Eye Opening? Yes. Has my Career Choice Changed? Eh, Maybe….

I must admit that my concept of what a public historian is is completely different now than it was at the beginning of the semester.  Prior to the first class, if anyone had asked me what a Public Historian did, I would have simply told them it was primarily about exhibit design. If you asked me today ( which you are because that is the assignment) I would tell you that a Public Historian is a collaborator, an advocate, an innovator, most importantly a good listener, and so much more. However, it took a long time for me to come to this definition.

To tell you the truth, the readings for the first few weeks of the class actually turned me off to the profession, especially Introduction to Public History by Lyon, Nix, and Shrum.  Their notion that Public Historians must collaborate with others outside the discipline in order to coordinate the efforts of the museum really gave me the idea that Public Historians are middle managers (Lyon, Nix, Shrum, 11). This was a huge turn-off for me in terms of post-graduation employment as I spent several years prior to coming back to school in the realm of middle management. The necessity of balancing personalities was the worst part of my job. My experience in working on the app content for the class project has done nothing to help change my dislike for this particular aspect of public history.

Despite that, my concept started to evolve in a more positive fashion once we read about the Sand Creek Massacre and the process that went into establishing a national park there. I was particularly interested in how David Halaas was able to act as an advocate for the different tribes and as an intermediary between those tribes and the government. To some extent this was still that collaboration that Lyon, et al. were talking about, but on a personal level I can appreciate having someone standup to the government on behalf of the different native American tribes (Kelman, 108).

The class really got interesting once we started reading about and discussing some of the more innovative exhibits that have been put together recently. Kathleen McLean’s piece in Letting Go really started show me exactly what the job could be, both in terms of innovation and getting public involvement/buy-in. I was really intrigued by the “Birth of the Cool” & “ Cool Remixed” exhibits that she discussed. I think it was this particular piece and reading about how visitors would walk back and forth between the two exhibits that changed my mind about involving the public in an exhibit’s design. The fact that the response exhibit ended up being the more visited and interesting of the two, and the manner in which the exhibit designers incorporated new ideas and technologies that were largely recommendations from the community really changed my perception of what kind of exhibits I would like to design should I choose a career in Public History. McLean’s essay also demonstrated the benefit of listening to what your audience is telling you, and what they think is interesting and visit worthy (McLean, Letting Go, 72-75).

I think my notion of what kind of Public Historian I would want to be really solidified after reading about the District 6 museum this past week. They seem to have wrapped everything I have taken away from this course into one building. I absolutely loved how the museum was used to reclaim a space for the people that had been thrown out of that space more than 50 years prior. The manner in which several of the exhibits came about, particularly the map and curtain that the curators allowed visitors to fill in and write on was such a cool and innovative idea. Layne described the museum’s development as “spontaneous and organic,” and I think that is what makes their museum so innovative and a place I am dying to go see (Layne, 60).

I think that the semester project had a couple of benefits for me, and one major drawback. One, it was a very different exercise in trying to move from academic history to public history in terms of writing. Where as an academic historian I can embellish and fully explain as much as I feel the need to, the app content by necessity had to be short, sweet, to the point, and catchy. It was, and remains to be, a very difficult change in my normal writing style. Second, and this is both a good and bad lesson, was having to deal with an eventual consumer (our “sponsors”) of our final product. The representative from the Patapsco Heritage Greenway was an absolute breath of fresh air. Being able to work with someone who gives you the green light on whatever you want to write is great. On the flip side, having to work with clients who are opinionated, resolute in their understanding of a particular subject, and unwilling to change their views regardless of the evidence presented makes me rethink dealing with the public. Unfortunately I feel this is how the majority of the public reacts to history that does not agree with their previous experiences.

Edited from the Original Post by Alan Gibson

Final Reflective Blog Post

My definition of public history has not been significantly altered during the course of this semester. To me, public history is merely history presented to the public. Examples of public history can be museums, historic sites, websites (such as Baltimore Heritage), and even academic history written for a wider audience. What has changed is my idea of what a public historian’s role is in public history.

