Read-in event for Black History Month. Photo credit: Vanessa Macias
Every year, my college celebrates Black History Month and Hispanic Heritage Month. These celebrations feature musical performances, student art shows, guest speakers, and panel presentations that touch upon culture, community issues, significant men and women, landmark achievements, and current events. They are high-quality performances that attract large audiences of students, faculty, and members of the public. Yet from my perspective, the college’s scheduled events could focus more on the history of African Americans and Hispanics in the United States. It is imperative to include a discussion of historical themes and issues related to these groups to truly fulfill the mission of these special months. History can be celebratory, yet it can also be difficult, and these months should highlight both narratives. Minimizing discussion of history robs participants of a more profound experience that could challenge previously held assumptions. Continue reading
Recently, Jane Becker initiated a conversation about doing collaborative projects with students and community partners on the public history educators’ listserv. An edited and condensed version of the discussion follows.
Photo credit: Berdea, Wikimedia Commons
Jane Becker: For the past few years, I have developed collaborative projects for my public history graduate students to undertake with community partners. The results have varied widely, and I’ve struggled with incorporating this semester-long “practical” assignment into the course as a whole and balancing the need to provide students with opportunities to put theory into practice with the other “agendas” of the class.
It is difficult, if not impossible, for a class of relatively new public history students over the course of a semester to achieve the kind of work that might be useful to an organization, even if the task is relatively modest. This is one issue driving my effort to consider other models for introducing first year public history graduate students to “practice.” Continue reading
Roundtable participants, from left to right: Ginna Foster Cannon, Rachel Boyle, Kim Connelly Hicks, Kristen Baldwin Deathridge, Eileen McMahon, Abigail Gautreau, and Theodore Karamanski. Photo credit: Kristen Baldwin Deathridge
At the 2014 annual National Council on Public History conference in Monterey, several of us came together for a roundtable discussion on “Sustaining Historic Preservation Through Community Engagement.” The roundtable was organized and facilitated by Theodore Karamanski from Loyola University and Kristen Baldwin Deathridge from Appalachian State University. We wanted to discuss the balance between community interests and economics in preservation. Connecting preservation to the conference theme Sustainable Public History, we asked: After the initial excitement has worn off in a preservation project, how does it remain relevant within a community? Continue reading
The author in front of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival’s flower plaque. Photo credit: Mary Walker
Coming out of the Smithsonian Metro station on the National Mall, we were immediately drawn to the massive flower plaque bursting with colorful fabric art. Its sound beckoned us, as hundreds of bamboo wind chimes rattled in the breeze. In China, “flower plaques are decorated bamboo structures used for celebrations such as business openings, weddings, or anniversaries.” This one had been designed by Hong Kong-based artist Danny Yung. A dramatic showpiece for this year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival, it was an eye-catching announcement that something different, and special, was happening in this space and that we were invited to check it out.
My father, sister, and I had risen early that morning and driven from New York to DC for this moment. A decade earlier, I had attended my first festival as a graduate student beginning a history of Smithsonian cultural exhibitions that eventually became a book called A Living Exhibition. Since then, I’ve tried to make it back at least every other year, a goal that has been difficult to achieve since I’ve mostly lived pretty far from DC. I was always confident, though, that if I missed it one year, the festival would still be there the next. Now, I wasn’t so sure. Incredibly, it seemed possible that this might be the last folklife festival on the National Mall. The incentive to attend, therefore, was understandably strong, even if it meant a six-hour drive in heavy traffic.
As this year’s festival was being planned and developed, new National Park Service regulations governing the use of the Mall for public events threatened to displace it permanently from its long-time location in the space between the Smithsonian Castle and National Museum of Natural History. Continue reading
Editor’s Note: This is the fifth and final piece in a series on the “crisis” in the humanities. A post introducing the series can be found here.
In The Heart of the Matter, we learn of the existence of a threat to the humanities. It is not always clear exactly what that threat is, but it is cumulative and evidenced most clearly in a trend of increased funding for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education, an outgrowth of the National Academy of Sciences’ 2007 “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” report which “encourage[d] new and expanded funding for scientific research” and better “education in the STEM disciplines.”
According to The Heart of the Matter, the humanities is at risk compared to our colleagues in STEM fields. The report suggests that much depends upon the outcome of our efforts to turn back this trend because the quality of our civic life and the health of the humanities are linked. I suppose there is nothing wrong or surprising about this emphasis on crisis, given its source (an esteemed academic association) and a profusion of hot-button issues that are part of our national cultural life, from the culture wars to gay marriage and gun control. But for whom does the report speak?
From my position as the President of the Georgia Humanities Council, the health of the public humanities is more robust than the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) suggests. While there are certainly challenges in this sector, it is also the case that if we adopt a more expansive view, the humanities can be seen as a vigorous, even thriving part of daily cultural existence. While the word “humanities” may induce a confused stare if we ask a nonacademic to define it, the fact is the humanities are on the move. They do a very brisk business in the public square and the marketplace. In an earlier post, Ralph Lewin used the word “hunger” to describe the public’s interest in California’s Humanities programs. I think that is apt. Continue reading
Editor’s Note: This is the third piece in a series on the “crisis” in the humanities. A post introducing the series can be found here.
