National Council on Public History Putting History to Work in the World 2017-03-28T13:03:38Z http://ncph.org/feed/atom/ WordPress Laura Ellyn Smith <![CDATA[“Now let him enforce it”: The long history of the imperial presidency]]> http://ncph.org/?p=24701 2017-03-28T12:21:53Z 2017-03-27T12:30:22Z

Created in 1832, the year of Jackson’s re-election and his veto of the re-chartering of the Bank of the United States, this cartoon depicts Jackson as a tyrannical monarch, standing on a shredded copy of the Constitution and holding his veto power.

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Created in 1832, the year of Jackson’s re-election and his veto of the re-chartering of the Bank of the United States, this cartoon depicts Jackson as a tyrannical monarch, standing on a shredded copy of the Constitution and holding his veto power. It clearly portrays Jackson as overstepping his presidential power. Image credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Historically, imperial presidents have often expanded their power through a crisis that legitimizes their actions. As we look at current events, it is imperative to recognize how President Donald J. Trump is utilizing this tactic. Portrayed as a measure to curb terrorism, President Trump’s efforts to halt entry of migrants from selected predominantly Muslim countries, as well as refugees into the United States, have been identified by political commentators, such as Fareed Zakaria, as fear mongering and religious discrimination. To date, federal courts have blocked the orders and a showdown in the Supreme Court appears likely. Meanwhile, the president has explicitly questioned the power and wisdom of the judiciary, referring, for example, to a “so-called judge” who halted the implementation of the travel ban. The current president’s actions resonate with deep strains in the U.S. presidency, reaching back to the nineteenth century.

Many people tend to associate the term “imperial president,” or the expansive use of executive power, exclusively with twentieth and twenty-first century presidents, and it has been a critical label applied to several recent executives. Over the past few years, for example, some critics argued that President Barack Obama exceeded the executive’s constitutional powers related to immigration with his DACA and DAPA actions, which enabled some undocumented immigrants to remain in the United States and, at least temporarily, avoid deportation.

However, by examining nineteenth century imperial presidents, it is possible to identify examples of executives who created crises in an attempt to legitimize their expansive use of executive power. Especially in our current heated political environment, public history can help people understand more fully the power of the executive office and discern patterns of presidential behavior. Moreover, examining the long history of the imperial presidency enables observers to recognize legal precedents related to the constitutionality of presidential actions and executive power.

The 2008 documentary, Andrew Jackson: Good, Evil and the Presidency, which aired on PBS, depicted Jackson as the United States’ first imperial president. One of Jackson’s most infamous presidential actions was his enforcement of Native American removal that resulted in the Trail of Tears and the deaths of approximately 4,000 Cherokees. The Trail of Tears occurred despite the Supreme Court ruling in Worcester v. Georgia (1832) that favored the rights of Native Americans. In response to the ruling, Jackson allegedly said, “John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.” Although this statement, which has been repeatedly attributed to Jackson, is likely apocryphal, neither Jackson nor the state of Georgia enforced the ruling. Whether Jackson uttered the famous phrase or not, both Jackson’s contemporary critics and modern historians, such as Daniel Walker Howe, who have studied his presidency have depicted him as a powerful executive who pushed the constitutional boundaries of presidential power.

Beyond the Worcester case, Jackson instigated an additional crisis by portraying the Bank of the United States (BUS) as an enemy of the common man during his re-election campaign in 1832. After being re-elected, Jackson continued his war on the BUS by unilaterally removing funds from the bank and placing them in state banks. For assuming power over Congress, he became the only president who has received congressional censure.

