“We were really good at being graduate students, but now we don’t know what to do.”

Right out of the gate, my first question is does anyone else really identify with this statement? I know that I do.

Perhaps I’m just a bit hungover from this late-night binge of a Republican tax plan which is potentially going to significantly raise the taxes graduate assistants/students like myself will have to pay. Either way I’m really starting to feel a sense of impending doom as I careen headlong towards graduation and the ominous job market that lies beyond.

The report What Do Public History Employers Want? A Report of the Joint AASLH-AHA-NCPH-OAH Task Force on Public History Education and Employment, lays out a land mine laden laundry list of potential hazards for recent MA grads. Part time employment (if at all), low wages, no public funding, FUNDRAISING, over-saturation of recent graduates, private interests influencing your bottom-line, poor workplace conditions. It’s enough to make one seriously ask: Can’t I just stay in grad school forever?

Unfortunately the answer is NO. Lest you want to become paradoxically encumbered by “large student debts [and therefore] not be able to accept employment in public history because of financial constraints” (Report Page 9). Panic mood…now.

However, I must say I’m glad I read the four selections for this week in the order I did, so as to not lose all hope and despair for the future of the profession, and myself within it. The quote that this post derives its title from is Emily McEwens NCPH article “Out of the academy and into public service: Changing expectations and new measures of success.” Reading this one last at  gave me a sense that there is light at the end of that tunnel, albeit it may not be the same tunnel you initially thought you were in. Emily talks a lot about the transition out of the academic into the real career world of public history work, developing what she calls “Taking Care of Business” skills. This is a common theme I noticed throughout the selections. The idea that we all might need to really go into the field with an open mind for the kinds of skills we are actually going to need, or not necessarily need, in order to successfully make it out there. I really identified with the way she talked about re-evaluating her workplace performance beyond just an “academic understanding of success”. For a lot of us, I would imagine this is really going to be a wake up call.

However, one general observation/question I had about all of these readings was this: are they dated? If you watch the news, like I regrettably do too much of,  you would think we are in a relatively strong economic place from the depths of the Great Recession. Unemployment is down to record levels, hiring is up, jobs are going unfilled. The 2015 report What Do Public History Employers Want? mentions a lot of disconcerting issues facing the field as well as suggestions for how to counteract them. I kept asking myself if the prospects have changed at all for public historians since then? Is it easier now to find work? Has public history generally risen with the rest of the economy, or not?

Regardless of the answer, there were many things I found interesting/troubling in the report. Not least of which is an increased emphasis on the necessity of fundraising skills for public historians.  The report stated findings indicated that among the “five skills [public historian professionals] expect to be in highest demand in the future” (Report 2), fundraising was atop the list. Not only does this sound personally distasteful to me, it also seems to have a lot potentially ethical consequences.  Is the field going to degenerate into some kind of lobbying endeavor? Who are we supposed to seek funds from that won’t conflict with our interpretative desires and obligations? How does the field remain empowered yet true if it is to be dependent upon constantly seeking out funds from private entities, many of which might want to influence the work we do? These are of course questions we have been grappling with all semester, but this report especially drove it home. That being said, I did take some solace in the fact that most public history professionals/employers still regard historical research ability and written/oral communication abilities as paramount for all M.As entering the job market.

Again, the most important takeaway/theme for me from both McEwen and the Report is “the need for historians entering the field to be adaptable, creative, and resourceful” (Report 6). I certainly take that point well. Especially considering that the internship I did over the summer had not so much to do with history, but rather public policy. I still had to rely on my writing abilities and communication abilities, both of which I have developed more fully since I’ve been in grad school. However I also relied on some of my personal travel experiences and connections in the arts/music world of Baltimore to facilitate  dialog and conversations with some of the individuals I had to interview. My point being, our tool kits are already much bigger than what we learn in class. Undoubtedly this realization will come in handy, and might even be a selling point to potential employers in the future as we move out into the world. Are there any skills you have right now that you could possibly anticipate, or not, that might be utilized in your career?

Generally speaking I do believe there is a home for all of us out there if we can just open up to potentials that are not necessarily in sight right now. McEwen talks about developing a new understanding of her work “serving the public”. This includes not just the interpretive work of the park site, but also the bureaucratic work of booking an event on the grounds or locating a lost pet for a visitor. All of this somehow can fall under the purview of “serving the public” in history since it all is cumulatively part of the visitor experience.

All above references from:

Philip Scarpino and Daniel Vivian. “What Do Public History Employers Want? A Report of the Joint AASLH-AHA-NCPH-OAH Task Force on Public History Education and Employment”.

