The National Council on Public History published an essay of mine about monument removals at National Statuary Hall on their History@Work blog earlier this week. Regular readers will see familiar arguments that I’ve been making about the role of historical iconography for quite a while on this blog, but in the essay I wanted to focus specifically on what I think is a great example of a dynamic, ever-changing commemorative landscape that has been modified quite often. By exploring changes at National Statuary Hall, I hope to complicate the idea that monument removal automatically constitutes “erasing history.” I also hope to demonstrate that Americans have been removing monuments ever since their country’s founding, and that such removals are actually a natural byproduct of a society’s changing values and evolving understanding of its history.
Please give the essay a read if you get the chance. Although I have written a lot on this particular topic, I believe this is probably the strongest, most definitive argument on where I stand on this issue. So far I’ve gotten largely positive feedback and even the popular historian and blogger John Fea featured it on his website.
I also owe a debt of gratitude to Christopher Graham and Nicholas K. Johnson for reading a draft of the essay before it went online. Thank you!
I wrote an essay for the American Association for State and Local History about doing educational programs with fourth graders and what we as public historians can learn from such experiences. Check it out here and let me know what you think!
Earlier this month I was in northwest Arkansas for a conference and had an opportunity to visit a number of history museums while there. Those site visits included the Daisy Air Gun Museum, the Rogers Historical Museum, and the Walmart Museum (yes, they have one). I found each site charming and the people who work at these sites extremely friendly. Everyone made me feel welcomed and were glad to have me as a visitor. On the whole I enjoyed my experiences at these places.
I am a critical viewer of museum exhibits, however, much in the same way that a musician is a critical viewer of other musicians or a filmmaker critically views rival cinema. My training in museum and historical methods ensures that I can never go back to looking at museums and public history sites as objective storehouses of artifacts and disinterested facts. I view every aspect from aesthetics to text markers to guided tours in an effort to see what larger interpretive messages these places hope to convey to their viewers. Although each site covers a wide time period that in some cases goes back to the late nineteenth century, they all had a similar interpretive centerpiece at the heart of their expererince: nostalgia for the 1950s.
Nostalgia is an inherently conservative emotion in my view. It smooths over the rough edges of history’s complexities and often focuses inward on our idealized personal memories of life experiences. Nobody looks back at a bad life memory in a nostalgic way. Nostalgia doesn’t convey how things were but how we wish they were and how we wish them to be. It tries to recreate an image of a past world that can never be recreated in the present, and the inability to bring this past world alive in the present intensifies our desire to bring it back against all odds. And above all else, we use nostalgia to reclaim our innocence – to return to a time when fear and insecurity didn’t exist and when things were simpler (at least in our minds). As Alan Jay Levinovitz argues in Aeon, “it is crucial to distinguish between wistful memories of grandma’s kitchen and belief in a prior state of cultural perfection.” Nostalgia is wistful thinking about a state of perfection that never existed. And it often sells within the context of museums.
The 1950s are a particularly unique time period shrouded in more nostalgia than any other era in recent history. Each museum I visited covered different aspects of this nostalgia. Men worked hard and had jobs to support the family; women stayed home and tended to the domestic sphere; children went to school and behaved like good little boys and girls; local law enforcement always had residents’ best interests at hand; everyone went to church and prayed to the same Christian God; racial, labor, or any other form of social strife was non-existent; everyone knew their place in society and happily accepted that place without reservation. We might call this interpretive phenomenon “Andy Griffith History.”
At one of the aforementioned sites I overheard a woman ask a museum employee why there were no exhibits on the contributions of African Americans or any other minority group to the life of the people in northwest Arkansas. The employee said that “well, we don’t have any exhibits on that topic unfortunately and the town of Rogers was a Sundown town in the 1950s.” A person visiting these sites without any sort of background in the history of the Civil Rights Movement would not realize that Walmart’s growth as a company occurred as Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus supported racial segregation of public schools and the Little Rock Nine crisis occurred. Nor would many people without prior knowledge look at the Walmart museum and learn that labor conflicts have occurred frequently throughout the company’s history. The pull of nostalgia only allows for a innocent view of the period devoid of any social conflict.
I suspect that 1950s nostalgia draws people to these places because the period has been so mythologized in popular culture and many (white) people alive today remember the era in fond terms. I do wonder, however, if this approach will continue to work over the next twenty or thirty years and if places that rely on nostalgia this way will have staying power in the long run. Again, I found a certain charm in these museums, and there were certainly good aspects of the 1950s that we should remember and celebrate. We should always heed Levinovitz’s advice, however, and avoid believing that any past era was perfect. That sort of thinking is bad for history and probably bad for determining contemporary policy too.
