This year’s Annual Meeting of the National Council on Public History marked my first time as a conference attendee and participant of the meeting (I was there last year in Monterey, California, but as an NCPH employee. I spent almost all of my time at the front desk). As mentioned in my last post, I had an opportunity to participate on a panel about the intersection of theory and practice in public history. I also mentored two public history students throughout the meeting and emceed the Speed Networking session, which I helped organize through my membership in the NCPH Professional Development Committee. Based on the feedback I’ve received I think all went well on my end.
Nashville is a cool city with lots of great music and food. Each night I had a chance to take in the sights and sounds of the city while visiting with many friends, but looking back I think I should have made more of an effort to get out and learn about Nashville’s history. It’s difficult to take much in with such a jammed-packed itinerary of sessions to attend, but by Friday and Saturday I was starting to feel locked inside the conference hotel. Next year I think I’ll take a walking or bus tour of some sort if I’m able to make it out to Baltimore for NCPH 2016.
As for the conference itself, I learned a lot and thought it was great (A collection of post-conference materials can be viewed here). The sessions I attended focused on “comfort narratives” and marginalized histories at cultural sites; communicating history to lay audiences through journalism, video, podcast, and other media; interpreting local history and the Black Power Movement in Civil Rights museums; social activism in public history scholarship and practice; workplace challenges of early career public historians; and doing public history work for the federal government.
My big takeaways from the conference can be summed up in two tweets from other conference attendees:
— Hope Shannon (@HistorianHope) April 16, 2015
— elizabeth catte (@elizabethcatte) April 18, 2015
In my world of interpreting nineteenth century history the “edgiest” history I discuss on a regular basis revolves around discussions about slavery, racism, and segregation. These topics were rather taboo at many cultural sites through the 1990s, and they probably remain so in some places presently. Just today I chatted with a volunteer at a historic home in the St. Louis area who stated that the home’s interpreters never used the word “slavery” well into the early 2000s because “visitors didn’t want to hear about it.” With those sorts of comments from visitors it’s easy to see how even a generic acknowledgement of something like slavery runs the risk of offending a visitor’s sensibilities. There are times when people visit cultural sites simply because they want to have all their prior beliefs about history and contemporary society confirmed and be told that everything will be okay. So it goes.
Interpreters, of course, must do their best to honestly portray history in a way that doesn’t offend visitors. But it seems to me that we must also do our best to honestly portray history in a way that doesn’t offend the sensibilities of those whose ancestors’ experiences were shaped by slavery, racism, segregation, or any other form of oppression. The two groups are sometimes one and the same, but more often than not I share these stories solely with people who look like me and come from backgrounds like my own; white, middle-class, suburban, “comfortable.” I talk about oppressed people at work, but less often do I actually talk with oppressed people at work. I think that’s the case at a lot of cultural sites in the United States, for better or worse. It’s far easier to cautiously look over the edge of history from a distance than to walk towards the edge to see what you might find on the other side.