Emily McEwen. “Out of the academy and into public service: Changing expectations and new measures of success”, National Council on Public History. May 4, 2016. http://ncph.org/history-at-work/out-of-the-academy-and-into-public-service/


Source: “We were really good at being graduate students, but now we don’t know what to do.” by Zachary Utz

Working for a Greater Purpose? History and Dialogue in Museums and History Sites

For many people who do not go on to study history in college or work in a related field, the idea of using history and dialogue together as a way to understand the present may raise some eyebrows. The articles we read for this week, as well as the web page for the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, show how historical sites can serve as places that do more than tell visitors what happened in the past. Historical sites can also be sites of change. Reading about this side of public history left me feeling eager and optimistic about the future, feelings that did not always come from past readings or class discussions about the consequences of professionalization, the limitations of capitalism, or the overwhelmingly white make up of practitioners and the history they interpret, to name a few. These readings make meaningful assertions in showing what communities can gain from sites that challenge not only the histories and memories of certain places or people but also challenge ideas of the use of history itself.

In “The District Six Museum: An Ordinary People’s Place,” Valmont Layne described how museum organizers and former community members balanced many memories and different understandings of the history of District Six. Similarly, in “Places of Memory as a Tool for Education: The ‘Peace in Four Voices Summer Camps’ at Monte Sole,” Nadia Baiesi, Marzia Gigli, Elena Monicelli, and Roberta Pellizzoli explain how bringing people with different memories and understandings of the past together can produce a harmonious environment. Faced with the fact that everyone carries their own personal truths, the District Six museum and the “Peace in Four Voices” summer camps both found ways to confront these truths while addressing issues relevant to the people they worked with like community development and the Israel/Palestine conflict. The District Six museum, for example, provided a space for  former residents to reimagine their former homes through the “Streets” exhibit and to learn about their rights as claimants.[1]

How one remembers the past is significant to how the world is today. As Baiesi explains, “collective memory is often responsible for the persistence of clashes and violent conflicts within the society.”[2] To have a memory and a personal truth is universal and even though these sites deal with histories specific to South Africa and Italy, their ability to create a space in which memories outside the master narrative of their respective histories are heard can be used in the many other places that struggle to explore lesser known versions of their past. But museums and other history sites are not traditionally thought of as places for dialogue and much of the public does not traditionally seek out museums and history sites to have their points of view challenged. Is it then the responsibility of public historians to transform these environments into sites of dialogue even if the public does not see them as such?

In “The Museum as a Democracy Building Institution: Reflections on the Share Journeys Program at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum,” Maggie Russell-Ciardi shows how engaging with different groups of people to wrestle with competing versions of history can bring about a new meaning to what it means to be a museum. Here, Russell-Ciardi presents the transition to becoming a site of dialogue as spearheaded by the museum and substantially supported by recent immigrants. Recent immigrants were hired to lead tours intertwined with their own personal stories and the museum also provided them with the opportunity to attend workshops that addressed common concerns in the immigrant community.[3] While the museum wanted to make connections between the immigrants who resided at the tenement building from 1864 to 1935 and immigrants of the twenty-first century, museum staff found that visitors often separated the two groups and idealized the experiences of the former.[4] After introducing Kitchen Conversations in which visitors were invited to discuss the site’s interpretation, staff also found visitors were “at first skeptical about engaging in dialogue about contemporary issues at a historic site that they had thought would focus primarily on the history of immigration.”[5] How can museums change their image so that visitors can look forward to, or at least expect, finding challenging ideas and different points of view? If and when museums adopt this image, would it lead to people avoiding museums altogether?

For me, the ability of these sites to get visitors to understand history as relevant and as an avenue for social justice was inspiring and captivating. To do this is a challenge and it’s what makes me feel like I could one day do public history work that has the potential to fulfill a greater purpose, to go beyond telling people facts about the past.



[1] Valmont Layne, “The District Six Museum: An Ordinary People’s Place,” The Public Historian 30, no. 1 (February 2008): 58, 61.

[2] Nadia Baiesi, et.al., “Places of Memory as a Tool for Education: The ‘Peace in Four Voices Summer Camps at Monte Sole,” The Public Historian 30, no.1 (February 2008): 32.

[3] Maggie Russell-Ciardi, “The Museum as a Democracy Building Institution: Reflections on the Share Journeys Program at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum,” The Public Historian 30, no. 1 (February 2008): 45, 48.

[4] Russell-Ciardi, “The Museum as a Democracy Building Institution,” 44.

[5] Russell-Ciardi, “The Museum as a Democracy Building Institution,” 48.

Source: Working for a Greater Purpose? History and Dialogue in Museums and History Sites by Camilla Azucena-Sandoval

Place and Sites of Conscience

Traditionally, historians refrain from using historical events to illuminate current issues. We tend to hold ourselves to an ideological and ethical standard which often prevents that sort of commentary, anyway: history is only an interpretation of a record, and while we are trained to analyze and write that interpretation, it is frowned upon to extrapolate more than what is recorded. To take that further and make assertions about the ways in which past events are like present events is a little bit radical, despite it being completely acknowledged in the field that we cannot disentangle ourselves from our personal experiences and lenses.

