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

Historians/Interpreters Working Group

An innovation at this year's NCPH conference is the addition of three "working groups" focusing on specific issues within public history. Chuck Arning, a National Park Service ranger and co-facilitator of the working group charged with finding ways to build bridges between historical research and interpretation functions within the National Park Service, contributed this report:
This highly engaged working group xamined those issues that kept historians and interpreters from reaching their collaborative efficiency, and found that while there are many issues that required broader organizational support, there were a few key things that came out loud and clear that we all could take home with us.

* First, there is a a strong level of commitment by all involved to continue to build bridges between historians and interpreters.

* We recognized that interpreters needed to have a good toolkit bookshelf that many organizations contribute to - i.e. a reservoir of knowledge that could be drawn upon to assist them in doing their job.

* This was a high-energy group, and there’s a commitment to continue the dialogue. We had an audience of 18 people above the members of the working group itself, and we collected emails from all. So now the challenge that we have is to figure out how to make this dialogue work. There was a strong desire to take some immediate actions – for example, Tim Merriman of National Association of Interpreters has offered to do a thematic issue of Legacy, the mag of NAI, based on public history, and several others stepped up to the plate to begin to develop pieces of the toolkit and continue the dialogue.

* And finally, it was the general consensus that the session was too short!

Diversity: Expanding our Professional Boundaries

This morning, I attended a breakfast meeting of public history educators as well as a facilitated discussion about “best practices” for Public History graduate education. At both sessions, we discussed the progress made by the organization’s Curriculum and Training Committee and opened up discussion about issues of major concern to us as scholars, as public historians and as teachers.

The primary topic of discussion at our breakfast meeting was diversity. David Glassberg, from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, was the first to broach the subject as a problem in faculty hiring, but it soon became apparent, that public history educators share a concern about the lack of diversity in our field. It is impossible not to observe that public history remains largely the domain of whites who are disproportionately represented among faculty, student populations, and practitioners, not to mention among those we call stakeholders and audiences.

There are a few projects seeking to address this very problem. At the University of South Carolina, Connie Shulz and Robert Weyeneth developed an NEH funded Summer Institute designed to introduce public history to college teachers who serve historically underrepresented student communities. The institute focused attention on African American historic sites and encouraged teachers to link academic inquiry in the classroom to issues of preservation and the profession of public history. The University of South Carolina Public History Program website contains a link to information about this project, and Shulz and Weyeneth encourage other colleges and universities to adopt and adapt their model.

While the University of South Carolina tackled the problem of diversity by providing professional training to college teachers, other public history educators at the breakfast called for more deliberate recruitment of students of color. Calinda Lee, from Loyola University in Chicago, asked us to consider the ways in which diversity issues are related to the economics of graduate education. Many programs provide most if not all of their graduate funding to PhD students, placing students pursuing a terminal MA at a disadvantage. Lee also observed that intense mentoring relationships are crucial to the success of public history students. She urged public history departments to create mechanisms –formal if necessary—to ensure that students of color are actively recruited into public history programs, and then supported in their effort to complete the degree and find work.

Several colleagues observed that active recruitment and nurturing of relationships must extend beyond students to include new community partnerships. Public History programs should actively seek out opportunities to work as equal partners with African American museums and community institutions. Whenever possible, we should invite public history practitioners from these sites to teach regular courses as well.

At our facilitated discussion of best practices, a roomful of public history educators discussed draft documents by the Curriculum and Training Committee which recommend requirements for graduate training. For the most part, there seemed to be little disagreement over the basic framework of public history graduate education: grounding in historical methodology and historiography, hands-on experience in the form of internships, an introductory course in public history, and some culminating project to demonstrate student proficiency. At the same time, there was fruitful conversation about the variety in public history programs’ specializations, structure and curriculum.

In the course of this conversation, it became clear that we must also include a discussion of adjunct labor in our best practices recommendations. The use of adjunct labor is a sticking point in the historical profession and in academia more broadly. At the same time, it is crucial for students of public history to study with practitioners who bring both intellectual insight and first-hand, practical experience to the classroom. Further, because public history encompasses many potential areas of expertise, it is not possible for any single public history educator to be able to cover all of the possible fields.

