public history


Or so I attempt to demonstrate in a post up now at History@Work.

But for lovers or friends with no past in common the historic past unrolls like a park, like a ridgy landscape full of buildings and people.  To talk of books is, for oppressed shut-in lovers, no way out of themselves; what was written is either dull or too near the heart.  But to walk into history is to be free at once, to be at large among people.  Art does its work even here in clarifying their faces, but they are dead, immune, their schemes and passions are legacies….Outside, the street, empty, reeled in the midday sun; the glare was reflected in on the gold-and-brown restaurant wall opposite; side by side in the empty restaurant, they surrounded themselves with wars, treaties, persecutions, strategic marriages, campaigns, reforms, successions and violent deaths.  History is unpainful, memory does not cloud it; you join the emphatic lives of the long dead.  May we give the future something to talk about.

–Elizabeth Bowen, The House in Paris

Come to our NCPH session, this Thursday morning at 8:30 as part of the NCPH annual meeting in sunny, convenient Monterey.

How can co-created projects become a sustainable part of our work?  This roundtable includes participants who have facilitated recurring co-created exhibits and other projects involving museums, community organizations, students, artists, and other diverse partners. We will discuss the best practices that have emerged from ongoing collaborative projects, followed by a robust discussion with the audience as we collectively outline how we can sustain the co-created projects that keep our institutions responsive, challenging, and vital.

Facilitator: Suzanne Fischer, Oakland Museum of California

Presenters: Lisa Junkin Lopez, Jane Addams Hull-House Museum

Benjamin Cawthra, California State University, Fullerton

Deborah Mack, National Museum of African American History and Culture

Evelyn Orantes, Oakland Museum of California

Nostalgia can be an emotion that gets people interested in the past and that draws them back to their own and their family’s history.  But it’s a distorting force.  It puts a scrim of sentimentalization over real events and real people and recasts challenging, uncomfortable stories as quaint and harmless.  Nostalgia robs history of its ability to surprise, shock, amaze, replacing all stories with a generic one of how people sure were different in the old days.  It erases the stories of people who didn’t appear in charming advertisements.  It ignores specificity.  It’s ahistorical.

It is a testament to the quality and high level of engagement of this year’s NCPH conference that the web is already full of conference reports; here’s mine. The NCPH/OAH meeting in Milwaukee was full of interesting sessions on vital work in the field, passionate people doing good history, free wifi, and excellent beer. I’m clearly biased as a native rustbelter, but Milwaukee was a fine place for 2000+ historians to gather—friendly, compact, and with its own history to explore.

The conference began with a THATCamp with the usual quotient of inquiry and energy. After the conference had officially opened, our session on contemporary DIY movements and public history institutions (which, thanks to Kate Freedman’s presentation, became known as “the steampunk panel”) was on Thursday morning. The presentations were followed by a challenging discussion, and we’ll be putting some version of the panel online.

I also heard a great panel about interpreting women’s history at unlikely places. “Assume women were there,” said Heather Huyck of the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites, capping off the session after a surprising presentation about interpreting Julia Dent Grant and enslaved women at the US Grant Historic Site in St Louis. Many posts on other sessions can be found at History @Work, as well as discussions of some of the organizational issues at stake, in particular the still-up-in-the-air fate of The Public Historian journal.

Milwaukee’s museums were another highlight of the trip for me. I was lucky enough to get a tour of the Milwaukee Public Museum, one of America’s great encyclopedia museums. The typewriter was invented by Milwaukee resident Christopher Sholes and the MPM has one of the world’s best typewriter collections, which the curator graciously took me into storage to see.  The exhibitry there is also fascinating; they have an enormous amount of natural history and anthropology content, told through dioramas, including early work by Carl Akeley.  I also visited the art-of-engineering museum and the lovely mid-century conservatory, The Domes.

See you next year in Ottawa!

I’m sure, dear readers, that you are familiar with our only public history professional organization, the National Council on Public History.

You may also be familiar with NCPH’s blog on unexpected exhibit practice, Off the Wall, for which I wrote a few posts about history on the internet.

Now NCPH has upped the ante with the new blog, History@Work, located appropriately at publichistorycommons.org. Edited by the indefatigable Cathy Stanton as well as a host of section editors, the new blog describes itself as follows:

History@Work is a multi-authored, multi-interest blog sponsored by the National Council on Public History as a digital meeting place–a commons–for all those with an interest in the practice and study of history in public.

There is already a ton of great material up there–about the work of consultants and new professionals, exhibit and project spotlights, newsy posts about current issues in history practice, and Off the Wall-type posts on the wider universe of public history. Please visit this great new resource.

This year’s MacArthur fellows have been announced, and I was delighted to see that Tiya Miles, a public historian at the University of Michigan whose work on Afro-Cherokee history won an NCPH book award this year, was one of the winners.  (Also, she’s a Minnesota grad.)  Many congratulations!

Another historian was among the winners–Jacob Soll, who does early modern book and political history.

Previous coverage of museum and history MacArthur winners: 2007, 2008.

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