January 2009

Here’s the news from the history blogosphere!

Bill Turkel has stopped writing Digital History Hacks, a terrific blog which ran for 3 excellent years.  Its ending gives me an opportunity to catch up on actually doing some of the projects he blogged about.  I’m sure he will keep populating the public history blogosphere with his students, and I look forward to his next projects!

There will be a blogging session at OAH this year in Seattle,* featuring some of your favorite history bloggers, including Bill, Larry, and J.L. Bell, who not only writes Boston 1775, but also has a great kidlit blog.

Speaking of New England history bloggers, Caitlyn’s Vast Public Indifference has all the gravestones, census records, and ways to say “died” you’ll ever need.

How good is the National Trust’s blog, Preservation Nation, that I always talk about here?  It’s so good that I joined the National Trust.

Everybody’s happy ** about Obama reversing Bush’s EO 13233; this makes presidential records more accessible to the public.

Susan posted a zillion essays about “What’s American about the history of science in America?”

I wrote the Pic of the Month at work about an awesome telephone now on exhibit.

Have you added your ideas about the future of public history to Forward Capture?

Also, I am working on a post about self-consciousness at “being a part of history” in re: the inauguration.  Clio will make an appearance.


*I won’t be there.  I never make it to OAH.

**By which I mean that all the archivists were twittering about it this morning.


There has recently been much talk, particularly in the art world, about deaccessioning.*  This has been occasioned by a rash of attempts to sell off collections for cash in a down economy, especially in university museums and, most recently, at the National Academy Museum.  In December, the NAM sold 2 paintings for $15 mil to support their operations and was promptly blackballed by the Association of Art Museum Directors:  other museums are forbidden to lend to them.  To some in the art world, this reaction seemed prudish and outmoded (but thankfully there are some great defenders of deaccessioning ethics), and a number of newspaper articles and so on have been written about this deaccessioning “controversy.”

There is no controversy.  Selling off collections items for operating expenses is a violation of our core values.

Museums are, at our core, stewards.  We hold collections in trust for the public.  As Graham Beal of the Detroit Institute of Arts said recently, “The institution is there to safeguard the art. The art is not there to support the institution.”  Our artifacts are not assets.  In the US, museums are nonprofit organizations, not only because it’s a useful tax status (which also confers certain stewardship responsibilities), but because we are charities in the deepest sense of the word.  We care for artifacts and are not only the stewards of our collections, but of a deep collective memory.  We care for the public, too, by providing community space to consider, build and deepen the meaning of our collective experiences.  We care for people by caring for things.

Museum ethics have been codified by the AAM, AAMD, AASLH and others to reflect this sacred trust the public has placed in us museums, to care for the material and natural culture of the past, present, and future.  We do not, and should not, take this trust lightly.


*Don’t get me started about how in this discourse “museum”=”art museum” and “collections”=”art.”

The NCPH has been establishing spaces and places for public historians to connect online.  Please come and join in.  As Cathy Stanton asked on H-Public, What does the changing digital face of the public history field look like?  Let’s find out!

Please join, for instance, our Facebook page , which has 250 fans and counting.  You can read a superinteresting piece on the history of “public history” and the NCPH there as well.  There’s also a LinkedIn group (the Linkedin group is just for NCPH members).  

I also challenge you all to contribute to this neat project, an “online brainstorming session,” called Forward Capture (built in Omeka, natch) to collect and visualize how public historians conceptualize the past and future of “public history.”  This is a place where anyone interested in the place of history and material culture  in public life can contribute to a collective vision and revisioning.  I am asking my archivist readers particularly to think about how they will do history in the future, and how they might be involved a big tent public history field.  (I also challenge myself to contribute soon!)

Many congratulations to our colleague Larry Cebula at Northwest History, who has received the Cliopatria award for Best Individual Blog this year.  Public historians should be proud of his excellent work.*  Good choice, Cliopatricians!

Here are the rest of the winners:

Best Group BlogThe Edge of the American West

Witty and insightful, the Edge of the American West puts the group in group blog, with frequent contributions from an irreverent band that includes several historians, a grad student in philosophy, a grad student in literature, and a software developer. Always entertaining, often enlightening, the blog features snazzy visuals—graphs, photos, videos—and zippy writing on everything from meditations on Obama, to a reflection on the 1967 Detroit riots, to tips for preparing for an academic job interview.

Ari Kelman and Eric Rauchway of the history department at UC, Davis, founded The Edge and are now joined in it by others.

Best Individual BlogNorthwest History

In addition to a strong focus on the historical materials and historiography of the American Northwest, Prof. Cebula introduces and explains digital resources and techniques with great range and depth. The writing is engaging and incisive and the result both entertaining and very useful.

Larry Cebula is a Public Historian at Eastern Washington University and Assistant Digital Archivist at the Washington State Digital Archives.

Best New BlogWynken de Worde

Wynken de Worde is a blog about books: not only their history, but also their cultural significance and myriad uses. It’s richly illustrated and always immensely thoughtful. Though the focus is on Renaissance and Elizabethan materials, Sarah Werner brings the history to life, and also addresses the present state of books, reading and intellectual property as well.

Dr. Sarah Werner is Director of the Undergraduate Program at the Folger Shakespeare Library and a scholar of Shakesperean and Renaissance drama.

Best Post: Claire Potter, Tenured Radical, “What Would Natalie Zemon Davis Do?” 19 June 2008.

In this eloquent, well-argued response to the blogger Rusticus’ attack on women’s history and women historians, Potter uses a 1988 exchange between Natalie Zemon Davis and Robert Finlay to illustrate how women’s history can “illuminate what it meant to be human” while showing “how to argue in a civilized way.” She argues that historians succeed because they persuade their colleagues, male and female; this blog post is a good example of one such success.

Claire Potter is a professor of History and American Studies at Connecticut’s Wesleyan University.

Best Series of Posts: Tim Abbott on Trumbull’s The Death of General MontgomeryJan. 12Jan. 13Jan. 14Jan. 17Jan. 18.

The examination of Jonathan Trumbull’s famous painting The Death of General Montgomery in Attack on Quebec, December 31 1775 over five posts at Tim Abbott’s Walking the Berkshires is good scholarly writing and engaging analysis. Abbott raises intriguing questions about historical memory, as he guides his readers through the examination of historical records.

Tim Abbott is a conservation professional.

Best WriterZunguzungu

Whether in his examination of Henry Morton Stanley’s encounter with Dr. Livingstone, or tracing the African imaginary in Charlton Heston’s Naked Jungle or his expositions of John Ford’s American West, Zunguzungu is always thought- provoking and illuminating. His writing consistently demonstrates a gift of narrative and the willingness to eschew easy questions. He draws heavily on visuals to augment his readings, but never at the expense of readability. 

Zunguzungu is a graduate student in English. His project is broadly concerned with tracking the extent to which “America’s Africa” and “Africa’s America” have been mutually constitutive — even, occasionally, dialogic — narratives of identity.


*I am particularly proud since I nominated Northwest History for the award.