Because the issue of adjunct labor also touches the issue of diversity, the Curriculum and Training Committee might be able to provide some recommendations about how to form mutually valuable partnerships with under-served and underrepresented historical professionals and institutions. While this is certainly not the only answer to the problem of homogeneity in the field, it might open up opportunities for ensuring that our field becomes more inclusive and therefore better equipped to serve the needs of 21st century citizenship.

The Public Trust

In Liverpool Kathryn Pieren just reported on Helen Weinstein's presentation on "1807 Commemorated," an in-depth study of the representation and commemoration of last year's bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade in Britain. One part of the study used surveys, interviews, and unobtrusive observation to gauge visitor engagement and response at museums across the UK.

Yesterday Mary Stevens & Kelsey Flynn wrote from Liverpool about David Dean's talk, and in particular about a 2007 survey entitled Canadian's And Their Pasts, revealing the high level of trust the Canadian public has in museums.

Stevens mentioned a seminal study by Nick Merriman, Beyond the Glass Case (1991), which examined the British public's attitude towards museums. In the US, of course, we have Roy Rosenzweig & David Thelen's Presence of the Past.

Since many of us ask ourselves, as Kelly Britt did here on Thursday, what impact is our work having , and since we are continually required to answer funders' and stakeholders' questions about the relevance and effectiveness of our work as public historians, is anyone aware of recent or current visitor/audience studies here in the US that build on Rosenzweig & Thelen's work?

What does public history have to do with climate change?

A lot, as it turns out. At an informal session designed to open a conversation among public historians about how our work does (or might) relate to growing concerns about climate change, peak oil, resource depletion, and related issues, participants teased out a range of ways that we could address these issues through our public historical practice. Some ideas and themes that emerged:

* Public historians have a unique set of talents (and perhaps then an actual obligation) to speak out in ways that encourage our various publics and colleagues to think about the historical processes relating to our current patterns of consumption and waste. How did we get here? And what can that tell us about how to get out of the problems looming on our environmental horizons? Public historians are good at posing those kinds of questions in engaging and inclusive ways.

* Historic sites are potentially powerful platforms for modeling as well as depicting less wasteful, more conscious consumption. Several participants commented that recycling is not new - it is disposability that is very recent. Showing other ways of living/producing/consuming is important, and we should take take our own interpretation to heart in the management and running of our own workplaces and historic properties.

* We should be linking with other historical/environmental organizations to find out what they are doing in this area.

* There is a tension between hope and despair when thinking about these issues. Looking at historical examples of other grass-roots movements (eg. abolition and suffrage movements) and paradigm shifts can help us lean toward the "hope" side of the equation on this one.

* Our conferences themselves can be places for us to change our consumption and energy use patterns, as NCPH has tried to do in many ways with our meeting in Louisville. But more clearly remains to be done, as session participant Harry Klinkhamer discovered when exiting the session room...

Posted by Cathy Stanton.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Bourbon and BBQ - we are in Kentucky, after all!

Mark’s Feed Store-BBQ

At the NCPH conference in Kansas City where we had BBQ every night-my friend and colleague Cathy Stanton and I have developed a NCPH conference pilgrimage for BBQ. Since we were both jonesing for some BBQ, we asked where can one get a good BBQ dinner. Several locals suggested Mark’s Feed Store-so off myself and Cathy and another colleague went on our what seems to have become a NCPH conference pilgrimage for good BBQ. We both concurred that while Mark’s Feed store was quite good BBQ-it was no Arthur Bryant’s of Kansas City. However, their buttermilk crunch ice cream sundae with caramel and nuts was a pretty damn good ending to a very eventful day.


Being a scotch drinker, I thought I would venture into the world of bourbon while down here and try some brands I normally would not get in the ol’ north city of Philly and perhaps blog about them as well as the conference. So tonight I tried Elijah Craig Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky. Quite nice, smooth and full-bodied and was enjoyed immensely especially after that wonderful buttermilk crunch sundae, but I have to say I still like the peaty, dirt flavor of scotch. But want to try as many different bourbon’s as possible while here in Kentucky-so suggestions are welcome.

