Alex’s reflection blog

The moment I heard about Public History, I became instantly curious and I have spent the last few semesters trying to understand what exactly it was. I came into this class with the notion that I had a relatively good understanding of Public history, but I quickly realized how much I had to learn. I have come out of this class with a more firm understand that Public History is so much more complex and dynamic than any simple sentence definition could ever truly encompass. Public history has become a large part of the recent decade’s efforts to make the narrative of history more inclusive.Based on the readings of this semester, I have come to the conclusion that Public History is a bridge between the traditional Academic history and the people whose stories or family legacies it’s telling.

Public historians navigate a boundary between the idea that Historians, as social scientists, must present a well-sourced interpretation of the past, and the role of Public Historians as caretakers of community, family, or individual histories. Two books this semester that greatly influenced my ever evolving understanding of the field of public history and my place within in it were Andrea A. Burn’s From Storefront to Monument and Amy Lonetree’s Decolonizing Museums. As a white woman, I often find myself wanting to speak out and explore the parts of history that might not generally be considered “mine.” I have always felt trepidation about how to interact with communities connected by a common experience of which I have no direct experience without coming across as condescending or ignorant. These books helped me form a greater sense of what my role as a historian can be in trying to bring this less-often discussed histories to light.

My research and the conversations I have engaged in this semester have helped me see that it is crucial for public historians to work from a place of respect. Public historians must be humble, but persistent in their curiosity, and respectful in their handling of the knowledge they acquire. Public historians most important task is working toward creating more trusting and mutually beneficial relationships with communities they hope to serve. Public historians are trained in the field as professionals and it is imperative that they remember that, to many people, history is a very personal thing. As I reflect on my perceptions of Public History before the semester and I think about my understanding of it now, I can only for sure say that Public history will play a critical role in the field of history. While it is very challenging to nail down a simple definition of what public history is, I can say for certain that for me public historians are mediators, and advocates for the communities they work with and I will be proud to one day call myself a Public Historian.

Lonetree, Amy. Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012. Print.

Burns, Andrea A. From Storefront to Monument Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014.

Edited from Source: Alex’s reflection blog by Alex Runnings

Reflective Blog Post: Dustin Linz

Coming into this course at the beginning of the semester, I thought that I had a pretty good grip on what it meant to be a public historian. However, as the semester draws to an end, I have discovered that I actually had a lot to learn about the field. Designing exhibits and advertising them to the public. That’s all we have to do, right? Wrong. There was actually so much more that I have come to realize I have not been doing, and I am going to explain the most pivotal lessons that I learned from this Public History class. These are lessons that I will hold on to, and that I will utilize in the future so I can maximize my potential as a public historian.

One of the most important things that I’ve learned is that it is crucial for a museum, especially a smaller local one, to reach out to the community –those who have experienced things first-hand– to gather inspiration and input for the design of exhibits. As historians, we have a tendency to believe that we know everything, that we are the experts, and that it is no use consulting with outside sources while researching for a new exhibit design. After reading Letting Go: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, I discovered that this arrogant approach can be devastating to the ultimate portrayal of subjects in a museum. Now, Letting Go, does not suggest that the museum professional needs to abandon all of their authority when it comes to exhibit designs. What it does suggest is adopting a collaborative method when undergoing new projects. For example, a museum can conduct interviews with dozens of individuals from the area that they serve to collect oral histories to integrate into exhibitions. This was especially effective in the case of Native American museums discussed in Amy Lonetree’s Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums. In this instance, Native Americans were interviewed and asked for insight in how to design an exhibition on their particular tribe, and their ancestral experiences. By doing this, the museum was able to create an exhibition that featured haunting oral histories, which allowed the visitor to have a really strong understanding of the pain and suffering Native Americans have experienced. Instead of presenting a typical white man’s perspective on Native Americans, which usually treat Native Americans as though they are completely extinct, this method of collaboration gave the exhibition a sense of life that affected the visitor in a profound way, that evoked emotion and sympathy.

I’ve already begun to apply the lessons from Letting Go and Decolonizing Museums to my own career. While designing a recent exhibit on Jewish History in Howard County, I scheduled interviews and sought the input of many individuals within the Jewish community in the county. Instead of making the final call on what was important and what the public needed to know about Jewish history, I asked members of Howard County’s original Jewish Council and some of the older surviving Jewish residents of Howard County about their past experiences and what they thought would be most important to include in an exhibition about their culture and their people. This has proven successful. An exhibit that may have been dull and lifeless without the external input has now become something that has more life to it. Also, while planning an African-American walking tour that will be given by the Howard County Historical Society at some point in the future, I have consulted the local African-American community. In particular, I have been in contact with the Ellicott City Colored School, and a woman who works there who was alive to experience what it was like to attend school in a one-room school house, and what it was like to be given inadequate education because of the color of one’s skin. Again, by “letting go” of the authority of designing the tour myself, I am gaining insight from individuals that can provide first-hand insight into the tour. This will transform the tour, just like the exhibit, from being something stale and lifeless, into something vibrant that will hopefully move the visitors who attend the tour.

