Projects in the print-digital pipeline

sketch of well

Sketch for a key element of the “Slavery in New York” exhibit, found in the Public History Commons collection relating to the exhibit.

Regular visitors to the Public History Commons may have noticed that we’ve undergone a slight facelift recently.  The History@Work blog, initially the sole occupant of this site, has gradually been joined by other projects:  the News Feed, The Public Historian’s digital space, and now our new Library. To try to keep our interface clear and easy to navigate, we’ve bumped the blog down a little bit on the page and simplified the navigation bar.  We hope readers are finding their way around without too much trouble.

We’re also excited to introduce the Library to you.  Although still in its very early stages, it represents an important step in a larger project of creating flexible platforms for publication and communication and ways for our print and digital projects to cross-pollinate more easily.  We’re starting to get a sense of the possibilities through two recent collaborations, one of which revolves around Richard Rabinowitz’s award-winning article “Eavesdropping at the Well: Interpretive Media in the ‘Slavery in New York’ Exhibition.” Continue reading

Reflecting on texts: Cervantes’s advice for historians

Gustave Doré – Miguel de Cervantes – Don Quixote – Part 1 – Chapter 1 – Plate 1 “A world of disorderly notions, picked out of his books, crowded into his imagination” Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

One of my life goals has long been to read Don Quixote in the original Spanish, and I recently embarked on this monumental, even quixotic, task.  Continue reading

Help us build a bibliography on public history and climate change

book cover

In many ways, environmental public history is still a very new field, with just one major title devoted directly to the subject.

Google “public history” and “climate change” and you’ll quickly realize that public historians are only just beginning to talk about how their work relates to the increasingly urgent questions posed by the earth’s rapidly changing climate.  You could make a case that environmental public history is itself still in its infancy, even though it’s been more than two decades since Martin Melosi, in his President’s Annual Address to the National Council on Public History, issued a call for “environmental history [to] be a means to make the value of history better understood to the public.”[1]  As Melosi pointed out, the combination is a natural one in many ways, yet there are also challenges to pursuing it–for example, the highly political nature of many environmental issues and historians’ caution about crossing the line into advocacy.  In the print realm, a single, now-decade-old collection, Public History and the Environment (co-edited by Melosi and Phil Scarpino and published by Krieger in 2004), has been devoted to the subject, and “global warming” makes only two brief appearances in its pages.  As the global atmosphere continues to warm and its effects are felt more and more widely, how should public historians respond? Continue reading

Collegial questioning: A new forum on history in the US National Park Service (Part 3)

Continued from Part 1 and Part 2.

fort and ocean

Fort Jefferson at Dry Tortugas National Park, Key West, Florida. Photo credit: Matthew Paulson.

~ Christine Arato, Chief Historian, National Park Service, Northeast Region

After Imperiled Promise landed with something of a magnificent thud almost two years ago, I liken the NPS response to a progression along the five stages of grief articulated by Swiss psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. I’m not sure where the agency is as a whole, though I think that our public conversations at Rutgers-Camden earlier this month intimate that some members of the family are striding towards healing and new life. And while I’m not certain if the grieving metaphor is entirely apt—since the Organization of American Historians (OAH) report suggests that the patient was merely moribund—I do think that the OAH’s rather grave prognosis has helped us to introduce some healthy exercise regimens, including the initiatives described by my colleague Lu Ann Jones, both at Rutgers-Camden and again, here, in this virtual forum, which articulate and embody the assertion that history is at the heart of the NPS and, more importantly, is a pillar of civic life. Continue reading

Collegial questioning: A new forum on history in the US National Park Service (Part 2)

fence with sign

Signs at Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, Colorado. Photo credit:

Continued from Part 1

~ Seth Bruggeman, Associate Professor of History and Director, Center for Public History, Temple University

I’ve been fortunate to have had several points of contact with the Imperiled Promise report since its release, from attending early conference sessions with its authors to being a conversation facilitator myself and, most recently, speaking about where it may lead the NPS’s history program.  From the outset, I’ve worried that the report, like so much grey literature commissioned by the agency, would languish on some forgotten shelf.  So far, at least, that is not the case, thanks largely to the authors—especially Marla Miller and Ann Mitchell Whisnant—and others who’ve played a critical role in ensuring an audience for the report.

Who that audience is, however, and how it discusses the report, raises another set of questions. Continue reading

Collegial questioning: A new forum on history in the US National Park Service (Part 1)

Editor’s Note:  On November 6, 2013, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities (MARCH) at Rutgers University-Camden convened a public forum to explore the changing presentation of history in US national parks.  The gathering took as its starting point the 2011 report “Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Parks,” which has sparked other similar conversations over the past year and a half (for example, this one a year ago in Boston).

In this three-part series, some of the participants in the event reflect on the state of the conversation about history in the Park Service and their personal and professional takeaways from the gathering.


skeleton of house

Outline of Benjamin Franklin’s house, Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photo credit: Shana L. McDanold.