Kelly Britt

Kelly Britt goes on a field trip - Underground Railroad history

Session 21 and Field Trip:
From the Ohio Valley to the ‘Promised Land’: Remembering Slavery and the Underground Railroad
A. Glenn Crothers, The Filson Historical Society

Panel Presenters:
Dr. Blaine Hudson, University of Louisville, Kentucky
Dr. Keith Griffler, University of Buffalo State University of New York, New York
Dr. Karolyn Smardz Frost, Archaeology Resource Centre, Toronto, Canada
Ms. Pam Peters, Independent Scholar, Indiana
Ms. Alicestyne Adams, Georgetown College, Kentucky
Ms. Sally Newkirk, Director of Carnegie Center for Art & History, New Albany, Indiana

This was a roundtable and tour was held offsite in New Albany, Indiana, at the Carnegie Center for Art and History, where we had an in-depth discussion about various issues surrounding the Underground Railroad history, scholarship, and interpretation. In addition, we toured the permanent exhibit and saw sections of the DVD, “Ordinary People. Extraordinary Courage: Men and Women of the Underground Railroad in the Indiana and Kentucky Borderland”. This session was held off site across the river at the Carnegie Center for Art & History in New Albany, Indiana. While the entire panel and presentation was interesting and informative, as most panels tend to evolve, the discussion really got exciting towards the end, after we viewed segments of the DVD, and the panel was taking questions from the audience. The two questions that all interpreters of history face are: What is remembered or selected to be remembered and secondly, Why? As many of the panelists stated, the why is slighting easier to understand: the Underground Railroad Narrative is one that is an easier way to bring the discussion of slavery to the table, for it offers the ‘illusion’ of escape. In many ways it makes a horrific time of American History palatable to much of the public, and slavery is a subject that must be discussed. But as the discussion continued, the what to tell and I would also add, how to tell it, are more difficult questions to answer, for there really is no one answer. The DVD we watched, was quite a well done, multi-media production, and all locally created, which was really nice to see. However, the story that was told, in many ways to me, perpetuated some of the myths that we discussed in the session and are trying to get away from, in particular, the one that shows white people as the main aids to enslaved people throughout the Underground Railroad movement. However, I cannot fully comment on this-since we did not see the whole video and interactive activities that may address these issues and give another perspective.

The interesting part for me was the discussion on the bus on the way back to the hotel that I had with friend and colleague Cheryl La Roche. It really carried on the questions that were posed earlier of what is remembered and why—but to a different level. The topic of memory and forgetting was already on the floor after many audience members and panelists brought up the fact that as students themselves were never taught or rarely taught about African American history and the Underground Railroad. Cheryl pointed out that we have focused on the idea of remembering and forgetting, but there is another important force here to-and that is erasing. How do we begin to remember a past or parts of a past that has been purposefully erased?

Kelly Britt

Out of our academic silos...

Session 9: What Can Historians, Sociologists, and Anthropologists Learn from One Another?
Cathy Stanton, Tufts University, Massachusetts-Organizer and fill in moderator for Shan Holt of MARCH-Mid-Atlantic Center for the Humanities

Panel Presenters:
Kelly M. Britt, Columbia University, New York
Cynthia Negry, University of Louisville, Kentucky
Jay M. Price, Wichita State University, Kansas

Well a short answer to the question the session was based on: What can we all learn from one another: A LOT. Whether it is the history of each disciplines move towards a ‘public’ engagement, or the origins and politics of the public divide—the divide between public, academic and private in any discipline or the impact any work has on the civics, economics, etc. of the community(ies) in which we work, I think we can gain much insight from one another’s disciplines histories and experiences. I think the word to walk away with from this session is ‘transdisciplinary’, which to me – goes even beyond interdisciplinary. For me, interdisciplinary work is what is needed but one must be trans-disciplinary-basically wear hats of many disciplines and no longer approach any project from one angle. This of course involves, open-mindedness, discipline of reaching out to different professions and avenues of research, and primarily communication. Without communication to each other and with each other, we will continue to work in what Cathy called our “academic silos”, even if we have an interdisciplinary project. Now the question is will the shift from merely interdisciplinary research and work to a more trans-disciplinary one actually take place? I see it happening, but only the future can really tell where this will go.

