Dakawa Cultural Center. Photo Credit: Dakawa Cultural Center website
Editor’s Note: This series showcases the winners of the National Council on Public History’s awards for the best new work in the field. Today’s post is by Julia C. Wells, author of “In the Shadow of the Butcher: The Limits to Confronting Colonial Legacies Through Commemoration in South Africa,” The Public Historian Vol 36, No 2. The article won the G. Wesley Johnson Award for the best article published in the journal in the previous year.
First, I wish to express my gratitude and appreciation to all my colleagues at The Public Historian and NCPH who saw fit to honor me with this award. Since it derives from a public project, all the benefits will be ploughed back to help the initiative to keep on growing. At the close of my article, I said that the value of any public history project can by measured by the seeds that it sows for future work. In this short message, I will share the various ways that the 2012 bicentennial commemoration in Grahamstown has stimulated new thinking.
Soon after 2012, a small community of people who shared a passion for putting the past to good use emerged. After working on various projects during 2012, their views and skills were better appreciated all around, making it easy to continue discussing new ideas. A restless energy to do much more began to be felt. An informal discussion group coalesced around the theme of “Re-imagining Grahamstown.” Out of excited exchanges about what ought to still be done, the concept developed of creating an applied history institute at Rhodes University. The name Isikhumbuzo was chosen, meaning “memories” in the Xhosa language. The institute is viewed as being a vehicle for bringing together the best of the academic world with community-based artists to tell and create new histories. Continue reading →
I have always thought of public history as a tool to assist us in mediating unchartered territory. More specifically, museums can serve as public forums to tackle persistent forms of oppression that have escaped clear resolve. This vision seems particularly relevant today. There is a wide gap between understanding the inaccessible civil liberties and rights black people struggled for and acknowledging operations of oppression that persist into the present day. Rather by willful ignorance, genuine unawareness, or fear, much of the American public lives in that gap. Through exhibits, collections, community outreach projects, and continued dialogue, museums can assist the public in mediating that gap where we have not gained much traction. Continue reading →
The historical society was sparsely decorated when it opened in 1975. Photo credit: Morgen Young
In early 2014, a small historical society outside of Portland, Oregon, circulated a request for proposals (RFP). Having received a grant from their local government, they sought to hire a curator for a one-year contract. The duties of the curator included: inventorying and assessing collections, developing and implementing a policy and procedural structures for managing collections, creating an interpretative plan, developing a public services strategy, and staffing the museum every weekend. Continue reading →
Editor’s Note: This series showcases the winners of the National Council on Public History’s awards for the best new work in the field. Today’s post is by the students of the Jenks Society for Lost Museums, creator of a unique exhibition in the Brown Public Humanities Program.
J.W.P. Jenks with his taxidermy students, 1875. Photo credit: John Hay Library and Brown University Archives
It circulated as a bit of campus lore: the curious tale of the Jenks Museum of Natural History, which once existed at Brown University.
As graduate students in Brown’s Public Humanities program, we were intrigued when we first heard about the long-gone Jenks Museum. We spend much of our time thinking about preservation and memory, so the idea of a lost museum at our university resonated with us. We began to imagine recreating the museum as a class project on the occasion of Brown’s 250th anniversary. In the fall of 2013, a group of ten students with a range of backgrounds in the arts and humanities joined forces to carry out this work. We called ourselves the Jenks Society for Lost Museums. Continue reading →
Banners telling the stories of particular El Paso buildings were the first iteration of the Museo Urbano project. Photo credit: Bruce Berman
Hardball history that places historians at the center of politics, advocacy, and activism can be a difficult journey, but it can also be inspiring. My introduction to public history coincided with the 2006 unveiling of a controversial downtown revitalization plan in the city of El Paso, Texas. The plan included the demolition of more than thirty acres of El Segundo Barrio, a historic and predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood.
I was twenty-two and a senior at the University of Texas at El Paso. I learned about the downtown plan in a political science class, where everyone was given a brochure and a map of the area slated for construction. In place of churches and homes were shopping malls and parking lots. The woman giving us the presentation also mentioned that residents who could not afford new tax increases would need to be relocated. I was not the only student that had questions about the plan, the residents, and the process. The same semester I was also taking a Mexican-American History class taught by Dr. Yolanda Chávez Leyva. Her class incorporated the rich history of the area. Ironically, I had Dr. Leyva’s class right before the political science class. Continue reading →
“You know who has money to help you.” I responded to this truth by listing three millionaires from whom I would not accept funding for Museo Urbano, the public history project housed in the Department of History at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). The response hit hard. “You know you’re walking the high road, but you don’t have any shoes on.” I smiled at the image, but inside my heart sank.
Funding has been one of the most difficult challenges in my career as a public historian. It is an issue that I have grappled with since my days as a student activist in the 1970s. How do we fund social justice initiatives while still maintaining our sense of ethics and responsibility? Whose money is acceptable and whose is not? Continue reading →
The Center for American Indian Research and Native Studies (CAIRNS) in South Dakota will present an innovative exhibit in early May 2015 called “Lakota Emergence.” The exhibit focuses entirely on the short Lakota emergence narrative titled “How the Lakota Came Upon the World,” published in 1917. The exhibit divides the 1,251-word narrative into 16 “passages,” and pairs each passage with an outstanding example of a practical or artistic object from the Sioux Indian Museum (one of the three Indian Arts and Crafts Board museums in the United States). The selected objects span a period of time from before the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty all the way to the early 1970s. All were created by Lakotas and were collected from within the boundaries of the 1868 Treaty, including what is now Pine Ridge, Rosebud, and Standing Rock Reservations, as well as the community of Rapid City.
In addition to the passages and museum objects, original artworks by distinguished and emerging contemporary Lakota artists will be featured, thereby creating what are called “vignettes.” These 16 vignettes will recount the Lakota emergence narrative in written words, museum collections, and contemporary artworks. Dr. Craig Howe, director of CAIRNS and curator of Lakota Emergence, says “the exhibit was conceived to illustrate that the emergence narrative continues to be a source of creativity, and that Wind Cave was and always will remain a landscape of special significance in Lakota cosmology.”
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.