Hardball history: Knowing the people’s history requires being on their side

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Project narrator David Campbell explains to the media in August 2002 why he will not leave his encampment, known as Camelot, while the city bulldozers wait to move in. Photo credit: Steve Cagan. Used with permission from the collection of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless.

On May 30, 1995, wearing an orange construction helmet, I stood behind a makeshift barricade on E. 13th Street in New York City. Hundreds of squatters faced off against larger numbers of riot police who were armed with a tank and supported by snipers on the surrounding buildings. They had come to evict people from five buildings, and as they moved in, we locked arms to prevent them from gaining entrance. One by one they arrested us and dragged us away as the media reported the event live throughout the day. While we lost the buildings and over one hundred people lost their homes, the action paved the way for the remaining squats in the neighborhood to become legally recognized.

We had a sense we were making history, putting our mark on a long tradition of radical activism in the community. It was a history told though stories on park benches; documented in old photographs; archived in personal collections of dog-eared papers, yellowed flyers, and ‘zines; and memorialized with graffiti and punk anthems. The history was sustained by the elders, who had little materially to show from life, but captivated the attention of irreverent younger people who affectionately heard their stories as a boast and a challenge. To make history, we needed to know the history. Knowing the history necessitated knowing the people and knowing the people required being on their side. Continue reading

Treading on hallowed ground: Football Hallelujah! at the Amsterdam Museum

This post is the second in a series on the Amsterdam Museum. To read the first post, click here.

The exhibit’s leading image, Argentina’s legendary Diego Maradona in his classic praying pose, introduced a striking thematic juxtaposition. Photo Credit: Caro Bonink/Amsterdam Museum

The exhibit’s leading image, Argentina’s legendary Diego Maradona in his classic praying pose, introduced a striking thematic juxtaposition. Photo Credit: Caro Bonink/Amsterdam Museum

“The stadiums are getting fuller and the churches emptier.”

This observation, from Amsterdam Museum director Paul Spies, served as the inspiration for the museum’s intriguing, controversial, and, at times, humorous temporary exhibit Football Hallelujah! On view September 2014 through January 2015, the exhibit explored the ways in which international football (soccer) fandom parallels a religious experience. While attending the first annual conference of the International Federation of Public History I visited the exhibit, intrigued to see the approach taken by a curatorial staff that dared to tread on sports fans’ hallowed ground. Continue reading

“APUSH” in the right direction

Photo credit: Evan Graff, Flickr.

Photo credit: Evan Graff, Flickr.

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

Canadians and the NCPH

Canadian parliament building. Photo credit: commons.wikimedia.org

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

Keeping the faith: Political cartoons in and out of the archives

https://www.flickr.com/photos/29233640@N07/16227778545/ Photo credit: Robert Couse-Baker

“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.

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How the Great Chicago Fire Festival burned history

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

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