The second book that really touched me was The Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums. While I don’t work in a historic house, per se, the book did offer a lot of insight into how I could improve the conditions and layout of my museum to be more appealing to a twenty-first-century audience. My biggest take away from that book was that we should abandon our antiquated notions of how museums should be presented and what kind of experience visitors want when they visit. In the modern world, people want an interactive environment. They don’t want to be confined to a certain area, having to stand behind a rope while being surrounded by “do-not-touch” signs. Rather, visitors—especially younger ones—crave an atmosphere where they are allowed to dictate the course of action, even if just a little bit. The tours with linear narratives that don’t stray from the script are appealing to older visitors, but will quickly bore younger ones. That is why it is important to evoke thought-provoking questions throughout a museum, provide visitors with interesting visuals to supplement their experience, and to give them hands-on paraphernalia.

Again, just as I have with Letting Go, I have begun to implement ideals from Anarchist’s Guide into the museum that I manage. I have a plan in place that will add interactive exhibits. For example, a dress-up area for kids, a list of questions for people to think about as they make their way through the exam, and other interactive concepts. Anarchist’s Guide really opened my eyes and made me realize that everything I had known about museum presentation was out-dated, not interesting to anyone besides the person who is designing the exhibition.

In the future, I hope that I will continue to grow as a public historian. This class has given me many of the tools that will be essential to my survival and success in the public-history field. Perpetuating history sounds easier than it really is. You have to keep people interested, provide thoughtful, emotion-evoking exhibitions that influence visitors to perform extensive outside research on historical subjects. The public-history field is one that is rapidly changing, and will continue to change throughout time, as political, technological and social changes occur that alter the way individuals approach history.

Lightly edited from Source: Reflective Blog Post: Dustin Linz

Reflective Blog

Overall this course has not only reaffirmed things I felt I had known about the field of public history, but also given me new ideas to think about and apply within the field. I am truly thankful for our time in the classroom because each week, I walked in looking forward to the shared experiences and open conversations. In my opinion, the purpose and definition of public history is to better interpret, present and operate historical sites, research, and projects for both the professionals and the general audience. Public historians should always be aware of historic integrity as well as the readability and impact of their work. Class readings explained that personal touches, community involvement and relevant histories were key elements of successful public history endeavors.

Classically trained historians often lack the skills to create work personally relevant and comprehensible to the masses. Public historians could therefore be seen as the middlemen in transforming a work of scholarly history into something that can reach the general public. Andrew Hurley’s Book Beyond Preservation described the way historic preservation efforts need to include the surrounding communities. He used archaeological projects as examples to prove that the involvement of local people is vital. While his focus remained mainly on archaeology, those ideas can also directly apply to public history, where a successful project is often one that involves the community.[1] In From Storefront to Monument, Andrea Burns described the African-American communities that developed institutions displaying their own history. Within these grassroots movements, the local population’s involvement was again essential. The struggles they faced as well as their transformations from grassroots to professionalized museums had interesting outcomes.[2] However, I believe involving public historians could have improved each museum in a major way. Our training in interpretation, exhibits, and historical practices means we can and should actively improve the chances of success as well as content within budding museums.

Ari Kelman’s A Misplaced Massacre was one of the most compelling and interesting works we studied. I found the way public historians worked to gain the valuable trust of the Native people as they participated in a major historic preservation project to be remarkable. Public historians have the ability –and, I would argue, even the duty– to serve the people for whom work, as well as the groups whose history they are representing. While several important figures were engaged in the Sand Creek preservation process, David Halaas stood out to me as an example public historians should strive to become. “This combination of duties arguably made Halaas the state’s most influential public historian, the person with the greatest understanding and impact on how the Coloradans experience their heritage.”[3] He went above and beyond to shape and protect a collective memory, while also becoming a trusted representative of the Native community involved. The importance of careful attention to the community will remain a central lesson I received during this course. From my work and studies in the field, the idea of being both a professional and someone who is approachable and trustworthy is exciting.

Having skills to research a subject, as well as a relationship to it, means it is even more important to present it in an honest, yet beneficial way. Through class, we discussed the way museums, sites, and tours can and should invoke thoughts and emotions. I believe this class made me more aware of the implications, details and practical challenges involved in that process. I now will be able to apply the ideas of the Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums and the Sites of Conscience to my future projects. Both of those works are at the cutting edge of public history and set examples that could greatly enhance multiple aspects of the field. The idea from the Anarchist Guide of showing the visitors the preservation process[4] or showing a room that actually looks lived in provides new interpretive ideas that can improve a historic site.[5] Sites of Consciences breaks the mold on what historians can and should preserve; for example, the Oral Archives idea, and the global community that develops within this organization.[6] Amy Lonetree’s work clearly is impacted by Sites of Conscience, as it illustrates the way in which individuals working within public history can collaborate resulting a beneficial outcome.[7] We need to be able actively work together because doing so can only benefit the field as a whole. The amount of work involved in properly practicing public history as well as the number of innovative ways to address different topics is enormous.

The semester-long Baltimore Heritage project came with its fair share of struggles and successes. Finding and constructing an interesting narrative about specific historic sites left me pleased to give readers a relatable sense of the past. However, my biggest drawback and regret was that my sites, and the owners or people involved in them were all either long gone or unreachable. After learning so much about the value and importance of personal accounts and community participation, having sites leaving me unable to reach anyone able to provide them left me wanting more from the experience. I was pleased I find stories that involved local people but I still hoped for more. Whether it is yearning for more funding, visitors, memberships, or sources, I think “wishing for more” represents a part of public history I must accept. More importantly, I will need to see the value of what I could find instead of focusing on what I could not.