We say this nearly every week, but non-historians don’t seem to have this problem. They experience history, filter it through themselves, and put it back into the world. They don’t stand back and hem and haw about what an exhibition means in the context of a bigger story, because they are the context through which they view everything. I think that this is ultimately the hardest task that public historians face that their traditional ‘academic’ counterparts do not: public historians are constantly grappling with the ways in which ordinary people experience history. And maybe this puts a greater burden on them, because they are tasked with both creating a narrative, and also watching that narrative snatched away and tampered with by their audience. In our readings this week, we saw three ways in which public historians rose to that challenge and helped use painful and difficult histories to contribute something bigger to the world.

In an academic setting, history is often completely intangible, but this is not the case with museums like the Tenement Museum in New York City’s Lower East Side. The curators of the Tenement Museum have endeavored to help people not only experience history, but they have embraced their audience’s desire to frame their museum experience with their own modern understanding of the immigrant experience. In order to maximize discussion, and to help preserve the narrative that the museum hoped to present, they created several opportunities for their visitors: they brought in educators whose personal experiences as immigrants could provide a new connection to the historical site; they created discussion spaces where visitors could gather after their tour and reflect on what they had experienced; and they provided spaces in which immigrant artists could display work relating to their own stories. In doing this, they are forced to balance interpretation: visitors have opportunities to voice their opinions and influence each other, and artists are able to tell stories that the museum may not be willing to tackle in their own exhibitions just yet. But by sharing the narrative, the Tenement Museum opens up new avenues for people to try to better understand each other.

Place was important in a different way for the District Six Museum: because it serves as both museum and memorial, with a history that is still living and painful, the curators were never reacting to the interpretation by the public – they allowed the public to create the interpretation from the beginning. The District Six Museum thus exists as a sort of time capsule. Valmont Layne, the museum director wrote that:

With this whole process, it began to dawn on me that a museum “collection” is more than an accumulation of artifacts and materials. In the District Six Museum, our most precious collection is the memories, the stories, and the emotions of our ex-residents and our visitors to the museum.[1]

In all three of our readings this week, we saw examples of public historians who were willing to meet their audiences where they were and use history to help ease tensions, promote diversity and tolerance, and create new narratives for people moving forward. Additionally, I think a large part of their success was in their locations – each of these readings demonstrated the value of place in bringing up complicated questions and facilitating a meaningful discussion. In this way, these serve to demonstrate how a traditional museum may not be the most impactful way to reach an audience.

That said, for discussion: How can we bring the impact of place into a traditional museum environment?

[1]. Valmont Layne, “The District Six Museum: An Ordinary People’s Place,” The Public Historian (February 2008), 60.

Source: Place and Sites of Conscience by Chelsea Merton

The Emotional Wages of Practicing History

Wages of History focuses on the emotional labor of those on the frontlines of interpretation history at Fort Snelling in Minnesota. Author Amy Tyson includes examples from the broader fields of interpretative history, customer service, and temporary employment to show that the issues raised by volunteers and employees at Fort Snelling were not unique to the fort or to public history. Tyson’s experiences as a member of the interpretative staff at Fort Snelling offered her both unique insight into the toll of emotional labor and unique access to both records and to the front line employees themselves.

Tyson’s interviews and supplementary studies reminded me not so much of the interpretative work I did for Montgomery History as a docent, but rather the work I’ve done for the past ten years at Safeway as both a cashier and customer service representative.

In chapter one, Tyson explains that Fort Snelling utilized Tilden’s work and his six goals of interpretation we read about last week. Their interpretation plan focused on expanding empathy, and the management saw that as a function of customer service.[1] This interpretation plan was written in 1970, and Tyson first went through pre-season training at the fort in 2001. Thirty years later, then, customer service was still the focal point of training and employee development. Interpreters were encouraged to become “customer service superstars,” and preseason training singled out individuals who had gone above and beyond – including making sacrifices like foregoing breaks in order to engage patrons.[2]

This idea of going “above and beyond” and the strain emotional labor causes is echoed in chapter three where Tyson emphasizes the experiences of those on the interpretative front line. Maggie, a school teacher, told Tyson that “You learn to be ‘up.’”[3]  In customer service or any sort of industry with customer interaction, you can’t have a down day. It makes the employee or volunteer unapproachable, but more importantly to the company, it reflects poorly on the “product.” Being “up” all the time in order to engage with visitors is very draining, both emotionally and physically. Multiple interviewees mentioned feeling disinclined to converse with family at home or to go out and be around others.[4] I have had coworkers and customers ask why I am not smiling or my usual chatterbox self. The fact that I have been standing for seven and half hours means little. I imagine it meant little to management or visitors that it was the dead of summer and people were cooking over fires or working as blacksmiths. Despite physical discomfort, they were meant to be engaging and positive when patrons were around. Every moment was an opportunity to educate and engage the public on the history of the fort and the history life in the early nineteenth century.

Is this emotional labor something that we take for granted when we go to historic sites? After working in a customer service position for ten years I’m much more aware now of the emotional labor of others. I know some people in the class have also worked customer service jobs and as tour guides and interpreters. Do you find yourself more aware of the emotional labor of others? Have people seemed oblivious or uncaring towards the cost of your own emotional labor? What are methods and techniques that we as public historians can help to relieve the pressure of emotional labor from those around us working in the field?