Surprisingly, actual history is just a small part of a public historian’s job. In the case of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, the National Park Service’s public historians served as liaisons or middle men between opposing stakeholders (Kelman, A Misplaced Massacre).  In Sand Creek’s case, all was well in the end, because the movement of a river confirmed that everybody was correct, but this should be seen as an exception to the rule. In most instances, the story public historians present are negotiated to meet the interests of differing stakeholders, which may neglect aspects of the truth. Although I initially thought historians should present the best, most accurate history regardless of stakeholders, the Enola Gay controversy, which was alluded to numerous times, is an example of why stakeholders are important. However, in my experience in public history with our project, our clients don’t seem to care about the content of our histories as long as they are accurate and tell a compelling story. This experience has been reassuring, because altering history to appease someone was not something I was too thrilled with.

One aspect of public history that was confirmed throughout this course is that the public does not really care about history. In “Passionate Histories,” Benjamin Filene cited a 2007 study which found that, “History museums and historic sites showed the lowest popularity among the eight types of museums measured in this survey.” Although Rosenzweig and Thelen’s survey showed that people felt connected to museums and historic sites since they could draw their own conclusions, they don’t seem to show it with attendance. Having had an internship at Harpers Ferry and been a volunteer battlefield guide at Ball’s Bluff, even the majority of who come to historic sites, don’t seem to care about the history. Part of the reason for this might be how public history is presented. Often times people are talked at instead of talked to at historic sites. Public historians present history as a lecture instead of a conversation.  Rosenzweig and Thelen’s survey showed that people care about the past if it pertains to their family’s or personal lives, so a lecture about the broader scope of history will be unappealing to them. Much like Michael Zuckerman, I was discouraged by this selfish interest in history and how public historians were to respond to it.

One encouraging example was the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. The goal of the public stories here was not only to present individual stories and the history of immigration, but also to foster dialogue. This seems like a creative idea to keep people engaged because they have a voice in the presentation, but I also think dialogue is a two way street. The Tenement Museum’s set up was perfect for this style of public history. Visitors were required to go through with a guide and groups were limited to 15 people. At sites like Harpers Ferry and Ball’s Bluff, visitors have a choice whether or not they will engage with a public historian, and they often choose to not to. I do think public historians should revamp how history is presented, so it is more engaging to the public, but in order to engage with the public, the public has to be willing to engage with the public historian.

I do not know if this is a common reflection, but this class has made me more cynical about public history, and has led me to seriously question if I should continue to pursue it as a career. I am not cynical in whether or not public history is important. I think it is very important, but I do not think I am the creative mind necessary to keep it alive. Especially with Sand Creek, pubic historians seemed to be more like conflict mediators than they are historians. I understand the need to convey the “so what” in historic sites, but appeasing people who only care about a personalized history should not be the way public historians go about doing it. As the National Park Service has discovered, it is not easy to present an all inclusive narrative, and it may not even be possible. I think public historians do need to be creative in how they present history to  make it more engaging to the public, but the public also needs to care, and we can’t force them care. As Rebecca Conard stated in the Roundtable Responses to Rosenzweig and Thelen, a drastic change in the interpretation of public history sites is unlikely to draw in a significant amount of numbers, but is likely to draw opposition from, “those who control the storyline.”

I will say that our project offered a glimmer of hope that I will stay the course of public history. Reading about theory and the practice of public history is important, but actually working on a public history project is far more beneficial. If my app content is used, it will be very rewarding, but I wish there was a way to know if anybody uses it. If the app content is posted, but no one cares to use it, is it really there?

 

 

Source: Final Reflective Blog Post by Eric Burroughs

It started at a bar in Baltimore…

Right now I’m having this weird flashback to last semester when I was in the Digital Public History course. I had decided over the winter break of 2016-17 (almost a year to the day) that I wanted to switch my degree concentration to Public History. I had gone out for a drink one night around Christmas weekend and ran into, through a mutual friend, a lady named Anita Durel. She and her husband had co-founded this organization called Qm2. Qm2 is a consulting firm that helps museums better connect with their audiences and manage their bottom lines. They are pretty successful at it, too. I remember Anita telling me, in between a few deep slogs of her dirty martini,  how they had recently worked with a group in Paris, and were planning the logistics for a trip to some museum in South Africa. One thing lead to another and before long we started talking about me pursuing my degree at UMBC.