One of the last things I did in 2016 involved taking a short trip to New Orleans, Louisiana, to visit a good friend of mine and explore some of the historical sites in the area. The trip was wonderful and I also enjoyed the eighty-degree temperature outside, a nice contrast to winter in the Midwest.
About three years ago I had the opportunity to visit the National World War I museum in Kansas City. The National World War II museum just so happens to be located in New Orleans, and we made a point of spending nearly an entire day visiting the site. I came away from the World War II museum impressed with some aspects and less impressed with others. I’ve been thinking about the similarities and differences of my experiences at both museums since the trip, and what follows are some rough thoughts on those experiences.
One of the major aspects of the World War II museum is its use of technology throughout the museum. Upon arriving at the museum, visitors have the option of obtaining a “Dog Tag” card that looks like a credit card. Computer stations throughout the museum have a spot where you can put your card on a scanner, upon which the computer shows a short video of a World War II solider who is assigned to your card. Five stations throughout the museum tell a different aspect of your soldier’s experiences before, during, and after the war (if they survived it). Notwithstanding the difficulty of finding some of the computer stations (I missed two of them) and the lack of available computers (I don’t think I’ve been to a museum that was so busy and people were almost always hounded around the computers), I though the activity was thoughtful and educational. My “Dog Tag” had the story of four-star General Benjamin O. Davis, who happens to be an extremely important and heroic figure in U.S. military history. Elsewhere there was an interactive activity about the USS Tang, a ship that sunk thirty-three enemy ships during the war, that was immersive and interesting. Visitors were assigned to a station within a recreated model of the Tang and given a specific duty on the ship to complete during a mission.
Other uses of technology in the World War II museum were not as successful, in my opinion. The museum was full of videos throughout the exhibits, all of which had sound. The sounds from each of the videos often bled into each other, creating a wall of cacophonous sound that distracted from the exhibit text and artifacts in a given area. Equally frustrating was how the walkways throughout the exhibits were not large enough to isolate video-watchers from the rest of the crowd. People would stop to watch the videos and block the walkways for other museum-goers, creating cramped hallways and little breathing room to maneuver through the museum. The World War I museum, by contrast, doesn’t utilize as much digital technology in its exhibits but uses its resources in ways that are more user-friendly. Videos about the political situation in the 1910s, the coming of World War I, and the United States’ decision to enter the war are isolated from the rest of the museum exhibits, allowing visitors who want to see the videos the freedom to do so while not distracting from others who want to visit the museum’s other exhibits. While the World War I museum doesn’t offer a “Dog Tag”-type activity for visitors, it did offer one interactive activity in which visitors created their own propaganda posters using graphics and artwork from posters used in various countries at the time.
The other noticeable aspect of both museums is the role of politics in their interpretive exhibits. The World War I museum does a masterful job in both its exhibits and videos of analyzing the political conditions that existed in Europe before the coming of the Great War. Topics such as nationalism, colonialism, imperialism, racism, and entangling alliances are explained with clarity and precision without sacrificing complexity. Equally important, the World War I museum places particular interpretive emphasis on conditions in Europe, not the United States. I believe this distinction is really important. While the museum is tasked with educating visitors about the American role in war, the staff at the museum astutely understand that this role must be fit within a larger story that spends several years in Germany, England, France, Austria-Hungary, Serbia, and the rest of Europe before the U.S. became a leading actor. The museum’s splitting into two sections between the years of 1914-1916 and 1917-1918 (when the U.S. entered the war) reinforces the importance of not focusing on the war’s history through too strong of an American lens.
The World War II museum, however, struggles to address the equally messy politics of that conflict. The exhibits throughout the museum barely touch political matters beyond the interactions between politicians and generals with regards to military strategy and tactics. A film narrated by the actor Tom Hanks does acknowledge that the U.S. faced two growing enemies in fascist Europe and imperial Japan, but doesn’t explain how these two forces came to be. Visitors are told, for example, that the Nazi party ruled Germany through the ideological lens of hatred and Aryan racial purity, but doesn’t explain how the Nazi party appealed to a wide swath of German voters or point out that Hitler was democratically elected. Likewise, Japan is portrayed as a militaristic, land- and -resource-hungry empire bent on conquering all of Asia, but why Japan held these ambitions and how they gained such power in the first place is left unexplained.