[1] Amy M. Tyson, The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013), 38-39.

[2] Ibid., 2.

[3] Ibid., 99.

[4] Ibid., 102.

Edited for Clarity from Source: The Emotional Wages of Practicing History by Bridget Hurley

Management and public history

I will admit to being largely ignorant of what goes on the front lines of living history sites like Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia or Fort Snelling in Minnesota, the subject of Amy Tyson’s  book The Wages of History.  Honestly speaking, I genuinely do not actively seek  out living history, because frankly as an academic historian,  I do not think I am not the intended audience. When I do come across living history however, I really do appreciate the interpreters’ effort to achieve authenticity, and I usually learn something from the experience. That being said, Amy Tyson’s description of the authenticity games and their emotional toll on interpreters kind of struck a nerve with me.[1]

I am very familiar with the concept of games of authenticity. I’ve had a long if intermittent membership in the Society of Creative Anachronism (SCA).  The SCA is a group of medieval re-enactors, and the negative and positive impact of their games of authenticity are often evident (I have a great story about hair dye.) What intrigued me about this book was seeing the games of authenticity played in a professional historical, rather than a social, setting.  It left me with several questions.

The first question I have is are the games of Authenticity legitimate up to a certain point? At what point do they, instead, present preconceived notions of history that reflect our contemporary biases?  At Fort Snelling, managers assigned roles for the interpreters  based on what was historically accurate for their in the 1820s.[2]  Men were assigned to roles as soldiers and blacksmiths  while women were wives and domestics. This seems to be fairly straight forward, except I wonder how much of really confirmed and reproduced modern gender inequities. It really does not take that much digging to find that women, while not “blacksmiths” per se, women did indeed work in blacksmith shops and other professional locations.  At the same time, there were male domestics.  I am wondering why MHS seemed to use the living history at Fort Snelling to confirm, rather than challenge, modern notions of historically authentic gender roles? Their performances impacted job opportunities at the site; women held the majority of cashier and other customer service jobs.[3]

The next big question I want to ask is simply this: were the workers at Fort Snelling exploited?  And if so what does that say about our society’s view of public history and living history workers? Tyson demonstrates that seasonal workers were not considered “real” employees. (An aside, as someone who has worked many “not real” jobs, any work you do for pay is a real job!)  Those that rocked the boat were not rehired[4]. While there were pay raises after two organizing campaigns those were due more to outside influences rather than to the employees’ agitation. Tyson, in the epilogue documents a failed organizing campaign at the university of Minnesota, where she concludes a differing of opinion on unionization based on whether one is a communalist or more individualistic.[5] Tyson discusses that fact that in a labor dispute in Williamsburg the interpreters choose not side with the striking hospitality workers over fear of losing their privileged positions even though they would have benefited as well. I think that still holds as true, especially in today’s economy, where it’s the  knowledge that there are five qualified people willing and  able to replace a worker that steps out of line, that prevents union organization.

I wanted to touch on what Tyson calls the Games of Authenticity and  the management structure of the fort. Tyson states that  the  interpreters were given a lot of autonomy and resented management  stepping on their toes[6]. It makes sense for the position to be largely autonomous creatively speaking, but beyond that  there seemed to very little oversight as a whole.  Don’t get me wrong I think the idea of the lead guides was a good one, but they were not  given the tools they needed to to do their jobs, nor where they themselves given enough oversight. Which lead to the guides abusing what power they did have, which lead  the games of authenticity getting out of control, which in turn lead to unpleasant incidents like  Tyson being dressed down for not wearing shoes.[7]

I feel that had  the interpreters, and their management  had well defined processes, much of the problems Tyson described could have been avoided. For example had there been a well defined process as to who gets what role, that had been applied equally to both men and women, it is very possible  that the amount of resentment among the female guides that Tyson discusses could have been largely eliminated[8].  Furthermore, holding the male guides particularly the soldiers to a standard of professional conduct could have checked some of the more egregious behavior, like the soldier’s locker room[9].  That was frankly a textbook example of what a hostile work environment is, and the MHS is lucky that the female, or other male, interpreters either did not care enough, or more likely were too intimidated, to report and sue the MHS into oblivion.   So that is my final question,  could the excesses Tyson discusses at Fort Snelling and other living history sites been checked if the interpreters had been giving more oversight, process to follow, and held to a standard of professional behavior?

Finally I am curious about that “Dr. Meringolo” character Tyson mentions, seems like a troublemaker to me.

