NCPH 2018: Where Do We Go From Here?

Last week I attended the 2018 Annual Meeting of the National Council on Public History in Las Vegas. It was my fifth straight NCPH conference and my first time in Las Vegas, which in itself was quite a treat as I took some time to take in the city’s sights and sounds. As a pretty active member of NCPH I ended up spending lots of time during the conference in committee meetings and planning for my own presentation in session 36, “Rewiring Old Power Lines: The Challenge of Entrenched Narratives.” I did have the chance, however, to attend a range of sessions during the conference. Overall I enjoyed my experience and left with a lot of satisfaction about my participation in NCPH. I do have questions and concerns moving forward, however. What follows are three thoughts about the conference and the state of public history:

What is the meaning of the term “Community”?: One of the strong points of attending NCPH conferences is that presenters are constantly exploring ways to bring the ideals and values of public history to new audiences. Every year there seems to be passionate discussion about three different questions:

1. How to rewrite narratives to incorporate the perspectives of previously marginalized historical actors in interpretive programs.

2. How to bring new audiences to public history sites, particularly young people and people of color.

3. How to establish a community-oriented culture of inclusion and equity at public history sites.

I believe these concerns are fundamental to the public history profession, and they’ll always play an important role in how the field defines itself. Effectively addressing these questions is a great challenge without clear answers. I confess, however, that this year I felt like some of the conversations I heard were akin to listening to a song on repeat. Sometimes I felt like asking, “okay, these concerns are valid, but I’ve heard these same thoughts for the past five years. What are we actually doing to push the field in a new direction?”

Part of the problem, I think, is that the term “community” is sometimes thrown around in an irresponsible way. Like the term “general public,” there really is no such thing as a “community.” There are only “communities,” and any discussion about “meeting the needs of the local community” really should be pluralized. Take, for example, my hometown of St. Louis. St. Louis County has 90 municipalities, all of which have their own histories and present-day needs. St. Louis city is a separate legal entity from the county and has its own neighborhoods and ethnic enclaves. Nearby Jefferson County and especially St. Charles County have experienced explosive suburban growth over the past twenty years. Several counties in Illinois also have a close association with St. Louis. All of these areas fall under the term “St. Louis Metro Area,” but as a public historian I can’t really talk about “meeting the needs of the St. Louis community.” The area is too big and the population is too unique to be described in historical terms as a single community. Ferguson, Chesterfield, and Affton are all in St. Louis County, for example, but have different histories and different needs. In reality there are some communities in St. Louis that are well served by their public history institutions and others that are not. So when we talk about meeting the needs of a local population, we need to start from the premise that there are many communities in a given locality we should be reaching out to and serving.

Concerns about Mid-Level Professionals: I think NCPH has done a wonderful job of making its annual meeting a welcoming place for graduate students and new professionals. Both groups benefit from a mentoring program, a special outing the first night of the conference, the Speed Networking session, and an environment that is friendly to new attendees. In general I think students and new professionals get a lot out of the NCPH Annual Meeting.

As I experience my own transition away from the term “new professional,” however, I’ve been thinking more and more about mid-level professionals and what the organization is doing to meet their needs. Those of us who have been in the field between four and ten years are most likely still in the field because we were fortunate to find jobs to support ourselves. But what happens when you’ve got your foot in the door with that entry-level position but can’t move up? I am greatly concerned about the number of mid-level professionals that I spoke with that are struggling to find career growth and new opportunities to put their skills to practice. For many, there is no career track to speak of. Throughout the conference I thought about a former cohort from graduate school who left the public history field to find a job in sales a couple weeks earlier. Another NCPH conference-goer who recently retired mentioned that his position isn’t being filled. I also admit to my own concerns about my future in public history.

What can NCPH do to help mid-level professionals find the career growth they seek? I’m not sure, but it’s my hope that the Professional Development Committee (of which I am co-chair) along with other NCPH committees can begin discussing strategies for the future. Additionally, while I could not attend working group 2, “Negotiating Power Lines: Economic Justice and the Ethics of Public History,” the tweets from that panel were fascinating and hint at some interesting ideas about promoting better pay for public historians.

Props to South African Public History: A significant highlight of the conference was having the chance to attend session 36, “South African Recovery from Cruel Pasts: Using Creative Arts to Visualize Alternatives.” Members of Rhodes University’s Isikhumbuzo Applied History Unit came all the way from South Africa to present at the conference, and it was a real treat. Historian Julia Wells and historians/performers Masixole Heshu and Phemelo Hellemann discussed the 1819 Battle of Grahamstown and efforts by the Applied History Unit to bring this history to life through creative arts, including poetry, storytelling, and pantsula dancing, a type of dancing invented in South Africa in the 1950s and 1960s. Dancers Azile Cibi and Likhaya Jack demonstrated pantsula dancing for all participants, and for the first time at a conference I ended dancing myself! They also demonstrated scenes from a play the Applied History Unit developed to portray the story of “Pete,” a native South African who was able to save his mother, a POW during the Battle of Grahamstown, and return her from bondage (true story). The session was extremely fascinating and a real treat to attend.