In my opinion, the most important conclusion I draw from this course is that public history is never stagnant. It is a living and evolving field that deals with the past, but is vital to the present. After I finish this course, this degree, and (hopefully) find a job, the process of learning public history does not end. Continuous research on museums, sites, and ongoing projects will only improve my own work and the field.

[1] Andrew Hurley, Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities,(Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010) 46-52.

[2] Andrea A. Burns, From Storefront to Monument Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement, (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014).

[3] Ari Kelman. A Misplaced Massacre Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek,(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013)76.

[4] Franklin D. Vagnone and Deborah E. Ryan, Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, INC., 2016), 142.

[5] Franklin D. Vagnone and Deborah E. Ryan, Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, INC., 2016), 162-166.

[6] http://www.sitesofconscience.org

[7] Amy Lonetree, Decolonizing Museums: Presenting Native America in National and Tribal Museums. (North Caroline: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012).

 

 

Citations-

Burns, Andrea A. From Storefront to Monument Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014.

Hurley, Andrew. Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010.

Kelman, Ari. A Misplaced Massacre Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013.

Lonetree, Amy. Decolonizing Museums: Presenting Native America in National and Tribal Museums. North Caroline: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012.

Vagnone, Franklin D. and Deborah E. Ryan, Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, INC., 2016.

http://www.sitesofconscience.org

Edited from Source: Reflective Blog by Jordan Ritchie

Public Historians: One Size Does Not Fit All

Over the course of the semester, I have come to the conclusion that public historians come in all shapes and sizes. Despite the fact that they all share an interest and commitment to making history relevant and accessible to visitors, it is difficult for professionals in this field to apply history to addressing real-world issues.  By reinterpreting an historic site, public history affects the general public, but that does not mean that public history should only promote traditional understanding of history. I noticed that while I was taking the undergraduate course in public history, I was more interested in what I can do with a history major, but this graduate course helped me understand one crucial element, my civic engagement in this field. However, in order to be engaged, it is absolutely important to feel the need to present a complete story, no matter how painful. In doing research for this course, I came to understand that oral history and dialogue are two essential components of this field. These two aspects help activate the power of places of memory so that the public can connect past and present in order to envision human future.  Ari Kelman’s powerful book, A Misplaced Massacre and Amy Lonetree’s Decolonizing Museums helped to shape my understanding of how public history should be applied and presented.

Kelman’s book emphasizes the importance of a dialogue between Native Americans and visitors, which encourages supplicants and visitors to set aside their disagreements in service to healing. Equally important, the author’s depiction of a “massacre” focus on the truth of Native Americans as victims as well as the nation’s history of racial violence. I think that by offering a direct dialogue with the Native Americans, site visitors begin to understand cultural pluralism in the United States. The Sand Creek cemetery as a site recasts stories that are attached to those who were massacred. Thus, public history can be performed not necessarily exploring the past, but exploring the present injustice that is connected with the past. Thus, the public historians must also explore the current struggles that are buried in the past. In this case, elements of the reburial ceremony at the Sand Creek underscored the significance of the Native Americans’ contribution and their exclusive claim to certain areas of the historic site today.

The book written by Amy Lonetree similarly promotes the role of public historians and museums that are the keys to the self-determination and sovereignty movement within contemporary Indigenous communities. Reading the author’s assumptions, I understand that it is extremely difficult to establish a connection of trust with the Native American communities.  As Lonetree highlights, “without trust, a collaborative partnership is simply not possible.” (intro, xiii). Public historians, both as outsiders and insiders, must be engaged in conversations directly visitors and those who they present. As I remember, Lonteree points out that the objects brought by the family members were are living entities and they embody layers of meaning. But most importantly, the Native Americans themselves told the stories about these objects emphasizing the fact that they are deeply connected to the past, present, and future of Indigenous communities. (xv) Thus, sometimes, public historians just a mediators who assist in finding a resolution to the dispute that is still current.

In conclusion, in my opinion, those who involved in this field, should not just look at interesting pieces, instead, public historians must stand as witnesses to living entities that still remain intimately tied to the communities. Both books place great emphasis of the importance of a direct communication not only with visitors, but also with those communities that they explore. Thus, I think that public history can also advocate for justice and accountability challenging discrimination and promoting peace in the future. Also, equally important, public historians are those who create safe spaces for present and future so that the visitors and general audience can be engaged in civic issues changing the course of the current history. While researching for this project, I concluded that public history is more than something that can be practically applied, it is a historical-cultural memory that is an important part of our present and it helps to shape our future. Throughout the practice of public history our past and present become more meaningful and can shed light on present realities.

 

Lonetree, Amy. Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums. North Caroline: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

 

Kelman, Ari. A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand Creek. Massachusetts,  Harvard University Press, 2013.

Edited from Source: Reflection Blog by Sudaba Lezgiyeva

Understanding Public History

Before taking this course, my understanding of public history was limited as well as an abstract concept. But now, as I have engaged and immersed myself in the readings, discussion, and collaborative work, I have a much better understanding and appreciation for the field. This course has made me realize that public history is so much more than gathering facts in order to display them to the public. Rather, it is connecting to the people that you are working and collaborating with, and building trust in order to tell an inclusive historical narrative.

