Pulling back the layers: Participatory and community-based archeology

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.

Early on a July morning, as the sun rises above the trees that line the eastern half of our urban dig site, the crew prepares for work. They use modified milk containers to bail the rain of last night’s thunderstorm from the plastic-lined 1-meter square excavation units. We are all beginning to sweat as we remove the dripping plastic sheets from the squares, and resume our efforts to discover what we can about life in this 19th-century textile mill town.

Most of the crew, composed largely of Baltimore City High School students who live in nearby neighborhoods, prepare to man the screens. They will spend the next couple of hours searching soils, excavated layer-by-layer, for artifacts. A few with sufficient experience are asked to begin digging in the unit. We are at the bottom of a stratum, all of our notes are up to date, and we’ve drawn and taken photographs of the walls and floors of the unit. We’re ready to dig through the next level of soil, so I instruct my students: “Go ahead and carefully begin pulling back the next layer…,”

A HCAP student helps to survey a Hampden archaeological site. Photo by David Gadsby

A Hampden Community Archaeology Project student helps to survey a Hampden archaeological site. Photo by David Gadsby

One of archeology’s oldest and richest metaphors is “pulling back” layers of soil to reveal the remnants of a hidden past. Archeologists, concerned with drawing conclusions about the human past from multiple, sometimes fragmentary lines of evidence, can use their data to tell stories that complicate or revise conventional understandings of that past. In recent decades, a growing number of archeologists has sought to pull back the layers, or “lift the veil” on their research practices, to produce more inclusive interpretations of data, recruit people to form a more diverse discipline, and cede some authority to members of descendent communities and the public, as we did with the Baltimore project described above. Continue reading

NPS LGBT initiative: An opportunity for public historians

Chicago Pride Parade, 2006. Photo credit: Adam Dixon, Wikimedia Commons.

Chicago Pride Parade, 2006. Photo credit: Adam Dixon, Wikimedia Commons

In late May, the National Park Service announced a theme study of sites associated with the histories of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals and communities. In a recent History@Work post, Sheila Brennan reported on the first public meeting of the advisory group for this initiative. I also attended this panel discussion and would like to encourage readers of History@Work to participate because your critical public history perspectives can contribute to the success of this project.

Although I no longer work for the National Park Service, I have been a staff NPS historian and, in the 1980s, worked on the National Historic Landmarks (NHL) program staff. In that time, the NPS embraced more heterogeneity in its telling of American history. This LGBT initiative continues the Park Service’s efforts to expand the scope of history at its sites and in the National Register of Historic Places and NHL programs. The initiative also offers public historians an important opportunity to contribute to a much-needed historical project. Continue reading

New initiative integrates LGBT history into NPS sites

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announcing the NPS LGBT initiative outside the Stonewall Inn in New York City, May 30, 2014. Photo credit: National Park Service.

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announcing the NPS LGBT initiative outside the Stonewall Inn in New York City, May 30, 2014. Photo credit: National Park Service

Furthering its efforts to tell the stories of all Americans through its heritage initiatives, the National Park Service recently added a new interpretative area in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) history. As the Park Service looks ahead to its centennial celebration in 2016, the agency seeks to diversify its parks and historic sites and wants existing sites to include the stories of historically under-represented groups, including LGBT Americans. Continue reading

Ripple effects: The US government shut down and public history training

closed sign

Image: Flickr user Bryan Mills.

I was editing a student’s master’s thesis and came across a note stating that she could not access two key images because they were only available on the Websites of the United States Geological Survey and the United States Department of Agriculture. I was discussing another student’s research paper and tried to access a part of the Library of Congress’s Website that was unavailable. In conducting my own research, I tried to consult census.gov and got this message: “Due to the lapse in government funding, census.gov sites, services, and all online survey collection requests will be unavailable until further notice.” Minor annoyances, perhaps, but the cumulative effect of each dead end is to degrade the learning environment and restrict productive work for both students and faculty.

One of my colleagues and our first-year graduate students are preparing for a field trip to Washington, DC. The itinerary includes visits to the Smithsonian, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and National Mall. Can you imagine taking a group of museum studies graduate students to Washington and not getting to see any of these things? Continue reading

Locked out, not shut down

NPS website with shutdown message

The main National Park Service website as it appeared on October 5, 2013.