Historian Amy Sturgis fights the myths that plague public perception of Jackson’s presidency. Sturgis sees Jackson as the first imperial president because “Before Abraham Lincoln, he represented selective adherence to the US constitution. Before William McKinley, he represented energetic imperialism. Before Teddy Roosevelt, he represented a cult of personality. And before Bill Clinton, he represented the personal made political.” She describes Native American removal as “ethnic cleansing” and Jackson’s approach to presidential power as “might made right.” Moreover, Sturgis rightly stresses the inaccuracies in Jackson’s battle with the BUS being associated with the perception of Jackson as the champion of the common man. As she explains, Jackson “stepped over his constitutionally given authority in order to fight the national bank” and in so doing his actions, “represented a growth in national government because of the executive power he wielded.” Despite her efforts to challenge popular conceptions of Jackson, however, Sturgis, speaking in 2012, described, “the current love affair that both presidential historians and the popular media seems to have with Andrew Jackson.” Considering the increasing scrutiny Jackson’s legacy has come under in recent years, as apparent in the debate over replacing Jackson as the face of the twenty-dollar bill, public history on Jackson may be increasing public awareness of his controversial actions as president. Nevertheless, it is clear that within our current context, much more public history outreach on the history of the imperial presidency is necessary.

Trump seems to approve of the comparisons that have been made between him and Jackson, as evident in his choice of this portrait of Jackson to overlook his desk in the Oval Office. Image credit: White House Collection, White House Historical Association

President Trump has frequently been compared to Jackson. He even chose a portrait of Jackson to hang in the Oval Office, and recently visited Jackson’s tomb at the Hermitage on the occasion of Jackson’s 250th birthday. In our current political environment, it is unlikely that Trump would be able to refuse to follow a judicial ruling as Jackson did with the Court’s decision in Worcester v. Georgia. Nonetheless, the public and historians alike must remain vigilant and well informed so that we recognize when the president may have exceeded his constitutional powers. Richard Nixon infamously stated that, “Well, when the president does it, that means it is not illegal.” Forty years on, perhaps we can be savvier to presidents with imperial aspirations. Indeed, the job of the public historian may never have been more imperative.

Public historians should encourage more discussion and analysis of the imperial presidency in order to enhance public dialogues about the presidency. Such dialogues are critical as Americans confront pressing constitutional issues, especially regarding immigration and national security.

Laura Ellyn Smith is a doctoral student at the University of Mississippi, Arch Dalrymple III Department of History. She gained her MA in U.S. History and Politics from University College London.

 

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editors <![CDATA[Project Showcase: Gilmore Girls and the Stars Hollow Historical Society]]> http://ncph.org/?p=23013 2017-03-17T02:23:07Z 2017-03-17T12:30:45Z

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

After Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life premiered in November 2016, my fellow Temple University graduate students Ted Maust and Ariel Natalo-Lifton and I started discussing the proliferation of references to public history and heritage tourism in the popular television program. Read More

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Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

After Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life premiered in November 2016, my fellow Temple University graduate students Ted Maust and Ariel Natalo-Lifton and I started discussing the proliferation of references to public history and heritage tourism in the popular television program. We quickly realized it could serve as an engaging way to interrogate the presentation of history in popular culture.

Gilmore Girls follows the story of single mother, Loralai Gilmore, her studious and book loving daughter Rory, and her wealthy parents in the fictional town of Stars Hollow, Connecticut. Throughout the show’s seven-year run, Stars Hollow residents started a town museum and hosted numerous Revolutionary War reenactments, while both Emily and Rory participated in the Daughters of the American Revolution.

At the beginning of our project, Maust created a Google spreadsheet to track the show’s public history references. What began as a spreadsheet turned into something bigger when I started a website called The Stars Hollow Historical Society. The website began accepting submissions for posts on Gilmore Girls and the public humanities, broadly construed. Existing posts deal with “Founder’s Chic” in Stars Hollow, but planned future posts will discuss references to Stalinism throughout the series, the treatment of Sylvia Plath and mental health, a character’s visit to the Mark Twain House and Museum during one episode, and the role of the Daughters of the American Revolution on the show. We have had interest from friends, colleagues, and museum professionals from across the country!

The recent revival of the series has caused renewed interest in Gilmore Girls and an opportunity to explore the intersection of popular culture and public history interpretation. It might seem silly, but these kinds of portrayals of public history, heritage tourism, and the public humanities are widely viewed by audiences who may not consider themselves public history consumers. By interrogating and engaging with the show seriously, we can gain an understanding of the ways Gilmore Girls presents history and the humanities to the public. We might not want to admit it but television shows like Gilmore Girls reach far more people than most historical sites. Analyzing the ways Gilmore Girls portrays history can help us engage with history that is reaching the public.

