Editor’s note: In “On Genealogy,” a revision of the plenary address delivered in October 2014 at the International Federation for Public History’s conference in Amsterdam, Jerome de Groot argues that widespread popular interest in genealogy, and the availability of mass amounts of information online, challenge established historiography and public history practice. He invites other public historians to contribute to a debate about how we might “investigate, theorize, and interrogate” the implications of this explosion of interest in genealogy. We invited four scholars to contribute to this discussion. Regina Poertner is the third of these scholars. To read the two prior posts, see Paul Knevel, Sara Trevisan.
Achim Gercke (1902-1997) was appointed expert on racial matters for the German National Socialist Ministry of the Interior in 1933. He was instrumental in implementing the new racial laws “for the restitution of the civil service,” demanding proof of “Aryan” descent as a precondition for employment. Gercke was dismissed in 1935 on suspicion of homosexuality. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
To date, historians’ debates on the impact of new technologies have focused primarily on the challenges to the academic profession, raising important questions about, for example, the future tools and methods of professional historical research, the visualisation and archiving of data, sharing of digital resources and research outputs, and more generally the ways in which the current digital revolution is changing our perception of who we are and what we do. The article by Jerome De Groot broadens this debate to encompass the public as the consumer and producer of a new brand of public history in the making: digital genealogical research has become a lucrative commercial venture–significantly, without clearly demarcated national borders–and is becoming the remit of the amateur historian who simultaneously is the object and author of the “curated self.” Continue reading →
Editor’s note: In “On Genealogy,” a revision of the plenary address delivered in October 2014 at the International Federation for Public History’s conference in Amsterdam, Jerome de Groot argues that widespread popular interest in genealogy, and the availability of mass amounts of information online, challenge established historiography and public history practice. He invites other public historians to contribute to a debate about how we might “investigate, theorize, and interrogate” the implications of this explosion of interest in genealogy. We invited four scholars to contribute to this discussion. Paul Knevel is the second of these scholars. We hope you will post your comments to add to this discussion.
The largest family tree in the world, as claimed by the International Family Museum in Eijsden, the Netherlands. Photo credit: International Museum for Family History
As could be expected by the author of the broad and lucid Consuming History, Jerome de Groot demonstrates in his article in The Public Historian an amazing ability to discuss thoroughly topics and themes that would for others take book-length or even career-length considerations. “Genealogy and Public History” thus not only deals with the various ways that genealogy and family history could be undertaken and imagined by various people and groups but also with such large and profound issues as the impact and construction of “knowledge infrastructures” in a digital age, the silencing character of the archive, the ethical sides of dealing with the dead, the neo-liberalisation of public space generated by commercial websites, “digital labour,” and many other themes and ideas. The result is a clever, multi-layered, insightful, and thought-provoking essay that challenges public historians to rethink today’s digital historical culture and practices, their own role, and the activities of millions of people (see the stunning figures mentioned by De Groot) who are doing genealogy and family history and thus trying to connect themselves with the past. Consequently, it is impossible to address in this short reaction all the topics and themes raised in De Groot’s article. Continue reading →
Editor’s note: In “On Genealogy,” a revision of the plenary address delivered in October 2014 at the International Federation for Public History’s conference in Amsterdam, Jerome de Groot argues that widespread popular interest in genealogy, and the availability of massive amounts of information online, challenge established historiography and public history practice. He invites other public historians to contribute to a debate about how we might “investigate, theorize, and interrogate” the implications of this explosion of interest in genealogy. We invited four scholars to contribute to this discussion. Sara Trevisan is the first of these scholars. Please consider adding your own comments to the conversation below.