Another contrast of equal interest is the use of patriotic themes through these museums. The World War I museum takes a somber, reflective tone throughout its exhibits. The most notable example is the Paul Sunderland Glass Bridge. Underneath the bridge lies 9,000 poppy flowers in a field. Each flower represents 1,000 deaths during World War I, symbolizing the nine million people worldwide (not just Americans) who died in that conflict. No such display is exhibited in the World War II museum, and while the Tom Hanks film points out that 65 million people worldwide died in World War II, it becomes evident in the film and surrounding exhibits that the 400,000-plus Americans who died during the war will get particular attention in the interpretive programs. Nothing demonstrated this fact more than a musical program in one of the World War II museum’s buildings. Three women in 1940s-style dresses–one red, one white, and one blue–sang patriotic songs for roughly thirty minutes, including the songs of each military branch and Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.” During Greenwood’s song the women pulled out a U.S. flag, which in turn led to rancorous applause among the museum’s visitors. This exercise isn’t necessarily wrong or out of place at a museum of American history, but I can’t help but feel like such a display would feel unusual at the World War I museum. Likewise, similar exercises would feel awkward in a German museum like the Jewish Museum, Berlin, or the German Historical Museum, both of which I visited in 2015, where such open displays of patriotism and nationalism are fraught with their own difficulties and historical baggage. The musical program reinforces the history of World War II as a “Good War” in American memory, as historian John Bodnar explains in his 2010 book on the topic. U.S. involvement in World War II was good, of course, but the story is more complicated than singing a Lee Greenwood song.
In sum, the interpretive focus of the World War I Museum is a warning in the dangers of excessive nationalist sentiment and an elegiac meditation on the destructiveness of war, particularly one in which modern technology further amplifies the killing. Conversely, the interpretive focus of the World War II Museum is openly nationalist, Ameri-centric, and a borderline glorification of war. The World War I museum explains the causes of the war, its effect on world affairs, and the consequences of an inadequate peace treaty that helped foster another tragic world war just a few decades later. The World War II museum only mentions the causes of the war in passing through a video. While it does highlight the bloodshed of the war, particularly the blood shed by American soldiers, it struggles to tie in the conflict with other global affairs and chooses to stop at the war itself. The messy politics of the Cold War are put to the side in favor of a simple narrative of American progress and freedom.
I enjoyed both museums and believe that everyone would benefit from visiting both, but I believe that the World War I museum is superior in its interpretive programming and educational themes. It remains one of the best museums I have ever visited.
Public historians who work in interpretation and education often find themselves in a uniquely different setting from that of a classroom history teacher. A classroom teacher typically has at least sixteen weeks to learn about his or her students and to build a relationship with them. The teacher typically works with those students from sixty to ninety minutes per classroom session, and the really good ones blend a range of pedagogical techniques throughout the semester that simultaneously foster teamwork, historical empathy, a better understanding of historical content for a given time period, enhanced reading, writing, and research skills, and a heightened appreciation of the importance of history in our daily lives.
Public historians share many of these same goals when working with their many publics, but the amount of time we have to communicate with them is much shorter. In my work with the National Park Service I typically get one ten-minute introductory talk to build a relationship with visitors of all different backgrounds and spark an interest in history within them. My interpretive narrative changes and evolves with each group I work with in the hope that I can meet people where they are on their own journey through history. In the public history world you must quickly learn how to work in small time spaces like mine. Moreover, you never know who will walk through that door to visit your site on a given day, which is simultaneously exciting and nerve-racking.
Those who work the front lines with their many publics are often trained to study historical content, put together an interpretive program based on a knowledge of that content, focus on exposing “multiple perspectives” to the past through the eyes of various historical actors and, if possible, make connections to present-day circumstances. These objectives are noble and challenging, especially because the historical content we interpret and the present-day connections we make are inherently political. If you work in public history long enough, you will run into a visitor who will object to the historical content you share, your intent to go beyond the historical perspective of White Anglo Saxon men, and the connections you make between the past and the present. These interactions can be difficult and emotionally draining. The recent news of increasingly hostile anti-immigrant comments from visitors to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City is but one example of tour guides experiencing a great deal of challenging visitor feedback about their interpretive stories and the messy politics of the present.
We are trained to understand the past but less often trained to deal with the present. While public historians should be prepared for confrontational visitors, how to work with these visitors to turn heated confrontations into meaningful interactions that promote learning and understanding is often left unsaid. What follows are a few simple tips that I’ve employed in my own interactions with confrontational visitors over the years.
Respectfully challenge visitors to further explain and defend their claims.
The purpose of education in my view is to encourage learning, which I broadly define as a change in thinking about and understanding of the world through experience, study, and interaction. When I experience a confrontational visitor, my first desire is to turn the interaction into a learning opportunity through dialogue. Public historians need to be well-versed in historical content and methods, but they also need to be effective conversationalists. Good public history practice is as much about being a respectful, attentive listener to visitor feedback as it is about effectively communicating historical content. When public historians demonstrate their willingness to listen, they establish trust with visitors and open the door for respectful interactions. They might also learn something from a visitor during the process!
