This is the second post in a series on issues of diversity in the public history field. Each post in this series is based upon oral interviews conducted with public history professionals. Each interview was conducted in a traditional interview question and answer format. All interviews were edited and condensed based on relevancy and to retain a reasonable length for the posts.
Dr. Modupe Labode with students. Photo credit: Courtesy of Labode.
I began my exploration of this topic by interviewing two public historians who have proven track records addressing diversity issues in public history: Modupe Labode, Assistant Professor of History and Museum Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, and Juanita Moore, President and CEO of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History in Detroit, Michigan.
At the National Council on Public History (NCPH) Annual Meeting in 2009, Labode helped spearhead a working group titled “How do we get there? Racial and ethnic diversity in the public history profession,” which served as a platform to “discuss the profession’s lack of diversity and share ideas about remedying the situation.” As the CEO and President of the nation’s largest African American history museum, Moore has achieved a stellar career as a public historian of color, and she remains committed to mentoring and providing opportunities to other public historians as they enter the field. My conversations with each of these women demonstrated that though some changes have been made, there is still much work to be done to bolster the field of public history to include those from diverse backgrounds.
Why does our field suffer from a lack of diverse professionals?
According to Labode, individuals that are historically underrepresented in museums are generally underrepresented in the humanities field. This plays a major part in reflecting what we see in public history. Consider Moore’s point that, for a while, museum professionals did not come from fields as specific as public history or even from graduate programs. Thus, the field potentially fails to attract diverse professionals because they may be engaged in fields or graduate programs without direct links to public history. Furthermore, many are unsure of how to enter the field in the first place. I can attest to this issue: as an undergraduate student, neither my academic mentors nor advisors were able to point me in the direction I needed to take to pursue museum work. It was only after I endured several exhaustive appointments with a career counselor and took a series of online exams that prearranged my career goals that I was even made aware of public history. Continue reading
Photo credit: Serge Noiret
On October 23rd, the University of Amsterdam will be hosting the first conference of the International Federation for Public History (IFPH), “Public History in a Digital World: The Revolution Reconsidered”. Several years in the making and spearheaded by the tireless efforts of Manon Parry and Paul Knevel of the University of Amsterdam and Serge Noiret, Chair of the IFPH, public history practitioners from Europe, the Americas, and Asia will come together for three days to discuss and debate what digital media brings to public history and where public history is headed in a digital world. Continue reading
Prompted by Suse Cairn’s June musings on whether museum professionals need theory in their working lives, we posed the same question via social media about public historians and gathered a handful of responses:
I think theory and reflexive thought is fascinating and, ideally, useful for planning project goals and critiquing ourselves as authors. In grad school, though, it seemed easier to discuss both theory and practice because we had down time together in work-like spaces of computer labs and student lounges, and, with similar classes, we were coming to the discussion with similar background information. Those factors seem harder to find or create in work situations. ~ Elizabeth Almlie (Historic Preservation Specialist, South Dakota State Historical Society)
In recent years, there has been a sort of awakening within public history. This awakening has been very noticeable during the annual meeting of the National Council on Public History, especially during the past four years. Where the attendance has traditionally been comprised of American practitioners and scholars (and a fair sprinkling of Canadians), the number of non-North American participants has been steadily growing. Every year, we have seen an increase in the number of public historians from Italy, France, Belgium, Germany, China, Venezuela, and Brazil, amongst many others. Their participation is leading to new understandings of what public history means around the world and new dialogue about teaching and practice. Continue reading
Editor’s Note: This is the second piece in a series on the “crisis” in the humanities. A post introducing the series can be found here.
Bradstreet Gate, Harvard Yard, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Photo credit: Daderot, Wikimedia Commons
Not long ago I was invited to a small university in California to talk about the crisis in the humanities. When I arrived I was greeted by a professor of philosophy, faculty members from the literature department, and a historian. We sat together in a small classroom overlooking a peaceful, park-like setting. But they all seemed worried, so I asked them how things were at their university.
“Well,” they said, “things were not going well.” Student enrollment in humanities courses and the number of majors were down. The president had reeled in a multimillion dollar gift, but none of it would be earmarked for the humanities. You could hear in their tense voices that they felt they were living in crisis. I pointed out that they might feel like there was a crisis at their university, but the humanities outside of the university were not in crisis–in fact, they were in great demand. It was an awkward thing to say, but there really is a gulf between the fate of the humanities inside and outside academia. Continue reading
Saint Jacques-sur-Coudenberg church and neighbor, Brussels, 2008. Photo credit: Eddy Van 3000
At this spring’s National Council on Public History annual meeting in Monterey, California, outgoing NCPH President Bob Weyeneth proposed that it was time for historians to let the rest of the world in on our trade secret about history: that it isn’t a static set of facts, but a matter of “interpretive fluidity” that demands a continual reassessment of what we know about the past. This way of understanding history is something that Weyeneth, like many of us fellow historians, took for granted until he was faced with public pushback and legal challenges when his work unsettled deeply held local narratives. Faced with the recognition that most people have no idea how historians approach learning about the past, Weyeneth came to think that it was time to “pull back the curtain” and be more transparent about what we do.
You can read the full text of Weyeneth’s presidential address here. Over the next few weeks, History@Work will present responses from public historians who reflect on the implications, opportunities, and dilemmas of letting the public in through the door usually reserved for the staff. What this series reveals is that the organization taking this approach is changed by the experience as much as—or more than—the public. Continue reading
Novice tweeter Dee Harris attached this photo to her first tweet from the 2014 NCPH conference in Monterey. Photo credit: Dee Harris
I’ve never considered myself a Luddite. I’ve had a smartphone for more than eight years, I occasionally post to Facebook, I’m signed up for a few blogs, and an e-reader has completely changed my reading habits. But when it comes to the fluttering noises of the little blue bird known as Twitter, the Luddite in me comes out. What useful information could actually come to me in the form of 140 characters or less? Do I have something to say that others want to read? I could never wrap my head around Twitter and why others found it so useful, so I just ignored it. At least I tried… but then came Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake hashtagging on national television. Next, my 13-year-old son started adding verbal hashtags to everything he said. The final straw, however, was the National Council on Public History’s twitterstorm around the 2014 Monterey conference. Continue reading
The New Professional and Graduate Student Committee discusses the Public History Navigator in Monterey. Photo credit: NCPH
We asked and you shared! One hundred sixty-six respondents participated in the NCPH New Professional and Graduate Student Committee survey, offering their input for creating a consumer’s guide to public history. Now officially titled “Public History Navigator: How to Choose and Thrive in a Graduate Program,” this exciting project will provide one tool to address shared concerns about the “perfect storm”–the phrase National Council for Public History Past President Bob Weyeneth used to describe the public history training and jobs crisis.
Photo credit: Cathy Stanton
First, thank you to everyone who participated in the first pop-up exhibit at the National Council on Public History conference in Monterey, “Seeds of Change: Public History and Sustainability.” The exhibit was a great success, and we are very excited about the positive responses that we received.
We created the exhibit around the conference theme of“sustainability.” Working with the NCPH program committee, we researched, created, and facilitated an exhibit that explored how public history work intersects with issues of sustainability. “Seeds of Change” served as a forum for public historians to share their experiences with sustainable practices, brainstorm creative ways that historians can promote and historicize sustainability, engage in conversations, and pose new questions. Continue reading
Well, not quite all. Let me elaborate.
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