In recent years, there has been a sort of awakening within public history. This awakening has been very noticeable during the annual meeting of the National Council on Public History, especially during the past four years. Where the attendance has traditionally been comprised of American practitioners and scholars (and a fair sprinkling of Canadians), the number of non-North American participants has been steadily growing. Every year, we have seen an increase in the number of public historians from Italy, France, Belgium, Germany, China, Venezuela, and Brazil, amongst many others. Their participation is leading to new understandings of what public history means around the world and new dialogue about teaching and practice. Continue reading
Editor’s Note: In “What I’ve Learned Along the Way: A Public Historian’s Intellectual Odyssey,” outgoing NCPH President Bob Weyeneth issued a call to action to public historians to include the public more fully in our work by “pulling back the curtain” on our interpretive process—how we choose the stories we tell. In this series of posts, we’ve invited several public historians to reflect on projects that do exactly that, assessing their successes and examining the challenges we face when we let the public in through the door usually reserved for staff.
Visitors could listen to tunes from different decades in the Minnesota History Center’s exhibition “Sounds Good to Me: Music in Minnesota, 2000-2007.” Photo credit: Minnesota Historical Society
For a lot of us, the most unsettling part of David Thelen and Roy Rosenzweig’s Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life  was the finding that people trust museums (even more than they trust their grandmothers) because museums give them unfiltered history—as if those objects just naturally came in those cases.
In an era when museums were being buffeted by the Culture Wars, we jumped on those findings as good news (they were cited in untold grant applications), but the proper response really should have been “Eek!” If we are doing our jobs, museum visitors would be fascinated to hear why we chose this object instead of the hundreds of others nearly the same in our basements. And they’d appreciate that probably we selected this one because it has a great story associated with it, a story rich with multiple meanings, tensions, debates, and uncertainties. In other words, we’d invite visitors to play along and see where the fun—and the power—of history lies.
Visitors to our sites and museums might feel they have more of a stake in our work if they understand that history is contingent and ever-shifting and that real people—researchers, curators, registrars, media-developers—making dozens of decisions shape how the story gets told. The notion of moving beyond airtight, “just the facts” presentations may seem risky, but I’d like to echo Weyeneth’s call to “lift the veil” and reflect on two relatively simple but perhaps instructive examples that his reflection brought to my mind. Continue reading
Saint Jacques-sur-Coudenberg church and neighbor, Brussels, 2008. Photo credit: Eddy Van 3000
At this spring’s National Council on Public History annual meeting in Monterey, California, outgoing NCPH President Bob Weyeneth proposed that it was time for historians to let the rest of the world in on our trade secret about history: that it isn’t a static set of facts, but a matter of “interpretive fluidity” that demands a continual reassessment of what we know about the past. This way of understanding history is something that Weyeneth, like many of us fellow historians, took for granted until he was faced with public pushback and legal challenges when his work unsettled deeply held local narratives. Faced with the recognition that most people have no idea how historians approach learning about the past, Weyeneth came to think that it was time to “pull back the curtain” and be more transparent about what we do.
You can read the full text of Weyeneth’s presidential address here. Over the next few weeks, History@Work will present responses from public historians who reflect on the implications, opportunities, and dilemmas of letting the public in through the door usually reserved for the staff. What this series reveals is that the organization taking this approach is changed by the experience as much as—or more than—the public. Continue reading
2014 National History Day Theme. Image credit: National History Day
What do exhibits about Marie Antoinette’s fashion and Ayatollah Khomeini’s political action, and websites about the invention of the toilet and the dissemination of the Pentagon Papers have in common? They are all student entries in the National History Day competition that I’ve had the opportunity to review as a judge over the past seven years. Within the context of the recent lively conversations about “history relevance,” I argue that judging at History Day offers public historians a unique opportunity to teach students about the power of historical thinking to enrich their lives and to make them more capable citizens of an increasingly complex world. Continue reading
Can antlers be a facet of the participatory museum? Photo credit: Emily Oswald
I learned about Museum Selfie Day on Facebook just a couple of days before the event. I made a mental note and visited the Harvard Museum of Natural History on January 22. The results were silly and less skillful than I’d anticipated. Good selfies take practice, it turns out. But the twenty minutes I spent with the orangutans and hummingbirds and whale skeletons got me thinking about why museum selfies are so fun and what museums could do to make better use of them. Continue reading
Each participant in the Digital Sandbox workshop received a flash drive containing supplementary materials for each session. Photo credit: Christine Crosby
There is a misconception in our American culture that young professionals are proficient at using technology. However, discussions among historians, humanists, and prospective employers indicate that many public history graduates are entering the field without practical training or consideration of the complex intersection between digital technology and public history.