Kelly Britt

"Healing Wounds, Opening Wounds" - keynote address by Edward Linenthal

Edward Linenthal, Journal of American History and Professor of History, Indiana University
Keynote Address (click here for video excerpts from this speech)

Healing Wounds, Opening Wounds: the Burdens of Remembrance

As we deal with sacred sites of remembrance, issues of what is remembered and how it is remembered, have always been at the forefront of the questions asked. Linenthal brings up two topics these questions also need to address when looking at sites of remembrance: language and remembering sites that have been officially forgotten. I will just comment on his points made on the use of language at sacred sites.

He gets us to think of words used in remembering, memorializing, and interpreting events and the challenge they can be to work with. For instance:

Massacre vs. battle
Disaster, catastrophe, carnage, incident-what do they imply
Riot vs. resistance
Kill vs. murder
Lives lost-as if they can be found?
Impact of violence vs. futility of violence
Heros vs. victims

He asked, Do we not challenge the remembering of a ‘felt history’ and allow for language that is more in tune with what the major stakeholders need to hear? Alternatively, do we push the issue of language, especially with terms and definitions? How important is it for people visiting these sites to struggle with these terms especially in smaller spaces of interpretation? In many ways, this piggy backs the topic that has been floating on H-Public asking should all sites be “sites of conscience” or I would even ask “sites of controversy?” When it comes down to language and semantics, for many sites there is no way to escape controversy. What is a riot to one group is a resistance to another, etc.….

He also goes on to what I think is a provocative question: Are there spatial aspects to memorials and the use of “controversial language”? Can you use one type of language directly at the sacred site and a different set of words to describe the same event meters away? And if you can, how do arrive at the numerical number that puts a physical distance between a site and a memory that makes it ‘ok’ to make the interpretation of the site more critical and less “felt”?

As he stated, language can be defiling and the use of personal space can be defiling, and asks, “Is it ok to bruise a few feelings?” Since he posed no answer to this I thought it would be interesting to hear what others feel on this topic: When and how does our professional integrity stay fast or become flexible?

Kelly Britt

(Denise Meringolo also writes about Linenthal's speech on this blog.)

President Bill and “Alfafa Bill” – The Presidential Address

Outgoing NCPH president Bill Bryans spoke on “A Tale of Two Bills: Racism, Anti-Semitism, and the Sensibilities of a Public Historian” at the awards luncheon today. The talk chronicled a controversy at Bryans’s home institution, Oklahoma State University, over the proposed re-christening of a building named for “Alfafa Bill” Murray, an agrarian populist politician who combined progressive-era reforms with a firm belief in racial segregation and (late in life) a bitter anti-Semitism. To many on the campus, particularly among those concerned about the campus’s very real lack of diversity and lack of discussion about race, re-naming the building was an unquestioned good.

Bryans, though, did question the change, and was labelled by some as a racist and anti-Semite for doing so. He felt, though, that the push to do the socially expeditious thing was short-circuiting any discussion of the complexities of Murray’s history, and he didn’t want to see the less-obvious history of the building (as a dorm and a central part of the campus for many years) expunged. He contrasted the university’s lack of attention to the nuances of the historical record with a case at the University of Colorado in the 1980s, when the administration responded to a similar re-naming proposal by appointing a historian to investigate and make recommendations. (Perhaps this approach mirrors the discussion on the Liverpool conference blog about whether the British government needs a chief historical advisor?)

Bryans’s central point—“We gain more from confronting our past than erasing it”—made an interesting comparison with Ed Linenthal’s keynote plenary address this morning. Linenthal notes that sites of memory and commemoration can create conflict in a community as often as they facilitate reconciliation. Bryans probably wouldn’t disagree, but he seems to welcome the conflict as a potential teaching moment that can do more in the long run to address racial dialogue and diversity at OSU than a simple and simplistic change of name at Murray Hall.

Posted by Cathy Stanton

Language, Emotion and Power: The Frustration and Exhilaration of Public History

I believe I have written this precise sentence before, perhaps dozens of times: Public historians are intimately engaged with the emotions, identities and beliefs of audiences in ways that traditional academics simply are not.

