Ask a Public Historian Q&A: Anne Mitchell Whisnant

This is the first in a new series “Ask a Public Historian,” brought to you by the NCPH New Professional and Graduate Student Committee.

Anne Mitchell Whisnant, PhD, is Deputy Secretary of the Faculty and Adjunct Associate Professor of History, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is also Consulting Historian, Primary Source History Services, and the author of Super-Scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History (UNC Press, 2006).

Anne Mitchell Whisnant.  Photo credit: Evan Whisnant

Anne Mitchell Whisnant Photo credit: Evan Whisnant

Why did you choose to enter your field?

I have two fields–“alt-ac” university administration (where I make the majority of my living) and public history consulting and teaching.

I started graduate school at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1989 to become a college professor. By 1997, I had my degree and a husband who was a full professor of English at Chapel Hill. Doing a national assistant professor job search was not an option, and I spent five years raising our two sons. Only after my husband David retired and the stock market tanked (in that unfortunate order) did I start trying to figure how to forge some “other” kind of career/employment path with my history PhD. In 2002, I attended a joint OAH-NCPH (Organization of American Historians and National Council on Public History) meeting featuring many public-history-related sessions about “what you can do with a History PhD.” I was introduced both to the wide world of “public history” and the radical idea that history training could be useful beyond professor positions. The insight about transferable skills led directly to my first “alt-ac” job, and I’ve remained in that realm. Continue reading

Historic preservation shines a light on a dark past

Trinity High School demolition, 2013. Photo credit: David Rotenstein

Trinity High School demolition, 2013. Photo credit: David Rotenstein

Editor’s note: This post continues a series commemorating the anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act by examining a past article published in The Public Historian, describing its significance, and relating it to contemporary conversations in historic preservation.

Between 2011 and 2014, the city of Decatur, Georgia, demolished 200 public housing units built in 1940, under the auspices of slum clearance. In 2013, Decatur’s two city-owned former equalization schools were demolished for a new civic complex and police headquarters. In one gentrifying neighborhood, the private sector sent more than 120 former African American homes to landfills, continuing a cycle of serial displacement begun a century ago. In another neighborhood, a developer demolished a historic black church to clear land for new upscale townhomes. The widespread disappearance of African American landmarks began just two years after the City of Decatur released a citywide historic resources survey that made no mention of the community’s black residents, past and present, nor their historic places.1

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Smithsonian Institution welcomes new Secretary

David J. Skorton. Photo credit: Cornell University.

David J. Skorton. Photo credit: Cornell University

The wide scope of new Smithsonian Secretary David J. Skorton’s interests and expertise is a good match for the sweeping breadth of the Smithsonian Institution. Formerly president of Cornell University, Skorton is a cardiologist and biomedical researcher who is also an accomplished jazz musician. What, to some, may seem like an unlikely combination of scientific and musical ability and achievement fits well with a tradition of capacious Smithsonian leadership. Skorton’s background suggests a kinship with great Smithsonian secretaries of the past: Joseph Henry, the first secretary; Spencer Baird, his successor; and S. Dillon Ripley, who presided over the institution’s expansion and transformation in the sixties and seventies. These men were also scientists whose interests extended far beyond the laboratory to include the arts and humanities. If Skorton follows their lead, the venerable national institution has a bright future. Continue reading

Robert M. Utley: Founder of the National Historic Preservation Program

Editor’s note: This post continues a series commemorating the anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act by examining a past article published in The Public Historian, describing its significance, and relating it to contemporary conversations in historic preservation.

Robert M. Utley (third from right) as a panelist at the Denver "New Preservation" conference, 1968.  The National Park Service held eight regional conferences to explain the National Historic Preservation Act and its broad implications for preservation to the new State Liaison Officers for the act and interested members of the public.   Image credit:   Washington Office, National Park Service.

Robert M. Utley (third from right) as a panelist at the Denver “New Preservation” conference, 1968.  The National Park Service held eight regional conferences to explain the National Historic Preservation Act and its broad implications for preservation to the new State Liaison Officers for the act and interested members of the public.   Photo credit:   Washington Office, National Park Service

An able administrator and respected historian, Robert Utley was selected at age 34 by National Park Service Director George Hartzog to become Chief Historian. The new official spent most of his energies from 1964 to 1966 overseeing historians who made recommendations for the interpretation of historical units of the National Park System and others who compiled theme studies of potential National Historic Landmarks. But Utley also played a crucial role in developing the organizational structure needed to launch the new national historic preservation program. Continue reading

Project Showcase: The Great Society Congress

Screenshot by Danielle Emerling

Image credit: Screenshot by Danielle Emerling

On October 15, 1966, President Lyndon Baines Johnson remarked: “When the historians of tomorrow write of today, they will say of the 89th Congress … ‘This was the great Congress.’” The president was elated that between January 1965 and December 1966, the 89th US Congress had enacted the most extensive legislative program since the New Deal. The Voting Rights Act, Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and amendments to the Social Security Act, which resulted in the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, were but a few of the transformative pieces of legislation passed as cornerstones of Johnson’s Great Society agenda. Continue reading

International collaboration and comparative research

Image credit: Courtesy of William F. Willingham. Undertaking international projects presents challenges beyond the normal routine of archival and secondary research, oral interviews, writing, and revising. There are new issues, such as what language will the work ultimately be published in? What time frame will accommodate the needed international travel? What added expenses will be encountered that are not part of the consideration for work confined to historical research within one country? Who will be chiefly responsible for coordinating the work occurring on different continents and seeing all the elements of the work through to the end? Even such minor questions as map scales, monetary systems, and how measurements and distances will be presented–English or metric–have to be resolved for consistency’s sake. Continue reading

Public history and policy: A synergy

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in 1951. Photo credit: Wikicommons.

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in 1951. Photo credit: Wikicommons

As policy makers and politicians debate and make important policy decisions, they are constantly dealing with the past. They must consider what has been tried and failed, and what options were overlooked and why. These are questions that require an understanding of history. Without the benefit of a historian’s expertise, it’s hard to know what may be misremembered and whether we are repeating the mistakes of the past. Institutional memory can be unreliable or even absent. By analyzing policy history, professionally trained historians provide essential context that explains why certain things were done and enables policy makers to make better decisions in the present. Continue reading

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