Editor’s note: This post continues a series commemorating the anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act by examining a past article published in The Public Historian, describing its significance, and relating it to contemporary conversations in historic preservation.
Growing up as an American Indian boy in Oklahoma, I struggled every April 22nd with “89er Day,” an elementary school mini-holiday that celebrated the 1889 opening of central Oklahoma to white settlement. We school kids were expected to dash across the playground and stake out “homesteads,” being careful to watch out for “wild Indians.” As the day wore on, we had “chuck wagon” lunches, sing-alongs, and square dances. The Oklahoma Land Run of 1889 marked the formal end of tribal reservations in Oklahoma, itself a Choctaw word meaning “[place of the] red people.” This was the romance of the past as it played out across innumerable schools in the Oklahoma of the mid-1950s.
This 1899 poster for Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show suggests that Cody also “harnessed the romance of the past” throughout his career. Photo credit: Library of Congress
Patricia Mooney-Melvin, in her 1991 article on “Harnessing the Romance of the Past: Preservation, Tourism, and History,” writes about a different sort of historical romance, using another kind of misremembered history as an example. As she describes, an elderly woman and young girl visit the Buffalo Bill Cody museum where the woman confuses Cody and Theodore Roosevelt. Taking place at a historic site, this story emphasizes both the enthusiasm of the heritage tourist and the need for a high level of historical accuracy at those sites. Continue reading
2014 saw huge steps forward in representations of LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Questioning) lives in public history on both sides of the Atlantic. Projects have been launched in both the United States and the United Kingdom that aim to reveal national histories of LGBTQ lives, highlighting the ways that international conversations about approaches to public history are developing and impacting positively on the practice of public history.
Monumento en memoria de los gais, lesbianas y personas transexuales represaliadas, Barcelona, ES. Inscription reads: “In memory of the gays, lesbians and transsexual persons who have suffered repression throughout history, Barcelona 2011.” Photo credit: Claire Hayward
In May 2014, the US National Park Service (NPS) announced it would be launching an LGBTQ Heritage Initiative. The aim of this unprecedented project is to reveal the untold LGBTQ histories of landmarks and historic sites across the US, and the results of the project so far can be seen in this Google Map of Places with LGBTQ Heritage. At the roundtable to launch the event, the academics and public historians involved pointed out that this project was so important because LGBTQ history is America’s history. The roundtable discussants stated that the contributions of LGBTQ people to society have been ignored for too long, and their experiences must be placed in a wider discourse to ensure that their history is no longer marginalised. As such, while the results of this initiative are yet to be seen, its significance to LGBTQ history, as well public history in general, is already clear. Continue reading
Frank and Audrey Peterman were among the speakers at the “More Voices” event in Boston. Photo credit: National Park Service
As a graduate student of public history who specializes in early America, I spend a lot of time thinking about borders and peripheries, not just the temporal and spatial borders of British North America, but the figurative borders within which the “traditional” American experience is circumscribed. In my adopted state of Massachusetts, I’ve encountered many public humanities practitioners who are trying to push boundaries and engage new disciplines and new audiences, particularly through capturing a wider range of voices and stories at their sites. Continue reading
In 2007 Atlanta journalist Nathan McCall’s novel Them was published. The book is a fictionalized account of a very real Atlanta neighborhood–the Old Fourth Ward–undergoing gentrification. The neighborhood is a place where civil rights historic landmarks jockey for attention and dollars among hip bars and restaurants. A recent historic preservation battle exposed tensions that pit adapting old buildings for new uses versus tearing them down for new developments. Continue reading
James A. Garfield National Historic Site, the nineteenth-century home of the 20th President, is located in Mentor, Ohio. Photo credit: Andy Curtiss
Currently, public history educators are discussing whether their graduate students should be required to write master’s theses. Although some students (including myself) at times bemoan the thesis as impractical and suggest a public history project or portfolio as an alternative, I found my thesis experience to be integral to my development as a public historian. My research inspired me to reach out to scholars and professionals whose work paralleled my own. It has also opened new doors as I transition out of academia and into a career interpreting the past for public audiences.
My thesis research grew out of my experience volunteering and working as a seasonal interpretive ranger at James A. Garfield National Historic Site, the late nineteenth-century Ohio home of the 20th President. I set out to write about the evolution of the historic landscape of the site, and I wanted to integrate my interest in historic site interpretation into my work, especially because a graduate course on this topic would not be offered during my two years at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). When I heard about the site’s plans to write a new long-range interpretive plan in early 2013, I asked to participate in the process. Continue reading
The author in front of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival’s flower plaque. Photo credit: Mary Walker
Coming out of the Smithsonian Metro station on the National Mall, we were immediately drawn to the massive flower plaque bursting with colorful fabric art. Its sound beckoned us, as hundreds of bamboo wind chimes rattled in the breeze. In China, “flower plaques are decorated bamboo structures used for celebrations such as business openings, weddings, or anniversaries.” This one had been designed by Hong Kong-based artist Danny Yung. A dramatic showpiece for this year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival, it was an eye-catching announcement that something different, and special, was happening in this space and that we were invited to check it out.
My father, sister, and I had risen early that morning and driven from New York to DC for this moment. A decade earlier, I had attended my first festival as a graduate student beginning a history of Smithsonian cultural exhibitions that eventually became a book called A Living Exhibition. Since then, I’ve tried to make it back at least every other year, a goal that has been difficult to achieve since I’ve mostly lived pretty far from DC. I was always confident, though, that if I missed it one year, the festival would still be there the next. Now, I wasn’t so sure. Incredibly, it seemed possible that this might be the last folklife festival on the National Mall. The incentive to attend, therefore, was understandably strong, even if it meant a six-hour drive in heavy traffic.
As this year’s festival was being planned and developed, new National Park Service regulations governing the use of the Mall for public events threatened to displace it permanently from its long-time location in the space between the Smithsonian Castle and National Museum of Natural History. Continue reading
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 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
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
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
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