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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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:
— Hope Shannon (@HistorianHope) April 16, 2015
— elizabeth catte (@elizabethcatte) April 18, 2015
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.
I failed to mention it on the blog earlier this week, but I was in Nashville, Tennessee, from April 15 to April 18 for the National Council on Public History’s annual meeting. I’ll have more to share about the conference in a future post, but it will suffice for now to say that it was a very enjoyable experience. I saw a lot of old friends, made some new ones, and learned a lot in the process.
During the conference I participated in a session with public historians Julie Davis (UNC-Chapel Hill), Lara Kelland, and Catherine Fosl (both University of Louisville) entitled “Theory and Practice: Towards a Praxis of Public History.” (Check out the #PHPraxis hashtag for a collection of tweets from the session). I initially approached this session thinking about some of the ideas I shared in this post about theory and practice in public history, but it soon became apparent that I needed to think beyond that post and re-organize my thoughts to account for new theoretical challenges I’ve faced since leaving the academy for the work force. I did NOT read from a paper when presenting at the conference, but I wanted to write one to help provide focus to my ideas and prepare myself for the session.
I’ve decided to make that paper freely downloadable for readers. If you’d like to have a copy of this paper for yourself, please feel free to download it here. In sharing this paper, I hope readers will find it useful for the select theories I use to inform my own practices as a public historian and for the collection of resources I compiled at the end of the paper. My thanks also go to Andrew Joseph Pegoda and Kelby Dolan, both friends and scholars who reviewed the paper and gave me critical feedback on it. As always, please feel free to leave a comment on this website or contact me via email or Twitter if you have questions, criticisms, or other remarks to share with me about the paper.
During the National Council on Public History’s 2014 Annual Meeting in Monterey, California, I had an opportunity to engage in several fruitful conversations about international public history with Salem State University history professor Matthew Barlow and Nick Johnson, a good friend and former classmate of mine from IUPUI who will soon be leaving for a year of public history studies in Berlin, Germany. Out of those conversations came an essay from me about the potential benefits of international collaboration in public history and some questions about what exactly it means to “internationalize” public history. That essay was finally posted on NCPH’s History@Work blog today. You can access it here.
As always, thank you to everyone for taking time out of your busy schedules to read my musings, questions, arguments, and essays about history.
Some brief notes on upcoming publications and other personal news.
- As you can see above, my Master’s thesis on the Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Indiana is fresh off the bindery and now in hardback form. I took a short trip to Indianapolis during the Fourth of July weekend to pick up hard copies for the IUPUI history department, my thesis chair, my parents, and myself. The IUPUI University Library has a PDF copy of the Master’s thesis that will soon be published digitally for the entire world through their online open access repository, IUPUIScholarWorks. The Library hasn’t posted my thesis yet and I can’t tell you why, but it’s my hope that it’s going to go up soon. Due to copyright restrictions I can’t share my thesis publicly on this website, but if you’re anxious to get your hands on a digital copy please leave a note in the comments section or send me an email and I’ll get you a copy as soon as I get the green light to do so.
- My first magazine article has just been published by History is Now, an online history magazine based out of London, UK. The article is about 2,500 words long and addresses sectional conflicts in the naming of the American Civil War. A nice essay by Chandra Manning and Adam Rothman about naming the war appeared in the New York Times in August 2013 and was helpful for me as I put together this essay, but I go beyond their arguments by analyzing the United Confederate Veterans’ efforts to rename the war as the “War Between the States” and suggesting that the term “Civil War” grew out of the Civil War Centennial of 1961-1965. Christian Smith, an editor at History is Now, contacted me back in January about doing a piece for the magazine. He and his team gave me a lot of flexibility and time in picking a topic to write about, and I thank them profusely for giving me a chance to get published (and thanks to Andrew Joseph Pegoda for providing edits and comments during the draft phase). Readers who follow the link above will note that History is Now is designed for smartphones and iPads and that you have an opportunity to take advantage of a two-month free trial of the magazine before subscribing to anything (which means you can get the summer issue, including my article, for free). If you do not have smartphone technology, however, once again feel free to contact me via the comments section or email and I will work on getting you a different copy of the essay.
