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 →
Public historians rely on images, audio, and film to engage the public and interpret the past. But almost every professional has experienced confusion over copyright restrictions or faced expensive licensing agreements. Some of us may get by with using images from the public domain, but many historical images remain under copyright. What happens when you want to interpret Mickey Mouse, a comic strip, a National Geographic cover, or some other copyrighted work as a historical artifact?
There is a “culture of fear and doubt” that prevents public historians from making fair use of copyrighted works in their exhibitions, films, or other works. This pop-up exhibit at the National Council on Public History’s annual meeting in Nashville seeks to address that problem. The exhibit has two goals: to raise awareness about the right to fair use and to collect stories from public historians navigating the use of images and copyright law in their work. Continue reading →
Wikipedia 101 workshop at the 2014 NCPH Annual Meeting in Monterey, CA. Photo credit: NCPH
In 2011, the Professional Development Committee developed a set of guidelines for annual meeting workshops. We see workshops as providing hands-on and participatory experiences which impart practical information, rather than the typical conference presentation or “show and tell” case studies. With these guidelines in place, the committee has begun to think about a broader curriculum of professional development opportunities to serve the needs of National Council on Public History members. To do so, we are seeking your input though a brief survey. Continue reading →
Tag cloud from Centre for Regulation and Market Analysis conference in Adelaide, South Australia. Image credit: University of South Australia
Some nineteen categories of public history programs are now offered. Many offer skills and knowledge useful for specialized businesses (archival practices, business histories, publishing). None prepare history students for general business careers. Business and History is designed to fill this void by linking historians’ methods to solving problems common to private enterprise.Continue reading →
To borrow Shakespeare’s phrase, some public history work is born political, some becomes political, and some has politics thrust upon it. Whether we intentionally locate ourselves in controversial settings, have something blow up in our faces, or encounter less spectacular kinds of resistance or misunderstanding, we’re always on the edge of the political, even when we don’t set out to be.
This fundamental tension within the field will be the subject of a structured conversation at the National Council on Public History Annual Meeting next month, in a session called “Hardball History: Public Historians on the Edge of Politics, Advocacy, and Activism.” Between now and then, the participating panelists will kick things off with a series of blog posts that we hope will lead to some pre-conference discussion and help shape our session in Nashville. Continue reading →
Doing public history, in all its diverse manifestations, requires certain specialized habits of mind. One of the most vital but also the most mysterious is synthesis.
When I begin work on an exhibition, such as the one I’ve been developing for the past two years, I read as many books and talk to as many people as I can, and then–I wait. I wait to wake up at 5 am with an exhibit concept plan fully formed in my head. I wait to discover an important idea by talking it out with a friend over coffee. I wait to be suddenly struck in the middle of a meeting with the solution to a convoluted conceptual problem that I immediately scribble down as if I’m taking notes on whatever the meeting is actually about. I wait–and I trust the process because I know it works and because I have developed and exercised my synthetic powers before and I know that they require patience. In comes 100 scholarly monographs, out comes 30 accessible fifty-word labels, without fail.
Though it can feel magical, especially once you’ve internalized the work it takes, synthesis is a creative skill that public historians can learn and teach. Continue reading →
Student exhibit panel. Photo credit: Ellen F. Arnold
At Ohio Wesleyan University, I teach an upper-level medieval history course, “Constantine to Charlemagne.” This is an undergraduate class, with 18 students of varying backgrounds. The course addresses a time period (ca. 300-850) often slandered as barbaric and backwards, so my goal is for students to see the richness, texture, and vibrancy of the period along with the political and economic troubles that befell certain areas. Over the course of the semester, as we work to understand a period famous for both its lack of historical sources and its network of diverging and converging cultures, we work together on how to explain and re-frame this period for a public audience.
A public history project like the one my students are embarking on this semester is unusual for medieval history courses. Though some medieval history professors and graduate students do discuss and practice public engagement through K-12 classroom visits, and libraries with important medieval manuscript collections are also reaching out to schools, the relative dearth of medieval history in American public history programs does not encourage many of us to think about the practice. Also, at many small schools like Ohio Wesleyan, there are no separate courses in public history. Yet more and more of my students are interested in public history, museum studies, and archival work. This project developed as a way to introduce students to the basic issues of museum design and audience engagement and to help them imagine a space for history that extends beyond the classroom. In our case, we are dusting off the ages and making a pop-up museum.