(Another thing I noticed about this session was that the presenters went into the crowd, introduced themselves, and thanked each audience member for attending their session. I was struck by the kindness of this small act and think presenters at future history conferences should embrace this practice).

All in all, NCPH 2018 was a great time and I look forward to next year’s meeting. For now, it’s back to the grid.

Cheers

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New Essay at History@Work on Monuments at Statuary Hall

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!

Cheers

Institutional Authority and the Value of History in a Time of Uncertainty

The National Council on Public History’s 2017 Annual Meeting has concluded and I’m back home doing my thing. There were more than 800 registrants at this year’s meeting who undoubtedly had a range of experiences during the conference, but on a personal level it was a true pleasure seeing old friends, making new ones, and having the chance to participate in important conversations about the state of the field.

In thinking about the conference’s theme since coming home–“The Middle: Where Have We Come From, Where Are We Going?“–my mind keeps going back to two sets of questions I have about the role of authority within the field. One is between public historians and the publics they work with, the other is between public historians and the people who employ them.

Regarding the former set of questions, I was struck by how various sessions grappled with whether public historians should cede or assert their authority in these situations. To cite one example, various presenters analyzing controversial monuments in the United States and Argentina all admitted during the conference that beyond doing research on the monuments and presenting their findings, a correct path for navigating where to go in the future was mystifying. Do historians conclude by presenting their findings and avoid making declarative statements one way or the other, or do they use their authority to advocate for a particular position that may or may not reflect the viewpoint of a majority of a local community’s residents? If historians take a position, whose voices within the community do they choose to amplify and why? More specifically, since community members already have a voice regardless of whether or not public historians are there, whose voices do we choose to use our privilege and platform in service of?

Additionally, are their times when further dialogue over something like the presence of a controversial monument is unnecessary and public historians must start taking political action to achieve a larger goal? How useful is it for public historians to keep discussing so-called “counter-monuments” and contextual markers for something like the Liberty Place Monument when local residents in that community are ready to take that monument down?

In “Touring Sites of Nostalgia and Violence: Historical Tourism and Memory in Germany, Poland, Turkey, and the United States,” a session I had the privilege of moderating, the question of historical authority in the visitor experience to sites of violence was a central question. Erica Fagan of the University of Massachusetts Amherst explored the use of Instagram at Holocaust sites like Auschwitz and Dachau and mused on what extent historians should moderate these posts, arguing that these sites needed to have a social media presence to dispel historical myths and falsehoods. Yagmur Karakaya of the University of Minnesota assessed several museum exhibits in Turkey that romanticized the historical legacy of the Ottoman Empire. She made connections between the exhibit content and the rhetoric of the current Erdogen administration in promoting their own goals, wondering if there was a role for public historians to offer a more balanced and less nationalistic portrayal of the Ottoman past. And Amanda Tewes explored Calico Ghost Town, a small historic site in San Bernardino, California, that is entirely volunteer-run and is probably better described as a theme park than a historic site. Volunteers engage in battle reenactments and glorify the mythic western white miner who drank heavy, carried a gun, and asserted his individualism and masculinity. Meanwhile, the actual history of Chinese laborers in the area and Calico’s peaceful, relatively non-violent culture are completely ignored.

Assessing the correct relationship between public historians and their publics is not a new concept, and NCPH 2017 continued a long conversation within the field about this topic. Unfortunately I believe we all too often use buzzword jargon words like “shared authority,” “giving groups a voice,” “community,” “radical history,”  and “relevance” without thinking critically about what, exactly, we mean by these terms. This is something I warned about after last year’s conference, but I still think it’s a problem within the field. Moreover, while I won’t get into specifics here, I think we sometimes run the risk of taking too much credit for capturing the stories of disaffected groups who, once again, already have their own voices regardless of our presence. And when we do that, we come off as condescending and patronizing at best.

With regards to my second set of questions–the relationship between public historians and the people who employ them–it was obvious from the beginning that this conference was very much inward looking towards questions of employment and financial support for the long-term health of the field. To be sure, I am of the opinion that the humanities have struggled to maintain support since Socrates died for asking too many questions. But circumstances change over time and with our current political moment being highlighted by hiring freezes, potential budget cuts, and an increasingly politicized culture not just at the federal level but also the state and local level, it is safe to say that grad students about to hit the job market and new professionals at entry-level jobs are wondering about finding work and establishing career tracks. What happens when institutions face severe cuts and education is the first thing to go? What are the implications when the number of public history programs increases in times of economic uncertainty?

We are not sure what’s next and we all admitted it at the conference.

So, in sum, I think the big challenge for the field of public history continues to revolve around authority: Asserting our value as historians who enlighten, challenge, and inspire our many publics to understand and learn from studying history, but also using our positions to give those many publics a platform to share their experiences, stories, and perspectives about the past without us dominating the process.