My experiences during today’s events at the National Council on Public History Annual Meeting reminded me of that truth.

This morning Edward T. Linenthal, spoke eloquently about memorials and, more broadly, about the memorial impulse behind many public history projects. He said the persistent belief that memorials are, by definition, acts of healing and reconciliation is baffling to him. Indeed, his work has produced much evidence to demonstrate that the process of memorial-building can open as many wounds as it heals, forget as many stories as it remembers, and exclude as many people (and as much pain) as it includes.

In a richly descriptive presentation, Linenthal reminded us that language matters, and that carefully chosen words sometimes have the effect of minimizing or (perhaps worse) normalizing acts of brutality and injustice. He noted: words can be the salt poured into the wounds of victims and survivors.

Linenthal has a long and prestigious body of scholarship from which to draw for examples. He has studied the ways in which Americans sanctify their battlefields, and has analyzed efforts to memorialize events as disparate as the Oklahoma City Bombing, the Holocaust, the events of September 11, 2001, and the Tulsa Oklahoma Race Riots of 1921. His work repeatedly demonstrates that the very events that official culture would like to forget because they do not reflect well on American history and identity are often the very events that form the core of localized, vernacular identities. In his words, officially forgotten places are often the most intensely remembered.

I left Linenthal’s talk thinking not simply about language, but about power.

As public historians we are often faced with the task of interpreting a collection of intensely remembered –and intensely contested—places, many of which are sites of violence and trauma. We have the daunting responsibility to engage mindfully with a cacophony of emotional sensibilities attached to such places. It is not always easy to quantify, contain and tame the power of what he calls “felt history.”

It may not ever be possible.

It might not actually even be advisable.

It may be that the very impulse to mitigate the emotional power of painful pasts is precisely what transforms memorials into sites of cultural amnesia rather than cultural memory. It is an act of power to insist on transforming felt history into some apparently "neutral" observation of past events.

Immediately following Dr. Linenthal’s talk, I lead a good natured group of graduate students on a soggy walking tour to three local museums – the Frazier International History Museum, the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory, and the Muhammad Ali Center. At each institition, we met museum educators and curators whose work requires them to think about the ways in which the artifacts they display and the stories they tell might connect to audiences and identities and arouse an emotional response.

At the Frazier, a traveling exhibit on the slave ship Henrietta provides a metaphor for the ways in which the educational staff is re-imagining the institution’s interpretive plan. The bulk of the museum's permanent collection consists of historical weapons from the United States and Great Britain. These weapons have been displayed in cases as artful artifacts. Viewed through the lens of the historical brutality and inhumanity emblematic of the slave trade, however, the weapons no longer appear unproblematic, innocent and attractive. At the Frazier, they believe conflict, emotion, and provocative language will attract new audience and engage them in conversations about the past as well as the future.

At the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory, a for-profit corporate institution, challenging stories about consumerism, capitalism and the transformation of sports into an industry are unlikely to accompany the baseball bats used by Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente. Yet, the young curator recently displayed a copy of the Mitchell Report alongside sporting gear used by athletes accused of “juicing,” a juxtaposition that invited audiences to explore the report's language without mediation or judgment. At the Muhammed Ali Center, the boxer’s story serves as the framework for values-based educational programming that might provide a framework for the institution to evolve as a site for new forms of civic education in the future.

Later in the afternoon, I attended a session that promised to provide some guidelines for fostering university-community partnerships. The three speakers presented case studies in which university based historians participated with their students in projects designed to benefit a local community. Each of the three described the ways in which academic-oriented historians might be of service to local communities. Yet, each of the three speakers also expressed a measure of surprise about the ways in which community stakeholders responded to ivory tower proclamations about the meaning and value of locally significant neighborhoods and buildings.

Because our work –whether we like it or not—shapes official and vernacular forms of American identity, we must not only remain mindful of our interpretive language, we must also remain mindful of our cultural position. Underneath every interpretive act, memorial gesture and carefully chosen word is a power struggle in which we actively engage beliefs about who we are as community members and Americans. It is our responsibility to make this power struggle transparent to our audiences, our clients, our colleagues and ourselves.