[1] Amy M. Tyson The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines (Cambridge: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.) 116

[2] Amy M. Tyson The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines (Cambridge: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.) 28

[3] Amy M. Tyson The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines (Cambridge: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.) 43

[4] Amy M. Tyson The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines (Cambridge: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.) 79-82

[5] Amy M. Tyson The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines (Cambridge: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.) 174

[6] Amy M. Tyson The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines (Cambridge: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.) 119

[7] Amy M. Tyson The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines (Cambridge: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.) 132

[8] Amy M. Tyson The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines (Cambridge: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.) 126 – 127

[9]  Amy M. Tyson The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines (Cambridge: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.) 139

Edited for Clarity from Source: Management and public history by David Cunningham

The Wages of History

The Wages of History: Emotional on Public History’s Front Lines is a very eye-opening book. The case study that Amy M. Tyson uses is Minnesota’s Historic Fort Snelling. Not only was the book eye-opening but it was also different. Different because the key figures were the workers that Fort Snelling has had over time. Tyson explains early on that she and her co-workers loved dressing up in costume and interpreting history, because working as a living history interpreter made them feel important.  (1) At the same time, Tyson recognizes the sacrifices that she and other interpreters had to make to continue their work. Many felt  expandable because they knew they could easily be replaced, and they felt insecure and devalued. (2) I found it eye opening because of the of the examples that the author uses, particularly the ones found in chapter 2 and chapter 3 regarding the grievances that the frontline workers had with their temporary job positions.

Some of the interpreters who worked for the Minnesota Historic Society formed a caucus in 1993 and half a year after the caucus was formed, it appeared that the MHS was going to solve some of the issues identified by its interpreters/employees. The MHS formed a “Strategic Planning Human Resources Subcommittee,” to identify and resolve human resource problems. However, the initiatives were hollow. The MHS provided employees with a 25% discount on the Society’s gift and book shop, but they also implemented and unrealistic policies to limit vacation time and sick pay. (3) In chapter 3, Tyson mentions the pay for historical interpreters, and it truly did show that these people must absolutely love their jobs because their wages are low. Tyson cites a 1989 Washington Post article on how Colonial Williamsburg interpreters had a tough time making ends meet. One of the interpreters in the article was making eight dollars and hour when he decided to quit. (4) Things for Colonial Williamsburg did not really change, as it pertained to their wages, because in a 2011 advertisement for a part time position as a museum interpreter was nine dollars and five cents. For Fort Snelling, the wages went up a bit, because their starting hourly wage in 2006 was of eleven dollars and forty-six cents. An interpreter that Tyson interviewed in 2004 told her that she could work at a Taco Bell and make more money and that “there is no chance for advancement and no benefits.” (5)

These examples provided were not too long ago, and while things have changed for public historians it is still rather scary to think that once graduated, we too may look forward to seasonal employment. I’m not sure if any of my fellow classmates have any plans to work as a costumed historical interpreter, but this type of job is the realms of public history and some public history jobs are in the nonprofit sector. I am not trying to inflict any doubt on potential public history jobs toward any of you, it’s just that as I was reading this book, I felt a certain uneasiness for jobs that I am personally interested in, and those are particularly jobs in museums. Some of things I read in this book also are things that I have had to deal with as I decided to embark as a history major. In chapter 3 Tyson brings up a sociologist, Erving Goffman, who describes a stigmatized person as someone marked as discredited in a normal society. Tyson brought this up because some of the interpreters she interviewed felt at some point or another, stigmatized, for returning to a seasonal job at Fort Snelling because their occupation was not taken as a “real job”. (6) This again, is something that I have endured for the past 2 years by friends and family members, asking me if I was going to be a teacher or could I even find a “real job” with a history degree. I guess some people think that if someone has a history degree they can only find jobs in academia. This book was a great read, and it really resonated with me. The first questioned that I would like to pose derives a bit from one the readings that we did a couple of weeks ago regarding museums and their practices. Fort Snelling saw peak tourism in 1976, the bicentennial celebration of the United States, and according to the Minnesota Historical Society attendance has not been reached that peak since. (7) The drop of visitors was consistent with other museums across the United States, why has there been a drop of visitors in historic museums? Museums decided to implement a “Plan B” which was designed to “speak more intensely to visitors learning preferences and their persistent desires to connect to the past”. (8) Does a plan B cheapen the experience and render tourist guides or interpreters obsolete. The second question is more of personal one, have any of you been “stigmatized” or questioned about being a history major? If so, how have you all gone about handling it?

1. Amy M. Tyson, The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines (Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013), 3.

2.Tyson, The Wages of History, 5.

3. Tyson, The Wages of History, 74.

4. Tyson, The Wages of History, 91.

5. Tyson, The Wages of History, 91.

6. Tyson, The Wages of History, 90.

7. Tyson, The Wages of History, 12.

8. Tyson, The Wages of History, 12.


Edited for clarity from Source: The Wages of History by Saul Espinal-Acosta

What are Public Historians to do?