Anita was admittedly a bit drunk. But what most stuck out to me in the conversation (from what I can remember) is that she told me I had to do public history if I wanted to make any money the field of history. She basically told me what quite a few people have told me since, that the field had become way too over saturated with Ph.Ds and there was no place to put them. Academic historians were basically a dime a dozen and I shouldn’t count on being secured a job if I went down that path. It really resonated with me. It was really the first time that someone had gotten really real with me about my future in the field and what I was doing right now to prepare for it.  I actually emailed Dr. Ritschel the next day asking if I could switch my concentration. He put me in touch with Dr. Meringolo, and the rest as they say (pun very much intended) is history.

I signed up for Digital Public History in the upcoming Spring semester.

If I’m going to be honest, I had no idea what Public History was. I had gone to NCPHs website and gotten a run down:

“NCPH inspires public engagement with the past and serves the needs of practitioners in putting history to work in the world by building community among historians, expanding professional skills and tools, fostering critical reflection on historical practice, and publicly advocating for history and historians.”

Sounds simple enough, right? What I thought then was that public historians are really the front line of history. They interface directly with the public, rather than secluding themselves in the safety of the ivory tower of the university. That’s really all I thought it was. We talk to the everyday public, and they (academics) talk to other academics or students.

This actually sounded really appealing to me because part of what I was interested in doing with my degree was helping middle class white people to better understand housing disparities in urban and suburban space through the lens of history. Seemed simple enough, and it also seemed to accommodate this mildly activist tinge that I have always felt I needed to express somehow in my professional life.

As I mentioned earlier, I took a bit of a backwards path for the Public History track at UMBC. I had already taken digital public history, and my internship before taking the intro class. I remember well sitting in the first digital history class last spring and thinking “what the hell are we talking about?” I don’t think I said a single word the whole class. To be honest, I don’t think I said a single word in the first three classes. I don’t even remember much of those first couple of classes outside of registering my reclaim site and reading a few documents about reconciliation projects like the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

What I do remember very well is how much emphasis, no matter what example or case study we were reading about, was placed on sensitivity and thorough consideration of every variable. That is to to say that we must try to consider every way infinitesimal in which we (the public historian) might not be fully accounting for every perspective that needed to be included, or how we might be being insensitive to the variety of concerns within a community whom we are working with. One similar example from this semester came from the article on Scotts Bluff where there was this really obvious push and pull between how to fit the story of the monument within the schematic of the National Park Service at the Federal level, and how to accommodate the desires for tourism and profits of the local community within that frame work. Barber writes how the “…locals resisted ceding complete control of the site to the government, even as they pursued and profited by the national recognition it had brought them.” (Barber, “Local Places, National Spaces: Public Memory, Community Identity, and Landscape at Scotts Bluff National Monument,” Page 38.) How do you balance this?

It was dizzying to be honest, and it seemed at times a hopeless struggle. The more I thought about, my idealistic desire to educate white suburban homeowners about the policies and profound cultural discourses that had shaped their realities seemed not so easy, or even advisable. At the end of the day, you are always going to piss someone off, or hurt someone else. Throughout it all I remember Dr. M continuously driving home the point that is more than ok to come into your project wanting to interpret for your audience, in fact you need to interpret. Don’t be afraid to have a perspective. But how to do this in a sensitive and considerate way?

So fast forward back to now. Having successfully completed (I hope) 705, I must say that I now have a much more complex understanding of the public history field. One that is honestly still a bit fuzzier than I would like, but that’s ok. I’ll come back to that point in a bit.