I didn’t expect this shut down to bring back the 1995 shut down so vividly; that lock out was almost twenty years ago! But talking with friends and colleagues, I hear the same deep sense of unworthiness, of uncertainty, of being sent like a naughty child to my room but with all the work still piling up—and the deadlines remaining fixed. It feels dank.

We need to call this Shut Down the Lock Out it is—the effort to “prove” that government employees are either needed or extraneous, that they are either part of our security/military function or rightfully belonging to that dustbin of social causes. I strenuously disagree with the effort—and hope that as this Lock Out progresses the American people will see all the many ways that various parts of the federal government improve and protect their lives.  Continue reading

The lay of the land: Researching a national park’s administrative history

Mallard Island

Zenzen stayed on this island to learn about the Minnesota lake culture. Photo courtesy of Joan Zenzen.

I spent two weeks in July immersing myself in the life and feel of northern Minnesota, all in service of an administrative history I am writing of Voyageurs National Park.  I consider such experiential learning as another primary source that I can call upon when writing.  Public historians have the flexibility but also the challenge of identifying the needed resources for their topics.  What types of sources do I find most useful when writing about the establishment, preservation, and management of national parks?

Taking a tour and watching other visitors interact with features in the park are my entry to investigating the history of a park.  First, I need a sense of the geography so that when I write, I understand the lay of the land, beyond what I see on the park maps.  Second, I need that visceral experience, that “ooh-ahh” that explains why people fought to have the park established.  I need to feel that connection to the scenery and other features.  Third, I want to see how others react to the park’s beauty and mystery.  What grabs their attention?  What do they comment upon?  How do they move through the landscape?  I am not taking an official survey of visitors, but I am watching, learning, and mentally noting visitor reactions versus my own. Continue reading

NCPH 2013 Group Consulting Award (Part 2): Synergies and cross-purposes

report coverEditors’ Note:  This series showcases the winners of the National Council on Public History’s annual awards for the best new work in the field.  Today’s post is the second in a two-part series by Marla Miller and Anne Whisnant, two of the four authors of Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service, winner of the 2013 NCPH Excellence in Consulting Award in the group category.

In Part 1 of this post, we reviewed some of the progress that has been made in the year since we finished Imperiled Promise.  Today, we raise some concerns about how two more recent high-profile NPS reports could work at cross-purposes with ours, and suggest how our colleagues can help keep the conversations about improving historical practice in the agency moving ahead.

Two NPS reports that could work against the recommendations in Imperiled Promise were issued last summer, a few months after our report debuted.  Revisiting Leopold, written by a committee of prominent scientists, focused on the future of “resource management” (both natural and cultural) in the NPS.  And Identifying Best Practices for Live Interpretive Programs in the United States National Park Service, completed by a team of researchers from Clemson University and Virginia Tech with backgrounds in environmental education and conservation, offered a study of immediate visitor responses to NPS interpretive programs.  Both reports, commissioned (as ours was) by offices of the NPS, are receiving high-level circulation among Service leadership, and, in the case of Revisiting Leopold, the endorsement of the Director himself. Continue reading

NCPH 2013 Group Consulting Award (Part 1): What next for Imperiled Promise?

report coverEditors’ Note:  This series showcases the winners of the National Council on Public History’s annual awards for the best new work in the field.  Today’s post is part of a two-part series by Marla Miller and Anne Whisnant, two of the four authors of Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service, winner of the 2013 NCPH Excellence in Consulting Award in the group category.

We are pleased to have the opportunity to reflect on the consulting work that led to the publication of Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service.  A year after the study appeared, what is perhaps most striking (and gratifying) to us is the ongoing nature of the conversation about NPS history, of which the study was a part.  Our greatest hope now is to nurture and propel that conversation forward.

We knew when finishing the study that a central challenge would be getting our hard-won insights (based as they were on the voices of hundreds of NPS employees as well as members of the academic community) noticed amid the stream of other reports and initiatives addressing related issues in the agency. We have spent the months since the report’s release working to ensure that it finds purchase among its target audiences, and have been deeply gratified to see colleagues both within and beyond the NPS embrace the study and the issues it raises. Continue reading