In reading The Presence of the Past, I became more cynical than optimistic towards the future of history. Like Michael Zuckerman in his response to the book’s publication, I noticed that a lot of the respondents only cared about the past if it pertained to their personal lives or families and rarely looked at history in a broader sense (Roundtable Responses, 20). Roy Rosenzweig’s said he did not  see the “pathological, nonparticipatory, and ahistorical culture,” that Zuckerman observed (Roundtable Responses, 37). However, even recognizing people’s personal point of entry to the study of history can be difficult for public historians. How are public historians supposed to create an interpretation that appeals to many, if people seem to lack a collective conscience? Last week we read about how the National Park Service is struggling with telling an American story that is also inclusive and multicultural. Rosenzweig and Thelen’s study seems to indicate such work is quite difficult if not impossible. Currently, the NPS has a white-dominated narrative, but as the study shows, whites are not a monolith. Age and gender also play a large role in how a person looks at history. The study showed that men over the age of 65 thought U.S.  history was the most important (Presence of the Past, 130). This finding is not surprising since old white men figure prominently in the history of the U.S., but it does mean that the majority of people do think history is “boring” and “irrelevant.”

Presence of the Past is also misleading in its portrayal of the popularity of museums and historic sites. Spencer Crew, then-director of the National Museum of American History was optimistic that Rosenzweig and Thelen’s respondents listed museums and historic sites as the most trustworthy (Roundtable Responses, 24). According to survey, people felt connected to museums and historic sites, because they were able to draw their own conclusions. Although it’s reassuring that the public trusts these places, attendance levels may prove that trust does not really exert an influence on the future of history museums. In “Passionate Histories,” Benjamin Filene cites a 2007 study which finds that, “History museums and historic sites showed the lowest popularity among the eight types of museums measured in this survey,” and, “for all demographic groups, history museums are the least popular” (“Passionate Histories,” 13).  So, it may not really matter if people find museums and historic sites the most trustworthy if they never go there. Filene also mentions the comments of James Vaughan, vice president for Stewardship of Historic Sites at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, who said communities view museums and historic sites as, “irrelevant and unresponsive to societal change” (“Passionate Histories,” 14). How should public historians react to low attendance and poor reception from the public? Should they act more like outsider history-makers, who are much more popular than professional historians? Rebecca Conard brings up a good point on changing the historical interpretation to appease the public and increase attendance. She states that the quality of interpretation does little to draw people to historic places, and it is doubtful that a drastic change would bring in numbers. She is also concerned that a large enough deviation from the status quo may be met with opposition from, “those who control the storyline” (Roundtable Responses, 18). People may trust museums and historic sites, but ultimately, the majority of people do not care about them enough to go. How can public historians get people to care about a wider history than their own? Michael Zuckerman phrased the question, “How do historians reach out to people who don’t want to be touched?” (Roundtable Responses, 22).

Some solutions are offered by Benjamin Filene and David Thelen, but they were not satisfying. Outsider history-makers clearly have popularity among the public and share the same broad messages of history as professional historians do, but their history is too narrowly focused. I do not have problems with the histories told by outsider history-makers, but I do not think that that should be the only form of history. The consensus seems to be that professional historians and outsider history-makers need to meet half-way in order to find a good and popular history. However, public historians were hurt publicly by professionalizing, so will professional historians lose credibility academically if they become more accessible? I do not know the answer, but it seems like a hard question to answer. Professional historians may be, “painfully unaware of how people outside of their own circles understood and used the past,” but how are they to become more aware? (Presence of the Past, 2). Rosenzweig and Thelen’s study showed that professors were trusted sources for history, yet there still seems to be a disconnect between them and the public. How much should professionals historians pander to the public and how much should public historians professionalize? Is there a happy medium?

Lightly Edited from Source: What are Public Historians to do? by Eric Burroughs

“Have we become our own worst enemy?”

“Have we become our own worst enemy? The professionalization of public history does not seem to be helping professionals make the connections we so desperately want and need to make—not connections among ourselves but to public audiences.” [1]

We discussed in the beginning of the semester that public history had spent such a long time establishing itself as a professional discipline that it lost the public in its attempt to be academic. Can a traditional scholar successfully move back and forth across the line between academia and public? Benjamin Filene, in his article “Passionate Histories: ‘Outsider’ History-Makers and What They Teach Us” argues that public historians need to be innovators, thinking creatively to get the public involved in history. He questions if an academic education can prepare a historian for those challenges. Museums have been doing public history for years and yet museum professionals are just learning from their experience. Are we allowing enough innovation in public history or is formal training something that can hold us back by focusing on best practices and not allowing new ideas? I think that collaborative inquiry and interpretation can bridge the gap between our formal training and innovative ideas.

But in order to collaborate with the public, we need to know where they enter the conversation. The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life sought to find how people interact and use history in their lives. Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen found that the “professional historians were painfully unaware of how people outside their own circles understood and used the past.” [2] While many historians had investigated people’s use of history in specific instances of forming identity or museum exhibits, it had never occurred to anyone to see how people use history in their daily lives; to talk to the people that may not go to a museum, but could be very historically minded. With their study, Rosenzweig and Thelen found that the majority of the people they surveyed had contact with history, but not in the ways that academics and professionals looked at history. This divide between what the public wants and what the historian finds important is a product of professionalization. We stopped listening to the public and tried to prove that we could “do good history,” but what is the point if no one is taking it in. Last week we talked about how people do not go to National Parks for the history. But if people actually enjoy history then why are they not engaged at these parks?