When a visitor says something I might disagree with, I try to respectfully challenge that claim by encouraging the visitor to keep talking rather than telling them outright that they’re wrong. I like to use the following prompts:
“Tell me more.”
“What sources did you rely on to make that conclusion?”
“Where did you hear that claim? I’ve heard a few different viewpoints on this topic.”
“I want to better understand your perspective. What you do mean when you say…”
“There’s been a lot of debate about this topic. Have you read [enter a relevant work of scholarship] before? It might offer a different perspective worth considering.”
“Thanks for sharing your perspective. What made you interested in this topic?”
Each of these prompts challenges visitors to defend their position while also encouraging them to continue sharing their perspective with someone who’s willing to respectfully listen to them. I particularly like “tell me more” and “what sources did you rely on” because they put the onus on the visitor to explain and defend themselves. After listening and providing a few prompts to get the visitor talking, you then put yourself in a position to share your perspective and use your historical knowledge to direct the visitor towards resources they can use to learn more after the interaction has taken place. None of this is rocket science, but these prompts have been my best tools for challenging confrontational visitors.
Different circumstances require different sorts of responses from public historians.
While public historians should always strive to encourage visitor feedback and constructive dialogue, there are times when the best option is to stop the conversation and let it go. Some visitors will simply refuse to listen to you or give you the respect you deserve as an educator and scholar. Your emotions, self-respect, and dignity come first, and sometimes saying “we’ll just have to agree to disagree” is the only path forward.
There are other times where clearing up misinformation and historical inaccuracies stated by visitors requires a response more forceful than a dialogic method. For example, a visitor once argued to me that Abraham Lincoln was a slaveholder. It was necessary, in my view, to simply state right off the bat that such a claim is inaccurate and to explain that Lincoln lived in free states his entire adult life save for his time in Washington, D.C. I felt like we needed to be on the same page on this matter before engaging in a dialogue about Lincoln’s political views towards slavery.
So, in sum, each individual interaction with a visitor has unique circumstances attached to it. Public historians must determine on an individual basis how they’ll respond to the confrontational visitor, whether that be through dialogue, a more assertive approach that corrects inaccurate information, or a decision that the conversation is too heated and should be ended.
Never put labels on visitors. Challenge what they say and do rather than making claims about who they are.
The social commentator Jay Smooth says it best in the below video when he argues that if you hope to get through to a person and give yourself a chance to change their perspective, it’s more effective to focus on what they say then making claims about who they are. We don’t know the personal lives of our visitors or how their life experiences have shaped their particular perspective of the world. When the focus is on speculating about someone’s motives or putting labels on that person, the conversation turns into name-calling and the potential for a genuine learning opportunity is lost. Furthermore, your ability to hold someone accountable for their views becomes much tougher when you focus on names instead of words and actions. In my own work I often encounter visitors who believe the American Civil War had nothing to do with slavery. The easy response would be to call out the person’s incorrect view and accuse them of being a neo-Confederate. A more productive response would challenge that person using the above prompts to ask them how they came to that conclusion. Rather that saying that the person is a neo-Confederate, I can respectuflly state, using my knowledge of historical scholarship and contemporary debate, that what they’re arguing sounds like something a neo-Confederate might say.
What do you think? What strategies and technique do you utilize for working with confrontational visitors?
There’s a lot of buzz within the public history and museum fields about Franklin Vagnone and Deborah Ryan’s new book, Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums. I’d been waiting for a while to have a chance to read the book, and I finally got around to it this week. Overall the book aims to challenge standard practices at historic house museums in regards to interpretation, education, and preservation at these places, and it will definitely provoke new conversations within the field about how and why historic house museums are important for understanding and appreciating the past.
I finished Anarchist’s Guide feeling underwhelmed. While I found the book’s appendices useful for researching visitor feedback and evaluating a given site’s standard practices, I felt like most of Anarchist’s Guide’s conclusions were neither revolutionary, radical, nor original. I might expand upon these thoughts in a future blog post. Nevertheless, I do agree with one central argument made by Vagnone and Ryan that should be repeated to all house museum professionals, however: historic house museums are first and foremost about the people, past AND present, who occupy the house’s space. As Vagnone argues, “the breath of a house is the living that takes place within it, not the structure or its contents” (21). Hear! Hear!