I do think I’ve learned (if not entirely) many skills. First would be how to tell a story that doesn’t sound overly preachy but also really only leaves the audience one way to understand the point you are trying to make. The final project for this class has brought me a long way from where I was when I started. I do think I picked up a great many nuanced lessons for how to tell a story in a way that balanced not being overtly interpretive but does rely on critical historical thinking.

There are many things I’m still struggling with though. Some of them get fleshed out a bit every week in the lectures, almost by accident. For instance, last class we started talking about how public historians should be required to receive instruction akin to social work, or some sort of empathy training. This really resonated with me and also kind of cleared up a misunderstandings I was having. Namely, is there a difference between what public history is generally and what I want to do within public history? Is the umbrella big enough for all our unique endeavors? For one,  I am very much interested in the idea of creating a safe space where ideas and beliefs over complex and controversial issues can be exchanged. It does seem strange to me as historians, especially public ones, we don’t receive some kind of specific training to this end.

Something else we talked about last week also kind of shook me a little bit (not in a bad way). Does there need to be any actual history in public history? This is a thought I have been having on and off throughout the semester, depending on the case study we were talking about. The recent example of the article on Monte Sol where the writer talks about how “Monte Sole has become a “place of memory”… [i]n building a Peace School at this place, we have sought to make its memory more than a monument.” (Baiesi, “Places of Memory as a Tool for Education: The “Peace in Four Voices Summer Camps” at Monte Sole” Page 29.) In this way, the history of place becomes a mere place setting for a discussion that ostensibly has nothing to do with the history of that actual place. So this can be public history too? It seems to me any social worker with a two page brochure on the history of Monte Sol could be qualified to work at this site.

This brings me back to why I’m fuzzy on public history, and why I think that is ok. I think the most important thing I have learned is that at this point is to not expect perfection on any project, and to accept that at a certain point you have to just throw your hands up in the face of disillusionment and press forward. Every new experience brings a new challenge which leads to new growth. Public historians have a hard job, especially insofar as they aren’t even sure what their job is actually going to be or what it’s going to entail. Imagine showing up to your first day at work, thinking you are ready to get to it, and realizing “shit…I didn’t train for this. Is this my responsibility?” We saw a lot of that notion in this weeks readings, which I wrote a good bit about for the discussion blog.

In closing, I will say I am excited to press forward. I still don’t fully know what public history is, or what I want to do within it, but I don’t think I’m at fault for not knowing. It’s an evolving thing that present new difficulties each time and new potential rewards in working through those challenges. After all, we are working with the public and the public is a highly complex, often disparate, undefinable, unclassifiable, sometimes hostile, sometimes jovial, confused, sad, maybe depressed, over-stimulated, medicated, ambitious, idealistic, arbitrary, and altogether frustrating clientele. Perhaps that is what ultimately makes the field of public history such a dubious one to fully define.

All that being said, I’m feeling pretty good with where I’m at and what I came up with for the final project. Furthermore, I must say that I’m glad I went out for a drink that night a year ago. I’m glad I sent the email to Dr. Ritschel the next morning. And I’m glad this semester is over. Now I’m going to go out again to the same bar and have a drink.

Source: It started at a bar in Baltimore… by Zachary Utz

Reflections on a Semester of New Readings and Experiences

Public history is rooted in historical training and then differentiated as a collaborative practice in which practitioners, community members, interest groups, and other professionals work together on projects that meet the wants and needs of the public. The work of public historians is situational, requiring a careful balance of varying priorities, experiences, and understandings of the past.

While public historians and academic historians are trained to use the same research methods, public historians must work with people outside their field and in the communities they work in to produce history projects designed for different audiences. Collaboration is essential. It allows the project to be influenced by different partners and community members instead of being the exclusive interpretation of public historians. Projects should reflect the views of the public and this practice of shared authority makes that possible. However, sharing authority can raise additional questions and concerns relating to how this authority is distributed, how to deal with different or conflicting interpretations, which historical sources should be consulted and how much they should be relied on.

