Government Historians and the NCPH

United States Capitol Building, Washington, D.C. and Parliament, Centre Block, Ottawa, Wikicommons.

United States Capitol Building, Washington, D.C. and Parliament, Centre Block, Ottawa.  Photo credit: Wikicommons

As employees of municipal, local, state, provincial, and federal governments, government historians have been a core group of the National Council on Public History since its founding. Yet, for a variety of reasons, these practitioners have at times felt “out on the edge” within the organization. During the 2014 annual meeting in Monterey, a small group of government historians pondered this conundrum: What was the best way to insure that questions related to the experiences, challenges, and unique working environments of government history practitioners were better represented within the organization? Continue reading

“First-in-Class Acquisition Challenges”

Editor’s Note: This series showcases the winners of the National Council on Public History’s awards for the best new work in the field. Today’s post is by Justin L.C. Eldridge, a government historian with the Naval History and Heritage Command, whose monograph First in Class Acquisition Challenges received Honorable Mention for the Michael C. Robinson Prize for Historical Analysis.

020628-N-3228G-001 Pearl Harbor, HI (Jun. 28, 2002) -- Amphibious warfare ship USS Tarawa (LHA 1) leaves Pearl Harbor to participate in exercise "Rim of the Pacific" (RIMPAC) 2002.  The purpose of RIMPAC 2002 is to enhance the tactical proficiency of the participating units in a wide array of combined operations at sea among the seven participating countries. The exercises also help build cooperation and foster mutual understanding between the participating nations. Among the countries participating this year are: Australia, Canada, Chile, Peru, Japan, the Republic of Korea and the United States.  U.S. Navy photo credit: Photographer's Mate 1st Class William R. Goodwin.

020628-N-3228G-001
Pearl Harbor, HI (Jun. 28, 2002)–Amphibious warfare ship USS Tarawa (LHA 1) leaves Pearl Harbor to participate in exercise “Rim of the Pacific” (RIMPAC) 2002. The purpose of RIMPAC 2002 is to enhance the tactical proficiency of the participating units in a wide array of combined operations at sea among the seven participating countries. The exercises also help build cooperation and foster mutual understanding between the participating nations. Among the countries participating this year are: Australia, Canada, Chile, Peru, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and the United States. Photo credit: Photographer’s Mate 1st Class William R. Goodwin

One task among many for government historians is to create a policy narrative in their particular field, often in an environment where it is not clear how or even whether the narrative will find favor with or influence the officials for whom they work. To most historians, the end-use of their work by decision makers does not matter, so long as the narrative is historically accurate, the historian has properly used primary source material (critical for credibility), and their work finds peer acceptance as a well-reasoned and reliable intellectual product.

Finding success-influencing policy makers comes with a different set of challenges and pitfalls. Policy development is the art of compromise, and officials may not always have the luxury of time to fully consider, let alone accept, suggestions based on historical research. They can also carelessly use or, even worse, misuse a narrative in the pursuit of political objectives. Though the responsibility for such embellishment remains with the policy maker, the historian can endure harsh criticism as a result, despite strict adherence to historiographical standards. With collaboration come both condemnation and approbation. Continue reading

How should NCPH commemorate the past and help shape the future of federal preservation policy? (Part III)

Editors’ Note: In 2016, the National Park Service will mark the 100th anniversary of its founding, and the National Historic Preservation Act will have been in effect for 50 years. These two landmark moments come just two years after the National Museum of American History quietly marked its own 50th anniversary in 2014. A Working Group at the National Council on Public History 2015 Annual Meeting in Nashville will serve as a collaborative forum for planning a scholarly symposium to mark these important events. The symposium will take place in March 2016 during the NCPH Annual Meeting in Baltimore. This post is directed to participants in the working group, but all blog readers are invited to comment.

Woolworth's lunch counter program at the National Museum of American History. Photo credit: Image courtesy of Michelle

Greensboro lunch counter program at the National Museum of American History. Photo credit: Image courtesy of Michelle Delaney

Thanks to your comments, our working group team has much to consider and prepare for the session. We look forward to meeting in person to move ahead with plans for the 2016 symposium, intended to address how NCPH should commemorate the past and consider the future of federal cultural preservation policy.

This blog post is our third and final post to guide our work in Nashville. Comments are due by April 6. (Part I & Part II can be found here.)