- Even though memories of the National Council on Public History’s 2014 Annual Meeting in Monterey, California, are still fresh in my mind, today was the deadline for panel submissions for the 2015 Annual Meeting in Nashville, Tennessee. I am working with two separate groups on submitting proposals for the conference and will be sure to post updates here once I know whether or not these proposals have been approved.
- Readers will note that I recently wrote an essay about taking a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) about material culture through Harvard EdX. Unfortunately those plans fell through within the first week of class following my Grandfather’s placement in the hospital on June 4 and his eventual passing on June 12. The MOOC fell by the wayside pretty quickly at that point and I lost interest in pursuing it any further. Perhaps I will take another MOOC in the future, but for now I hold the distinction of being just like the vast majority of students who take a MOOC: a dropout.
I wrote this essay for the newest issue of the National Council on Public History’s quarterly newsletter Public History News. I provide some basic tips and advice for finding employment in public history and discuss my experiences running NCPH’s Jobs page during the 2013-2014 academic year.
One of my duties as NCPH’s Program Assistant this year involved me updating the Jobs Page on NCPH’s website. Every week I searched the internet for public history job postings that were relevant to the skills and desires of the NCPH membership base, and at times I was able to post upwards of twenty or more openings to the webpage. I gained valuable experience for my own job search in running the jobs page and came away with several key pointers that I think can benefit all public historians currently seeking employment.
Know what you are looking for: Public history is a broad field that encompasses many occupations within the historical enterprise. Knowing your professional strengths and having a clear vision of your preferred occupation, geographical region, salary, and professional goals can all help the application process.
- Am I interested in working for a large historical society, museum, or other cultural institution where I have a specialized job, or do I want to work for a smaller institution where I might have my hands in everything from fundraising and grant-writing to public programming and interpretation?
- Do I want to work for an established historic preservation or consulting firm, or do I have the skills to start my own firm?
- How much will it cost to move to a new city?
- Do I need my health benefits to be covered immediately?
Be aware of deadlines: Postings often have strict closing dates. This is especially true for federal jobs with the Department of the Interior and the U.S. military, where the window for these openings is often open for only seven or less days. One recent posting I saw on USAJOBS opened for applications on a Friday and closed the following Monday. If working for the federal government appeals to you, be sure to use the resume builder on the USAJOBS website and check often for relevant job postings.
Look out for openings on the state and local levels: While the federal government and national organizations (like the American Alliance of Museums and the American Association for State and Local History) list many job opportunities for public historians, there are state and local positions that sometimes fall under the radar of the NCPH and related jobs pages. Many states have membership organizations that post local jobs on their website. A few particularly helpful associations for finding public history jobs this year included state and regional museum associations (i.e. the California Association of Museums or the Association of Mid-West Museums), as well as other sites like PreservationDirectory.com and statelocalgov.net.
Sometimes jobs are hidden. Look everywhere!: Some cultural institutions promote job openings on their own websites, but don’t promote them anywhere else online. To complicate matters further, many of these same cultural institutions do not display or promote their jobs page on their website homepages. Don’t simply rely on one or two job resource pages for getting the latest posting. If you have a specific institution that you’d like to work for, visit their website to see if they’ve posted any job openings, and make sure to search for “employment” or “jobs” within their website if there is nothing listed on their homepage. An opening that hasn’t been posted elsewhere may pop up.
Finding gainful employment in public history has always been difficult for emerging professionals, but devising tips and tricks for finding and applying for jobs can do much to make the process smoother. As I prepare to move on to the next phase of my public history career, I realize that my experience running the NCPH Jobs Page this past year helped me find a job that suits my professional interests.