It is not enough to say that words matter, we must explore the reason that words matter and to do so we must actively expose the power dynamics of race, class, gender and ethnicity. Harder still, we must become conscious of the ways in which we –as well-educated producers of culture—both bolster and benefit from their power.

Felt history is a starting point from which we might find creative ways to work as equal partners with communities to generate new interpretations that help us arrive at a more complicated notion of who we are and what our past means.

(For short video excerpts from Ed Linenthal's keynote speech, click here. Kelly Britt also blogs about it on this site.)

Come Together, Right Now

Denise Meringolo wrote yesterday about the loneliness of the public history educator, a phenomenon that I imagine may be the rule rather than the exception among public history faculty and students. Here at the University of Texas, where there is no public history program per se, public history coursework is scattered across departments--from Anthropology and History to the College of Communications and the School of Information--leaving both students and faculty feeling isolated even though they share a campus as well as their interests with many potential colleagues.

As Denise pointed out, this detachment is precisely the reason that conferences like the NCPH Annual Meeting and the Public History Conference in Liverpool are so important they. They remind us that we share intellectual, practical and philosophical concerns. Kelly Britt reminds us of the opportunity the NCPH Conference provides for a dialogue across disciplines, that public archaeology and public history can change the world but also that changing the world is a fundamental concern that binds both fields.

From the Liverpool conference, Mary Stevens also addresses the diversity of attendees. Echoing recent discussions on H-Public and the Public Historian's special issue on Public History as Reflective Practice, Stevens reports on Stephen Sloan's contention that public historians help shape a "useable past" from which an audience "can draw meaning and identity" and registers her own discomfort with the idea that history entrepreneurship--what Rebecca Conard called "the hidden realm of public history"--may be "selling a useable past."

So how do we as public historians reconcile metaphors of the marketplace (selling our ideas or selling our services) with metaphors of altruism (social change and civic engagement) when clearly, both individually and as a group, we engage in both realms?

Metaposts: Blogging about Blog Posts

As circumstances and the current airlines debacle seem to have conspired to keep me in Austin instead of in Louisville, blogging about conference sessions I would have attended, Cathy Stanton suggested that I might serve as a virtual attendee to both the NCPH Annual Conference and the 2008 Public History Conference in Liverpool. If this blog is supposed to be "an electronic third space between the two concurrent conferences," then perhaps as a third blogger, from the third world, living in a town that likes to refer to itself (pompously and unimaginatively) as the third coast, I might be well placed to perform such a task. So I will be right here, trying to make some humble connections between the already-scintillating posts on this blog and Liverpool's.

Outstanding Public History Project Award

Among the honorees at today's awards luncheon was a cell phone/vodcast tour created by Kathleen Hulser and others at the New-York Historical Society, entitled Slavery in New York. The judges, in their statement, expressed their admiration for "its multi-year timetable, breaking down of the North/South stereotype about slavery, suitability of the interpretive media documenting the 'workings' of slavery, interdisciplinary strength, and clear effort to teach students in various age categories as well as the general public."

A link to a segment of the tour can be found here.

Tour of Cave Hill Cemetery

NCPH conference attendee Larry Cebula took the walking tour of Louisville's Cave Hill Cemetery yesterday and posted his beautiful photos - click here for the whole slide show.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Plenary session with Andrew Ferguson

Public Plenary: Andrew Ferguson, author of Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America

(Scroll down for a full video posting of Ferguson's talk.)

Having not realized this session started at 7:30 instead of 8:00, I unfortunately was only able to sit in on the last portion of the plenary. However, some poignant points were addressed: such as the important role great historical figures have on the presentation of history to the public and how to present history to the public. The first point was captured wonderfully with his example of a visitor laying a flower on Lincoln’s tomb. The man was from the former Czechoslovakia who learned of Lincoln as a child and then spent time in a concentration camp during WWII where a vision of Lincoln came to him stating “All men are created equal…” and that he just needed to remember this and he knew if he did, he would be all right. His visit to Lincoln’s grave was a thank you for this vision for it gave him the strength needed to survive. The history of this one man, Lincoln, impacted another man so greatly, he felt he owed a thank you to him in person. Which then brings up the second point, how to interpret these extraordinary people to the public in an effective way. Ferguson pointed out that most of history taught today focuses around movements and not the specific people behind them and felt that “history as presented to the public has to give itself over to the dramatic, the incident filled…that hooks people”. This now gets into the possible idea of Disnefying history-making the experience just as important as the message-a topic of many discussions in public history and museums for some time. So I pose the question can less be more-or is more really more? And how do you effectively evaluate the difference?