There are many powerful concepts and ideas in Amy Lonetree’s book, Decolonizing Museums that will stay with me as I enter the field of public history. Lonetree emphasized the important role that museums play in the community by stating that museums are a “bridge between the communities and the public.”[1] This book helped to shape my understanding that museums can be important institutions within a community that can help to bring a sense of awareness, understanding, empathy, healing and trust between the community itself and among various groups of people. Lonetree’s work as well as Ari Kelman’s work, A Misplaced Massacre, has helped me to understand on a deeper level how museums need to honor and collaborate with the community or communities they are representing so that ideas and concepts can be transferred to the audience in a way that is comprehensible. And beyond looking at events of the past, I think that it is the job of public historians is to incorporate and inform the public of the present happenings within communities.

In particular, Ari Kelman’s book reinforced how important is it to build trust in order to collaborate and establish a relationship with the group of people or community that you are working with. As public historians, our goal is to tell a history that is complex, at times difficult and ongoing. We want to avoid portraying a group of people in a stereotypical manner, and that that is why working closely with community members that have a stake in the museum or historic site that you are working on is so important. The work of public historians is difficult because “history and memory are malleable, that even the land, despite its implied promise of permanence, can change, and that the people of the United States are so various that they should no be expected to share a single tale of a common past.” [2]

From Lonetree’s book as well as Burns’ and Kelman’s, we now have a better understanding of that being a public historian and working with local communities requires us to build relationships and trust with members of the community that we are working with, which helps ensure a successful museum experience.

However, as I enter the field of public history, I can foresee some of the challenge that I will face. Since many museums and historic institutions have focused on traditional narratives, and often overlook some of the more difficult history, it the job of the public historian to try and help the people that they are working with, the value of telling some of the more difficult aspects of history. I think that many institutions are heading in that direction, but there is still a lot of work to be done.

It takes a long time for real, positive change to occur. And that will be the difficult task that up and coming public historians will have to try and tackle. Challenging the status quo, reaching out to members of the community, and presenting historical narratives and content in a way that is tells the hard truths of history, and in doing so challenging people’s prior assumptions, and leaving people with something to think about and be able to want to explore further.

As future public historians entering the field, I think we will be able to bring our varied experiences and perspectives and have the ability to portray and interpret history in a way that is honorable to the events, people and cultures, as we contribute and assist in telling their historical and present narrative.

The great thing about public history is that stories appeal to people’s emotions. In advocating for a particular cause, you are able to inform people, offer a powerful message and have the ability to spark a conversation among people. From all of the books we have read and the thoughtful discussions we have had in class, this course had made me more aware that public historians are very necessary, as they have the ability to challenge the status quo within large and small institutions.

 

 

[1] Amy Lonetree. Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012. Print, 103.

 

[2] Ari Kelman. A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013. Print. 279.

Source: Understanding Public History by Samantha Parker

HIS 705 Reflection

 

Public History is a community service that provides the preservation and utilization of historical events and artifacts. It involves the collaboration of Historians, Curators and Contributors to exhibit the history of objects and places by telling their true stories to the public and by providing a better understanding of these stories through an experience that is engaging, relative and emotional. It also involves their commitment to elicit community improvement, neighborhood collaboration and a shared authority during restoration and exhibition projects.

I came into this semester with a fair to poor understanding of what public history is and how it has been portrayed to me. At exhibitions and historical sites, I found no place to provide an opinion and saw myself as an “non-professional,” a moderately well-educated customer. I rarely asked questions to staffers other than those that were related to directions. I did what most tourists at a Smithsonian do: I kept my camera and my critiques to myself. I followed the rules at historic house museums, saw national parks as untouched beautiful nature and viewed tour guides and interpreters as tellers of sacred truths.

During this semester, I’ve picked up a stream of themes that I will take away. These lessons gave me a new understanding of public history and some core elements included in its practices that served as practical advice.

One of the most crucial ideas is that museums should engage contemporary issues and community needs. When a Museum only exhibits an interpretation of the past without linking it to the present, public history loses its value as a public service. In Andrea Burns’ book From Storefront to Monument, she explored the example of the “Rat exhibit” at the Anocastia neighborhood museum, an exhibit that, although disturbing, made bold statement about poverty in black communities.[1] Andrew Hurley also provided a good example of using public history to tackle contemporary issues by helping restore the dying architecture of the Old North St. Louis neighborhood. He used oral histories and community collaboration as part of his practice, sharing authority with residents and experts from other fields. To me, the concept of “shared authority” truly captures the essence of Public History as a public service. It benefits both the historian and the contributor. Andrew Hurley said when working with the old North Neighborhood: “My best education in Public History came from conversations and interactions with neighborhood residents.”[2]

I think that going into any field requires this important working model. In Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, Paulo Freire mentioned “critical pedagogy” as a way for teachers to empower students by providing them with knowledge about education, empowering them to be critical of or to reach beyond the classroom.  This idea ties well with one of the book’s theme of expanding the definition of expertise, where only stories and objects portrayed by experts can be exhibited.[3] One author, Simon, used the web as an example of a space where collection can be more broadly inclusive, where nothing gets left out, but rather gets organized.