The complexities of collaboration in public history work are demonstrated in Ari Kelman’s, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand Creek. The creation of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site was the culmination of an, at times, tense relationship between the National Park Service, Kiowa County residents, and the Cheyenne and Arapaho. Determining where the massacre took place tested the relationship of all parties involved. The process of successfully finding the site forced the NPS to reconsider their own methods of finding the truth while respecting and valuing the historical traditions of the Sand Creek descendants as equal to their own.[1]

Similarly, in “The Black Bottom: Making Community-Based Performance in West Philadelphia,” Billy Yalowitz shows how acknowledging different voices to shape interpretation leads to successful projects. In order to tell the story of the Black Bottom neighborhood in their theater project, Yalowitz and his University of Pennsylvania students had to understand the stories of the former community members. Together, the Black Bottom community and Yalowitz and his students put on sketches that told the history of urban renewal and its calamitous effects on the predominantly black neighborhood.[2]

As the development of these projects engages with community members, interest groups, and other professionals, the final product must also engage with audiences and support their communities. In “The Museum as a Democracy Building Institution: Reflections on the Share Journeys Program at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum,” Maggie Russell-Ciardi explains how recent immigrants were not only consulted and hired to facilitate the site’s interpretation but were also supported through workshops that addressed relevant concerns in the immigrant community and helped them feel part of the democratic process.[3]

While these readings reinforced my definition of public history, the class project with Baltimore Heritage and Patapsco Heritage Greenway actualized it. Even though we wrote and researched our sites individually, we were often in conversation with each other and with our partners throughout the semester. We shared sources, reviewed each other’s work, and gave our partners drafts of our app content for their feedback. Additionally, writing for a smart phone app forced us to condense vast amounts of research into clear and concise paragraphs and do so in a way that attracted every day people. This project also provided us the opportunity to use and examine digital platforms, an increasingly important form of engaging with the public.

After a little more than three months, the readings and experiences of this semester made it possible to form a deeper understanding of what public history is, what it takes to be a public historian, and role that its sub-fields can play in local and national contexts.

 

[1] “The Smoking Gun,” in Ari Kelman, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand Creek, (Harvard, 2013.)

[2] Billy Yalowitz, “The Black Bottom: Making Community-Based Performance in West Philadelphia,” in Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski, Letting Go? Sharing Authority in a User Generated World, (Philadelphia: Pew Center, 2011.)

[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, 48-49.

Source: Reflections on a Semester of New Readings and Experiences by Camilla Azucena Sandoval

Public History is the Reason Why!!

All semester we have talked about methods of public history, the history of the field and examples of public history practices. But we had trouble answering the most important question: why? Why do we practice public history? Why are we preserving these sites, or erecting these statues, or making this exhibit? The “why” question is the most important, because without a purpose there really is not a point. Public history is a dialogue between non-historians and historians to collaborate and include the public in historical investigation and exhibition.  A public historian connects the research to the present to develop the reason why historical sites are important. The District Six Museum developed by people is intended to affect change for dislocated people all over the world. The Lower East Side Tenement Museum affects change in the present by using the past of immigration to inform visitors and raise questions about the experiences of people today. In order to be successful in affecting change, public historians must use techniques to create dialogue.

Creating and facilitating dialogue starts by knowing who your public is and making sure that you include them in the process. Rosenzweig and Thelen’s Presence of the Past survey in the 90s, found that people were actually connected to history, but they wanted a personal connection. Until this is survey no one had thought to ask the public what they thought of history or what they considered a connection to the past. The response by historians to the survey was mixed, some took it as positive that the nation was connected to the past, while others were disheartened that the public only cares about a very personal past. Every group of stakeholders has different values, and knowing which groups we are serving will go a long way to our success. Public historians have a place in taking what the public wants to know and moving them beyond that into a broader picture.