Please feel free to submit a post or a pitch to Holly Genovese.

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editors <![CDATA[Around the field March 14, 2017]]> http://ncph.org/?p=24654 2017-03-14T22:16:50Z 2017-03-14T22:15:07Z From around the field this week: Prize for Canadian public historians; conference on banking museums in Jakarta; rethinking gentrification and preservation (Rhode Island) and contested urban histories (Mexico City); workshops on oral history, cemetery preservation, ceramics, more; new books on public history, diasporic communities, archives. Read More

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From around the field this week: Prize for Canadian public historians; conference on banking museums in Jakarta; rethinking gentrification and preservation (Rhode Island) and contested urban histories (Mexico City); workshops on oral history, cemetery preservation, ceramics, more; new books on public history, diasporic communities, archives.

ANNOUNCEMENTS

AWARDS and FUNDING

CONFERENCES and CALLS

LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES

PUBLICATIONS

To submit an item to this regular listing, email us at historyatwork@ncph.org. Please make sure to include a URL where readers can find more information about your posting.

 

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editors <![CDATA[Ask a public historian: Paul Chaat Smith]]> http://ncph.org/?p=24156 2017-03-14T14:13:10Z 2017-03-13T12:30:45Z

Photo credit: NMAI Photo Services, Smithsonian Institution

Paul Chaat Smith joined the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in 2001, where he currently serves as associate curator. With Robert Warrior, he is the author of Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee (New Press, 1996), a standard text in Native Studies and American history courses. Read More

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Photo credit: NMAI Photo Services, Smithsonian Institution

Paul Chaat Smith joined the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in 2001, where he currently serves as associate curator. With Robert Warrior, he is the author of Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee (New Press, 1996), a standard text in Native Studies and American history courses. His second book, Everything You Know about Indians is Wrong, was published in 2009 by the University of Minnesota Press. Smith is a member of the Comanche Nation. His middle name has no hyphen, and rhymes with hot.

What led you to the job you have now?

In a narrow sense, it was meeting a Smithsonian executive named Bruce Bernstein at a conference in Victoria, British Columbia, back in the late 1990s. However, I’ll go with the expected cliché, and say “everything.” Always a lousy student, I never made it past high school. Instead, I spent years in the shambolic American Indian Movement (AIM) until it disintegrated, then moved to New York, in order to, you know, move to New York. I started writing about artists, then finally wrote a book about AIM. When I interviewed at the Smithsonian in 2001, I was a temporary office worker. (It’s almost impossible to get a job in this field without a college degree, and it took me decades to finally get one.)

The one thing I was always pretty good at was writing. The problem was I didn’t do it very much. Which for a long time actually wasn’t a problem. Because for a long time I didn’t have very much to say. In an alternate reality, I may have enrolled in the Iowa Writers School or studied curating at Bard, all by the age of 22. My sentences might have been pretty in that case, but they would have also been pretty vacant. So in retrospect, it worked out to have lots of life experience to draw on once I began writing and curating as a professional.

Who is the “public” in your position? How do you engage them or how do they shape your position?

This varies from project to project. Ten years ago, it was the international art world elite. We did some projects in Venice, which got tons of bad press at home, which was hilarious. (Why are Indians in Venice? What possible reason could Indian artists have to exhibit with their peers from around the world!?) We did manage to get nice reviews from Art in America and famous curators to come to our events. When I curated Brian Jungen: Strange Comfort, it was really important to get a review in Artforum, plus the front page of the Washington Post Style section, and NPR. For an art show in DC, it was a major hit, but remember most people hate art, so that limits the ceiling.

My current project is a 9,000 square-foot exhibition called Americans. This one is built from the ground up to reach the widest possible audience. And because we’re a Smithsonian museum on the National Mall, this means really wide. Sure, we skew to white women over 50 with advanced degrees, but, corny as it sounds, my audience looks like America, which is sort of built on a cult of individuality. There is no average visitor. So how do you create a smart, impactful exhibit for millions of unique individuals?

