What good is theory in public history?

Photo credit:  mlcastle

Photo credit: mlcastle

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)
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Internationalizing public history

globe-constructionIn 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

In our hands

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 (also known as 1997 Gate), Harvard Yard, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Photo credit: Daderot, Wikimedia Commons.

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

Confessions of a novice tweeter

photo of poster

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

Choosing a public history program survey results

The New Professional and Graduate Student Committee discuss the Public History Navigator in Monterey. Courtesy NCPH.

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.

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Pop-up reflections from the NCPH conference

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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

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