A part of public history has to be dealing with the public. Academic historians work in a small circle, usually by themselves, but public history requires collaboration. As we saw in the Missouri Historical Society’s “Meet Me at the Fair” exhibit, not including the stakeholder in every step of the process can lead to misunderstandings and difficult community relations. When the Visayan Filipino community was not included in exhibit planning, they were offended by the choices made by exhibitors and they pulled material out of the exhibit. Public historians need to consider the public’s view and not only the “true” history. The beliefs and traditions of stakeholders may compliment or even supersede the “true” history. Ari Kelman, in Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek, shows that identifying “true” massacre site was less important than the ritual site to the Native Americans. The discussions between the National Park Service and the Tribe resulted in a deeper understanding of the meaning and location of the massacre in time, place, and culture. Those involved directly with the Tribe and the Park Service worked as mediators to come to an accurate representation at the site. Every situation in public history is different, so it is always learning on the job.

If public history is a lot of learning on the job and mediation, the training of public historians should be similar. But instead of training public historians to be interdisciplinary, they often are trained in the rigid methods of history. Public History has been on this track to establish itself as a “real” discipline. Public history could not be recognized as a valid career unless it was professionalized. Benjamin Filene observes in Passionate Histories: “Outsider” History-Makers and What They Teach Us, that the term public history was not coined until 30 years ago, but there have been practitioners well before that. The field has made great strides in being professionalized, but we are not making connections with the people that matter. In professionalizing, the field has kept out those enthusiastic about history (reenactors, genealogists, etc.). Professionalization sided with male dominated organizations like the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities over the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, a female dominated organization. Everybody’s History: Indiana’s Lincoln Inquiry and the Quest to reclaim a President’s Past by Keith Erekson showed how the professionalization of history discredited the enthusiastic Lincoln Inquiry group for their methods of historical investigation because they were not historians using a scientific process. Sources like memory and oral history were pushed aside in favor of the written word. Professionalization of public history created a wall between the public historian and the public that now we have to cross. Public Historians now need to work harder to bridge the gap between the public and academia.

I think that if public history is about being collaborative, our project would have been a more helpful experience as a group project. As public historians we are mediators and collaborators, who rarely work alone. While we had a community partner, they remained mostly in the background. I think that getting experience working with other people would have been an asset to the project experience. Every student hates group projects, but it would have been a valuable experience to divide the sites based on the strengths of the writers and would have given us an opportunity to group sites based on content rather than difficulty. Some overarching themes could have been more present if we worked as a group. I think that the project was an excellent learning opportunity for public history writing and research, but it might have been missing some of the collaborative element.

Source: Public History is the Reason Why!! by Kayla Piechowiak

End of Semester Thoughts

I think that all prospective historians should take a public history course, either at the undergraduate or graduate level. Unfailingly, every time I tell someone that I have a BA in history, the response is, “Oh, so you want to teach?” The broad public that I’ve come across seems to think that the only job a history major can take is as a teacher in middle schools, high schools, or college. Through my public history courses at the undergraduate and graduate level I know there’s a wide variety of jobs that a historian can do. Prior to taking Dr. Blair’s class as an undergrad, I never would have thought of the State Highway Administration as a job option.

Public history is still history despite how far removed it can seem from teaching or researching in archives. It still requires both research and writing. The writing in public history is aimed towards the public and is different from what’s usually found in academic journals. I feel like all historians can benefit from learning to write in a manner that appeals to a wider audience. So many of the articles or books I read for classes or papers are boring and even somewhat mind numbing.

The writing skills that I’ve hopefully gained this semester through our project will be useful in both my graduate classes and my career.

The project we worked on this semester gave me insights into the types of collaborative projects I might have in the future. The project I worked on as an undergraduate had clients, but since we were laying the foundation for future students, we had minimal interaction with our clients. We also didn’t have very much client input on our final result at the end of the semester. With our app content drafts we’re getting feedback from multiple stakeholders, some of whom have different ideas as to what direction we should be taking. I’ve learned that one solution is to choose one perspective and then explain why I made that decision. Not necessarily for this project, but I can see how I would need to take further steps after that initial explanation in future projects.

