The May issue of The Public Historian will explore the future of historic house museums. Historic houses are struggling to survive in the 21st century, but as Bill Adair and Laura Koloski describe, some are experimenting with strategies that are making old houses new again. -Lisa Junkin Lopez, guest editor
In Part 1 of this post, we discussed strategies employed by Philadelphia-area house museums for employing new methods and engaging new communities in order to repurpose and re-imagine historic house museums. In part 2 of this post, we will look at strategies for tackling challenging topics and using new technologies and techniques to realize these goals.
Facing difficult and controversial subject matter
Head Start programming at Wyck in Germantown, Philadelphia. (Need photo credit)
History, as we all know, is complicated. Historic house museums have not always been places that embraced this complexity. But there is room, and indeed, a real need to transform these sites into places where visitors can be engaged in complex stories and begin to grapple with the sometimes difficult aspects of our past.
In Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood, one site has re-made itself over the past several years to do just that. Staff research in the site’s archives revealed that the Chew family was the largest slaveholding family in Pennsylvania. As they explored this aspect of the site’s history with their neighbors and community, it became clear that it was essential to tell this story and to interpret the extent to which the Chew’s family wealth and privilege were tied up with their status as slave owners. What resulted was the Emancipating Cliveden project, a combination of new programs, new exhibits and new multimedia that explores these issues as part of the house’s core interpretive message. Continue reading →
Editor’s Note: The May issue of The Public Historian will explore the future of historic house museums. Historic houses are struggling to survive in the 21st century, but as Bill Adair and Laura Koloski describe, some are experimenting with strategies that are making old houses new again.-Lisa Junkin Lopez, guest editor
Martha McDonald performing “The Lost Garden” at The Woodlands. Photo credit: Ryan Collerd
We think we can all agree on two things: we love historic house museums, and we want them to have a future. That is where consensus in the field starts and stops. Although rumors of their demise are indeed premature, there is no question that house museums are in crisis, in desperate need of new audiences, new leadership, new sources of support, and most urgently, new purpose. We believe all of these needs can be met and that we are moving towards clarity about how this might be achieved, not through grand policy agreements but mostly through small-scale experiments at individual sites that are proving to be highly effective. The down side–sometimes these interventions can be highly disruptive and highly nerve-wracking.
In our work as public historians in the Philadelphia area, we have witnessed one fundamental element at all successful house museums–willingness to change and change big. The change isn’t formulaic. One size definitely doesn’t fit all. Each site has unique content, a unique neighborhood, a unique historical context, unique stories, unique collections, unique staff. But we have seen some COMMONALITIES among these changes, all of which have played out in DIFFERENT ways. Continue reading →
CALL FOR PAPERS – 2016 Annual Meeting of the National Council on Public History and the Society for History in the Federal Government
Baltimore, Maryland, March 16-19, 2016
Formal preservation and interpretation of the past began as a movement to celebrate great men and elite spaces. Slowly, and with difficulty, this is becoming a more democratic and inclusive effort. We believe that public historians have an important role to play in the ongoing work to expand national, state, local, and global narratives. What are the most effective and engaging means for expanding interpretive practices and professional spaces in order to promote full inclusion of previously marginalized peoples and places? To what extent have new, more democratic and engaged public history practices changed museum collections and exhibits, preservation practice, law, and public commemoration? And what happens when formerly disenfranchised publics assert their right to tell their own histories? These questions get at the very meanings of public history and citizenship. As 2016 will mark the centennial of the National Park Service and fifty years of the National Historic
Preservation Act, in Baltimore we invite public historians to explore the promise, the successes, and the challenges of developing a more inclusive public history landscape in the twenty-first century. Continue reading →
While researching at the LBJ Presidential Library over the last ten days, I’ve read numerous memos on the use of federal troops and National Guard units to quell the urban rebellions of the late 1960s. It was jarring to turn on the television Monday night and learn that Maryland’s governor had declared a state of emergency and called up the National Guard in response to the protests in Baltimore. The parallels between my research and the news of the day were unmistakable. As with Watts in 1965, Chicago in 1966, Detroit and Newark in 1967, and countless cities–including Baltimore–in 1968, a decades-long shadow of racial exclusion, economic disinvestment, and police brutality hangs over the Baltimore communities that rose up in protest. Several people interviewed on the street described the death of Freddie Gray, though infuriating and tragic, as a reflection of a deeper pattern of structural inequality and systemic oppression. People said similar things about the incidents that sparked the riots of the 1960s. Then, as now, many commentators deflect these grievances through epithets like “thug” or vicious bromides about supposed social pathologies in communities of color. Continue reading →
Editor’s Note: This series showcases the winners of the National Council on Public History’s awards for the best new work in the field. Today’s post is by Beth Bullock, Jayd Buteaux, and Leslie Morton, students in the Public History Program at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington.
