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. 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. Schubert reflects on 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

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