A public historian tells all

Well, not quite all. Let me elaborate.

Riding a highwheel bicycle at the Smithsonian Institution. Photo courtesy of author.

Riding a highwheel bicycle at the Smithsonian Institution. Photo courtesy of author.

How many times has someone told you that you have the coolest job? I’ve heard this comment at various points in my career, and admittedly, I have had the opportunity to work on some really fun history projects. One in particular—the National Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Exhibition—was truly one of the best. My friends kept telling me to write about these experiences. The time I received a grizzly bear in the mail. My trip on the Lewis and Clark trail with teachers from reservation schools. The meeting of tribal advisors. I decided that if I didn’t record the stories, I would soon forget them. So I began to write. As I wrote about my Lewis and Clark experiences, I thought of earlier projects that molded my thinking about history. I kept writing. I wrote whenever I felt inspired, in the evenings and on weekends. Ultimately a book idea formed, and I ended up with eighteen eclectic chapters about history projects from throughout my career. Because I have worked at some rather high-profile institutions that a wide audience would recognize, I began to think that just maybe someone would be willing to pay to read my stories. Continue reading

“Seeds of Change”: A pop-up museum for Monterey

plantsHeading to Monterey for the National Council on Public History’s annual meeting next week?  Don’t forget to pack your contribution to NCPH’s first pop-up exhibit, “Seeds of Change:  Public History and Sustainability”!

Generated entirely from participant contributions and built onsite at NCPH, “Seeds of Change:  Public History and Sustainability” will examine how issues of sustainability converge with the work we are doing in public history.  We hope that the exhibit will facilitate conversation and serve as a forum for discussion about the conference theme.  We invite conference attendees to share their experiences with sustainable practices and to brainstorm creative ways that historians can help general audiences comprehend, historicize, and complicate discussions about sustainability. Continue reading

Intimate lives on display: Monticello and Mount Vernon

Photo Courtesy of Ad Meskens (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

Mount Vernon.  Photo Credit:  Ad Meskens (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

Jennifer Tyburczy’s brilliant observation that all museums “have played an important but often overlooked role in the institutionalization of categories of sexual ‘normalcy’ and ‘perversity’” can also be applied to house museums and historic sites. House museums, as sites for interpreting private lives, are engaged in complex ways with presentations of sex and sexuality. The most famous and oft-visited house museums in the United States are George Washington’s plantation Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson’s mountain-top plantation, Monticello. Mount Vernon receives one million visitors each year and Monticello some 500,000. Monticello and Mount Vernon serve as case studies to illustrate the physical and inter-personal ways in which house museums convey information about the Founders’ personal lives. Continue reading

Interpreting gender and sexuality at historic sites: What’s happening out there?

woman in mask

At a summer 2013 tour to historic sites around Boston, participants explored questions about gender, sexuality, and interpretation (and did a little gender-bending at the USS Constitution Museum). Photo credit: Cathy Stanton

On a summer 2013 study trip to historic sites in and around Boston hosted by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage in Philadelphia, participants were struck by the wide variety of ways they saw gender and sexuality interpreted–or in some cases, not interpreted at all.  As Cathy Stanton asked in her August 9 History@Work post, “Where is the next generation of gender studies in public history?” and “Is there a new interpretive landscape beginning to take shape now that we’ve made gender a more central part of public historical inquiry?”

In the wake of the trip, staff from the Pew Center–particularly Bill Adair and Laura Koloski –wanted to keep that conversation going.  Together with Cathy Stanton, they reached out to Leslie Guy of the African American Museum in Philadelphia, and to me as a women’s and public historian, and we’ll be hosting that discussion at a session at the upcoming National Council on Public History meeting in Monterey, California. Continue reading

Revisiting Monterey 20 years after “The Politics of Public Memory”

book cover

Norkunas’s 1993 book was an early contribution to the literature focusing on silence, history, and power.

When I was researching the The Politics of Public Memory: Tourism, History, and Ethnicity in Monterey, California (State University of New York Press, 1993) in the late 1980s, I was deeply affected by the disparity between the haves and have-nots in Monterey. Nearly every day I saw Jaguars, BMWs, and Mercedes on the streets, and from time to time I saw a Rolls Royce. Pebble Beach and Carmel (and the then-mayor of Carmel, Clint Eastwood) joined with Monterey to create an atmosphere of wealth: old wealth, new wealth, and the wealth of those who knew great places in the world.

Where, I wondered, did the workers live? How could they afford an apartment anywhere near their places of work? Who lived in Monterey? Who once lived there? I could see that many of the workers were of Mexican or Latin American heritage. I knew there had once been a significant Chinese population on the peninsula, that Native peoples lived there, that African Americans lived in the area, and that there were other ethnic and cultural groups in the past and present. Continue reading

Public history on the American Historical Association conference program


Julia Child’s kitchen is part of the “FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000″ exhibit at the National Museum of American History. Photo credit: National Museum of American History

As part of its ongoing efforts to highlight the diversity of career opportunities for historians, the American Historical Association has organized an offsite workshop at the National Museum of American History during its conference this week.  The workshop offers a chance to hear from leaders from some of the foremost history museums in the United States. The event will take place on Friday, January 3, 2014, from 10:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. in the museum’s Warner Bros. Theater.

Attendees are welcome to attend one or both of the panels. At History Museum Directors on the Past, Present, and Future of History Museums: A Roundtable Discussion, John Gray (Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History), Joan Marshall (Bullock Texas State History Museum), Lonnie Bunch (Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture), Kevin Gover (Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian) and Louise Mirrer (New-York Historical Society) will discuss the state of the field and the historian’s role in museums. At Historians and the Work of History Museums: A Roundtable Discussion, historians employed at history museums will discuss the work they do and the ways in which their doctoral training prepared them (and failed to prepare them) for their museum careers.

Between the two sessions, curators will lead tours of the following NMAH exhibits:

Space on each tour is limited; advance registration is strongly encouraged. To register, email info@historians.org with your name, affiliation, and the name of the tour you are interested in.

Tour groups will meet at the Constitution Avenue Visitors Welcome Desk on the first floor of the museum at 1:10 p.m.

For other public-history-focused sessions at AHA, including several sponsored by the National Council on Public History, click here.  The full AHA program can be found online here.

~ Debbie Anne Doyle is Coordinator of Committees & Meetings for the American Historical Association.

Reading the artifact: From inquiry to interpretation

Continued from Part 1 and Part 2.

turn signal

A Nash Motor Home, one of the artifacts “read” in the RASI class.  Photo credit: Canada Science and Technology Museum, Nash Motor Car Company, 1983.0258, 2012

On the final day of Reading Artifacts Summer Institute (RASI), each group was required to present its artifact to an audience of other participants, museum staff, and volunteers. Throughout the morning, artifacts that had initially seemed ambiguous and daunting at the start of the week were slowly separated into layers of meaning and their hidden histories were recounted. A small piano was revealed to be a portable ecclesiastical device used in religious sermons; a Gestetner printing press was exposed as a post-war business venture for a Japanese immigrant; a cannon-shaped lens viewer proved to be one of the first novelty cameras; a radiography device turned out to be one of the earliest home service x-ray machines; and a Nash Motor Home was an intact summer retreat, complete with additions such as a wooden arm that came down to signal a turn.

In our presentations, we were challenged to consider various methods suitable for presenting research on artifacts, from traditional slide show presentations to performances. Continue reading