Monday, April 14, 2008

Post-conference thoughts about blogging

Mary Stevens has posted some thoughts about conference blogging on the Liverpool blog site. Those of us involved in the NCPH blog experiment would be interested to hear any further de-briefing ideas about whether this is something worth continuing in future years - perhaps we can just continue the conversation "over there" in the comment space of virtual Liverpool!

Also, check out the MP3 versions of several presentations from Liverpool, available on the conference website. The audio files include the keynote lectures by Frank Field, MP ("Why Politicians Should Pay Attention to History") and Sandy Nairn of the National Portrait Gallery ("Inspiration and Identity: What is Represented in Public Galleries?") as well as talks by Rebecca Conard, Dave Neufeld, Susan Ashley, and David Dean on Canadian and American public history practices.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Linenthal keynote excerpts

In these short excerpts from his keynote address on Friday, Ed Linenthal discusses memorial language, representational power, the erasure of some histories and memories from public spaces, and the possibility of reconciliation through shared discourse about the past. The 10-minute selection of clips includes Linenthal's opening and closing remarks, and a longer clip in which he describes his experiences at a conference convened at the one-year anniversary of the creation of the Washita Battlefield National Historic Site in Oklahoma.

For more on this speech, see earlier discussions by Kelly Britt and Denise Meringolo.

Filming and editing of this address and Andrew Ferguson's opening plenary address were done by Travis Patterson and crew members Roy Oberto and Tim Roberts from the University of West Florida Public History Program. NCPH is deeply appreciative of their time and talents in helping with this aspect of the conference.

Reflections on Responsibility: The Closing Plenary

The Closing Plenary of the National Council on Public History Annual Meeting provided an opportunity for attendees to reflect on the main themes of the conference. Three panelists amplified and complicated the ways in which conference sessions touched on issues professional responsibility. By linking questions about power, professionalism, political activism and emotional attachment, the speakers asked us to consider the precise nature and dynamic of our responsibility as historians in the public sector. They expressed both enthusiasm and caution about the role of public history in shaping the intellectual and the emotional content of the past.

Calinda Lee, a public history educator from Loyola University of Chicago, encouraged us to think critically about how we deploy professional authority. Over the course of the conference, she found herself becoming less skeptical about the value of “felt history,” recognizing it as a reflection of community status and beliefs. She admitted she had bristled when a secondary school teacher admitted her hesitation to represent slavery with images depicting the dire poverty of enslaved people. As a historian, Lee understood the complexity of these images and feared their absence in the classroom would only foster persistent myths. However, recognizing that the teacher's fears were not about the liberating potential of these images, but rather about their oppressive potential, she became more empathetic. For already marginalized students, such images might dis-empower students rather than giving them a sense of connection to the past. Images, like words, can pour salt into old wounds.

This understanding encouraged Lee to ask: “In whose service do we work.”

Lee observed a disjunction in the broad field of public history between those who feel compelled to shake the foundations of myth and those who recognize that myths contain elements of emotional truth. The sessions she attended provided evidence that public history can serve communities more effectively if we, as its practitioners, resist the impulse to dismiss myth outright and instead work to reconcile the emotional truths that myths disguise with accurate stories about the past.

Margo Shea, a PhD student in Public History at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, observed that this conference had engaged her complete self, allowing her to integrate issues that affect her as a human being, with those that interest her as a scholar and public historian. This description of engaging the complete self seems an apt metaphor for the work of public history more broadly and provides another way of thinking about public historians' responsibilities and potential activist role.

Shea observed that the commonly used phrase “shared authority” is not quite sufficient for describing the kind of collaboration and active engagement that shape public history as a field of both scholarship and practical work. Shared authority rests on a common ability to command authority, and suggests a blind adherence to larger interpretive frameworks, predetermined by disciplinary expertise and the power conveyed by connection to elite institutions. She suggested that "shared inquiry" might be a better way to conceptualize civic engagement. Sharing inquiry requires us not simply to invite interdisciplinary expertise, but to incorporate or at least consider very different ways of knowing and experiencing the past. She observed that, as historians, we have the privilege of walking away from “completed” projects. However, we do so at the risk of abandoning our responsibility to our community partners and denying the role we have played in altering their most basic and heartfelt beliefs.