Public Historians use dialogue as a way to practice “shared authority.” Dialogue can make visitors feel important, and responding to comments and contributions will give the sense of empowerment to visitors as in the Worcester city art gallery and museum mentioned in Letting Go?, where responding to participants choices resulted in more visitors and dialogue.[4]  In The Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums, authors described the boring aspects of historic house museums where a lack of dialogue exists together with a limitation for audiences to “snoop around,” leaving a great lack of relevance as well.[5] The book stressed the importance of community collaboration for a historic house as “many of our houses are in areas surrounded by ‘non-traditional’ audiences (namely, upper white middle class); we should be asking first and foremost how to be relevant to them.”[6]

Historic house museums can further encourage dialogue by changing stories to match different time periods in a single house, eliciting more questions as well as a possible emotional connection with visitors; a goal that, I’ve learned is of high importance in public history.

Eliciting emotional connections can also kindle a spark those who feel unconnected to connect with unfamiliar histories and inspire them to ask more questions and make more connections in doing so.

In my opinion, one of the biggest conflicts within the public history field lies between honest portrayal and economic necessity. Museums have to keep their exhibits exciting and, to a certain degree, hopeful, so that audiences will want to return. I’ve learned that this may sometimes result in a failure to provide full stories, usually those which give the “main scheme” a negative portrayal.

History 705 taught me much about collecting histories. I’ve found that listening and collaborating with others is truly the best way to learn in this respect (and in many others). The app project taught me the basics for telling a historical narrative and the importance of stirring interest in the reader. Though overwhelming at first, the research project showed me how investment in something can breed familiarity and spark interests. As a teacher I’ve learned that everyone is an educator, specially a student. In a theoretical sense (and maybe literally), I’ve also learned that anyone can be a public historian. Each person carries a heavy history filled with stories of culture, pain and endurance. It is each person’s “public service” to correctly portray that history and to ensure that it does not get lost or misinterpreted.

 

 

Sources:

Amy Lonetree. Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native American in National and Tribal Museums. University of North Carolina Press, 2012.

Amy M. Tyson. The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines. Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.

Andrea A. Burns. From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement. Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.

Andrew Hurley. Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010. xiv.

Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski. Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World. Philadelphia: The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, 2011.

Franklin D. Vagnone, and Deborah E. Ryan. Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums: “A Ground Breaking Manifesto.” California: Left Coast Press, 2016.

Steven Conn. Museums and American Intellectual Life. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

 

 

[1] Andrea A. Burns. From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement. Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.

[2] Andrew Hurley. Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010.

[3] Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski. Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World. Philadelphia: The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, 2011.

[4] ibid

[5] Franklin D. Vagnone, and Deborah E. Ryan. Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums: “A Ground Breaking Manifesto.” California: Left Coast Press, 2016.

 

[6] Vagnone, Franklin D; Ryan, Deborah E (2016-07-01). Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums (Kindle Location 814). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

 

Lightly Edited from Source: HIS 705 Reflection by Orah Afrah

Reflection on Public History

Public history is about connecting history, be it the ancient past or the almost present, to the audience on a personal and emotional level. The emotion could be wonder or a brief flash of curiosity, it doesn’t have to be a deep and profound connection for every topic, but a connection should always be made. While this is a basic concept for engaging an individual in conversation, the fact that this should also transfer into exhibits did not occur to me. Besides, going into this class I thought my end goal would be to be an archivist, partially because I enjoy working with and improving cataloging but also because while I might be a talkative person, I find communicating with strangers uncomfortable. Therefore I didn’t consider how my work might have to touch the public.

From our reading this semester, Rosenzweig and Thelen’s conclusions clearly state that most Americans engage in history to find “personal meaning” and a narrative that connects with their past and experiences. A conversation is more engaging when you connect it to something personal and present.[1] The audience who would connect to a simple object based exhibit is probably already coming in with a curiosity and a connection. To spur interest the audience needs to be actively engaged in a story. Amy Lonetree references this idea in Decolonizing Museums when the public responded to the humanity and connections to living people made in the Mille Lacs Band museum, also with how effective “the sound of a heartbeat and a beautiful song…[is at] pull[ing] the community visitor forward toward the healing space” within the Ziibiwing Center.[2] The emotional ties to real people modelled within the exhibit and by engaging other sense helps the visitors to connect with the importance of the message being told.

Continuing forward with public history, I would like to try to connect my desire to work in the archives with the ability to engage the curious. Currently many museums are digitizing their collections, but this is usually pictures lined up on a page that have minimal captions to explain the object and you wind up scrolling through hundreds of items. But I agree with Matthew MacArthur that “digital access to collections and user participation…[could]…re-introduce some of the serendipity…and self-discovery that characterized previous eras.”[3] I’d like to engage more in the idea of digital exhibits, curating the archives and objects so it isn’t just scrolling through pages and pages of tiny pictures, but giving them context and a discussion. This could be by telling a story that gives the significance of the object or a video that not only tells a story but allows the public to see an object that would otherwise be hidden away. The internet provides a level platform to have open discussions about the history, where people can share their questions and their connections. It is through this medium, accessible to everyone, that curiosity can be and should be sparked.

[1] Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life, New York: Columbia University Press, 1998, 180.

[2] Amy Lonetree, Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America In National And Tribal Museums, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012, 64-66, 142.

[3] Matthew MacArthur, “Get Real! The Role of Objects in the Digital Age,” in Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, edited by Bill Adair Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski, Philadelphia: The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, 2011, 61.

