Sage By the Side, Repair Work, and #MeToo: Some Reflections on attending NCPH 2019

Downtown Hartford. Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

The National Council on Public History’s 2019 Annual Meeting in Hartford, Connecticut has concluded. The theme of the conference was “repair work,” and I’ve left the conference with a lot of thoughts about the repair work needed in my own public history work and across the field more broadly. While many of the conversations taking place were continuations of ones that took place at previous conferences, I was pleased with the vast majority of the sessions I attended and thought the conference as a whole was solid. It was up there with NCPH 2016 in Baltimore as one of my favorites. What follows below is an attempt to put my thoughts into a cohesive summary.

 

  1. “The Sage by the Side”

The concept of facilitated dialogue has become more and more popular among public historians who regularly design public programming at museums and historic sites. For several years already there has been an increasing awareness within the field that a “Sage on the Stage” approach to interpreting history has its shortcomings. Many of us better understand and appreciate the idea that people who visit these sites have their own contributions to make within the process of fostering historical understanding. Programming that does not invite active participation and discussion among all participants runs the risk of coming off as boring, meaningless, and irrelevant. Dialogue serves as a tool to promote historical understanding while also providing space for audiences to participate in meaningful exchanges with each other and with public historians. These exchanges offer the chance for all involved to learn how the past shapes the present and to take action towards improving our world today. The National Park Service has developed its own version of dialogue called “Audience Centered Experiences,” and I’ve been fortunate to have received a number of training workshops on the concept. I have used facilitated dialogue for about four years in a range of educational programming with k-12 students with success.

Having said all of this, I have become concerned about the ways dialogue is sometimes discussed within the field. In NPS trainings I’ve gotten the impression that dialogue is something that an interpreter can jump into relatively quickly; one needs to simply organize a few questions and maybe one or two interactive activities and then the discussion will take place from there. The impression is that effective interpreters should have no problem leading a dialogue; if you have interpretive skills, you can run an effective dialogue. After all, interpreters and public historians should function as a “Guide by the Side” rather than the “Sage on the Stage.” We facilitate, not dictate.

This approach runs the risk of privileging interpretive skills over the skills of a historian. It is concerning to me, for example, that the National Park Service has an interpretation division at each historic site it runs, but that park historians are becoming an extinct job title within the agency. Simply put, I believe an effective dialogue also requires content knowledge and not simply interpretive skills. After all, how does the dialogue move forward if there’s no historical content to give meaning and direction to the process? The “Guide by the Side” perspective gives short shrift to the knowledge and expertise of those who lead facilitated dialogues on historical topics. That’s why I was thrilled when Alice Baldridge of St. Mary’s College (who is actually a scientist) mentioned at the conference that she’s embraced the concept of “Sage by the Side.” This term perfectly encapsulates my current view towards dialogue as a teaching tool. As a facilitator I want to create an inclusive space for others to share their perspectives and to think anew about the world. But as a historian with training in both historical content and methodologies, I want to use my knowledge to inform the conversation in meaningful ways. I also want to use my position to create boundaries that correct misinformation about the past and protect those whose perspectives have historically been marginalized in spaces where public history takes place. Perhaps now more than ever, public historians need to assert their skills as interpreters, researchers, and communicators of historical knowledge. We can do that while also respecting other perspectives. Nevertheless it must be stated in clear terms that facilitated dialogue is not an easy concept and takes years to training and practice to do effectively. Thinking of myself as a “Sage by the Side” speaks to the skills I’ve acquired as both an interpreter and a historian.

 

  1. Repairing Language

Several NCPH sessions I attended focused on issues pertaining to words and language. Numerous archivists talked about the need to improve meta language and tags to make their collections more accessible and inclusive. For example, Anna Harbine of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture highlighted a single image in her collection of a Native woman from the Pacific Northwest in the 1920s. The photographer and the Library of Congress categorized the woman as an “Indian Princess” and her dress as a “costume,” highlighting the perspectives and prejudices of the collections managers at the time. Harbine and others offered an important reminder that a part of making collections accessible online (and making collections more inclusive) involves using language that is respectful of the people whose photos and artifacts make up a given collection.

The point was further reinforced in another panel on historic house tours. Matthew Champagne of North Carolina State University pointed out that many sites with LGBTQ histories often avoid any discussions of sexuality and how it influenced the people who lived in a given house. When the topic is discussed, inclusive and respectful language is important given the fact that people who were LGBTQ have historically been misdiagnosed as mentally unstable and deficient. He also correctly observed that discussions about the home life of historical actors have an inherent political nature to them, and that leaving out relevant conversations about sexuality from historic home tours is a political act. Lacey Wilson of the Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters also stressed a point I’ve made on this blog numerous times about the importance of referring to “enslaved people” instead of “slaves” on historic home tours that discuss slavery.