Kelly Britt on "Can Archaeology Save the World?"

Session 7 Can Archaeology Save the World?
M. Jay Stottman, Kentucky Archaeology Survey, Kentucky
Panel Participants:
Kevin M. Bartoy, The Hermitage, Home of President Andrew Jackson, Tennessee
Sarah E. Miller, Florida Public Archaeology Network, Flager University, Florida
Anne Garland, Elizabeth City State University, North Carolina
Kelly M. Britt, Columbia University, New York

This session organized by M. Jay Stottman was to provide a panel of archaeologists to discuss their experiences engaging with the public and begin a dialogue between archaeologists and public historians on the on the process of civic engagement and how we can all learn from one another. Public archaeology has evolved throughout time, with much of it focusing on how archaeology can benefit from the public, but how can it go further and have a public benefit from archaeology? Can archaeology be an avenue in which real change can be made within the civic sector? The answer from the participants and many audience members was ‘yes’, and as Kevin Bartoy stated, “We already do”.

The session began by examining the questions Why do we do archaeology and How important is it, really? Each participant shared various ways in which they engage with the public on a daily basis at their individual site or sites. Many excellent examples were highlighted from various historic sites and programs, such as The Hermitage, Home of President Jackson, to The Thaddeus Stevens and Lydia Hamilton Smith Historic Site in Lancaster, Pennsylvania to various archaeological projects in Florida and historical ecological projects in North Carolina. From all the discussions two main themes occurred that are needed to create an engaged archaeological endeavor: Process and collaboration. Process on two levels-1) through the process of archaeology the public can develop a critical approach to thinking-thinking about anything archaeological or otherwise. 2) the development of a public archaeology is a process within itself. With each program, project, or site having to try and re-try new ways of engagement. In addition, a true engagement with the public can really only occur if collaboration is present and present at all levels of the spectrum: from interdisciplinary approaches to research, to working with various stakeholders in a community. These themes were discussed at length from various viewpoints and the main goal of the session, a dialogue between disciplines, was achieved with great points of discussion.

Being a participant on the panel, I feel quite close to this issue. What I struggle with is not so much that archaeology and history have the power to make a difference, but more how much difference does it really make and how can I do it effectively?

Posted by Kelly Britt

Thursday at the Conference, One Public History Educator's Experience

It has been my highly unscientific observation that academics are a uniquely insecure bunch –always certain that their work isn’t quite good enough or relevant to a larger intellectual community. For public historians working in the ivory tower, that general tendency can be amplified by real isolation. Many of us who are professors of public history are the single professional public historian in our departments. In that context, we can begin to lose sight of the ways in which our work is part of a larger set of professional practices.

One of the great benefits of coming to the Annual Meeting of the National Council on Public History is that it provides ample evidence that we are not alone. The issues we face in forming relationships with our colleagues, in developing curriculum for our students, and in shaping our role in the larger field of public history professionalism are not personal quirks or short comings –they are emblematic of important intellectual and practical concerns of our field.

I arrived at the Conference somewhat late in the day today, but I’ve already had conversations and encounters that help remind me that my work and my experience are part of a larger professional context.

Late this evening, I had some drinks with a colleague who works in New Jersey. Like me, she is an American Studies PhD and a practicing public historian. We had a lively and enjoyable conversation about a variety of topics ranging from our research interests to the status of American Studies among historians to our common experience growing up on the Jersey Shore. In the course of our talk, she observed that there seems to be an expansion of public history graduate programs. She wondered aloud about the content of these programs, their administration by academics and their value to a generation of students.

Her questions excited me, not only because, as the coordinator of a graduate Public History track, I ask them ALL THE TIME, but also because these are the very questions we as an organization are addressing --with the unique combination of intellectual curiosity, professional practicality and civic mindedness that define our field.