I’ve always paid close attention to the superstars, people like Thelma Golden, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Okwu Enwezor. Brilliant folks, and I’ve learned a lot from their practice. The most useful guiding light has actually turned out to be Matt Groening. Aside from being incredibly diverse, my audience, like his, ranges from very young children to adults of all ages. The Simpsons knows how to engage every demographic you can think of, with slapstick humor for pre-verbal, pre-literate kids to jokes where the punch line is Eubie Blake, Adlai Stevenson, and Jonathan Franzen. These are often in the same 30 seconds. Most people would think it’s insane to write jokes about such fringe characters, but man oh man, the Adlai Stevenson joke makes the people who get it feel smarter than they have all week. Yes, 97% don’t get it, but there’s something coming up for them (three, two, one) right now.

Professors make the worst curators because they’ve had captive audiences their entire lives. You either read their assignments and write their papers or you fail the class. I’m more like somebody with a little storefront in a big shopping mall, trying every trick in the book to get them to come inside. Sure, my new project (opening October 2017) will get millions of visitors, but numbers don’t guarantee impact. Will they still be thinking about it two days later? Exhibits, thanks to the smartphone, can no longer be about information. One topic in the Americans exhibit is the Trail of Tears. Twenty years ago, a museum exhibit was an incredibly efficient way to learn about it, perhaps the only way. Now, everyone has access to vast archives in the palm of their hand. We can no longer just slap that information on a screen or a wall and make it look nice. We have to understand we’re in the business of creating memorable experiences, not books on a wall.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m under no illusions about my public. They are usually badly dressed, cranky, and a great many have apparently never encountered an escalator before. The thing is, we at the National Museum of the American Indian are trying to move public opinion. We want Americans to see themselves as connected to the Indian experience. As my boss said recently, “we’ve done a good job preaching to the choir. Now we have to reach the congregation.”

The Americans exhibition team marches under the banner of “meet people where they are,” and after eight years on the National Mall, we understand that most people know little about Indians, and what they do know is often incorrect. But it doesn’t mean they are stupid, and it doesn’t mean they are interested in hearing us lecture them with guilt trips, or they want to spend two hours on their feet reading labels and watching way too long videos. They are in our museum because they’re interested, they’re giving us a chance, so our view is, heck, let’s give them one too.

~ This post is part of our series “Ask a Public Historian,” brought to you by NCPH’s New Professional and Graduate Student Committee. Follow the committee on Twitter at @NCPHnewgrad. You can find more “Ask a Practitioner” posts here.

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Tammy Gaskell <![CDATA[Call for papers: The Public Historian seeks articles on LGBTQ public history]]> http://ncph.org/?p=24390 2017-03-09T22:44:11Z 2017-03-09T13:30:03Z

Photo credit: Ludovic Bertron

In light of the LGTBQ theme study recently released by the National Park Service, The Public Historian invites proposals for articles to be published in a special issue of the journal on LGTBQ public history to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising. Read More

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Photo credit: Ludovic Bertron

In light of the LGTBQ theme study recently released by the National Park Service, The Public Historian invites proposals for articles to be published in a special issue of the journal on LGTBQ public history to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising. A broad range of proposals focused on LGBTQ public history in North America and beyond are encouraged, including community-based projects, oral history, digital history and new media, museum exhibits, archival initiatives, collective memory, and public history education and training. Proposals for alternative formats, such as reports from the field, interviews with practitioners, and roundtable discussions, will also be welcome. Proposals, which should be no longer than one double-spaced page, should be submitted to The Public Historian at scase@history.ucsb.edu and to the guest editor, Melinda Marie Jetté, at jettem@franklinpierce.edu. The deadline for submission of proposals is April 26, 2017. Selected authors will be notified by May 24, 2017. Articles will be due by January 1, 2018. Publication of the special issue of The Public Historian will be in 2019 (Volume 41).

~ Tamara Gaskell is public historian in residence at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities at Rutgers University-Camden and co-editor of The Public Historian.