Finally, Shea's observations ask us to be more mindful of the way we deploy power in the process of creating new historical narratives and sensibilities. She observed that public historians may be a bit too cavalier about the extent to which our work touches emotion. We need to think more critically and in a more actively interdisciplinary fashion about the ways in which events live with people –in their minds, in their bodies, in their hearts—so that we can be better prepared and more self-reflective about our role in transforming the stories that shape very primal and personal identities.

Robert Weible, who recently left the Pennsylvania Museum Commission after 19 years to accept a position with the New York State Museum, took a somewhat different position on issues of authority than either Calinda Lee or Margo Shea. He quoted Bob Dylan: “I can’t provide for you no easy answers, who are you that I should have to lie”

Interpreting that provocative line, Weible argued that history is powerful and purposeful. And, it is precisely because history is powerful –because stories affect the lives and beliefs and material conditions of communities—that we have a responsibility to actively shape not only the narrative of the past but also the uses of that narrative.

With that in mind, he asked us to be more specific in determining how public historians engage emotion. We could act like therapists, he imagined, and help people come to terms with the past in a non-judgmental and non-directive fashion. However, such disinterest is disingenuous, a mask to disguise expertise. He insisted that public historians must embrace expertise, using it to ensure that communities use history accurately and responsibly. This task is possible because we have rejected older scholarly models of exclusive professionalism, replacing them with an appreciation for the emotional as well as the intellectual and practical side of history. We can help people take the past seriously, and we should accept with confidence our right to the final edit.

If the comments and suggestions from the audience are any indication, next year’s conference will enable us to embrace our professionalism by addressing pressing intellectual questions about activism and global identity formation. It will also encourage us directly address the need to diversify our profession in order to foster innovative and creative new forms of collaboration and story telling.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Power of Objects

The Power of Objects
Film Screening and Discussion: Objects and Memory filmmaker Jonathan Fein
Probably the best way to end my day attending sessions that have really focused on the power of the public in public history. In addition to the power that the public holds in shaping the interpretation of the past, this film focused on the power of objects have on bridging the past with the present. Objects and the language they embody, are one of the main reasons why I entered the discipline of archaeology. I have always been fascinated with people’s interaction with the materials around them. This film looked at the everyday objects that were recovered from Ground Zero of the World Trade Towers from 9/11 and the Oklahoma City Bombings and the meanings and memories they now hold. It showed how people communicate—communicate with memories both positive and in this case traumatic and with the dead—but it was a very reciprocal communication. In the film many people interviewed not only felt as if they were communicating with loved ones that were victims by leaving objects at memorials, but also found objects at the sites were the loved ones way of communicating with them. This was also seen in the Legacy of Slavery Session, where many of the sites discussed showed present day people communicating with the past through ritual and objects. It is as important to have the historic objects for the present as it is for the present to give present objects to the past. They really are ways people can as Ed Linenthal stated in the film, “touch the past” and are extremely powerful.

Kelly Britt

The Power of People

Session 42: Public History and the Legacy of Slavery Or as Cheryl LaRoche stated—we should rather say the Legacy of the Enslaved
Moderator: Stephanie Grauman Wolf

Presenters: James T. Campbell, Brown University, Rhode Island
Cheryl Janifer LaRoche, University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland
Sharon Ann Holt, Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities, MARCH, New Jersey (unfortunately not there—due to American Airlines—read by Stevie Wolf)

Stevie Wolf eloquently put that the interpretation of slavery is one dealing with “sacred ground and profane ground” and one that has complex negotiations and complex histories. Shan Holt’s paper on the President’s House in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, James T. Campbell’s talk of his research on Brown University’s history and connection to slavery and the transatlantic slave trade, and Cheryl LaRoche’s discussion of the African Burial Ground in New York City, all showed that the complex dialogue on the legacy of the enslaved can, and more importantly is what the public wants and now even insists upon. This complex dialogue can be described as Shan Holt did in her paper as an ‘unwrapping’ of the ‘gift-wrapped’ interpretation of history that has existed in the interpretation of sites. These were wonderful examples of how James Campbell described as “retrospective justice”, people taking the past and using it to work out issues of social justice in the present. I almost think I attended this session just in time, for I had begun to doubt how much ‘public’ voice is actually in the site that I have worked at and began to find myself doubting what kind of affect history and sites can have on riling the crowd to come to the cause—whatever that cause may be. I think this session was a needed reminder for me, that history can really affect the present, and more importantly can be initiated by the people for the people.

Kelly Britt