One of the main reasons that they are not engaged with history is the fact that the story does not connect to them. The study found that the public’s interaction with “the past” was very personal, their genealogies, family stories and hobbies. The personal nature of these made individuals care about history. They connected the personal stories to larger contexts. But their stories are not ones of American progress and greatness, implying that the public is ready for some more inclusive stories, for stories that challenge the national narrative. Michael Zuckerman thought that American whites had “no common ground, no common stories, no common knowledge.” [3] He thought that Americans would not care about any history outside of their own personal experiences and their families. I do not think the goal should be to have common histories, but display the multitude of histories. If the public does not personally connect with the national story it would not make an impression on them. The events that made an impression were ones that they could connect to the personal. Public historians need to make broader historical themes connect to the personal.

In addition to connecting to the personal, public historians need to establish trust in the communities they work in. Rosenzweig and Thelen uncovered very different ideas about how the public connects to “the past” because of their evaluation of the trustworthiness of sources and their connection to them. The public wanted to see the unmediated facts and make their own judgments, which led them to regard museum as a trustworthy source even though curators mediate the whole museum. Because the objects are present, the public can connect with them. Then at the lowest trustworthiness are movies, television and books because they are seen as having an agenda, a bias. But their strongest connection is to their families, people they already have a built-in trust with. They regard the stories of grandparents and neighbors as trustworthy accounts since they actually experienced the events. Knowing what the public views as a trustworthy source allows public historians to design exhibits that bring those trustworthy sources. So are we are own worst enemy in sticking to the discipline? Can we engage more people if we concentrate on personal stories?

And one final thought, do you think that Rosenzweig and Thelen would find the same results today? Would people be just as engaged with the past today as they were in the 1990s?

[1] Benjamin Filene, “Passionate Histories: ‘Outsider’ History-Makers and What They Teach Us” The Public Historian (Winter 2012) 30.
[2] Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000) 2.
[3] Michael Zuckerman, “Roundtable Responses to Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen’s Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in America” The Public Historian (Winter, 2000) 19.

Lightly edited from Source: “Have we become our own worst enemy?” by Kayla Piechowiak

A Misplaced Massacre

A Misplaced Massacre adds a new layer to the challenges that face the National Park Service and its mission. At the opening of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in 2007, NPS director Mary Bomar describes the NPS as, “almost a metaphor for America itself,” that must, “ensure that the American stories are told faithfully, completely, and accurately.” For the most part the American story the NPS tells is “noble,” but as with Sand Creek, she admits it can also be, “shameful and sad.” She then states that the NPS, “must continually ask whether the way we tell stories has meanings for all citizens” (p. 20). Sand Creek is an example of the National Park Service trying to tell a more multicultural story, but as the book shows, competing interests do not make this an easy task.

With the stakeholders including the different descendant tribes, property owners, the NPS, and the state of Colorado, it is no surprise that creating the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site was delayed at every turn. Not only was the label massacre or battleground debated, but also its location, the war in which it would be contextualized, and how the site would be used. Since there were so many stakeholders and differing ideas of memory I wonder if it is possible for the NPS to tell, as Mary Bomar suggests, an American story that will appeal to all? Also, if the NPS is going to attempt to tell this all-inclusive story, is it possible for it to be told faithfully, completely, and accurately?

I think in their attempt to tell the story the NPS, and other public historians, do have to act as middlemen between the competing interests. This posed a problem in the book because the NPS and the descendant tribes had different ideas of what collaboration looked like. Laird Cometsevah believed that the Cheyenne would have a say in all decisions, while the NPS viewed consultation as gathering the information the Cheyenne had, which would then influence the decision-making (p. 167). The NPS recorded oral histories of the descendant tribes, but when faced with contradictory written or archaeological evidence, they usually sided with the written and archaeological evidence. How are public historians supposed to weigh the different, contradictory sources if picking one over the other leads to animosity among stakeholders? This difficulty is shown when the NPS has chooses between the Bonsall and Bent maps. The NPS believed the Bonsall map was more accurate, but the Cheyenne swore by the locations drawn on the Bent map. Not only did this decision anger the Cheyenne because the NPS chose an opposing map, it also highlighted the white-washed history of the NPS. Bonsall was a white soldier, who desecrated the bodies of Cheyenne victims, while Bent was a Cheyenne survivor. For the NPS, Bonsall’s map was accurate, because archaeological finds proved it. The Cheyenne did not care about the archaeology only their traditions. It was also difficult for the NPS to discredit any source, because doing so could have jeopardized the success of creating the site.