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Judith Jennings <![CDATA[Helen Matthews Lewis: An unruly woman tests historical authority]]> http://ncph.org/?p=22850 2017-03-06T18:19:59Z 2017-03-08T13:30:59Z

“If you just pussy foot around and try to be safe, you won’t get anything done, and they’ll still fire you. Might as well accomplish all you can.”

Helen Matthews Lewis with a group of miners. This photo, along with the others featured in the post, come from Lewis’s scrapbook.

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“If you just pussy foot around and try to be safe, you won’t get anything done, and they’ll still fire you. Might as well accomplish all you can.”

Helen Matthews Lewis with a group of miners. This photo, along with the others featured in the post, come from Lewis’s scrapbook. They originally appeared in Judith Jennings and Patricia Beaver, eds., Helen Matthews Lewis: Living Social Justice in Appalachia. Photo credit: Judith Jennings.

Sentiments like these earned Helen Matthews Lewis the title of an unruly woman. As an unruly oral historian, her work tests the boundaries of historical authority and raises larger questions concerning community-based social change, the radical roots of oral history, and the future of public history.

Born in 1924 in rural Georgia, she developed her own radical roots early. Learning from suffragist teachers at Georgia State College for Women in the 1940s, she became involved in state politics and desegregation. She married reluctantly, and, in 1949 completed a master’s thesis in sociology on “The Woman Movement and the Negro Movement: Parallel Struggles for Rights.”

Lewis with mining pony. Photo credit: Judith Jennings.

In 1955 Lewis moved with her academic husband to Clinch Valley College (now the University of Virginia’s College at Wise), newly established in the western Virginia coalfields. As a faculty wife, she could not teach at the college. She focused instead on learning about her surroundings in central Appalachia, especially the impact of coal on social and economic conditions. In the mid-1960s, she received a U.S. Bureau of Mines grant to research the effects of mechanization on coal miners and their families.

In 1967, Lewis joined the faculty at East Tennessee State University, an hour away from Clinch Valley but still in the coalfields. She began developing a place-based curriculum centered on student learning from and with community members through oral interviews, research projects, and cultural presentations. She gladly shared her curriculum, including oral interviews as a key pedagogical methodology, with colleagues across the region, creating what are now recognized as the first Appalachian studies classes.

Yet when Lewis used local studies to question the status quo, she soon learned how power and authority shape relations between the teacher and her academic institution. She and her students spoke publicly about the long-term patterns of unfair tax advantages for the coal industry and the environmental damages of mining. When the coal companies complained, the university fired her, disrupting her historical authority as a teacher.

Lewis at Clinch Valley graduation. Photo credit: Judith Jennings.

Lewis returned to Clinch Valley College, which by 1969 allowed marital partners to teach. She continued to develop Appalachian studies classes and completed her Ph.D in sociology at the University of Kentucky. She also continued to encourage students to research and speak about the social impacts of coal mining. Again, local coal operators complained to college administrators. In 1977, Lewis, not one to pussy foot around, resigned to become an unruly oral historian operating outside the academy.

Lewis with Myles Horton. Photo credit: Judith Jennings.

She divorced and made her living as a circuit-riding sociologist, teaching periodically at Appalachian State University and working with two key social change organizations. She led a multi-year History of Appalachia film project at Appalshop, the Kentucky-based media arts and education center. She joined the staff at the Tennessee-based Highlander School for Research and Education, becoming “a pivotal figure,” alongside founder Myles Horton, in developing local and global participatory action research and popular education programs.

Lewis, who Dan Kerr calls a “self-proclaimed oral historian,” engaged low-income mountain women in narrating and analyzing their paid and unpaid work experiences. In doing so, she was sharing historical authority for crafting and meaning making in ways later identified by Michael Frisch. Yet, her oral interviews were a means to social change, not an end in itself. The women collectively identified their skills and earning potentials and helped create the first curriculum for Highlander’s Economics Education Program.

In 1987, Lewis met Maxine Waller, head of the Ivanhoe Civic League, formed to foster local economic development in the Virginia town. As Lewis explains, Highlander wanted an in-depth participatory research project with an Appalachian community experiencing economic transition. Lewis was also working with the Glenmary Research Center, a faith-based feminist organization of former nuns. The nuns wanted to study local theology. The three unlikely partner organizations embarked on what became a five-year process of sharing historical authority at the community level.

