A Call to All Public History Employers

Little Round Top at the Gettysburg Battlefield
Little Round Top at the Gettysburg Battlefield

This past weekend I took note of a couple thought-provoking blog posts worthy of mention here. Both essays argue that public historians at National Parks, museums, and state/local historical sites need to find ways to use their resources and respond to last month’s Charleston massacre. Christopher A. Graham is trying to find examples of small museums and Civil War sites engaging in some sort of interpretive dialogue about Civil War history and memory in the aftermath of Charleston without much luck. He offers some thoughtful ideas on simple programs these places could embrace for discussing these topics and expresses his wish to see “small museums…wading constructively and imaginatively into this conversation about the Confederate flag.” Kevin Levin echos similar sentiments in calling for public historians to “get out there and do what you are trained to do.” He, like Christopher, is looking for examples of innovative programs like the one John Hennessy recently offered at Fredricksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park. There are currently no comments with any specific examples on that post, so it looks like his readership has not found any noteworthy interpretive programs either.

I am in general agreement with these posts. The national discussion taking place about the Civil War’s enduring legacy offers a ripe opportunity for public historians and Civil War history sites to enter themselves into an important and highly visible conversation. I would only slightly push back against Kevin in that plenty of public historians at Civil War sites understand their responsibilities as interpreters and care a great deal about “getting out there.” We’ve been out there plenty, actually. In the aftermath of the Ferguson unrest, for example, we at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site here in St. Louis “responded” in May by hosting every 8th grader in the Ferguson-Florissant School District over a two-week period at the park to discuss slavery, the Civil War, and U.S. Grant’s presidency. I pushed the envelop even further by designing a short ten-minute facilitated dialogue in our museum about the ambiguous nature of the term “justice” and how racism affects our own contemporary society. While our park hasn’t yet formulated a program specifically connected to the Charleston Massacre, it’s not as if we stopped talking about these issues once the Ferguson kids went back to school. Our urgency to wade into these discussions has not diminished one bit and we’ve been having plenty of them with regular daily visitors to our site this summer.

It seems safe to say, however, that many Civil War sites including ours can do more to connect past with present through interpretive and educational programs. This shortcoming challenges us to ask tough questions about the purpose of public history in communicating accurate, thought-provoking interpretive histories to diverse audiences of all types. Kevin asks what public history sites are doing “to help their communities make sense of the relevant history behind our ongoing and very emotional discussion about Civil War memory.” That’s a good question, but we can also flip it to ask what local communities are doing to help their public history sites tell accurate, inclusive histories of the Civil War. Are the board members, museum directors, front-line employees, and volunteers that run a given public history site committed to fostering dialogue and a sense of community in their localities, or are they simply committed to placing fancy artifacts devoid of context on display for admiring cultural elites? I want to move Christoper and Kevin’s challenge to public historians upwards towards the people who employ these professionals at their institutions.

While I am still in the early stages of my public history career, I have thought much about the underlying values and philosophies needed to run a truly innovative public history site. I can think of at least three qualities for building a solid foundation at these places:

Vision: I know of and have visited a privately-run Civil War museum that explicitly states in its mission statement a desire not to debate or interpret the causes of the Civil War. The mission, they explain, is to pay homage to the soldiers of the war “without bias to either side.” Is it a surprise to anyone that this museum or ones like it don’t play any sort of public role in a larger dialogue about the Civil War and contemporary issues in Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, or elsewhere? It is a surprise that public historians at these sites lack any sort of institutional support to develop programs in response to current events and are often told not to discuss them with visitors? Is it any surprise that many history museums that prioritize uncritical candle-making activities and Blue-Gray gala balls face declining attendance numbers?

The impetus for thoughtful interpretive programming starts with a vision from the top. That vision should offer support to public historians by giving them space to experiment with new methods for communicating history to public audiences. That vision should also embrace a willingness to challenge visitors with programming that checks their prior assumptions. Public historians, however, can only do as much as their employers (who often come from non-history/education backgrounds) are willing to let them do.

Opportunity: The National Park Service is currently suffering from an $11 billion maintenance backlog. Reduced budgets and financial shortfalls since the government shutdown in 2013 and the 2008 recession have led to fewer rangers in uniform and reduced services in maintenance, law enforcement, park administration, and interpretation/education. Long-tenured employees are retiring and their jobs left unfilled. Some parks have almost no front-line staff and rely on volunteers to greet visitors and lead interpretive tours. Full-time, permanent jobs are scarce. It’s a dream of mine to become a park historian at a national park like John Hennessy someday, but I have no idea how to pursue that path because I’ve never seen a single posting for a park historian job in my whole time with the agency.