With the National Park Service–at least among those of us who work at historic homes–there is a running joke about the dreaded “furniture tour.” You arrive for the tour and the guide that accompanies the group room-by-room focuses almost exclusively on the furniture pieces of the room and the minute details of each piece that no one will remember when the tour concludes: what year this chair was produced, what state this table came from, how thankful we tourists should be for the good museum professionals who’ve preserved all this furniture for us today. What often goes missing from these tours is the humanity of it all. Why is any of this furniture important? Who are the people who owned this furniture, and why did they buy it? What is so important about this house and why should we continue preserving it? Why should we care about this place today?
To be sure, there is an important place for material culture analyses at historic homes. A gifted interpreter can take a historic artifact and tell nuanced stories about the people who owned it and that artifact’s cultural, economic, and political history. Who built this artifact? Why was this artifact valuable at the time and why did the owner purchase it in the first place? What can this artifact tell us about the times in which its owner lived? When historical artifacts act as tools towards the end goal of better understanding and appreciating the past and the people who lived in it, visitors leave with a better sense of empathy and the humanity of the past. Conversely, tours end up becoming boring and stale when historical artifacts become ends within themselves, reinforcing the idea that the study of history is primarily one of rote memorization and filling the “empty” minds of visitors with dates and facts.
The situation at my own workplace is somewhat unique in regard to historic artifacts. At the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site we have no original furniture inside the historic White Haven estate. While the structure itself is still mostly original today, the lack of original furniture disappoints some visitors. This feeling is understandable, and by no means do I consider such a sentiment misplaced or silly. We all visit historic homes partly because we are curious to see what they look like inside, and at first blush an empty room is nothing to be too excited about. But I take pains to point out to visitors that the National Park Service didn’t choose to preserve this particular house because it was old or because of the way it was designed, but because of the people who lived in it. The house, to paraphrase Vagnone, breathes life because of the people who were there during its 170-year existence as a private residence and the people who still visit it as a National Historic Site today. If the house and its original structural elements were to be completely destroyed tomorrow, the National Park Service would continue to oversee the site and tell the stories of the people who lived there, even if there was nothing original to actually see. But if people stopped coming to the site and the house became an empty hole of nothing beyond a historic structure, what would be the point of the NPS staying to preserve the site? It wouldn’t matter if each room had an abundance of historic artifacts – no one would be there to see it.
A historic house without any people in it breathes no life. Anyone who holds a leadership position at a historic house museum ought to remember that when designing interpretive programs or explaining to stakeholders why their particular site is important and worth preserving.
In April 2009 Congress passed and President Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which aimed to promote the “dramatic growth of service and volunteer opportunities that will address key social issues.” A council called “Reimaging Service” was tasked with implementing the legislation’s Call to Service initiative and encouraging more citizens to volunteer for the federal government with tasks related to these “key social issues.” In January 2015 the council issued its final report and disbanded.
Obtaining more info about volunteers for the National Park Service and encouraging more people to volunteer for the agency was one of the goals of Reimaging Service. (Department of the Interior Sally Jewell’s “Play, Learn, Serve, Work” initiative has also worked towards this goal). In June 2014 Reimagining Service issued a report about NPS volunteering that included this opening paragraph:
In an age where resources only seem to dwindle, it is encouraging to see one resource on the rise: volunteers in national parks. The National Park Service (NPS) increases its volunteer numbers and the hours served annually, continuing a positive trend.
It’s been a well-known fact among NPS employees and visitors to the agency’s sites that there has been a remarkable increase in the presence of volunteers at sites throughout the country. A friend and fellow NPS employee who recently went on a trip through Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wyoming reported hardly any front-line rangers in uniform greeting visitors or leading interpretive tours. Two years ago I visited three Civil War battlefields in Virginia and saw one ranger in uniform during the entire trip. There are probably many reasons for the increased volunteer presence, including more people who are retired and anxious to help out their local parks. But it also seems that such trends are reflective of government austerity measures that seek to eliminate budgetary costs incurred through paid full-time and seasonal employees.
It’s probably a taboo and controversial question to ask, but are more volunteers in national parks truly a “positive trend” for the future of the agency? Do museums and historic sites more broadly benefit from more volunteer help? Who benefits from an increase in volunteering within public history sites, and who is hurt by the process?
It should go without saying that volunteers are crucial to the operations of countless museums and historic sites, and the volunteers I work with on a daily basis at my place of employment are wonderful people who sacrifice their free-time to help out our modest operation. We should all thank our volunteers. But our thanks should not preclude institutional leaders from considering the extent to which volunteer help can and should be utilized and when a particular job requires the skills of a paid employee. As Elizabeth Merritt of the Alliance of American Museums points out, the fair market value of a museum/public history job is very much in flux and is further complicated by the fact that so many people are willing to do such work for free. Institutions can abuse their ability to rely on volunteer help. An over-reliance on volunteers runs the risk of keeping competent workers out of the field or underemployed, preventing people from disadvantaged backgrounds who cannot afford to work in a volunteer capacity from breaking into the field, and devaluing the labor of public historians, particularly front-line employees who specialize in education and interpretation. It is one thing for an institutional leader or supervisory public historian with a stable full-time job to applaud the increase in volunteer labor at public history sites, but one can see how a young graduate student or new professional might see such a development as troubling and disenchanting.