Oh, also: I did a workshop on starting a walking tour business with Jeff Sellers and Elizabeth Goetsch, and it was probably one of the best experiences I have ever had at an NCPH conference.

Cheers

Getting Ready for NCPH 2017

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!

Cheers

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

Getting Ready for NCPH 2016

Challenging the Exclusive Past NCPH 2016

I have not been blogging as much as I typically do as of late. Part of the reason is simply the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, but I’ve also been working on a few projects for next year that I’m pretty excited about. One such project is my participation in the National Council on Public History’s Annual Meeting in Baltimore, Maryland, in March. This will be my third NCPH conference and I’m thrilled to be in the program again. I don’t have a lot of time or money to attend many conferences on an annual basis, but the NCPH meetings are totally worth it for the chance to meet and interact with some of the best scholars and practitioners in the public history field.

I was fortunate enough to be accepted as a discussant in a working group about race, violence, and protest in historical context. The description for our session is as follows:

“Interpreting the History of Race Riots and Racialized Mass Violence in the Age of ‘Black Lives Matter'”

The rise of the “Black Lives Matter” movement created new contexts for the public history of race riots and racialized mass violence of the past. This working group brings together practitioners involved in interpreting this historic theme. Our goal is to explore the impact of these new contemporary contexts through a sustained dialogue between public historians, community members, and activists, which will result in a sustainable, innovative, and collaborative project.

At this point I view myself contributing to the conversation from the perspective of an educator who often discusses racialized violence in the nineteenth century with visitors and–less often but more frequently in light of recent events–the complex politics of civil war memory today. More specifically, I hope to discuss some strategies I employed in talking about these topics with eight graders in the Ferguson-Florissant School District earlier this year – what worked, what didn’t, and what I’m thinking about as we prepare to work with the district again next May. Other presenters will be coming from a more academic and/or activist background, so the working group will be composed of thoughtful people with diverse skills and perspectives for discussing these topics. I’m looking forward to the conversation.

Stay tuned. Cheers.

A Brief Reflection on NCPH 2015

Photo Credit: National Council on Public History
Photo Credit: National Council on Public History

This year’s Annual Meeting of the National Council on Public History marked my first time as a conference attendee and participant of the meeting (I was there last year in Monterey, California, but as an NCPH employee. I spent almost all of my time at the front desk). As mentioned in my last post, I had an opportunity to participate on a panel about the intersection of theory and practice in public history. I also mentored two public history students throughout the meeting and emceed the Speed Networking session, which I helped organize through my membership in the NCPH Professional Development Committee. Based on the feedback I’ve received I think all went well on my end.

Nashville is a cool city with lots of great music and food. Each night I had a chance to take in the sights and sounds of the city while visiting with many friends, but looking back I think I should have made more of an effort to get out and learn about Nashville’s history. It’s difficult to take much in with such a jammed-packed itinerary of sessions to attend, but by Friday and Saturday I was starting to feel locked inside the conference hotel. Next year I think I’ll take a walking or bus tour of some sort if I’m able to make it out to Baltimore for NCPH 2016.

As for the conference itself, I learned a lot and thought it was great (A collection of post-conference materials can be viewed here). The sessions I attended focused on “comfort narratives” and marginalized histories at cultural sites; communicating history to lay audiences through journalism, video, podcast, and other media; interpreting local history and the Black Power Movement in Civil Rights museums; social activism in public history scholarship and practice; workplace challenges of early career public historians; and doing public history work for the federal government.

My big takeaways from the conference can be summed up in two tweets from other conference attendees:

In my world of interpreting nineteenth century history the “edgiest” history I discuss on a regular basis revolves around discussions about slavery, racism, and segregation. These topics were rather taboo at many cultural sites through the 1990s, and they probably remain so in some places presently. Just today I chatted with a volunteer at a historic home in the St. Louis area who stated that the home’s interpreters never used the word “slavery” well into the early 2000s because “visitors didn’t want to hear about it.” With those sorts of comments from visitors it’s easy to see how even a generic acknowledgement of something like slavery runs the risk of offending a visitor’s sensibilities. There are times when people visit cultural sites simply because they want to have all their prior beliefs about history and contemporary society confirmed and be told that everything will be okay. So it goes.

Interpreters, of course, must do their best to honestly portray history in a way that doesn’t offend visitors. But it seems to me that we must also do our best to honestly portray history in a way that doesn’t offend the sensibilities of those whose ancestors’ experiences were shaped by slavery, racism, segregation, or any other form of oppression. The two groups are sometimes one and the same, but more often than not I share these stories solely with people who look like me and come from backgrounds like my own; white, middle-class, suburban, “comfortable.” I talk about oppressed people at work, but less often do I actually talk with oppressed people at work. I think that’s the case at a lot of cultural sites in the United States, for better or worse. It’s far easier to cautiously look over the edge of history from a distance than to walk towards the edge to see what you might find on the other side.

Cheers