In order to move the field forward, we have to use inclusive language that is respectful of historical actors and people of marginalized groups today.

 

  1. Repairing Relationships and Trust

Several sessions and the Public Plenary in particular asserted the importance of trust in building relationships between public history sites and partner organizations. The public plenary focused on the establishment of Coltsville National Historical Park in Hartford, and what Coltsville might be able to accomplish in providing history education and some sense of hope for a better future among community members in Hartford. In a community plagued by gun violence, poverty, and a lack of opportunity, several Hartford residents in the plenary expressed their wish to see Coltsville become a space for dialogue, education, and safety. I found it interesting to see so much hope placed into Coltsville, which came off to me as a subtle criticism of current historical sites in the city that have not acted as places for dialogue, education, and safety to many community members. Keeping in line with the theme of relationship-building and developing trust, I wonder if NCPH will do anything to follow up with Coltsville and the Hartford community moving forward.

Several attendees I spoke to afterwards complained that the expectations were being set too high for the National Park Service. After all, there are currently only two employees at Coltsville and little funding to go around, making any sort of outreach or educational initiatives very hard to pull off. This critique is fair. Any effective relationship between the NPS and the residents of Hartford should be based on fair expectations about what the NPS can deliver for the community and what the community can do to help the NPS. Empty promises will only lead to a fractured relationship and broken trust that would take a long time to heal. Nevertheless, I appreciated NCPH Executive Director Stephanie Rowe’s tweet reminding us that the plenary was about the wishes, hopes, and dreams of the community and not what public historians want. The point was made when an audience member, citing the Sandy Hook massacre, suggested during the plenary that Coltsville should focus on the actions of white men who committed acts of mass violence using guns rather than violence among African Americans in inner city communities. The Reverend Henry Brown forcefully responded by arguing that this line of thinking implied that the issues of poverty and violence within Hartford’s African American residents were secondary, and that this community could be forgotten within the narrative of gun violence as public historians chose narratives that suited their own interests. Point taken.

 

  1. Repairing NCPH

On the last day of the conference, I co-facilitated a working group with Allison Horrocks of the National Park Service about Freeman Tilden’s 1957 publication Interpreting Our Heritage in the 21st Century (you can learn more by visiting this website Allison and I built about this topic). I noted during the session that Tilden conceived the field of interpretation in gendered terms. He emphasized the importance of “interpreting the whole man,” celebrated “heroic” male soldiers who fought in the American Civil War, and generally assumed that men were the ones leading educational programming at cultural sites. Today the gender dynamics are completely reversed and women serve as important leaders within our field. The full-time staff at the NCPH central office are women, the majority of conference attendees were women, and most sessions I attended had panels that were majority-women or all women. I applaud these developments.

That NCPH is run by women does not make it immune to issues of sexual harassment and violence, however. On the first night of the conference I witnessed inappropriate sexualized comments from a man that were promptly reported to NCPH. On the last day of the conference a well-known scholar who presented at the conference announced on Twitter that she had left the field after years of sexual harassment from a prominent public historian who had previously won awards and held a place of high prominence within the organization. This abuse was enabled by the inaction of numerous other professionals who were aware of this person’s behaviors but turned a blind eye to them. I believed these complaints immediately when I read about them and so did a court of law, which ruled that a financial settlement was due to the complainant.

This year’s conference featured a session about sexual harassment in public history and a discussion about the Me Too movement. The NCPH Code of Conduct was also recently updated to take a firmer stance against sexual harassment, and the organization sent an email to all members after the conference pledging its willingness to do as much as possible to offer support to victims and prevent these sorts of behaviors from occurring the future. I applaud all of these efforts, but the events of NCPH 2019 highlighted the fact that more is needed to be done.

I do not propose to have concrete solutions to these issues. I am more interested in listening, learning, and doing whatever I can to offer support rather than talking. I simply hope that practitioners in the field take proactive steps to police their own behaviors (and those of others) and provide support to victims of sexual harassment, abuse, and predatory behavior. For women in the field who work in a public-facing role, the problem is twofold. Much like other service industries, many public historians must contend with the culture of their workplace and the culture of visitors who come into these sites with their own standards of decency, not all of which are good. Even if a staff is fully trained and prepared to combat sexual harassment among colleagues, a visitor can come in and treat staff terribly and do so without consequences if the rest of the staff doesn’t police the situation. Every day at historic sites around the country there are programs taking place where a single individual is taking a tour with an interpreter who could possibly face harassment and predatory behavior from that visitor. Strategies should be implemented at every cultural site that ensure all staff are placed in safe situations when interacting with members of the public and other colleagues.