I do not propose that all volunteer positions at a given historic site or museum should be replaced with full-time employees or that an increase in volunteer help is a wholly terrible development. Volunteers enhance museums and historic sites in countless different ways, and in most circumstances volunteers are the most enthusiastic boosters for supporting public history sites in a local community. But I do think there are potential negative consequences that come with increased reliance on volunteer labor, and the field as a whole needs to be more introspective about the role of volunteering and the establishment of a fair wage for public history work. I am lucky to have a stable full-time job in the public history world doing interpretation and education, but what happens when I leave? Will my spot be filled by a volunteer in the future? I know of too many instances in which that scenario has played out, and I can’t help but be worried about future employment opportunities for the many talented people who are trying to break into the public history field and support themselves with a stable job. Similarly, there are many volunteers who would love to obtain paid employment but find themselves unable to do so.
When at all possible, we need to be paying good work with good pay.
As a fairly recent MA graduate of a public history program who is in the early stages of a professional career in the history world, I admit that how I think about the evolution and future of the public history field is largely shaped by my own limited experiences as an interpreter and educator on the front lines of history. The questions I face on a daily basis revolve around issues of acquiring historical knowledge within my field of study (19th century U.S. history), communicating that knowledge to many diverse publics, and playing a role in creating visitor experiences that stimulate intellectual curiosity and an appreciation for the National Park Service and the study of history more broadly. I was trained in graduate school for public history employment through a mix of public history and museum studies courses, and I believe that training has served me fairly well so far in my career. But I acknowledge that my training and work experience has not tackled what might be described as the “business side” of public history: financial budgets, staffing, administration, mission statements (which I hate), boards of directors, endowment funds, and much more. I personally don’t think that’s a bad thing because we should be trained as historians first and foremost, but there has been a great deal of recent debate within the field about graduate training for public historians and whether or not more of these business-related concerns should play a larger role within the public history curricula, either through coursework or internships.
Taylor Stoermer of Harvard University is one public historian whose writing I look to for a broader perspective on the state of public history today. His extensive background in public history in both interpretation and administration is noteworthy, and his website The History Doctor is a regular read for me. I now find myself musing quite a bit on his most recent essay on public history training and employment practices.
Stoermer argues that there are too many public history PhDs in the field*, that the training for these graduates is too theory-based and “almost everywhere privileged over practice,” and that, amid a lack of full-time permanent positions for new graduates within the field, public history institutions have and will continue to evolve towards the “gig economy” business model that has been embraced in many corners of the broader business world.
I have thoughts.
Since graduating in 2014 and observing the struggles of many colleagues who can’t find gainful employment in public history, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are simply too many public history programs in existence and, more importantly, too many programs that are not being honest about the realities of the poor job market for public history employment. Does there really need to be more than 100 public history programs throughout the United States and Canada when the few full-time job opportunities in the field are offering only $30,000 a year? As I have previously stated on this website, there needs to be a realization within the academy that public history is not going to fully alleviate the shortage of academic history jobs by providing gainful “alternative” employment in public history for graduate students who can’t find an academic job. Moreover, while I believe that every academic history department should employ at least one scholar with public history experience, we should not expect all history programs to be in a position to train and help students find work in public history. Whether or not students are pursing an MA or a PhD is less of a concern to me as the fact that there are simply not enough jobs to go around for all of us. We are fighting for crumbs.
I have previously outlined my thoughts on theory vs. practice here. I am strong believer in the idea that good practices come about through a thorough understanding of theory. Practice without theory doesn’t exist. Claims of “too much theory” in public history education beg the question of what theories are most integral to good practices.
Stoermer outlines how a “gig economy” would function in the public history world as follows:
With 40 percent of the American workforce set to be freelance within the next four years, public history might already be well ahead of that curve, which poses as much promise as peril. The successful organizations that I’ve seen have already embraced that trend, seeing its potential. The best example is a historical society with a tremendous collection and exceptional vision that employs no full-time curator, historian, or education director. The most important long-term bases are covered (registrar, membership coordinator, etc.), but it otherwise reaches out to experts as needed. Need to catalogue a collection of 19th-century landscapes? Hire a guest curator whose expertise is 19th-century landscapes, rather than forcing a full-time curator, whose background might be in 17th-century stoneware, into a role for which he or she is not prepared. Want to put together living history programs to connect with guests about local events during the American Revolution? Bring in an experienced producer of such programs to establish the interpretative ground rules and set up a usable operations template . . .
