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 the session, “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.