I enjoyed our readings about the problems within the field even if my classmates were disheartened at times. I was made aware of problems I hadn’t considered before and the steps that we, the future generation of public historians, can take to try and remedy the problems. Rather than feeling cynical or that there’s no point, I felt optimistic about the future of public history. Given the changes in the political and social climate that we’ve already seen at the grassroots level and the changes to public history that we’ve already seen, I can see things like the outdated categories for the National Register of Historic Properties eventually changing to be inclusive.

I know some people came out of this class with the knowledge that public history isn’t for them, but I really think that this is the field that I want to be in.

Source: End of Semester Thoughts by Bridget Hurley

A reflection on public history.

Above the entryway to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi appears the inscription, “Know Thyself.” With that in mind I can honestly say I am not a public historian.  I simply do not have the temperament for it. I would be perfectly happy ensconced in an archive writing esoteric articles about long dead ascetics, which will be read by twelve other people. Nonetheless, this semester has been an extremely valuable experience for me. So much so, that I am of the impression that this class should be mandatory for ALL incoming history graduate students, not just those on the public history track. Public history represents a side of, and issues about, our profession that even academic historians like myself need to be aware of.

I think the foremost issue that stands for all historians to look at is, “Where am I going to work after I leave academia?” Let’s face it, as much as I would love to work in an archive, or be a professor somewhere, those jobs are scarce, and the competition is fierce.  If academics like myself want to do history, we may wind up working in public history with all that entails!  We need to be aware of the working conditions of even the entry level public history workers, such as the interpreters at places like Fort Snelling, Indiana.  Amy Tyson showed us that, at least there, public history workers are often exploited or mismanaged[1]. The work is structured into highly gendered categories that fit public perceptions[2]. And games of authenticity can lead to a toxic work environment.[3]

Speaking of jobs, even if I land a job working as an academic historian, I may be called on to participate in public history. In that sense, the professional habits of academic historians may very well work against me. For many, history is a dry, uninteresting thing that they learned in school, and that they feel no real connection to, especially if they come from a marginalized community[4]. As I have alluded to in my introduction, academic historians often write only for other historians. Our audiences should not need to understand discourse theory, and have the big book of Foucault to understand what the hell we are talking about. If we, as professional historians, want to write for more than other historians, we must find ways to engage with people outside of our field[5].  Public historians are often the interface between the academics and the public. I really think that academic historians should be able to engage with the pubic, especially if we want to work outside of academia.

Where this course really affected me is that it made me acutely aware how insulated I am as an academic historian and Medievalist.  As a Medievalist, I can wrap myself up in an archive, surrounded  by documents, releasing my findings ex cathedra to be lost in the flood of similar papers. This isolation became clear to me when we were talking about the Sand Creek Massacre memorial. If I had been working on the site as an academic, I would have looked at the maps and the documents, and followed the evidence; thus, the second site. If I had heard about the controversy, I would have split the Gordian knot with a useless equivocation like “while tradition holds that…” If I may be brutally honest for a moment, because of this separation I really do not think I would have given the concerns of the Laird Cometsevah, and the Cheyenne, much thought at all because they were so far away. Because for me the Sand Creek Massacre did not have the same meaning as it did for the Cheyenne, an “emotionally and psychologically present event.[6]

Public historians do not have the luxury of distance, at all, especially those that work to preserve culturally significant sites for marginalized groups. In the example listed above about Sand Creek, since the public historians working with NPS had to choose one spot for the monument, eventually they heeded the wishes of the Cheyenne and went with the traditional spot[7]. In the end it was about sharing the traditions and heritage of the Cheyenne and the massacre and I feel the NPS did the right thing in preserving and memorializing that heritage.

It was the class project, I think, that demonstrated to me a pitfall of academic history; that the people studied become abstracts, especially those that exist far back in the past.  They become ideas more than individual people. It is ironic in a way that we who study and chart the past of the human race can make humanity an abstraction. This illusion was lifted by actually going out into and working with community, particularly the First Baptist Church of Elkridge.  Engaging with my contacts, and the churches’ history, made my subject became real.  Because the history was so recent and raw, I had to be careful what I wrote, and I became emotionally invested. This is something that I can take back into my own studies; I think it will do me good.