The result is a leaner, more flexible, and more accountable budget and, more to the mission-oriented point, fresher and more active programming in which the occasional staff can introduce perspectives gleaned from related experience elsewhere. The core full-time staff provide consistency and vision, while freelance experts inject cost-effective knowledge, skills, and insight. Another exceptionally effective organization follows a similar route, bringing in special program providers as needed, rather than increasing the level of FTEs for positions that might not be sustainable. Again, the proof of such an approach is in the clear health of those institutions.
From a financial perspective, the gig economy makes sense. But in my view, this model will only hurt young public historians trying to break into the field. For one, I take issue with the idea that curator, education director, and historian positions don’t constitute long-term interests for historic sites. A historical site with administrators, registrars, and membership coordinators, but no one that’s a content expert? Is that really the best path forward? I understand the idea of consolidating positions so that someone may jointly be an education director and historian, but fully outsourcing these jobs will lead to young public historians who work from project-to-project barely scraping by without health insurance or benefits. It will lead to more part-time, temporary, and seasonal job openings and fewer full-time permanent openings. It will lead to project-based jobs similar in nature to adjunct teaching with no upward career mobility. It will lead to historical sites relying on college students, internships (many unpaid), and volunteers to cover the bases and cut costs. It will lead to less historically-informed programming at historic sites (who on staff will fact-check the work of the outsourced historical consultant? Who at these sites will be able to explain why their historical site is worth preserving if they don’t actually understand that history?). It will lead to the continued devaluing of our labor. It will reinforce the idea that when public history institutions experience financial difficulties, educational and historically-trained staff should be the first to go.
I would love to be proven wrong. I’m often asked to provide advice to current grad students since I was one of the fortunate ones to find a full-time job right out of school, but I simply don’t know what to say without being a pessimist who must preface my comments by saying that “the job market is really bad right now.” My current job, as is the case for many other jobs in the broader business world today, is as much attributable to luck and who I know as much as any talent I may have for doing public history. So it goes.
*Update: To further clarify my position on public historians pursuing PhDs, I don’t see it as big a problem as Stoermer does. I don’t even think there are too many public history PhDs out there right now. I think it’s great if a public historian chooses to pursue their PhD. Pursuing a PhD and furthering one’s education, regardless of discipline, is a worthwhile endeavor. All I am suggesting in this essay is that there is a supply and demand problem in public history employment, and that there are a lot of graduate students out there–MA and PhD–that are fighting for a very limited number of jobs in this field. We choose to pursue this education and career track at our own peril, and there are reasons for pursing a graduate degree besides getting a job. But I also believe that public history program directors are obligated to do their homework in understanding the field’s employment numbers and being honest with their students about what to expect when they’re ready to join the workforce, whether that be in an academic setting or within the public history world.
I have just returned from the National Council on Public History’s 2016 Annual Meeting in Baltimore, Maryland. I had a really great experience overall. It included attending many thought-provoking sessions and working groups, contributing a small part to my own successful (I think) working group panel, mentoring a graduate student about to enter the field, receiving news that I will now be co-chairing the NCPH Professional Development Committee for the next year and, above all, time to reconnect with old friends and make new ones in the process. I have attended the past three NCPH meetings and can say that participating in this network of scholars and practitioners has a sort of familial quality to it. No other history organization has made me feel so welcome or given me so many opportunities to present my scholarship to a knowledgeable and expanding membership base.
The theme of this year’s conference was “Challenging the Exclusive Past.” In thinking about the big themes conveyed throughout the meeting my thoughts are evolving around two important takeaways.
The first takeaway reinforces the importance of being a literate public historian. What I mean by this statement is that we in the field must enter into a perpetual struggle to properly define the terms we use to describe the work we do and the terms we use to describe the historical content we interpret with our many publics. What does it really mean to “engage” with an audience? What does a “welcoming” and “inclusive” museum look like? What does a successful “dialogue” with audiences look like? How do we define “community,” and how do we serve the needs of those defined communities while acknowledging that no one community has a uniform relationship with the legacy and meaning of the past? How do we describe historically-ignored topics like slavery, Indian removal, and racial violence with language that is historically accurate and respectful to communities today? These are the types of questions that dominated my thinking as I went from session to session during the conference.
