Next week I’ll be heading out to Indianapolis to attend my fourth straight Annual Meeting of the National Council on Public History. I lived in Indy for two years while pursuing my Master’s degree at IUPUI and am looking forward to seeing a lot of my old friends inside and outside the public history field while there.
I initially planned on keeping my obligations light for this conference compared to past years, but that changed quickly. As co-chair of the NCPH Professional Development Committee I helped organize this year’s Speed Networking session and will be emceeing the actual event. I was also asked to moderate/facilitate a really fascinating panel on Friday, April 21st at 3:30PM: “Touring Sites of Nostalgia and Violence: Historical Tourism and Memory in Germany, Poland, Turkey, and the United States.” Each presenter is really talented and the conversation should be fascinating. On top of these events I’ll be mentoring a grad student throughout the conference and will help run the Professional Development Committee’s yearly meeting at the conference.
Last year’s conference theme was “Challenging the Exclusive Past,” and I came away thinking that the actual theme was “Challenging the Exclusive Public Historian.” This year’s theme is “The Middle: Where Did We Come From? Where Are We Going?” I’m not sure what to make of this theme right now because “The Middle” seems like an ambiguous term in the context of public history, but hopefully after what will turn out to be a fruitful meeting my thoughts will clarify afterwords. Stay tuned!
Readers may remember that when the NFL St. Louis Rams moved back to Los Angeles last year after twenty years in the Midwest, I wrote an essay for Sport in American History outlining my personal connection to the Rams and the political situation that had been brewing for years which allowed for the Rams to move back to L.A. About a week ago I was invited to contribute some more thoughts on NFL franchise relocation for a new roundtable discussion the website proposed in reaction to news of the San Diego Chargers moving to L.A. and the Oakland Raiders getting closer to moving to Las Vegas. You can read this roundtable discussion here.
I have some pretty strong thoughts on this topic and I enjoyed reading the thoughts of the other participants in the roundtable, who come from a wide range of impressive backgrounds in history and sports. There are times when we agree but also times when there are interesting tensions in the way we answered the questions given to us. I argued that the Rams moving back to Los Angeles was one of the most significant relocations in NFL history for reasons I explain in the discussion, but another participant dismissed it as rather insignificant. I encourage you to read the roundtable discussion and decide for yourself.
On Monday, October 3 I’ll be giving a short talk to a local senior group about the origins of the National Park Service and the agency’s ongoing efforts to commemorate and celebrate its centennial year. I’ve used this opportunity to take a deeper look into the agency’s history and evolution from exclusively a nature-based agency to one that also incorporates the preservation and interpretation of cultural resources. I’m also exploring the tension between the agency’s twin goals of providing access to visitors by building an infrastructure to provide for visitor comfort and amusement at NPS sites and the agency’s mandate to preserve its resources “unimpaired.” To assist in my stuides I’ve been relying heavily on Richard West Sellars’s Preserving Nature in the National Parks: A History and re-reading Denise Meringolo’s Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History for guidance.
These two books compliment each other nicely. Sellars does a nice job of assessing the Park Service’s early history and exploring the ways that various agency leaders have sought to simultaneously preserve and provide access to the country’s natural wonders. But as the title of his books suggests, Sellars completely omits any discussion of the preservation of historic sites throughout the agency’s history, just like when Ken Burns omitted historic sites from his 2009 documentary on the NPS. While I understand the desire to maintain a narrow analytic focus when writing a book, the omission of the history sites is another example creating a false dichotomy between “nature” and “history” sites and playing into a popular perception of the National Park Service as primarily–if not solely–a protector of natural resources. I believe the sort of detailed analysis Sellars gives for the history of nature preservation is still sorely needed for analyzing the agency’s history when it comes to historic preservation.
Meringolo’s book does a nice job of filling some of the gaps left by Sellars with her discussion of the agency’s expansion into historic preservation during the New Deal. In 1933 Franklin Roosevelt issued two executive orders after consulting with NPS Director Horace Albright. The first one, Executive Order 6166, assigned the NPS with assuming responsibility for all of the parks and monuments in Washington, D.C. (what is now the National Mall) and overseeing all commemorative activities at those sites. The second one, Executive Order 6228, assigned 57 historic sites previously administered by the War Department and 17 monuments from other agencies to the NPS. Meringolo explores these developments while also analyzing the emergence of the Smithsonian and the role of government in preserving national history.
I always enjoy giving talks and I look forward to seeing how this one goes. If you have book recommendations on the history of the Park Service, let me know in the comments section.