In the end, I feel that History 705, is an extremely valuable addition to the graduate curricula of UMBC.  I went into the course to find out how the other half of our profession lived, and walked out with a deeper appreciation of what it takes to present history to the public. I believe that if everyone who goes on to graduate level studies of history were exposed the challenges and ideas presented by Public History, it would do our craft good. It may be a good thing for the profession for academics like myself to leave the ivory tower, and as Jacob Bronowski said in the Ascent of Man: “We have to touch people.”

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

[2] Ibid. 43

[3] Ibid 139

[4] Benjamin Filene Passionate Histories: “Outsider” History-Makers and What They Teach Us The Public Historian 34, No 1. (2012) Accessed: 28-08-2017 1  12 -13

[5] Ibid

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

[7] Ibid 257

Source: A reflection on public history by David Cunningham

Final Blog Post

The definition of public history that I developed over the course of this semester is that public history is work related to history that is focused outside of the academic realm. There are so many avenues that public historians can take like working for museums that deal with social justice or working in the front lines to name a few. This definition has changed throughout the semester and is based on our reading. It is the definition that best describes public history for me personally.

Public history can lead to or initiate significant changes. At times, these changes can be social changes. One example of this is seen with the creation of the District Six Museum in South Africa. The Hands-Off District Six Campaign in 1988 organized a conference and one of the resolutions to come out of that conference was that a museum on District Six would be established. 1 This is precisely the type of museum where public historians would be needed. The mission of the museum was to ensure that the history and memory of forced removals from District Six in South Africa endured not only to benefit the community, but to challenge social oppression. Founders wanted to preserve the memory of those who had been removed and to start a healthy dialogue about issues related to removal. Museums like District Six are places of dialogue. Another museum that seeks to engage the audience in a deep dialogue is the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. The museum has embraced the challenge of engaging their visitors in considering different perspectives on immigration.  2 Even though these museums may not be what traditional museums are like, they are trying to give the spotlight to people who have been disenfranchised. Museums can be a place where people can have their ideas challenged in a civil way, and with the help of public historians and the community, engaging dialogues can be facilitated. These two museums and the way they go on about presenting their ideas and engaging the audience, can initiate significant changes, as previously mentioned, and they have.

Living history, like the type mentioned in Tyson’s Wages of History, is another example of the definition that I chose for public history. The workers at Fort Snelling worked outside the realm of academia, but their work required more physical and emotional labor. Before this class, I would have never considered people who dress up and reenact the past as public historians. I always felt that public historians were those that worked on old buildings and in the field of preservation. It was distressing to read about emotional turmoil and the lack of job security that these workers faced. These people are at the front line of public history and they must be able to give the ideal performance to keep the interest of the audience and maintain their jobs. After reading Wages of History, I immediately thought back to the first weeks of class where as a class we went to the three different sites. A woman was dressed in historic costume at the very first site we visited. Usually when I go to places where people reenact people of the past, I lose focus, but I realized after reading this book that the least those front-line workers deserve is attention and respect. These workers put in as much work if not more than fancy tour guides who are dressed in professional attire. As someone who is interested in working in a museum and if I needed to dress up to further my career opportunities I don’t see anything wrong with it even if some would say it is not a “real job.”  3

The discussions that we had in class pointed out that there were many groups of people who were not represented in spaces like museums. Adding more representation to museums, for example diversifying their workforce with minorities and women, would allow those that have felt underrepresented represented. The value that the project we worked on had was very challenging. Not just the research that goes into the project but trying to condense so much information as a narrative of 300-500 words can be very difficult. Also, the suggestions that we received most of them were criticism that were constructive while others read a bit more scathingly. This project taught me that the way time should be managed with public history related issues is critical. However, the project has served for as a learning experience that undoubtedly will useful in the future, especially if one considers working in the public history field.

Valmont Layne, “The District Six Museum: An Ordinary People’s Place,” The Public Historian (February 2008), 57.
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): 40.
Amy M. Tyson, The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines (Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013),90.

Source: Final Blog Post by Saul Espinal Acosta

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