Wide shot of part of the exhibit. Photo credit: Jayd Buteaux
The exhibit Push and Pull: Eastern European and Russian Migration to the Cape Fear Region introduces visitors to people such as Ann Mizerak, a descendant of Eastern European immigrants, and Roza Starodubtseva, a recent migrant from St. Petersburg. The exhibit shares their personal stories through narratives and personal belongings and benefits from the involvement of the immigrant community both in St. Helena, a small village that was founded as an immigrant farm colony, and in the city of Wilmington, North Carolina. The immigrant community was involved in all aspects of exhibit research and design, and the dependency on shared authority is evident in the exhibition’s focus on the their words and stories via direct quotes, QR codes linked to both audio and video, and personal artifacts. The ability to see and hear the words of the Russian and Eastern European immigrants has led to a powerful dialogue about culture, family traditions, modern immigration policies, stereotypes, media representations, and current events. Continue reading →
I have always thought of public history as a tool to assist us in mediating unchartered territory. More specifically, museums can serve as public forums to tackle persistent forms of oppression that have escaped clear resolve. This vision seems particularly relevant today. There is a wide gap between understanding the inaccessible civil liberties and rights black people struggled for and acknowledging operations of oppression that persist into the present day. Rather by willful ignorance, genuine unawareness, or fear, much of the American public lives in that gap. Through exhibits, collections, community outreach projects, and continued dialogue, museums can assist the public in mediating that gap where we have not gained much traction. Continue reading →
Banners telling the stories of particular El Paso buildings were the first iteration of the Museo Urbano project. Photo credit: Bruce Berman
Hardball history that places historians at the center of politics, advocacy, and activism can be a difficult journey, but it can also be inspiring. My introduction to public history coincided with the 2006 unveiling of a controversial downtown revitalization plan in the city of El Paso, Texas. The plan included the demolition of more than thirty acres of El Segundo Barrio, a historic and predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood.
I was twenty-two and a senior at the University of Texas at El Paso. I learned about the downtown plan in a political science class, where everyone was given a brochure and a map of the area slated for construction. In place of churches and homes were shopping malls and parking lots. The woman giving us the presentation also mentioned that residents who could not afford new tax increases would need to be relocated. I was not the only student that had questions about the plan, the residents, and the process. The same semester I was also taking a Mexican-American History class taught by Dr. Yolanda Chávez Leyva. Her class incorporated the rich history of the area. Ironically, I had Dr. Leyva’s class right before the political science class. Continue reading →
“You know who has money to help you.” I responded to this truth by listing three millionaires from whom I would not accept funding for Museo Urbano, the public history project housed in the Department of History at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). The response hit hard. “You know you’re walking the high road, but you don’t have any shoes on.” I smiled at the image, but inside my heart sank.
Funding has been one of the most difficult challenges in my career as a public historian. It is an issue that I have grappled with since my days as a student activist in the 1970s. How do we fund social justice initiatives while still maintaining our sense of ethics and responsibility? Whose money is acceptable and whose is not? Continue reading →
To borrow Shakespeare’s phrase, some public history work is born political, some becomes political, and some has politics thrust upon it. Whether we intentionally locate ourselves in controversial settings, have something blow up in our faces, or encounter less spectacular kinds of resistance or misunderstanding, we’re always on the edge of the political, even when we don’t set out to be.
This fundamental tension within the field will be the subject of a structured conversation at the National Council on Public History Annual Meeting next month, in a session called “Hardball History: Public Historians on the Edge of Politics, Advocacy, and Activism.” Between now and then, the participating panelists will kick things off with a series of blog posts that we hope will lead to some pre-conference discussion and help shape our session in Nashville. Continue reading →
History and Reconstruction project storyteller Denise Valentine (center), psychologist Dr. Thomas Gordon (right), members of the cohort, and friends. Photo credit: Courtesy of Phillip Seitz
How can public historians and their audiences come to terms with the traumatic and ongoing legacies of racism and slavery in the United States? This is the question motivating a project I’m currently working on in Philadelphia with a group of ex-offenders, ages 21 to 72. The project is a collaboration with Reconstruction Inc., a grass-roots group (William Goldsby, chair) that supports returning citizens as well as youth at risk and lifetime prisoners. Continue reading →