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

Revealing slavery’s legacy at a public university in the South (Part 2)

This handprint on one of the bricks of the wall surrounding the old campus was very likely made by a slave.  Photo:  Slavery at South Carolina College team.

This handprint on one of the bricks of the wall surrounding the old campus was very likely made by a slave. Photo credit: Slavery at South Carolina College team.

Continued from Part 1.

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

Invoking history in voter registration law

Register to Vote signs

2008 voter registration drive in Texas. Photo credit: Barack Obama’s photostream on Flickr

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

What I learned on my (public history) summer vacation

Participants gathered for a farewell photo on the final day of the seminar on the campus of Shanghai Normal University.  Photo credit: Richard Anderson

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

Producing history and ironwork in an urban crucible (Part II)

townhouses on wharf

Portland’s waterfront has been the site of considerable redevelopment in recent decades. Photo credit: Wendell

Continued from Part 1.

Portland’s gentrification and redevelopment attracted the attention of Loretta Lees, a United Kingdom professor with family in Maine. She documented the rehabilitation of residential, commercial, and industrial properties and the reconfiguration of public spaces in Portland’s upgrading downtown neighborhoods. New people, new capital, and new regulatory regimes aimed at protecting new investments collided in Portland’s streets and squares. Lees honed in on the city’s youth culture and its clash with business owners and city officials in competing to use adapted old spaces.

The Portland conflict Lees documented occurred in a global process that sanitizes and homogenizes urban spaces via socially engineered diversity initiatives. Since Portland isn’t New York or some other big city, its downtown gentrification provided Lees with an opportunity to observe urban conflict on a smaller scale. Continue reading

Cuban-Americans seek to institutionalize, streamline, their past

Proposed location for Cuban Exile History Museum. Image credit: maps.google.com

Proposed location for Cuban Exile History Museum. Map credit: googlemaps.com, Google Earth

On July 17, Miami-Dade County Commissioners—several Cuban-Americans among them—approved a controversial plan to construct a Cuban Exile History Museum (CEHM) alongside Biscayne Bay. Few would deny the importance of the Cuban community to Miami’s rise from sleepy getaway to sprawling “gateway to the Americas.” The museum project, however, raises troubling questions about not only the development of seaside green space or the apparent clout of one group in city government but the slippery politics of the past in a changing Miami present.

Located behind American Airlines Arena in the heart of downtown, the proposed site for the CEHM has been the source of public wrangling for some time. After rejecting a proposal to build a soccer stadium on the plot, commissioners gave the exile museum the go-ahead. Conservationists and non-Cuban constituents alike have grumbled at the inside political baseball seemingly favoring the city’s preeminent ethnic voting bloc.No one, though, seems to be debating just what would go into the new building in the first place–the kinds of exhibits it would feature or stories they might tell–let alone how this new institution would sustain its mission over time. Continue reading

Producing history and ironwork in an urban crucible (Part I)

blacksmith in shop

Sam Smith holds an axe head and displays other objects he has fabricated and some of the raw materials (many of them salvaged) that he uses in his work. Photo credit: David S. Rotenstein

Sam Smith’s blacksmith shop is part living history laboratory and part urban sustainability experiment. He is a former history major who turned passions for the past and metalworking into a business that produces objects, artisans, and history in contested space on the edge of a gentrifying Portland, Maine, neighborhood. His business, The Portland Forge, is a local craft shop that could succumb to a global process that is displacing artisans and small-scale industrial operations in cities worldwide. Continue reading