David J. Skorton. Photo credit: Cornell University
The wide scope of new Smithsonian Secretary David J. Skorton’s interests and expertise is a good match for the sweeping breadth of the Smithsonian Institution. Formerly president of Cornell University, Skorton is a cardiologist and biomedical researcher who is also an accomplished jazz musician. What, to some, may seem like an unlikely combination of scientific and musical ability and achievement fits well with a tradition of capacious Smithsonian leadership. Skorton’s background suggests a kinship with great Smithsonian secretaries of the past: Joseph Henry, the first secretary; Spencer Baird, his successor; and S. Dillon Ripley, who presided over the institution’s expansion and transformation in the sixties and seventies. These men were also scientists whose interests extended far beyond the laboratory to include the arts and humanities. If Skorton follows their lead, the venerable national institution has a bright future. Continue reading →
Images from the Community of Gardens project. Photo credit: Smithsonian Gardens
Gardens are personal. To some they are a way to grow food, to others a space of serene retreat, and to others still a background for celebrating culture and friendship. For many, they encompass a host of meanings and uses. How do we collect these ephemeral stories? How do we celebrate garden diversity?
Community of Gardens is Smithsonian Gardens’ answer to the call to preserve our vernacular garden heritage. The Horticulture Collections Management & Education department has embarked on a new initiative to crowdsource garden histories. With help from an internal Smithsonian grant, we collaborated with Curatescape to customize its Omeka-based web platform for “curating the landscape” with location-based content. Visitors to the website can contribute stories of gardens and green spaces in their own communities and explore other stories from around the country. Our goal is to create a participatory archive that enriches and adds diversity to the Archives of American Gardens collection and encourages engagement with gardens on a local, community level. In the coming months, we will introduce online exhibits and educational materials for teachers. The website uses a multimedia platform that supports images, text, audio, and video, and we welcome stories from the general public, museums, schools, universities, and public gardens. It is our hope that the project will encourage our audience to get their hands dirty and go out and unearth the everyday, untold stories in our own backyards.
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.”