Fishers, Indiana. Photo credit: Derek Jensen, Wikimedia Commons.

Pottery wheel demonstration at Conner Prairie living history museum in Fishers, Indiana.
Photo credit: Derek Jensen

In the past few years, the airwaves have been filled with angst about the state of the humanities, primarily in college and university humanities departments. Humanities at the Crossroads (HAC), a national initiative to examine the future of the humanities in American life, was one of several responses to the crisis. The HAC planning group, however, felt that more research was needed, and they decided to focus on a single state, Indiana, as a case study.

Indiana Humanities became the lead organization for the Indiana Case Study. What could we find out about the humanities in Indiana? It was like the KWL exercise that educators use: What do we know? What do we want to know? What did we learn?

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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

Never let a (humanities) crisis go to waste

Flower featured in the film The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive, and Secure Nation. Photo credit: American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Flower featured in the film The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive, and Secure Nation. Photo credit: American Academy of Arts and Sciences

Last August, fans of the Colbert Report saw Duke University President Richard Brodhead encourage study in the humanities as essential to a balanced education. The interview segment can be seen here. Brodhead’s appearance was part of a marketing campaign engineered by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) that was designed to advance support for the humanities in much the same way that the National Academy of Sciences had promoted Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) with its 2007 report Rising above the Gathering Storm. Brodhead’s appearance may have been unusual for taking the case for humanities education to such a popular audience, but it reflected the AAAS’s conviction that a national dialogue on the importance of the humanities was necessary to its future. Continue reading

Project Showcase: Israel State Archives publication on 1979 Egypt/Israel peace treaty

ISA-screenshotThe Israel State Archives in Jerusalem is Israel’s national archives. It holds the records of the state of Israel, founded in 1948, and some material from Turkish and Mandatory Palestine. Most of the documents in the Israel archives are from government bodies, but the repository also has a rich collection of private archives, maps, postage stamps, photographs and other audio-visual material. Continue reading

A women’s history museum without women’s historians

From [http://www.nunes.house.gov/tours.htm] {{PD-USGov}}On May 7, the US House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill authorizing the creation of a commission to explore the feasibility of establishing a women’s history museum on the National Mall. Yet many women’s historians and museum professionals are not celebrating. Why not? Because this bill (H.R. 863) carves out a special role for the National Women’s History Museum, Inc. (NWHM), a non-profit, non-professional organization that has been lobbying for this project for more than 16 years, but does not guarantee a place at the table for either professional historians or museum experts. 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