Source: Reflection on Public History by Heather Crandall

Public History and the Role of Museums

Coming into Introduction to Public History this semester I already had a pretty strong view on public history and, particularly, on what role museums were supposed to serve. In my mind public history was the step between academic history and the general public. A public historian was supposed to be able to take hundreds of pages of research and primary sources and boil it down to its main points so that the average person could easily understand the key concepts or themes. Public Historians, in my mind, included museum personnel, teachers, park rangers, tour guides etc. In addition, I understood that museums were locations where interested people could visit in order to gain a better understanding of a particular person, place, or event. The museum was held to the same standards as traditional academic books and as such was required to maintain a certain level of distance in order to remain objective and trustworthy. Yet at the same time I was firm in the belief that regardless of how objective and removed from a topic a historian tried to be that there would always be a bias that they simply could not overcome. Just picking a topic to research and write on, means that you have chosen this particular topic over thousands of other possibilities, and have to think that it is important. But still I believed that museums needed to at least try to be objective in their presentation of history.

I had never really considered the role of a museum in the community, and what a museum would mean for that community. Andrea Burns’ book From Storefront to Monument really introduced me to the idea that a museum can be the voice for a community that is being ignored and oppressed. The struggles of the early African American museums in Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, and Washington D.C. were struggles to address the complete absence of African American history in the National American narrative. “For the African American residents of Anacostia, long rendered invisible  . . . there seemed little reason to visit the very places that granted Washington D.C., its powerful image in American Culture”[1]. This placed museums as places where disenfranchised communities could create their own narratives for the purpose of advocating for their place in history. It also showed to me the reliance on the local community museums have in order to survive and thrive.

Ari Kelman’s A Misplaced Massacre was the next book that altered my perception of public historians and museums. A Misplaced Massacre tells the story of the effort to locate and tell the story of the Sand Creek massacre. The prevalent story had Sand Creek being a battle of the Civil War between Union soldiers and Native American warriors terrorizing the area. However, once again the narrative left out a group and needed to be adjusted. In this case the voices of the Native American tribes were being ignored and relations were constantly deteriorating. It took an interdisciplinary team and long term efforts by Alexa Roberts and Barbara Sutter[2] in order to properly engage and consult with the Native American tribes. Once again public historians were taking a stance on history and acting as facilitators for an unheard or ignored history.

Letting Go was the next book to challenge my perceptions of public historians and museums. In Letting Go, the authority of people and the community is emphasized. A museum’s job is to maintain standards of evidence and authority but also to allow for everyday people to contribute to history that the museum is telling. Museums don’t give up their position of expertise, but give up complete authority over the content of an exhibit. It makes authority a shareable concept in museums and allows for museums to better connect and interact with their communities.

Perhaps the most direct challenge to my idea of public history and museums was the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience and its mission. ICSC directly place museums as advocates for human rights and as places of dialogue. The idea of a museum as an advocate that takes a stance on historical issues was directly against my inclination and view of museums. Yet the ICSC does not forgo evidence or primary sources in order to take a stance. Instead they rely on evidence, facts, and primary sources in order to strengthen their positions. They do not give up their expertise or ethics, but instead seem somehow less biased by taking a position.

Having read these books and website and analyzed their positions and ideology, I can say that I have changed my stance on public history and the role of museums. Public Historians are facilitators that fill the space between academics, museum boards, the government, and the public. They have expertise and skills that allow these groups to better communicate with each other, and it is their job to make sure that voices are not lost in a greater narrative. Museums similarly are places of dialogue and ideas so that visitors can learn to interpret events and ideas themselves. By taking a stance on a historical topic, a museum does not lose its expertise or credibility; instead they acknowledge their bias and then use their expertise to logically lay out an argument. This allows visitors to hear new ideas, and then respond to them creating a space where ideas can be discussed and evaluated by the visitor. Overall, I think this classed sort of fulfilled the role I believe museums can fill: it brought many different ideas of museums and public history to the table and then allowed the students/visitors to evaluate the ideas for themselves in order to perhaps change their minds about museums and public history.

[1] Burns, Andrea A. From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013, 36.

 

[2] Kelman, Ari. A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand Creek. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013, 84.

 

Lightly Edited Source: Public History and the Role of Museums by Daniel Scotten

Final Reflective Blog

Public history is a discipline that could potentially lend itself to a multitude of definitions due to its interpretive and idiosyncratic nature. To me, public history has several layers. It serves as a contour, outlining questions about the past that involves an intricate fact driven method. It also illuminates the societal and political history of marginalized communities of people by identifying avenues to not only preserve the physical aspects of a displaced community, but also by highlighting the oral histories and personal accounts of local people. Often, these tasks are done to accurately and relevantly showcase them through the medium of living history. This multi-part definition has been gleaned from the readings and put to practical use in my semester project which looks at sites in the Lauraville community through the lens of 19th century German immigrants.

In support of this interpretation, I have selected five of our readings which I believe underscore the essential concepts of public history. In Tales from the Haunted South, Tiya Miles starts us off by providing an appropriate example of the overriding sentiment behind public history, that being, a discovery of the past and the method by which it is sought after. In From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement, Andrea Burns provides an account of how agency is bestowed upon the societal and political histories of disparaged communities of people. In his book, Beyond Preservation, Andrew Hurley identifies the first goal of public history in my definition which involves the historic preservation of the physical aspects of a community. In The Presence of the Past, Rozenzweig and Thelen spotlight the second goal of my definition which involves the importance of assembling personal accounts and oral testimony to shed light on personal history. Lastly, in The Wages of History, Amy Tyson provides a glimpse into how the culmination of this research is accurately and relevantly presented to the public through the medium of living history.