The book also highlights an issue that is still relevant today in historical memory with Civil War statues. Instead of removing Sand Creek from a Civil War statue that listed battles Coloradans fought in, David Halaas, an ally the Sand Creek descendants, suggested adding interpretative markers that clarified that Sand Creek was a massacre not a battle. Halaas and Cometsevah opposed the revisionism, because Sand Creek was already being forgotten in history (p. 76). The opposition to revision can be seen on both sides of the debate over Sand Creek’s memory. Jerry Russell opposed the NPS’s attempt to include a multicultural perspective in historic sites. He believed that this form of revisionism was the NPS trying to be politically correct, but resulting in a telling of bad history. Although Russell is very unlikeable in this book, he did lead me to the question: How successful can the NPS ultimately be in adding a multicultural perspective to existing, pre-dominantly white historic sites? Sand Creek is an exception, since the Native American’s side of the story is what the NPS wanted to remember, but how about sites like the Charles Pinckney House, which was also mentioned? The NPS can add the slavery story to Pinckney’s House all it wants, but the site is still preserving a scene of oppression. So my questions for the discussion are:

Is it possible for the NPS to tell an American story that will appeal to all?

If so, is it possible for the story to be told faithfully, completely, and accurately?

How are public historians supposed to weigh the different, contradictory sources, if picking one over the other leads to animosity among stakeholders?

How successful can the NPS ultimately be in adding a multicultural perspective to existing, pre-dominantly white, historic sites?

Lightly Edited from Source: A Misplaced Massacre by Eric Burroughs

What’s in a location?

So what’s in a name? Or rather a location? Especially in public history when it comes down to the interplay between the Federal government in the form of the National Park Service, and different cultural groups, such as the Native American community. Speaking as someone who exists more on the academic side of history, rather than public, the central issue of this book is harder for me to conceptualize since academic historians are generally not going to have to build a public monument or memorial. They have the luxury of using the Gordian Knot solution to a problem like this by being able to either approximate or distinguish between traditional and actual locations of the massacre. I am finding that public historians are not actually so lucky in that regard. This problem becomes especially thorny when some groups like the Cheyenne’s have a strong cultural and spiritual tie to a location. As Ari Kelman notes in A Misplaced Massacre, the massacre at Sand Creek was not just a historical event, but a “emotionally and psychologically present event.[1]

In the end, given the mission to memorialize the massacre I think the NPS made the right or really the only choice in the matter.  Especially given the immense the political and cultural context to indigenous groups like the Cheyenne had given to the original site. As Keller notes the native groups work working for reparations under article 6[2].  While I am happy that the site was built in conjunction with, rather than opposition to native groups. I am still slightly troubled by certain things. It seems we are back to the question of heritage versus history. We have archeological evidence seeming to point one site, while tradition and oral histories point strongly to the original site[3]. We’ve spent so long in this class seeming to come down on the side of history, yet, it seems that the NPS came down strongly on the side of heritage for a myriad of reasons. In the end I think that’s my big question for this post, did the NPS make the right choice in going with the traditional site, in which archeological evidence seems to suggest took place elsewhere? Where they justified?  Have they done this elsewhere?

For the rest of the book, I think I have several much smaller questions. This first being how as public historians do we take wider political considerations, which may not have anything directly to do with our work, but the wider context can still cast a long shadow over everything we as public historians do. I bring as examples, 9-11 and. Keller states that at both of these events became tied to the Sand Creek memorial. From Lee Pedro’s muttered remarks about September 11th which on interpretation of those comments took for support for the attack on the twin towers created unnecessary controversy[4].   I know that history or rather our interpretation of history is inherently political, but how do we as public historians reach the widest audience possible, especially when the culture war comes calling, and intrudes onto our work, and puts our access and funding in jeopardy?

Finally, we come to Bill Dawson, whom to me raise several different issues.  The first is the fact that he was able to effective hold the project hostage while looking to get the most value from his property.  While I applaud the decision not use eminent domain to seize the property, which can be politically problematic with the possibility of sinking the entire project with protracted court battles.  That’ being said, people like Dawson can be just as dangerous when demanding what they feel is fair recompense which may not be so fair[5].

The final thing that occurs to me about this book is the other road map that Bill Dawson gives us. Keller points out  that Dawson originally thought the Massacre was a battle, but after meeting Laird Cometsevah, and interacting with  other Cheyenne,  came to change his view and support the Cheyenne in that Sand Creek was a massacre[6].  It seems that this may represent a possible way out of the  current cultural stalemate we have. Actually get people involved in public history and  the dialogues that should necessarily follow on after.  There is a real opportunity here, but first we need to get people involved, the question is how? I hear from my daughter, that for a lot her classmates that history is boring and pointless.  So how do we get people to engage? Especially when it’s a chance to move forward, your guess is as good as mine.

One final note, how the hell was there a town named Chivington, even after his contemporaries thought he was a monster.


[1]Ari Kelman, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2013), 109

[2]Ari Kelman, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2013), 158

[3]Ari Kelman, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2013), 138-141

[4]Ari Kelman, A Misplaced Masscre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2013),Keller 248-249

[5]Ari Kelman, A Misplaced Masscre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2013), 199-197

[6]Ari Kelman, A Misplaced Masscre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2013),50-51

Slightly edited from Source: What’s in a location? by David Cunningham