Just prior to this casual conversation, I had participated in a meeting of the standing committee on curriculum and training. Our committee is composed of public historians who administer public history programs and/or teach public history courses at the colleges and university level. Our work compliments the National Council on Public History’s recent efforts to adequately and fully define “public history,” to broaden promotion and tenure guidelines in ways that recognize and reward historical work in the public sector, and to ensure that the next generation of public historians is appropriately trained in both historical methodology and public service.

This year, the committee has produced working drafts of a series of “best practices” documents which we will present to our peers and use as the basis for creating general guidelines for Public History Masters Degree Programs, Certificate Programs, Undergraduate Courses and Internships. While by no means finalized, we hope these documents will provoke further conversation among practitioners and educators in the field of public history. We do not intend them –even in their final form-- to dictate a single "right way" to teach Public History. Rather, we believe that these documents will support the work that public history educators are already doing, and enable them to demonstrate to their colleagues and peers that they are adhering to --and contributing to-- a recognized set of professional standards.

This evening, we began hashing out a preliminary agenda for the committee to pursue in the coming year.

We are interested in conducting a survey regarding the workload, status, title and general experience of public historians in academic departments. In conducting this survey, we would like, eventually, to provide both some hiring guidelines for academic departments interesting in adding a public historian to their faculty as well as some fodder for contract negotiation for prospective and continuing public history faculty members.

In addition, the National Council on Public History webpage recently began publishing original commentary and research in the category of curriculum and training. We would like to encourage public history educators to submit proposals for postings that address particular issues, including:

How best to educate our colleagues about the nature of our work, the context of our scholarship and the value of our community relationships.

How public history educators have responded to the trend toward creating Centers for Public History. What strategies have emerged for ensuring that such entities are centers for intellectual inquiry and curriculum development, not only for the generation of revenue?

What creative strategies have program directors developed for training students to become public historians as distinct from museum technicians or archivists (related fields in which students might find better opportunities for training in Museum Studies or MLS programs)?

Of course, I can only accurately describe my own observations and report on ideas that particularly attracted my attention. At the same time, my formal and informal conversations today reminded me that my observations are not entirely idiosyncratic.

I may be the only active and self-identified public historian in my home department, but I am not alone.

More importantly, I can say for certain that the Curriculum and Training Committee would be delighted to hear more from the blogosphere –questions, suggestions, critique. In the meantime, I’m grateful for the opportunity to meet with like minded people whose professional interests touch my own.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Meet the blog team


Kelly M. Britt (left) received her B.A. in Anthropology from the University of Massachusetts/Boston and continued her studies at Columbia University where she received her M.A. and M.Phil., also in Anthropology.  She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at Columbia University, completing her research on the effects of archaeology and heritage tourism on community economics and identity at the Thaddeus Stevens and Lydia Hamilton Smith Historic Site in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  Her research interests include historical archaeology, urban studies, historic preservation, heritage studies, museum studies, tourism, and advocacy issues, especially around the topics of memory, construction of identity, and linking the past to the present in public interpretations of the past.

Antony Cherian (center) is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas at Austin, where he previously completed a Master of Science in Information Systems.  He has worked on public history and digital media projects for the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, Diverse Arts' Austin Blues Family Tree, the Lummi Nation's Northwest Indian College, and elsewhere.  "Truth I Ever Told," an oral history documentary that he co-authored and produced, won the American Folklore Society's 2003 Zora Neale Hurston Prize in African American Studies for its depiction of an African American farming community in rural Washington County, Texas.  Tony is currently working on his dissertation on the construction of narrative at Varner-Hogg Plantation State Historic Site.

Denise Meringolo (right) is professor and coordinator of the Public History Track at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.  She completed her Ph.D. at George Washington University and conducts research in American cultural history, with a particular interest in museums and other public historical institutions.  She has worked in numerous public history organizations, including the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, and the Accokeek Foundation at Piscataway Park.  Her scholarly work theorizes the relationship between public history and identity formation/  she is currently writing a book about the origins of the National Park Service's history program in the 1930s.