Charlene Mires, Director, Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities

At the forum at Rutgers-Camden, the Imperiled Promise report framed the conversation, but it was clear that we had turned a corner from reviewing its findings to thinking about its implications for our work.  The event created time and space for discussion and reflection on individual practice. Whatever may occur at the level of agency reform, change will require action on the ground by individuals such as those who participated.  I hope that ways will be found to highlight their transformative work as models for the future.  While I was glad to see how the conversation is evolving, I also came away from the forum concerned about the need to widen the circle of participation.  Nearly all of the university-based scholars who attended were faculty in public history programs — what will it take to interest more of our colleagues?  If the state of history in the national parks cannot muster greater attention within the profession, what are the chances of building public and political support for the resources that the Imperiled Promise report identifies as essential? Continue reading

Deadline is Nov. 1 for TPH/NHPA nominations

A few weeks ago, I asked readers of History@Work to nominate articles on historic preservation and place from The Public Historian for a yearlong conversation in honor of the upcoming 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) in 2016. Several of you submitted nominations via the comments on that earlier post (thank you!). More of you contacted me directly. There’s still time for those of you who haven’t made your nominations yet to do so—but not much. The deadline is this Friday, November 1.

Many people have asked me how it’s going so far. How hard is it to create a curated list of 15-20 articles on historic preservation and place from one journal? Pretty tough, as can be seen from this chart, which I created using JSTOR’s Data For Research, a great tool for those who are interested in light data mining within scholarly materials. Continue reading

An invitation: Help us identify the top 15 articles on preservation in The Public Historian

ship on lake bottom

The wreck of the wooden cargo ship Australasia on the bottom of Lake Michigan is one of the recent new listings in the National Register of Historic Places. (Image: National Register)

In the nomination form for the US National Register of Historic Places, one of the main criteria excludes “structures, sites and objects achieving historical importance within the past 50 years.” Using this criterion, if the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, which authorized the National Register, were a building, it would only become eligible for inclusion in 2016. But as one of the most important pieces of legislation affecting historic preservationists and allied public historians in the United States, the NHPA has already proven its substantial contribution. As NCPH President Bob Weyeneth wrote in the June 2013 issue of Public History News , this upcoming golden anniversary is an appropriate reason “to inaugurate a set of conversations over the next three years to assess the history, impact, and legacy of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.”

To that end, History@ Work and The Public Historian are teaming on a project designed to spur those conversations, and we need your help. Continue reading

The lay of the land: Researching a national park’s administrative history

Mallard Island

Zenzen stayed on this island to learn about the Minnesota lake culture. Photo courtesy of Joan Zenzen.

I spent two weeks in July immersing myself in the life and feel of northern Minnesota, all in service of an administrative history I am writing of Voyageurs National Park.  I consider such experiential learning as another primary source that I can call upon when writing.  Public historians have the flexibility but also the challenge of identifying the needed resources for their topics.  What types of sources do I find most useful when writing about the establishment, preservation, and management of national parks?

Taking a tour and watching other visitors interact with features in the park are my entry to investigating the history of a park.  First, I need a sense of the geography so that when I write, I understand the lay of the land, beyond what I see on the park maps.  Second, I need that visceral experience, that “ooh-ahh” that explains why people fought to have the park established.  I need to feel that connection to the scenery and other features.  Third, I want to see how others react to the park’s beauty and mystery.  What grabs their attention?  What do they comment upon?  How do they move through the landscape?  I am not taking an official survey of visitors, but I am watching, learning, and mentally noting visitor reactions versus my own. Continue reading

Reading the artifact: A stove from a transitional moment

small stove

The authors chose this enigmatic little stove for their week-long exploration. (Source: Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation, No. 1981.0040)

In August 2012, a group of 26 doctoral students and museum professionals from different disciplines and multiple countries gathered at the Canada Science and Technology Museum (CSTM) in Ottawa, Canada, for the fourth annual Reading Artifacts Summer Institute (RASI). The one-week program, guided by staff and volunteers from the museum with guest scholar Dr. Allison Marsh, a historian of technology from the University of South Carolina, offered participants three avenues to investigate the role of artifacts in society:

  1. as historical sources with multiple cultural meanings that shift over time,
  2. as teaching tools in museum environments, and
  3. as three-dimensional objects whose preservation and storage present additional information–and challenges–to the work of curators, conservators, historians, and educators.

In the CSTM’s cavern-like storage warehouses, where artifacts range from delicate light bulbs to a massive mid-nineteenth-century steam engine, it became immediately apparent how much effort–intellectual, physical, and fiscal–is needed to maintain collections. This is not a new story for the curatorial world, but, in the midst of the Digital Revolution, where more and more objects, people, and places exist as digital representations and relationships, the week offered an opportunity to rethink how and in what ways our work with artifacts contributes to the construction of meaning in a pluralistic society. Continue reading