Indeed, one study found that only 36% of public history programs are actively “preparing their students to create or author digital history or new media resources.” In a recent History@Work post, Robert Weyeneth expounded upon this lack of digital literacy among graduate students as just one part of a “perfect storm” that threatens the field of public history. The concerns he expresses are legitimate. As graduate students, we understand that we are emerging as public history professionals in the midst of a remarkable digital transformation. If we do not commit to attaining at least a basic level of technological proficiency, we will be left behind. Continue reading
The turn to spatial history has been aided by the explosion of digital mapping tools. While there are many options for mapping out there (including HistoryPin as described by Aaron Cowan in a History@Work post earlier this year), one look at the projects being completed by leaders in the field like the Stanford Visualization Lab is both inspiring and terrifying. How did they do that? Could I do that?
If you’re me, the answer is “not yet” (and not without a team and funding). But I’m increasingly interested in learning to make maps as part of my professional and scholarly work and wanted to stretch my digital muscles in some new ways. I just needed some data and a story that would be best told through a map. Continue reading
There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the number of academic public history programs, the saturation of the job market, and concern about the training students are receiving (see Robert Weyeneth’s article “A Perfect Storm”). Curtailing the number of public history programs, growing the public history market, and accrediting programs are all big challenges. I’d like to propose a small change: that potential students gain work experience BEFORE they enter an academic program.
Does the culinary school model hold promise for public history education? Photo credit: Bill Way, HPRMan on Flickr
What would happen if public history programs demanded that applicants worked in the public history field before they could apply to an academic program? Culinary schools have long used this model and have required that applicants have kitchen experience before they apply to a program. In fact, there are lots of similarities between culinary arts degree programs and public history programs. Continue reading
Passersby in downtown Princeton, New Jersey, stop to inspect the Mobile Bread House on a Saturday afternoon in May. Photo credit: Richard Anderson.
This summer I prepared to facilitate a series of introductory public history workshops for fellow students in my graduate history program at Princeton. In thinking about how to present a range of formats and venues for public history, I planned to highlight alternatives to the usual, institution-hosted projects–an important message on a hidebound campus such as mine. This effort led me to survey various examples of mobile history endeavors, with the hope of illuminating the underlying goals and organizational processes behind them.
My investigation began not with a public historian but with an anthropologist who created a traveling bread-making house as a vehicle (no pun intended) for community building. Continue reading
Some of the garden features which a team of volunteers researched and restored using archival materials at Long Hill in Beverly. Credit: Kate Preissler
- I’ve written before about differences I see between education and engagement as strategies (and goals) for programming at cultural sites. Two features crucial to making programs “engaging” as well as “educational” are:
- The inclusion of activities that encourage visitors to use multiple senses and their full concentration, freeing the mind from other thoughts and distractions; and
- Information or activities that cause some type of positive change in individuals beyond their visit to the site.
At The Trustees of Reservations, the staff members at many of its historic and cultural sites have been implementing a range of projects which allow visitors, volunteers, and community members to become involved in planting, tending, and harvesting gardens of all sorts. In some cases the gardening activities are clearly part of the work of “doing history” while in others the gardening activities make use of the site’s landscape to offer engaging opportunities for participants and benefits for the host community. Continue reading