Certain key themes have resonated throughout the blogs and comments, which we can expand in Nashville. Continue reading

Reflections on writing “Other Than War”

Editors’ Note: This series showcases the winners of the National Council on Public History’s awards for the best new work in the field. Today’s post is by retired Department of Defense Historian, Frank Schubert, winner of the Michael C. Robinson Prize for Historical Analysis for his book Other Than War: The American Military Experience and Operations in the Post Cold War Decades. Schubert reflects on his experiences serving as a public historian at the Pentagon with a unique audience: directors and staff of the Department of Defense. He also considers the ways that the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath influenced the writing and publication of a book focused primarily on cooperative stability and peacekeeping operations, topics that became more relevant after the withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan beginning in 2014.

Other Than WarLooking back on nearly a decade as a historian inside the Pentagon, I can say that there are three things of which I am particularly proud. The first involved the design in 1996 of an exhibit on the career of General Omar Bradley for the Chairman’s Corridor. The second came when Department of the Army bureaucrats saw the aftermath of 9/11 as an opportunity to expand their office space by removing the library to a location in Crystal City. I managed to convince the director of the Joint History Office, for whom I worked, that he had to mobilize support to resist such a move. He did, and the library stayed. And the third was writing this little book, Other Than War: The American Military Experience and Operations in the Post-Cold War Decade. Continue reading

Outstanding public history project award: Histories of the National Mall

Editor’s Note: This series showcases the winners of the National Council on Public History’s awards for the best new work in the field. Today’s post is by Sheila Brennan, project co-director with Sharon Leon of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media’s Histories of the National Mall mobile website.

Historian of the National Mall map slice. Image credit: Sheila Brennan

Histories of the National Mall map slice. Image credit: Sheila Brennan

Every year, nearly 25 million people visit the National Mall and wander from monument to museum vaguely aware of the rich history of the space. Histories of the National Mall is a place-based public history mobile website designed to allow visitors to access that history while on the Mall itself. Created primarily for tourists and a secondary audience of history enthusiasts not physically in Washington, DC, Histories is accessible from any web browser on any phone, tablet, laptop, or desktop. The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM) at George Mason University developed this site with support from a grant in 2012 from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The National Mall has a history of its own that is nearly invisible when walking its paths, and there is very little interpretation available on the Mall. Most visitors see what appears to be a finished product: a deliberately planned landscape with memorials, monuments, and museums symbolizing the history and values of the United States. The Mall, however, is a contested public space and its meanings, uses, and purposes have changed over time. In its earliest days, the Mall was a messy place where transportation arteries and commercial markets existed and was bordered by lively neighborhoods. Visitors, and many DC area residents, have no knowledge of the unregulated zone of muddy grounds, vegetable gardens, grazing cattle, or the slave pens that existed before the completion of the Washington and Lincoln Memorials. Continue reading

The History Relevance Campaign moves to the next step

old film canisters

Film canisters in the National Archives, Washington, DC. Photo credit: MrTinDC

Having laid the groundwork, the History Relevance Campaign (HRC) is ready to take a big step forward and needs your help. The HRC started a little more than two years ago, with early conversations taking place at the annual meeting of the National Council on Public History in Ottawa and continuing at last year’s annual meeting in Monterey. Since then, organizers have been talking with many people in the history field in the US and refining a “Value of History” statement. Many NCPH members have contributed to the HRC efforts thus far.

Several weeks ago the HRC unveiled a new website. The website offers information on the variety of projects underway to raise the profile of history in our society. As we’ve said all along, this is not a new conversation, but unless we create a unified voice, shout more loudly, and demonstrate our relevance, history will continue to stay nice but not necessary. We want people to value history for its connections to modern life and to use historical thinking skills to actively engage with and address contemporary issues. Continue reading

“APUSH” in the right direction

Photo credit: Evan Graff, Flickr.

Photo credit: Evan Graff, Flickr.

As public historians, we like to think we know something about narrative. We know that human beings construct meaning through stories, and that history is the art of constructing compelling stories from the traces of the past. Psychologists have demonstrated the emotional and inspirational power of “hero’s journey” narratives in which protagonists overcome great odds through self-sacrifice and determination, and return from the journey with wisdom and gifts to improve the world. Such narratives emphasize the hero’s “exceptional” qualities, the ability to triumph over adversity and to serve as a guiding light to others.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that opponents of recent changes to the AP US History (APUSH) framework are so concerned about narrative emphasis. In August 2014, the Republican National Committee adopted a resolution condemning a framework released by the College Board in 2012. The resolution claims that the framework “reflects a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes (Italics mine) negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.” The resolution calls on Congress to “investigate the matter” and withhold any funding to the College Board until a suitable framework is produced. Continue reading