The NPS is but one example of a public history institution currently facing serious financial challenges. The Park Service and other public history sites at all levels often preach the importance of relevancy, diversity, and inclusion in their hiring practices, but such ideals are meaningless if there are no opportunities to establish a stable career and a livable wage to support yourself. While I realize that many sites must find ways to cut expenses and stay in the black, it always worries me when I see a lot of volunteers running the show at any given public history site. It’s not that I don’t value their contributions – far from it. But public historians don’t spend thousands of dollars for their education (and for internships that are often unpaid) to be volunteer museum docents for a living. Pay your interns. Invest in your employees with full-time jobs if at all possible. Do your best to pay your public historians and museum workers a living wage and offer them fair benefits.

Professional Development: Interpreting history requires specific skills and intensive training. A facilitated dialogue, for example, is not just a Q&A session with a sage on the stage. It requires the work of someone who has been trained to create structured conversations based on relevant questions that push participants to share their thoughts and experiences in a free exchange of ideas. Organizing a dialogue around a controversial topic like the Confederate flag is not something just anyone can easily do. How do you get a supporter of the flag and a person who finds the flag offensive into the same room talking with each other in a civil manner? It’s as tough as it sounds.

To repeat, while I value the volunteers who do so much to keep our Civil War sites running on a day-to-day basis, the process of creating an interpretive program, educational lesson plan, or facilitated dialogue often requires the skills of a trained professional who has the time and skills to put together such a plan. That means the professional’s employer must be willing to buck up for resources and training to aid the development of those programs. I have been fortunate enough to have some really wonderful training sessions with the National Park Service in facilitated dialogue and interpretation, but I know that many other public historians don’t have the luxury of getting any training once they join the workforce. We can’t expect these professionals to offer John Hennessy-like programs if they don’t have the training, resources, or support to put together such programs in the first place.

Finally, Aleia Brown’s article on museum practices and the Confederate flag is also relevant to this discussion and also worthy of your time.


5 thoughts on “A Call to All Public History Employers

  1. Agreed. Such programs are VERY important. But it is also important to have the training and background to be able to do them well. Additionally, such programs and displays are also something public and academic libraries can/should participate in. What other institutions are likely venues?

    1. I think public libraries–not just academic ones–would be great places for interpretive programs, as would community centers like the YMCA.

  2. Great stuff, Nick.

    Challenging the institutional conservatism, the necessary bureaucracy, the tight budgetary environments, and deadly routine of front-line interpretation is not sexy. It will not attract our most prominent voices or command a guest editorial in the Washington Post/Slate. It seems incremental, compromised, and disheartening, but ultimately, that’s the way you get your staff into anti-racism>diversity training sessions, and is a fundamental front in this struggle to get museums to rise to the challenge of Ferguson and Charleston.

    To that end, can you recommend a good manual on constructing facilitated dialogs?

    Would love to hear more about the Ferguson-Florissant program y’all did. (Man, if you could write that up as a model for other museums to follow…) I remember hearing about other efforts by museums in St. Louis… is there any kind of report on those programs?

    I’ve learned that AASLH plans to organize a forum on all this at their Louisville meeting. The Southeastern Museums Conference has organized an open forum for their Jacksonville meeting. That one looks pretty good.

    1. Thank you!

      The Epply Institute, which is house at Indiana University and does some work with the National Park Service, has some resources on facilitated dialogue that are pretty good right here: http://idp.eppley.org/Interp-Toolkit The latest issue of NCPH’s “The Public Historian” also has a good essay from Sarah Pharom (who was one of the leaders of my FD training session) and other scholars about their experiences with facilitated dialogue at the Tenement Museum in New York City. Unfortunately I think we are still looking for a truly comprehensive manual on Facilitated Dialogue that could be mass produced and disseminated.

      I don’t think there is an official report on the various activities different museums in St. Louis participated in after Ferguson, but educators from Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (aka the Arch) went to the Ferguson Public Library when the Ferguson-Florissant School District temporarily closed and did some activities with the students there (btw, this Reddit AMA with the director of the Ferguson Public Library is worth reading too: https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/2ns2tb/i_am_ferguson_public_library_director_in_ferguson/). The Missouri History Museum has been hosting town hall meetings, roundtables, and special guest speakers to discuss contemporary racism and police practices in addition to new museum exhibits contextualizing St. Louis history. There are probably other institutions that are doing things I’m not familiar with either.

      The facilitated dialogue I did with the Ferguson students was not actually planned by my supervisor, lol. I came up with it on my own basically because I hate scavenger hunts in a museum setting. I’ll try to go through my notes and see what I wrote down when I was planning my dialogue.

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