To borrow Shakespeare’s phrase, some public history work is born political, some becomes political, and some has politics thrust upon it. Whether we intentionally locate ourselves in controversial settings, have something blow up in our faces, or encounter less spectacular kinds of resistance or misunderstanding, we’re always on the edge of the political, even when we don’t set out to be.
This fundamental tension within the field will be the subject of a structured conversation at the National Council on Public History Annual Meeting next month, in a session called “Hardball History: Public Historians on the Edge of Politics, Advocacy, and Activism.” Between now and then, the participating panelists will kick things off with a series of blog posts that we hope will lead to some pre-conference discussion and help shape our session in Nashville. Continue reading →
As public historians, we like to think we know something about narrative. We know that human beings construct meaning through stories, and that history is the art of constructing compelling stories from the traces of the past. Psychologists have demonstrated the emotional and inspirational power of “hero’s journey” narratives in which protagonists overcome great odds through self-sacrifice and determination, and return from the journey with wisdom and gifts to improve the world. Such narratives emphasize the hero’s “exceptional” qualities, the ability to triumph over adversity and to serve as a guiding light to others.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that opponents of recent changes to the AP US History (APUSH) framework are so concerned about narrative emphasis. In August 2014, the Republican National Committee adopted a resolution condemning a framework released by the College Board in 2012. The resolution claims that the framework “reflects a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes (Italics mine) negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.” The resolution calls on Congress to “investigate the matter” and withhold any funding to the College Board until a suitable framework is produced. Continue reading →
Canadian parliament building. Photo credit: commons.wikimedia.org
The field of public history has a long history of its own in Canada. The first programme was founded at the University of Waterloo in Ontario in 1983 (though it has since been disbanded), and the University of Western Ontario followed suit in 1986. By the time Concordia University in Montreal, where I completed my PhD, established a programme in 2004, public history was a burgeoning field in Canada. The National Council on Public History (NCPH) has long recognised the importance of public history in Canada, holding the annual meeting there four times, beginning with Waterloo in 1983, twice in Ottawa, 2001 and 2013, and Victoria, British Columbia, in 2004. Continue reading →
“I am Charlie” has become the expression of solidarity of people around the world in support of the French weekly newspaper following the January 7, 2015 attack. Photo credit: Robert Couse-Baker
The killings at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris this week have prompted a passionate defense around the world of political cartoons as free speech, a form of journalistic expression that exemplifies (and occasionally pushes the boundaries of) a free press’s role as critic and gadfly. In thinking about historical precedents and comparisons for the horrific attack, I’ve been struck by a couple of things.
Earlier this year the Indian American Heritage Project at the Smithsonian launched its inaugural exhibition Beyond Bollywood. Housed in a gallery at the National Museum of Natural History through March 2015, the exhibition “explores the heritage, daily experience and numerous, diverse contributions that Indian immigrants and Indian Americans have made to shaping the United States.” For the last year I’ve been involved peripherally with the exhibition, as a contributor to the Beyond Bollywood blog.
There are a lot of things that this exhibition has going for it. It’s located in a high traffic museum, and it embeds the experiences of Indian immigrants and Indian Americans in a context filled with music, photographs, and art. The exhibition has spurred pride, excitement, and interest. However, it has also spun out into a broader discussion about representation and identity. Continue reading →
One of the floating Victorian houses awaiting a burning that never quite arrived during the Great Chicago Fire Festival on October 4. Photo credit: Richard Anderson
As a public-historian-in-training and recovering theater nerd, I attended last month’s Great Chicago Fire Festival with high hopes. Redmoon Theater–one of the city’s most innovative companies–staged an elaborate pageant on the Chicago River commemorating the infamous 1871 fire that destroyed much of the city. Organizers promised the festival would “unite Chicago’s neighborhoods and celebrate Chicago’s grit, greatness, and renewal following the fire of 1871.” Unity and celebration certainly seemed palpable among the estimated crowd of 30,000 packed three-deep along the bridges and esplanade overlooking the river. I appreciate any effort to bring strangers together for a shared experience, especially one related to history. Yet the evening left me disappointed. The Great Chicago Fire Festival presented a version of history too sanitized and too simple. Redmoon lacked the courage to ask more discomfiting questions about the presence of the past in Chicago today. Continue reading →
Homepage of the “Slavery at South Carolina College” website.
In the final post of this series, we consider how the “Slavery at South Carolina College” project has been received. The most important effects have been local. The website has acted as a catalyst that has increased awareness of slavery at the university and an interest among students and faculty in speaking plainly about that history. The Richland County Public Library invited the team that created the site to present the research to community members in February 2012, and individual students have guest-lectured on the topic in university classes. Responses from students and members of the community seem to reflect a desire among at least some in the public to learn about and discuss tough issues in our shared history. Continue reading →
As well as trying to convey a sense of these enslaved workers as people, the team of graduate students working on the “Slavery at South Carolina College” website also sought to connect this history to the physical landscape. Harnessing the power of place to tell the story of slavery, we emphasized the built environment of the historic college. The antebellum section of the campus, referred to today as the Horseshoe because of its shape, survives as the historic heart of the modern university. But the most important reason to emphasize the built environment is that slaves physically constructed it. Continue reading →
Last Thursday, the US Supreme Court and a federal district court issued separate rulings striking down voter ID laws in Wisconsin and Texas. The Texas ruling should be of particular interest to public historians because of the extent to which history is at the center of US District Court Judge Nelva Gonzalez Ramos’s decision. Continue reading →
Participants gathered for a farewell photo on the final day of the seminar on the campus of Shanghai Normal University. Photo credit: Chen Xin
This summer I traveled to Shanghai, China, with a group of fellow students and faculty from Princeton University for an immersive seminar in public history, memory, and preservation. The trip provided an opportunity to think about public history in a transnational framework, which is important to me for two reasons. First, public history remains far too parochial in the United States, despite efforts in many corners of the discipline (and on History@Work’s International Perspectives section) to fashion a more expansive geographic and cultural lens. Second, I’ve been struck by how many of my Princeton classmates most enthusiastic about public history specialize in fields outside North America. As a historian-in-training who studies–and resides in–the United States, I see both a need and a demand for transnational approaches to public history. Continue reading →