In “Tales from the Haunted South,” Miles discovers the truth that ghostly visitors from the past fascinate us in large part because we are mortal humans who are historically minded, historically driven and historically grounded (Miles page 14). This pinpoints the first portion of my definition of public history as a contour outlining questions we have about the past as Ms. Miles indicates how it interests us to learn that our knowledge of history, especially personal history, is so compelling that most of us use it as an aspect of identity formation and meaning-making (Miles, page 14). Her book also provides the intricate, fact driven method necessary to capture the past that I alluded to in the first part of my definition. This interpretive method is brought to the forefront as Ms. Miles tours each house, surveys historical documents, and draws conclusions that involve a juxtaposed mix of fact, fiction and folklore (Miles, page 19). In a nod to the journey that Miles took in her own recounts, our semester project has also involved diving into the intricate past of Lauraville via researching historic sites and also discovering how these sites were integral to the history of Lauraville’s immigrant communities who once utilized them.

Miles does an outstanding job identifying the inception of my definition of Public History. However this only forms the tip of the iceberg as in answering those questions about the past touched on by Miles, public history also seeks to provide a voice to a particular segment of people. In her book, From Storefront to Monument Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement, Andrea Burns singles out the characteristics of African American museums which sought to include collections and full-scale exhibits in an effort to challenge and remedy the absence of African American history and culture from mainstream institutions (Burns, page 15). This attempt accurately identifies the idea of the second portion of my definition as Burns gives agency to the societal and political history of a marginalized community of people, in this case African Americans, by discussing the methods museums employ in portraying exhibitions and themes centered upon African and African American history and culture. The four museums Burns discussed paint intricate pictures of the societal and political landscape of large black communities where mainstream resistance to the idea of African American agency in American history was rampant (Burns, pages 25-28). In a similar fashion, our research on our sites has provided a reflection of the societal challenges that immigrants faced in the 19th century including establishing intricate rural communities and maintaining family owned business. All too often the stories of the immigrants we researched, integral though they may be, attracted little attention in the wake of national, mainstream narratives that influenced the 19th century.

While Burns recognizes the need for institutions devoted to the preservation of black political and societal culture, I believe that Andrew Hurley brings this idea home in his book, Beyond Preservation: Utilizing Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities, where he appropriated the same methods to providing agency to a marginalized community by discussing the important aspects of physical preservation. Hurley’s unique mechanism in engaging the community for the sake of preservation sheds light on many of the pivotal themes that sets aside public history from traditional history. He accomplishes this by contrasting the latter’s disposition of focusing on published works to the former’s proclivity to engage community residents as its primary source of historical scholarship. Indeed, Hurley mentions how many social historians came to believe that their work was useful beyond the ivory tower of academia and might even contribute to the transformation of society (Hurley, page 35). More to the point, Hurley in his book calls on public historians to make use of more than just museums to highlight the achievement of the local populace. Hurley indicates that advances in the study of local urban space is critical to the rise of alternative perseveration agendas. While the physical aspect of the agency of an unrepresented group pf people is normally captured in the form of museums, Hurley identifies other urban spaces, apart from just buildings, which also hold integral connections in the history of a community (Hurley, page 39). In utilizing Hurley’s suggestion to provide much needed focus on other physical aspects of a community for the purposes of preservation, our project research has shed light on the important aspects of how cemeteries played a role in immigrant communities. More than simply the final resting place for a loved one, cemeteries provided a means for congregation and for the establishments of churches which were integral to maintaining the societal fabric of communities though worship and fellowship. Through our research we learned that many immigrant families established family business near cemeteries or even took up positions as cemetery caretakers.

While focusing on the physical landscapes of a community, whether through preservation of museums, cemeteries or other landscapes is essential, it forms but half of my definition of the goal of public history for in addition to preserving the physical components of a community, public history also seeks to rely on untold oral history and the personal accounts of the residents of a given community. While many of our books have touched on this aspect through surveys and personal testimonies, I believe the Rosenzwig’s and Thelens publication, The Presence of the Past, arguably demonstrates effectively how essential oral narratives are to the abstract of public history. Through the use of a national survey, the personal narratives of countless people were told which provided exciting glimpses into the past of everyday people. In pinning these accounts, Rosezwig and Thelen discovered that ordinary people feel unconnected to the past in history classrooms because they don’t recognize themselves in the version of the past presented there (Rosenzweig & Thelen, page 13). In explaining about the relationships between these personal accounts and the larger historical narrative, Rosenzweig & Thelen revealed how the past colored different perspectives and how experiences could be interpreted differently by different people and differently by the same people as needs and circumstances shifted (Rosenzweig & Thelen, page 70). With the realization of different interpretations, this publication took to task the trustworthiness of contemporary sources of history and brought into question how reliable and accurate they were when stacked against the personal accounts of ordinary people (Rosenzweig & Thelen, page 90-91). Without question, oral accounts served as the lynchpin for much of the research for our project as many of our sites are neglected from the pages of traditional historical sources. These oral histories, taken from ordinary people, nevertheless provided critical scholarship to our sites and formed bridges between immigrant families and the larger historical narrative that shaped their lives.

