Rethinking diversity: Modupe Labode and Juanita Moore

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 and Students | Credit: Courtesy of Dr. Labode.

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.”[1] 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

Rethinking diversity: Introduction

This is the first post in a series on issues of diversity in the public history field.

Waymond, the custodian who challenged me to think differently about diversity at a community history event. Credit: Angela Thorpe

Waymond, the custodian who challenged me to think differently about diversity at a community history event. Photo credit: Angela Thorpe

“I’m surprised to see you here. You know this museum is for white people, right?” These words greeted me during my first days of an internship at a Greensboro, North Carolina, museum last August. This statement alarmed me for a couple of reasons. First, the speaker is an active member of one of Greensboro’s most historic black communities. I worried that if other members of the community shared his sentiment–that the museum wasn’t a space for them–the museum was not confronting diversity head-on in their exhibits, program offerings, and outreach work. Second, if our communities do not see museums as spaces where diverse faces should be employed in leadership roles, an issue is exposed that is highly complex and not easily remedied.

My name is Angela Thorpe, and I am a recent graduate of the Museum Studies MA program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. I first noticed a problem with diversity in public history when I canvassed public history programs across the country. As a black female, I felt it necessary to understand how my prospective programs confronted diversity. Each program director admitted their program “struggled with diversity,” but that they were “working on it.” My former program director, in comparison, was candid with me about the program’s spotty track record for attracting a diverse body. I appreciated that and was honored to eventually train in the program. Continue reading

Graduate school and the consulting historian

Central Experimental Farm, Ottawa Photo Credit: Pete Anderson

Central Experimental Farm, Ottawa
Photo Credit: Pete Anderson

Academic careers are hard to come by these days. Public historians will not be surprised by the posts on the active #altac hashtag on Twitter or the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada’s (SSHRC) recent “White Paper on the Future of the PhD in the Humanities” that observed that only between 10 and 15 percent of those who enter PhD programs will be employed at a post-secondary institution [1]. A declining number of tenured and tenure-track positions, coupled with an increased reliance on precarious labor in the form of adjunct and temporary appointments, has destabilized the academic job market for graduates. Deep budget cuts to museums, archives, and other research-oriented institutions–not just in history and the humanities, but also in the social, physical, and life sciences–make finding “traditional” public history jobs increasingly difficult as well.

As a second-year PhD student working towards defending my dissertation proposal and completing my qualifying exams this term, I do not have the answers to questions about the utility of a PhD, but I am interested in designing my project with an awareness of the challenges facing new graduates. As Abby Curtin notes in her recent post on History@Work, while theses provide opportunities to explore rich historical questions, it doesn’t mean one shouldn’t be strategic in project design or have an eye towards future employability. Continue reading

Making my thesis work for me

James A. Garfield National Historic Site, the nineteenth-century home of the 20th President, is located in Mentor, Ohio. Photo credit: Andy Curtiss

James A. Garfield National Historic Site, the nineteenth-century home of the 20th President, is located in Mentor, Ohio. Photo credit: Andy Curtiss

Currently, public history educators are discussing whether their graduate students should be required to write master’s theses. Although some students (including myself) at times bemoan the thesis as impractical and suggest a public history project or portfolio as an alternative, I found my thesis experience to be integral to my development as a public historian. My research inspired me to reach out to scholars and professionals whose work paralleled my own. It has also opened new doors as I transition out of academia and into a career interpreting the past for public audiences.

My thesis research grew out of my experience volunteering and working as a seasonal interpretive ranger at James A. Garfield National Historic Site, the late nineteenth-century Ohio home of the 20th President. I set out to write about the evolution of the historic landscape of the site, and I wanted to integrate my interest in historic site interpretation into my work, especially because a graduate course on this topic would not be offered during my two years at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). When I heard about the site’s plans to write a new long-range interpretive plan in early 2013, I asked to participate in the process. Continue reading

Surfing with purpose: Online collections as exhibit resources (Part 1)

city directory

Digital collections like those of the Internet Archive have drastically expanded the resources available to exhibit creators. Photo credit: Internet Archive

Thanks to the exponential increase in availability of digitized collections, possibilities in exhibit research have drastically expanded. Digital collections have become essential tools that help ensure the success of projects with limited budgets and tight deadlines, which most public historians might agree is just about every project. At the same time, it is often overwhelming to sift through the wide range of options. How can researchers, curators, and designers best utilize and understand the many resources provided through digital repositories and open access collections?

I recently responded to a tweet by Mary Rizzo asking for examples of people using the Internet Archive, an open access digital collection, in their public history work, and she suggested I write a blog post about using tools like this. As an Exhibitions Researcher at the Indiana Historical Society, my initial reaction was to think “I don’t know much about open access collections, I just use them.” Considering again, however, I realized that even though I was trained during the era of digitization and I use these resources as second nature in my work, I’ve still gone through a learning process in my job. Continue reading

Project Showcase: At Home in Holland

holland-screenshotAt Home in Holland,” a new digital history project by students at the University of Amsterdam, responds to the way that hostile reactions to immigrants have undermined the traditional idea of Dutch tolerance and hospitality in recent years. The current Dutch asylum policy was developed in the 1980s. In that same period, Amnesty International Netherlands held its first campaign to draw attention to the problems faced by refugees in the Netherlands. How did a human rights organization usually focused on the plight of people abroad end up campaigning against human rights abuses back at home? 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.

Continue reading

The Master’s Tools, 2.0

Kings College, Cambridge. Photo by Colin Smith, Wikimedia Commons.

King’s College, Cambridge. Photo credit: Colin Smith, Wikimedia Commons

In her thought-provoking post from November 2012, Mary Rizzo opened up a conversation about the relationship between the rapidly growing field of digital humanities and public history. Reflecting on a recent THATcamp meeting, Rizzo concluded that existing divisions between the producers and the critical thinkers of digital humanities projects had the potential to re-inscribe gender and racial hierarchies. I want to take Rizzo’s still-salient concerns as a starting point for a conversation in a slightly different direction, namely the potential for the democratization of historical knowledge made possible by digital tools and the role of public historians in this process. Continue reading