A public historian tells all

Well, not quite all. Let me elaborate.

Riding a highwheel bicycle at the Smithsonian Institution. Photo courtesy of author.

Riding a highwheel bicycle at the Smithsonian Institution. Photo courtesy of author.

How many times has someone told you that you have the coolest job? I’ve heard this comment at various points in my career, and admittedly, I have had the opportunity to work on some really fun history projects. One in particular—the National Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Exhibition—was truly one of the best. My friends kept telling me to write about these experiences. The time I received a grizzly bear in the mail. My trip on the Lewis and Clark trail with teachers from reservation schools. The meeting of tribal advisors. I decided that if I didn’t record the stories, I would soon forget them. So I began to write. As I wrote about my Lewis and Clark experiences, I thought of earlier projects that molded my thinking about history. I kept writing. I wrote whenever I felt inspired, in the evenings and on weekends. Ultimately a book idea formed, and I ended up with eighteen eclectic chapters about history projects from throughout my career. Because I have worked at some rather high-profile institutions that a wide audience would recognize, I began to think that just maybe someone would be willing to pay to read my stories. Continue reading

“History on the Edge”: Call for proposals for 2015 NCPH Annual Meeting

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Music clubs on Broadway, Nashville. Photo credit: Chuck Kramer

The 2015 Annual Meeting of the National Council on Public History will take place from April 15-18, 2015, in Nashville, Tennessee.  The conference theme is “History on the Edge.”

Edges are where exciting things happen. Some are stark boundaries, marking clear beginnings and ends, while others are blurred contact zones. Edges can be places of creativity where diverse people, ideas, and cultures meet and flourish.

They can be sites of uncertainty, risk, and opportunity. Edgy topics and practices call our longstanding assumptions into question. In Nashville, we invite public historians to consider the edges of what we do and who we are. What is on the horizon for public history? What happens on the porous boundaries of public history when we collaborate with other disciplines and new audiences? What can public historians contribute to addressing the cutting edge questions of our societies? Join us to discuss, debate, and question “history on the edge.” Continue reading

The “new normal”: Is there one?

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Lee White and Angela Sirna during the “New Normal” panel. Photo credit: Max Van Balgooy

“Sequester” was a dirty word during last year’s conference season. At the March 2013 conference of the George Wright Society in Denver, attendance was down nearly 75 percent because of travel limitations put into place right before the meeting. At the National Council on Public History meeting in Ottawa a few weeks later, I noticed a number of my colleagues were absent. Travel cutbacks were just at the top of a long list of issues caused by the recession and then the across-the-board US federal budget cuts known as sequestration. I was deeply disturbed by what I saw in Denver, and this was before I watched the gates close at Catoctin Mountain Park (where I was working at the time) in October 2013 when the federal government shut down. I hoped that public historians could talk openly at this year’s meeting in Monterey and share responses to their “new normal.” Fortunately the program committee agreed, and on Thursday, March 20, we held an open conversation in a session titled “Situation Normal? Ways Past Sequestrations, Shutdowns, and Budgetary Woes.” Continue reading

Survey announcement: Help us gather data for the Graduate Program Consumer’s Guide

ship in heavy seaDuring the coming year the National Council on Public History will prepare a Graduate Program Consumer’s Guide. The Consumer’s Guide will serve as a tool for anyone weighing the pros and cons of pursuing a degree or certificate in public history. Robert Weyeneth, president of the NCPH and director of the public history program at the University of South Carolina, outlined the rationale for the Consumer’s Guide last September in a series of posts for History@Work. Collectively titled “A Perfect Storm,” the posts addressed the widely held perception that a “jobs crisis” exists in the field of public history. Weyeneth argued that NCPH can and should commit its organizational resources to ensuring that public history programs offer the highest quality training to the next generation of practitioners, who will undoubtedly face a highly competitive job market.

As a first step toward producing the Consumer’s Guide, the New Professional and Graduate Student Committee of NCPH announced plans earlier this winter for a survey soliciting feedback from History@Work readers. The committee will participate in creating the Consumer’s Guide, and we are eager to hear from current public history students, long-established professionals, and everyone in-between. What kind of information do you think the NCPH should include in the Consumer’s Guide? Please follow this link and answer a few survey questions. Your feedback is indispensable to the process of crafting a Graduate Program Consumer’s Guide that will benefit our field and the next generation of practitioners. We hope that the survey will also stimulate discussions that continue during the upcoming NCPH meeting in Monterey.

~ New Professional and Graduate Student Committee

A good-enough platform for change

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Today’s post is also the introduction to the born-digital publication “Public History in a Changing Climate,” available now to NCPH conference registrants and to other readers by summer 2014.

In a television interview last year, American writer and neo-agrarian icon Wendell Berry spoke about the “dreadful situation” facing young people who are grappling with the cascading environmental, economic, and social challenges linked with runaway capitalism and anthropogenic climate change.  Berry noted that the recognition of our big problems creates an expectation of equally big solutions, but added that our own answers and fixes have too often been part and parcel of those problems, because we’ve tended to impose them in a way that ignores the limitations and needs of the environments we inhabit.  Real change, he said, means learning to listen in new ways to the non-human world and refusing to be rushed or impatient even while acknowledging the urgent need for action.  “I think of them,” Berry said of younger people entering this arena, “and I say well, the situation you’re in now is a situation that’s going to call for a lot of patience.  And to be patient in an emergency is a terrible trial.”

The idea of being patient in an emergency strikes me as useful for public historians to think about but from the opposite direction.  Rather than being impatient activists who need to be convinced of the value of patience, we tend to be inherently deliberate practitioners who haven’t collectively acknowledged that we are in fact in the midst of an emergency. Continue reading

My dark secret, or How I learned to stop hating American history and start loving it

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Brian Joyner. Photo credit: Michael Spain Smith

Several years back, I was a new public history practitioner working for the National Park Service (NPS).  A series of fortuitous events led me to the NPS: a stint at a historical society, a freelance job for the Smithsonian, an informational interview with the NPS Office of Diversity and Special Projects, and a quick gig with a partner organization. I started enthusiastically editing and writing about historic preservation and diverse communities, but I was carrying a dark secret: I knew little about preservation or public history. Yes, I was a history major from the University of Maryland (Go Terps!), but my senior paper was on the Conversion of Constantine the Great to Christianity and most of my studies were in topics that predated the North American colonies by at least 1000 years.

The truth was that United States history bored me and made me angry. Continue reading

All the news that fits: The view from where I sit

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Typesetter, John A. Prior Health Services Library mosaic mural, Columbus, Ohio. Photo credit: Ehschnell at en.wikipedia.

For quite a number of years now, I’ve been one of the people involved in gathering and disseminating news about the public history field through the various channels of the National Council on Public History:  the H-Public listserv, the News Feed here in the Public History Commons, and the regular emailed updates that go out to NCPH members.  More or less once a week, I cull through other listservs, submitted announcements, and odds and ends that come to us through various professional and social networks and try to reduce the pile to a more or less digestible-sized list of professional opportunities for public historians.  Sometimes this feels like a purely clerical task (there’s a lot of cutting and pasting involved!) but every once in a while I realize what a valuable and broad perspective it’s given me on our ever-evolving field.  In return for those hours of cutting and pasting, I get an ongoing education about what people are doing “out there” and how a very wide range of practitioners are putting history to work in the world.  Here’s how things look to me at the moment. Continue reading