The efforts to capture the essential characteristics of a community whether thought the physical aspects of the community or the oral and personal narratives of the people who make it up however, would be lost were it not for interpreters who convey these messages to members of the public. In her book, The Wages of History, Amy Tyson introduces us to these crucial individuals who occupy the space between Public History as an abstract idea and Public History as a conveyed message. The final portion of my definition requires that the research efforts of public history is accurately and relevantly showcased through the medium of living history. Through her case study concerning the interpreters of historic Fort Snelling, Tyson introduces the general concept of living history as conveyed through interpreters who employ interpretive styles in order to emotionally connect with visitors by steering the interpretation of living museum toward a focus on the lives of everyday people (Tyson, page 10). While the accuracy of what is relayed is important, perhaps even more vital is relevance and in Tyson’s view an emotional connection must be made by interpreters to create feeling states in clientele (Tyson, page 14). Tyson relates the experience of disconnected tourists and therefore reinforces the importance of tour guides and interpreters to deeply enrich a visitors experience and bond with them through historic narratives that are relevant to their own experiences and interests (Tyson, page 17). In thus doing so, the important effect of public history is not in vain and a deeper understanding and appreciation is garnered by the intended audiences. Though we won’t have physical access to audiences in much the same way as the interpreters from Tysons’ studies did, we will still be able to connect to an intended audience through the use of blogs as our method of interpretation. Our blogs will seek to convey a message concerning our sites that includes historically reliable information coupled with a relevant theme that our audiences can take away from. Just as the interpreters in Tyson’s books sought to leave an impression with their audiences so to will our blogs make readers want to pay visits to our sites based on the insight culled from our blogs.

In conclusion, my personal definition of public history is one that encompasses a sense of awareness and understanding for the untold histories of a diverse group of people. Concerning our project, I seek to ensure that both the stories of immigrants who founded Lauraville are accurately portrayed through our research and blog postings. In my career itself I hope to continually build on my definition, carefully crafting it in a way reflective of whatever community I happen to serve.

Works cited:

Andrea Burns, From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement (University of Massachusetts, 2013).

Amy M. Tyson, The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines (University of Massachusetts, 2013).

Andrew Hurley, Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities (Temple University Press, 2010).

Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past (Columbia University Press, 2000).

Tiya Miles, Tales from the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era (University of North Carolina 2015).

Edited From Source: Final Reflective Blog by Domonique Flowers

Exploration of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience

The website for the International Sites of Conscience encourages public historians to use memorials and museums to spark discussions and actions in order solve today’s issues. In order to move from memory to action, members develop and implement special projects on thematic issues. By offering a variety of programs, they bring together Sites of Conscience from different parts of the world, highlighting human rights issues. For instance, they raise an awareness of police violence against minorities, particularly in the black communities. By partnering with eleven museums and civic rights institutes across the nation, the members of the Coalition dedicate time to use the past to address social inequality. The collaborative work between the coalition and the participating museums encourages communities to facilitate dialogue on education, race, and incarceration of minorities among many other topics. Members agree that “erasing the past can prevent new generations from learning critical lessons while forever compromising opportunities to build a peaceful future.” Thus, it is crucial to create safe spaces so that we can preserve memories, stories of survivors, and even societies that overcame troubling conflicts in the past.

The website and its resources suggest that problems in public history are often specific to a particular community or nation. Coalition members agree that public history must not only preserve memories of historical events, but also understand the context in which these events occurred. Moreover, we must apply the lessons that we learned from the past to today’s struggles for human rights and social justice. For instance, the site suggests walking in the shoes of past generations of immigrants so that we might better understand immigration struggles today. One of the suggestions that struck me most was that Sites of Conscience urges us to use the lessons of history to ignite a sense of conscience in people surrounding us and even around the world. The approach will help take actions that will promote justice and lasting peace today. Amy Lonetree in her book, Decolonizing Museums presents a similar approach in practices of public history and argues that it is about building trust, developing relationship, communicating, and more importantly, being humble.

Also, it seems to me that although public history can present history through memory and memorialization, it often does not respond to local needs. In the case of Syrian refugees fleeing from the ongoing crisis in Syria, the site offers one pathway that is to ensure that the history of the “Syrian people during their conflict is not soon forgotten.” As a result, the participating museums use Syrian oral histories and bring excerpts, illustrations, and stories of human fear, heartache, and loss to illuminate the voice that left out of mainstream discourse. In today’s museums, curators are not interested presenting current conflicts while working on exhibits.

In conclusion, the site and its resources help to rethink about goals of museums across the nation. In particular, the members’ integrated efforts help to empower people across all generations, personal experiences, and their opinions, but the most interesting fact is that the challenges we face today can leverage the power of the past. The most fascinating piece of this site is that Arab American National Museum presented a new way to understand who is an American and what it means to serve. The project of the museum was to explore individual and collective views on issues of citizenship. As the visitors continued through the museum, they encountered with artifacts from Arab American culture, which was set against a timeline of the United States’ political history. The exhibits helped facilitate dialogues and make connections between the stories presented in the exhibits and exclusion of Arab immigrants today. This is a perfect example of a safe space that was brought up by my historians during this course.

Sources:

Lonetree, Amy. Decolonizing Museums: Presenting Native America in National and Tribal Museums. North Caroline: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012.

http://www.sitesofconscience.org

 

 

Edited from Source: Exploration of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience by Sudaba Lezgiyeva