Waller and the Civic League participated on the condition that a community history book would be produced. The League wanted the publication quickly. Early on, as Lewis recalls, the book brought to light the problems of being fully participatory. She opted to turn over the publication to professionals, short-circuiting the participatory editing process. Volume One, Remembering Our Past: Building Our Future, appeared in 1990 and won an award for best book on Appalachia. Yet tensions continued.

Lewis recognizes that, as a scholar, she had considerable personal investment in the project. Waller argued that more attention was going to Volume Two than to the community. Lewis and Waller clashed, cried, prayed, and celebrated their roles as researcher and organic intellectual. Mary Ann Hinsdale, the feminist theologian, faced criticism when her ideas of liberation theology ran counter to the community’s religious views. The process of sharing historical authority became interrupted and strained.

Yet the partners persevered and created successful participatory community history opportunities. Together, they analyzed economic factors, conducted interfaith Bible studies, and presented storytelling performances based on oral histories. The three women leaders forged trusting relationships based on their shared belief that ultimate historical authority comes from the lived experiences of community members. In 1995, disrupting the authority of top-down history, Hinsdale, Lewis, and Waller co-authored It Comes From the People: Community Development and Local Theology.

Helen Matthew Lewis and her lifelong work not only indicate the radical roots of oral history but also provoke larger questions about the future of sharing authority in oral and public history. What are the appropriate boundaries for academics using oral interviews as a pedagogical tool for social change? How are those boundaries decided? What are the appropriate boundaries between community-based research for social change and public history? Who decides?

~ Judith Jennings is an independent scholar who earned her Ph.D. in history at the University of Kentucky. She served as the founder of the University of Louisville Women’s Center and the executive director of the Kentucky Foundation for Women. She is the co-editor with Patricia Beaver of Helen Matthews Lewis: Living Social Justice in Appalachia.

*This post is part of a series from the “Radical Roots: Civic Engagement, Public History, and a Tradition of Social Justice Activism” collaborative research project. You can find other posts in the series here. Research project members will be presenting a mini-symposium at NCPH’s annual meeting in Indianapolis on Friday, April 21 from 1:00-5:00 pm.

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Tammy Gaskell <![CDATA[Wanted: your favorite articles for the classroom]]> http://ncph.org/?p=24163 2017-03-06T22:46:22Z 2017-03-07T13:30:20Z Public history as a discipline and as a practice is inherently collaborative. It requires that we share knowledge as well as authority. And the editors of The Public Historian would like you to share your knowledge with us and the larger community of public historians. Read More

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Public history as a discipline and as a practice is inherently collaborative. It requires that we share knowledge as well as authority. And the editors of The Public Historian would like you to share your knowledge with us and the larger community of public historians. A few weeks ago I invited those of you who teach public history to share your experiences using TPH in the classroom. I asked you to send in your nominations for the best articles for classroom use. Several of you have already done so—Thank you! And for the rest of you, there is still time—though it is running out.

Using your nominations, TPH intends to create a shared resource—a bibliography of those articles that have proven effective teaching tools. And we will invite several of you to write blog posts for History@Work explaining how you have used these articles. What questions do they raise for students? What best practices do they reveal? We hope that the nominations reveal the incredible diversity of public history practice as well as the shared values of the field.

The Public Historian will compile the blog posts and the articles into an e-publication available for download on the NCPH website. So let’s collaborate among ourselves and share our experiences. The field will be better for it.

Nominations are due by March 15. Please send them to tamara.gaskell@rutgers.edu. I look forward to learning from you.

~ Tammy Gaskell is the public historian in residence at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities at Rutgers University–Camden and co-editor of The Public Historian.

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Jennifer Whitmer Taylor <![CDATA[Inclusive training at Historic Columbia]]> http://ncph.org/?p=24152 2017-03-04T00:05:40Z 2017-03-06T13:30:26Z

The Wilson family constructed the Woodrow Wilson Family Home in Columbia, South Carolina during Reconstruction but only lived in the community for four years. Photo credit: Historic Columbia.