Our field is not perfect, and NCPH 2019 highlighted the fact that we must do more than simply repair the narratives and content of our programming. We must continually strive to repair ourselves, our practices, and the workplace culture within our field.

Cheers

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Exit Through the Gift Shop: Historical Memory and Gift Shops at Civil War Historic Sites

Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

My latest essay for the Journal of the Civil War Era’s blog went live last week. I wrote about gift shops at Civil War historic sites and the urgent need for memory scholars to analyze the ways these spaces shape visitor experiences at historic sites. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback so far and I hope the essay will lead to a more sustained and substantial dialogue on how gift shops can better serve the mission of a given public history site.

I have a lot of other exciting writing projects and upcoming presentations going on at the moment and I’ll let you know about those initiatives in a future post. For now, enjoy the above essay and let me know what you think in the comments section.

Cheers

Many Historic House Museum Tours Are Boring Because They Lack a Human Element

The Campbell House Museum in St. Louis, Missouri, is one of my favorite historic house museums partly because of its historic artifacts but mostly because the staff does such a nice job of interpretive the lives of the people who lived in the house. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The Campbell House Museum in St. Louis, Missouri, is one of my favorite historic house museums partly because of its historic artifacts but mostly because the staff does such a nice job of interpretive the lives of the people who lived in the house. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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.

Cheers

 

On Volunteers at Museums and Historic Sites

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.

Cheers

The Future of Public History Employment in the Age of the “Gig Economy”

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.

Cheers

*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.

Challenging the Exclusive Public Historian

A statue of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in Baltimore, Maryland. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
A statue of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in Baltimore, Maryland. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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.

Cheers

Fear and Loathing at St. Louis Civil War History Sites

A few of us at work had an extended conversation today about a Facebook post that is getting attention and making the rounds. The post came from a concerned parent here in St. Louis who visited two public history sites that interpret Civil War history with a school group and came away unimpressed. I urge readers to check out the post. I am not sure how well-versed this person is in Civil War history or museum education initiatives, but she does a pretty good job of highlighting how supposedly “neutral” Civil War sites often end up–whether intentionally or unintentionally–downplaying slavery’s role in the coming of the war while glorifying the Confederacy and lamenting its demise. She also highlights a particularly troubling discussion at one site about Civil War gun bullets that turned into a discussion about the sorts of weapons police officers used during the 2014 events in Ferguson.

For some practitioners and scholars in the field these complaints are nothing new. Indeed, the National Park Service’s efforts to revise its interpretive programs to more accurately discuss the causes, context, and consequences of the Civil War date back to the 1990s when Dwight Pitcaithley was Chief Historian of the agency. But what I see at play here is a continued disconnect between the work of larger federal agencies and non-profits and the work of some smaller publicly- and privately-run museums that are operating on shoestring budgets. Many of these places are run by volunteers or by employees who don’t have the time to dig into professional development sessions or new historical scholarship. They are too busy dealing with budgets, fundraising, outreach efforts, and the daily grind of working in a museum. For example, one time a small museum owner openly admitted to me that not a single employee of his had any sort of training in education or interpretation. I rarely meet people at professional development workshops or the annual National Council on Public History conference who are coming from the small museum world, and I understand why. Mary Rizzo wrote a brief article about small museums in Public History News that further explores the challenges these small sites face.

These challenges don’t excuse teaching bad history to visitors, however.

Two other points stuck out to me in this post. Speaking about parents and teachers on the trip she mentions that “no one wanted to discuss this history and its implications on this history field trip.” That’s a pretty astute comment. Different school groups bring different interest levels with them to these sites, but it’s always tough from my end when I interact with a group where things feel artificial and everyone goes on vacation mode. I blame that mentality partly on teachers and parents who don’t prep students for these trips and partly on public historians who put together bad programs and dull presentations.

The other point I noticed was the general feeling of intimidation students felt while at these sites. “You are told to say, Thank you,” she says. It’s unfortunate whenever someone feels this way while visiting a public history site, and I’m sure there are people in this field that would say the best museum is one with no one in it. But I think we need to be ones saying “thank you” to our visitors. We don’t exist if nobody comes to our sites, and in an age of Netflix, TV, and the internet to distract us 24 hours a day, we should cherish the presence of every visitor who takes time out of their day to visit a cultural institution. And we should do everything in our power to remove any semblance of an artificial hierarchy that puts our visitors in a place of submission or intimidation. You can see how easily this occurred at the two sites mentioned in the Facebook post. Hopefully we in the Park Service can use this opportunity to check our own practices and extend a helping hand to some of the small sites in our area.

Cheers