The second takeaway is that this conference was in many ways an extended meditation on the meaning of “public” in the term public history. Most notably I met several attendees who described themselves as community organizers in their work as public historians. Collaboration has always been a central tenet of public history practice, but this particular conception of the term as a form of community building and public service forces us to view collaboration as not just groups of historians working together on history projects for their own benefit but groups of historians working together with communities to meet their needs and to help tell their stories about the past. This idea is important to keep in mind because our collective voice as historians and scholars is only one voice (and often a pretty small one) within a community’s relationship to the past. One conference attendee explained it by saying that “a historian’s voice is not everyone’s voice.”
People will blog, participate in online discussion forums, share history-related memes on social media, and create history podcasts whether or not public historians are there to mediate the experience. People will visit museums and national parks in their own way and form their own takeaways about historical iconography whether or not public historians are there to write historical markers or do interpretive programs. People who don’t visit public history sites will find other ways to preserve and tell their stories and will do so without worrying about our perspective or influence as historians. The ability to shape powerful historical narratives about the past rests largely in other places besides the institutional structures that public historians are employed to do their work. If we construct a definition of public history that excludes the importance of community from its lexicon, we will fail. If we engage in discussions about interpretation, narrative, and the historical process through a language of exclusion that includes only public historians, we will fail. If the people who work at public history institutions don’t look like or reflect the values of the communities in which they work, we will fail. If we don’t take the “public” in public history seriously, we will fail. If we don’t constantly strive to meet people and communities where they are, we will fail. Perhaps the real theme of NCPH 2016 isn’t so much “Challenging the Exclusive Past” as much as “Challenging the Exclusive Public Historian.”
There is no one path for meeting people where they are. I saw a number of good practical examples at play in the sessions I attended. One session included Liz Covart, whose popular history podcast Ben Franklin’s World does a really nice job of highlighting not just historical content but also the ways history functions as a method and process for making sense of the world. Another session on museums and civic discourse included a number of museum professionals who challenged me to think more about the historical legacy of exclusion that has pervaded many public history institutions. Revamping historical interpretations to be more inclusive will not automatically bring new audiences to these sites if we don’t extend an extra hand for outreach or place them in a position of power within the institution’s hierarchy. The history of these institutions matters a great deal and shapes perceptions about whether or not these places are truly for everyone. Yet another session on the Brooklyn Public Library highlighted a program called “Culture in Transit” that aims to digitize and archive the family photos and memorabilia of local residents. Library employees go out into the community with mobile scanning technology, scan residents’ materials and assist them with filling out metadata/consent forms in multiple languages, and then return the materials to residents along with digital copies on flash drives. When I talked to one of the library’s employees about any follow-up interactions with these residents after the community scanning event, she stated that many people felt more connected to the library and came back to do further research using its resources. That right there is public history with a focus on community building and organizing.
For better or worse, discussions about all of these sessions on and offline have been overwhelmed by what happened at the last session of the conference, which focused on the role of public historians in interpreting Confederate monuments. The tone of this discussion was a marked contrast to the spirit of the rest of the conference. I don’t wish to repeat everything that occurred during the session in this essay. You can see the tweets here and a Storify here on what happened along with a thoughtful response from Kevin Levin here. I do want to point out a few things, however.
One of the problems of this session was that it was largely framed around questions of race and racism in contemporary society, yet the participants were four white historians who really had nothing new to say about communities’ relationship to Confederate iconography (the exception was Jill Ogline Titus, whose talk was largely based off this good article she wrote in July). One attendee astutely pointed out that it was the only session where some participants talked about books they wrote and bragged about institutional affiliations they held as a way of claiming authority on this topic. There was much talk of establishing context, historical markers, counter-monuments, and dialogue about Confederate iconography, but nothing in terms of public historians meeting people where they are in this discussion. The only people I see really taking historical markers and counter-monuments seriously are public historians, and I have yet to see any sort of comprehensive study confirming those mediums as effective tools for historical understanding. As Levin mentioned on Twitter, “what I want to better understand is how I can best serve communities struggling with what to do with Confederate iconography” (emphasis mine). Hear hear. I am struggling with what I can do to aid the St. Louis community’s own discussion about the Forest Park Confederate Monument and would love to move beyond the “historians talking to other historians” model that has been demonstrated at both NCPH and AHA conferences this year. In this regard I want to draw attention to the work of Elizabeth Catte and Josh Howard, both recent public history graduates of Middle Tennessee State University, who have been working on the front lines at MTSU in an ongoing controversy about a campus ROTC building named after Nathan Bedford Forrest.
I had a great time at NCPH this year and look forward to next year’s meeting in Indianapolis. Thank you to the NCPH staff and committees for putting together such a great conference year in and year out.