History and Reconstruction project storyteller Denise Valentine (center), psychologist Dr. Thomas Gordon (right), members of the cohort, and friends. Photo credit: Courtesy of Phillip Seitz
How can public historians and their audiences come to terms with the traumatic and ongoing legacies of racism and slavery in the United States? This is the question motivating a project I’m currently working on in Philadelphia with a group of ex-offenders, ages 21 to 72. The project is a collaboration with Reconstruction Inc., a grass-roots group (William Goldsby, chair) that supports returning citizens as well as youth at risk and lifetime prisoners. Continue reading
A ‘top gun’ introduction to public history course for general education might be simpler than you’d think.
In 2006, when I arrived as “the public history hire” at DePaul University, in Chicago, my charge was to create an undergraduate public history concentration
for history majors. At the time, the only public history course actively being taught was “Introduction to Public History,” a lower division course that served the university’s general education requirements. I decided that this course should stay on the books and that it would be one of two required courses (along with the internship) for would-be public history concentrators.
Looking back, I’m pretty sure my decision to keep this course on the books was a result of my being a bit overwhelmed. Not being native to Chicago and as a new tenure-line Assistant Professor with this public history charge, much of my time was absorbed with the business of forging new community connections while also designing (and getting approval for) an entirely new repertoire of public history courses. What? The “Introduction to Public History” has already been approved? Great! More time to develop internship prospects!
Within a few quarters, I resurrected the public history internship and developed a bevy of other courses: “Doing Local and Community History;” “Oral History Project;” “Women, Gender, and Public History;” “Living History and Historical Interpretation: American Historical Memory” (among others)–all courses for history majors and minors. Evaluations tended to be strong, but the “Introduction to Public History” course? I just couldn’t seem to ever get it quite right. Continue reading
Frank and Audrey Peterman were among the speakers at the “More Voices” event in Boston. Photo credit: National Park Service
As a graduate student of public history who specializes in early America, I spend a lot of time thinking about borders and peripheries, not just the temporal and spatial borders of British North America, but the figurative borders within which the “traditional” American experience is circumscribed. In my adopted state of Massachusetts, I’ve encountered many public humanities practitioners who are trying to push boundaries and engage new disciplines and new audiences, particularly through capturing a wider range of voices and stories at their sites. Continue reading
Citizen scientists report on weather and other natural phenomena. Is there a parallel for the collection of historical data? Photo credit: wienotfilms
A while ago I received an e-mail from SciStarter. I had signed up on its Web site to look for research opportunities where I live. No, I wasn’t searching for a chance to do a report on the history of science but rather to see what science research projects needed help in my area. Let me step back a bit and explain. Continue reading
Clue Town Piedmont Park scavenger hunt. Photo credit: Jay Carlson
I can’t even tell you how many crackpot business ideas I’ve had over the years, from producing greeting cards to owning an art supply store to selling candy in vending machines. They never came to fruition, but then I had an idea to create ready-to-solve scavenger hunts. The hunts would be self-guided tours of walkable areas, but a person or team has to solve puzzles using landmarks in order to know where to go next. When my wife, the realist, thought it was a good idea, then I knew I wasn’t just looking through rose-colored glasses. I started selling Clue Town Books in September 2012 with only two hunts: Piedmont Park and Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta, Georgia.
It’s easy to articulate what Clue Town is now, but at the time of its creation I had no idea how it would work. I spent weeks surveying the 190 acres of Piedmont Park in its entirety. I spent months designing paths, beta testing with adults and kids, redesigning paths, and beta testing some more. When I experimented with a path that used permanent landmarks (for example statues and historical markers) instead of self-planted signs, that’s when things fell into place. Folding in history allowed me to transform Clue Town from a series of puzzles to interactive storytelling.
I have a theory that a person doesn’t have an interest in local history until he or she has been affected by change first-hand. Perhaps a favorite restaurant closes or a new skyscraper alters the skyline. This makes each witness a historian for the short term. These bits of change compound over time to make one realize that nothing is constant. The city is different now than when you first arrived, and the city was drastically different generations ago. People and events are changing cities all the time, even while traces of the past often remain. Continue reading
Author’s son posing in newly acquired World War II uniform and gear. Photo credit: Author
Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised when my sons became interested in reenacting. After all, history is the family business–my spouse and I are historians, and our children absorbed a chronological mindset very early. Still, they have often claimed not to like the subject, perhaps because they have heard us discuss our research and teaching until their eyes glaze over. Willingly or not, they have accompanied me on many history-related outings, including an epic road trip following the path of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books, complete with overnight camping on the original Ingalls homestead claim
. So maybe all of this got into their blood despite their protests. Or maybe they knew that reenacting was the only way their uptight academic parents would let them play with guns.
Digital collections like those of the Internet Archive have drastically expanded the resources available to exhibit creators. Photo credit: Internet Archive
Thanks to the exponential increase in availability of digitized collections, possibilities in exhibit research have drastically expanded. Digital collections have become essential tools that help ensure the success of projects with limited budgets and tight deadlines, which most public historians might agree is just about every project. At the same time, it is often overwhelming to sift through the wide range of options. How can researchers, curators, and designers best utilize and understand the many resources provided through digital repositories and open access collections?
I recently responded to a tweet by Mary Rizzo asking for examples of people using the Internet Archive, an open access digital collection, in their public history work, and she suggested I write a blog post about using tools like this. As an Exhibitions Researcher at the Indiana Historical Society, my initial reaction was to think “I don’t know much about open access collections, I just use them.” Considering again, however, I realized that even though I was trained during the era of digitization and I use these resources as second nature in my work, I’ve still gone through a learning process in my job. Continue reading
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