This wordle shows the most common words in state humanities council mission statements. Image credit: Mary Rizzo.
When the American Academy of Arts and Sciences makes the case for federal support for the public humanities in its Heart of the Matter report, it relies on arguments about the potential for civic engagement. AAAS contends, for example, that the humanities encourage “civic vigor” and prepare citizens to be “voters, jurors, and consumers.” A recent report by the Kettering Foundation agreed, calling civic engagement the focus of the state humanities councils.
But this hasn’t always been the case. When the state councils were created, they were mandated to utilize the humanities to understand and shape public policy. As we know, historians did something similar in creating the field of public history. Spurred by the academic job crisis, PhD historians worked for federal and state government agencies, created lobbying organizations for history, and partnered with humanities councils. By examining the shift from public policy to civic engagement in the public humanities, we can begin to write a genealogy of civic engagement, which has become, over the last two decades, a catchphrase repeated in endless grant applications and mission statements. What do we mean by it? A Google search on “definition of civic engagement” turns up more than 29,000 results. Skim those and it quickly becomes apparent that when you’ve read one definition of civic engagement, you’ve read one definition of civic engagement. Continue reading
Editor’s Note: In “What I’ve Learned Along the Way: A Public Historian’s Intellectual Odyssey,” outgoing NCPH President Bob Weyeneth issued a call to action to public historians to include the public more fully in our work by “pulling back the curtain” on our interpretive process—how we choose the stories we tell. In this series of posts, we’ve invited several public historians to reflect on projects that do exactly that, assessing their successes and examining the challenges we face when we let the public in through the door usually reserved for staff.
Visitors could listen to tunes from different decades in the Minnesota History Center’s exhibition “Sounds Good to Me: Music in Minnesota, 2000-2007.” Photo credit: Minnesota Historical Society
For a lot of us, the most unsettling part of David Thelen and Roy Rosenzweig’s Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life  was the finding that people trust museums (even more than they trust their grandmothers) because museums give them unfiltered history—as if those objects just naturally came in those cases.
In an era when museums were being buffeted by the Culture Wars, we jumped on those findings as good news (they were cited in untold grant applications), but the proper response really should have been “Eek!” If we are doing our jobs, museum visitors would be fascinated to hear why we chose this object instead of the hundreds of others nearly the same in our basements. And they’d appreciate that probably we selected this one because it has a great story associated with it, a story rich with multiple meanings, tensions, debates, and uncertainties. In other words, we’d invite visitors to play along and see where the fun—and the power—of history lies.
Visitors to our sites and museums might feel they have more of a stake in our work if they understand that history is contingent and ever-shifting and that real people—researchers, curators, registrars, media-developers—making dozens of decisions shape how the story gets told. The notion of moving beyond airtight, “just the facts” presentations may seem risky, but I’d like to echo Weyeneth’s call to “lift the veil” and reflect on two relatively simple but perhaps instructive examples that his reflection brought to my mind. Continue reading
Editor’s Note: This piece continues a series of posts related to the Guantánamo Public Memory Project, a collaboration of public history programs across the country to raise awareness of the long history of the US naval base at Guantánamo Bay (GTMO) and foster dialogue on its future. For an introduction to the series, please see this piece by the Project’s director, Liz Ševčenko.
Before his inauguration and during his first moments in office, President Barack Obama pledged that his administration would pass significant immigration reform to reduce deportations and provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented migrants, as well as close the prison at the US Naval Base in Guantánamo Bay. Yet in the last six years, while Republicans in Congress have repeatedly blocked immigration reform from being passed, President Obama’s administration has overseen the deportation of a record number of migrants from the United States—two million and counting. Guantánamo, meanwhile, remains in active service, with 149 individuals detained there as of June 2014.
Skyrocketing rates of immigrant detention and deportation and the continued operation of Guantánamo may seem to be only tangentially related. But the apprehension of suspected terrorists and attempts to deport immigrants have similar consequences—individuals being forcibly removed from their homes, from their families, and from their communities to be detained for prolonged periods of time, waiting, while US authorities determine their fate.
With several immigrant detention centers located in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro region and throughout the state of Minnesota, my colleagues and I at the University of Minnesota sought to explore the relationship between Guantánamo and the Twin Cities by creating a digital project to accompany the Guantánamo Public Memory Project. Titled “GTMO in MSP,” our project—which remains an ongoing work-in-progress—is an online exhibit that utilizes a multi-tiered timeline to document immigrant detention in Minnesota along with increased surveillance of the Somali American community in Minneapolis since 9/11. 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
2014 National History Day Theme. Image credit: National History Day
What do exhibits about Marie Antoinette’s fashion and Ayatollah Khomeini’s political action, and websites about the invention of the toilet and the dissemination of the Pentagon Papers have in common? They are all student entries in the National History Day competition that I’ve had the opportunity to review as a judge over the past seven years. Within the context of the recent lively conversations about “history relevance,” I argue that judging at History Day offers public historians a unique opportunity to teach students about the power of historical thinking to enrich their lives and to make them more capable citizens of an increasingly complex world. Continue reading