The Steward Window (1574), showing Banquo as the root of the family tree. Image credit: J.H. Round, Studies in Peerage and Family History (New York: Longmans: 1901)
In today’s genealogical search, lack of evidence on a family ancestor signifies the impossibility to assess any further their role within the structure of our genealogical tree. Genealogy is to us”‘a gesture to completeness that is continually thwarted by the limitations of the archive,” and thus shows us that knowledge can have an end.1 The search for family origins is therefore destined to remain ever unfulfilled and frustrated due to the epistemology of ‘historical truth” by which it is ultimately guided. Yet, until the second part of the seventeenth century–when the principles of historical method still had not fully taken hold–the “mythical” aspect of family origins was an integral part of genealogical reconstruction. This was especially true for monarchs and noble families. Continue reading →
The Schomburg Center at the New York Public Library. Photo credit: trini_map
As I scrolled through my list of unread emails a couple weeks ago, I paused on a subject line that was at once nostalgic and saddening: “A Celebration of the Life of Dr. Vivian O. Windley.” Dr. Windley was a well-respected educator and highly regarded volunteer at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Although we did not know each other personally, some brief remarks that she and another volunteer made to me in 2009 regarding a request for oral history interviews have profoundly influenced my understanding and appreciation of writing history. Continue reading →
Our “Public History on the Edge of Nowhere” working group consisted of individuals from institutions that face issues of isolation due to physical location or a lack of awareness by the surrounding communities. In Nashville at the 2015 National Council on Public History conference, we sought to facilitate a group discussion centered on developing creative solutions for institutions lacking direct access to large populations. Continue reading →
“What’s that? Horses?” the elderly man with the eye patch said loudly, in Norwegian, as his neighbor described the picture on the screen. “I remember when things were delivered by horse carts.” He didn’t elaborate and perhaps the memory ended there. But I thought of him months later when another nursing home resident told me about her grandmother. The previous evening, we had looked at pictures of Norwegian kids on vacation, and she explained the photographs made her think of spending summers at her grandmother’s home in the countryside. The photographs had clearly lingered in her mind. “I loved it there,” she said, “There were horses and cows and animals.” I wondered then whether the man with the eye patch had gone back to his room that cold evening in February and dreamed of horses on the streets of Oslo. He hadn’t even seen the picture, but hearing about it was enough to elicit memories of that time before. Continue reading →
The May issue of The Public Historian will explore the future of historic house museums. Historic houses are struggling to survive in the 21st century, but as Bill Adair and Laura Koloski describe, some are experimenting with strategies that are making old houses new again. -Lisa Junkin Lopez, guest editor
In Part 1 of this post, we discussed strategies employed by Philadelphia-area house museums for employing new methods and engaging new communities in order to repurpose and re-imagine historic house museums. In part 2 of this post, we will look at strategies for tackling challenging topics and using new technologies and techniques to realize these goals.
Facing difficult and controversial subject matter
Head Start programming at Wyck in Germantown, Philadelphia. (Need photo credit)
History, as we all know, is complicated. Historic house museums have not always been places that embraced this complexity. But there is room, and indeed, a real need to transform these sites into places where visitors can be engaged in complex stories and begin to grapple with the sometimes difficult aspects of our past.
In Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood, one site has re-made itself over the past several years to do just that. Staff research in the site’s archives revealed that the Chew family was the largest slaveholding family in Pennsylvania. As they explored this aspect of the site’s history with their neighbors and community, it became clear that it was essential to tell this story and to interpret the extent to which the Chew’s family wealth and privilege were tied up with their status as slave owners. What resulted was the Emancipating Cliveden project, a combination of new programs, new exhibits and new multimedia that explores these issues as part of the house’s core interpretive message. Continue reading →
Editor’s Note: The May issue of The Public Historian will explore the future of historic house museums. Historic houses are struggling to survive in the 21st century, but as Bill Adair and Laura Koloski describe, some are experimenting with strategies that are making old houses new again.-Lisa Junkin Lopez, guest editor
Martha McDonald performing “The Lost Garden” at The Woodlands. Photo credit: Ryan Collerd
We think we can all agree on two things: we love historic house museums, and we want them to have a future. That is where consensus in the field starts and stops. Although rumors of their demise are indeed premature, there is no question that house museums are in crisis, in desperate need of new audiences, new leadership, new sources of support, and most urgently, new purpose. We believe all of these needs can be met and that we are moving towards clarity about how this might be achieved, not through grand policy agreements but mostly through small-scale experiments at individual sites that are proving to be highly effective. The down side–sometimes these interventions can be highly disruptive and highly nerve-wracking.
In our work as public historians in the Philadelphia area, we have witnessed one fundamental element at all successful house museums–willingness to change and change big. The change isn’t formulaic. One size definitely doesn’t fit all. Each site has unique content, a unique neighborhood, a unique historical context, unique stories, unique collections, unique staff. But we have seen some COMMONALITIES among these changes, all of which have played out in DIFFERENT ways. Continue reading →
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/Ship Pendant Victoria and Albert
Editor’s note: This piece is part one of a special online section accompanying issue 37(2) of The Public Historian, guest edited by Lisa Junkin Lopez, which focuses on the future of historic house museums. The contributions in this section highlight the voices of artists who engage with historic house museums as sites of research, exhibition, and social practice. In this piece, Rebecca Keller takes us on a wild ride in the form of a fictional professional association’s newsletter, envisioning a provocative future where technology plays a starring role in visitors’ experiences of the past.
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 →