Over the past year we at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site worked on an ambitious living history program that aimed to highlight the political issues of the 1872 Presidential campaign and re-create the atmosphere of a nineteenth century election. The program “Grant or Greeley – Which? The Election of 1872 Living History Program” happened this past weekend from Friday, September 9 through Sunday, September 11 and I think it was a great success. We had professional actors, staff, and volunteers portraying a range of figures including Frederick Douglass, Horace Greeley, and Victoria Woodhull. I portrayed Senator John A. Logan. We also designed a voting window where visitors had the chance to vote for their own preferred 1872 candidate (Grant won but Victoria Woodhull took second place ahead of Greeley), nineteenth century children’s games, an arts and crafts table, a band playing 1872 election tunes, and open-house tours of President Grant’s White Haven estate. It was a lot of fun for everyone involved.
I have previously voiced some skepticism about living history programs on this website, but I really think we put together a solid program. It was unique in that we moved away from the Civil War battlefield and focused on political issues and topics during the Reconstruction Era, something I don’t think you’d see too much of at other related sites. The program was probably the biggest one ULSG has ever had. Anyone who thinks a public history program centered around the Reconstruction Era won’t work with a lay audience should have listened to the questions and comments of interested visitors. We ended up having somewhere around 750 or 800 visitors who came to the park at some point during the weekend, which is pretty good. Some video footage of various speakers has been posted to the park’s Facebook page if you’d like to check it out. While we haven’t figured out what we’re doing from here, I hope this program is a sign of good things to come with our special event programming at ULSG.
I am breathing a sigh of relief for the moment, but it’s back in the saddle very soon as we start planning next year’s program.
A few months ago I was interviewed by the website Mental Floss about working for the National Park Service. The finished article went live a few days ago and I was quoted a few times, including an anecdote about one of the most memorable tours I’ve ever given. You can read it here. Enjoy!
I put my sports cap back on this week and had a book review/essay posted on Sport in American History about Krister Swanson’s fine book Baseball’s Power Shift: How the Players Union, the Fans, and the Media Changed American Sports Culture (University of Nebraska Press, 2016). The book analyzes Major League Baseball’s shifting labor politics and the power dynamic between team owners and professional athletes over a roughly 100 year period from the Gilded Age to the 1981 Players’ Strike. Sports and labor historians will get a lot out of this book. Please give the review a read and let me know what you think. I make no apologies for being an unabashed Cardinals fan. 😉
Last week the National Football League decided the St. Louis Rams would now be the Los Angeles Rams. The talented scholars at Sport in American History let me put my sportswriter’s hat on and submit a piece for the site, which went live today. I wrote about my disappointment as a St. Louisian who loved Rams football and made the case that the Rams relocation to Los Angeles sets a bad precedent for future NFL relocation crises. Writing this essay was simultaneously sad and liberating. Check it out here and let me know what you think.
1. I argue that the standard narrative for explaining the roots of public history in the United States is in need of serious reconsideration and revision.
2. I review three works of public history scholarship that represent larger trends within the field’s recent historiography.
3. I present ideas on how intellectual and public historians can learn from each other and improve their respective crafts.
Hope you enjoy reading. Cheers.
I got back to the States a couple days ago after spending a week taking in the sights and sounds of Berlin, Germany. It was an incredible experience and I enjoyed every minute of it with the exception of my United airlines flight from Chicago to St. Louis being delayed for six hours as I made my way back home. Nevertheless I’ll always remember this adventure for the amazing places and people I got to meet throughout.
Here are all the different places I visited:
- Kaiser Wilhelm I Memorial Church
- Berlin Victory Column
- The Bismarck Monument
- Reichstag Building
- Brandenburg Gate
- Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Holocaust Memorial)
- Neue Wache Memorial (“Mother With her Dead Son” by Käthe Kollwitz)
- Berlin Cathedral
- Weltzeituhr (Worldtime Clock) at Alexanderplatz
- Soviet War Memorial (Treptower Park)
- Otto Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind
- St. George’s English Bookshop
- Dussmann das KulturKaufhaus (English Bookshop)
And here are some photos from the trip. Some were taken with my iPhone, but most were taken with my Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ70. Click on any photo within the gallery for descriptions, context, and full-size images. Enjoy!
Tomorrow morning I’ll be leaving St. Louis en route to Berlin, Germany, for a one-week vacation. My good friend Nicholas K. Johnson has been studying in Berlin for the past year and has graciously invited me to visit and stay with him during my trip. This will be my first time in Europe and I am ecstatic about visiting a new part of the world. Between my work-related travels (Grand Canyon and Nashville) and now Berlin I’ve been very fortunate to take in many great sights this year.
While in Berlin I’ll be paying quite a bit of attention to the uses (and perhaps abuses) of public history through museums, historical markers, oral histories, etc. and do a bit of comparing and contrasting with public history here in the United States (I can’t help it – I’m a history nerd no matter where I am in the world). I’ll be “off the grid” while over there, but I look forward to sharing pictures and extended thoughts here at Exploring the Past when I return. Stay tuned.