Believed to be the first museum of Reconstruction in the nation, the Woodrow Wilson Family Home (WWFH) reopened to the public on February 15, 2014 after being closed for nine years. Read More

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The Wilson family constructed the Woodrow Wilson Family Home in Columbia, South Carolina during Reconstruction but only lived in the community for four years. Photo credit: Historic Columbia.

Believed to be the first museum of Reconstruction in the nation, the Woodrow Wilson Family Home (WWFH) reopened to the public on February 15, 2014 after being closed for nine years. Rather than focus solely on the life of Wilson, the new interpretation at the museum uses his teenage years living in Columbia, South Carolina as a lens to discuss one of the most misunderstood periods in American history. In order to successfully convert a presidential shrine into a Reconstruction museum, Historic Columbia—the administrator for the home—required a new training program for docents focused on language and cultural sensitivity. This program was designed to help docents use precise and inclusive language, understand privilege and the social construction of race and other identities, and interact with a diverse range of visitors.

Both volunteers and weekend staff, often pulled from the University of South Carolina’s (USC) public history program, were required to attend this interactive session conducted by USC scholars, Daniella Cook and Porchia Moore. Daniella Cook specializes in how class, race, and power impact public education. She designed and led the first session. Porchia Moore, who studies museum inclusivity, ran and expanded subsequent training sessions.

The inaugural version of the workshop was one hour long, and morning and evening sessions were offered to accommodate docents’ schedules. Eighteen volunteers and five paid docents completed the first training offered before the reopening. Historic Columbia ultimately extended the session to ninety minutes because of the lengthy conversations guided activities generated. Thirteen volunteers, eight of them new inductees, and two paid docents attended the second workshop held in April. Participation declined, however, to a handful of recently recruited docents for later sessions.

The language and sensitivity session combined with content training eased fears related to discussing race among some docents. Before and after the first training program, Historic Columbia administered a survey to gauge docents’ comfort level “talking with museum visitors about historical issues related to race.” After training, the six and half percent of docents taking the survey who previously were “not comfortable at all” with such conversations dropped to zero. Those “somewhat comfortable” remained nearly unchanged at just over thirty-five percent, but those “very comfortable” rose six percent to sixty-four percent. However, these statistics are not conclusive. Thirty-one docents completed the pre-training survey, but only fourteen of the twenty-three docents who completed training took the post-training survey. Of the 628 visitors who visited WWFH in 2014 and completed a survey on their experience, nearly eighty-four percent thought docents handled sensitive issues “extremely well.” These combined survey results suggest sensitivity programming is valuable for museums dealing with complex issues of race and seeking to create inclusive environments for all of their visitors.

A survey and oral history interviews I conducted as part of my dissertation on the transformation of WWFH reveal that older, white volunteers were more likely to be critical of the inclusivity workshop than paid docents. Ten volunteers and six weekend staffers participated in the survey and eleven gave oral histories. While white paid docents trained as public historians overwhelmingly embraced the workshop, the older, white volunteer docent base was divided about its effectiveness and need. The weekend staff welcomed and benefited from the training. Four weekend docents praised exercises related to white privilege, with one calling the session their favorite. The discussion of privilege resonated most with them. They spoke specifically about being able to “see visually” gendered, class, and racial privilege during the privilege walk. They expanded their understanding of the word “privilege” beyond an association with wealth by listening to incidents of discrimination experienced by leaders and attendees. After the session, one individual described being hyperaware of being a white docent telling the story of “terrible things that happened to black people” as a result of Reconstruction-era violence and being “a descendant” and “a beneficiary of that system” in the present. Only one docent offered constructive criticism, suggesting activities and examples be “directed” at the Wilson home rather than “general” inclusivity.


Visitors analyze an image of women who were training to be teachers at the short-lived integrated campus of South Carolina College, which eventually became the University of South Carolina. Photo credit: Historic Columbia.

Volunteers expressed a range of opinions and illuminated contradictions they saw in the training and their racial philosophies. They enjoyed and learned from the session, were ambivalent about it, or openly admitted disliking it. For one volunteer, the workshop was ranked as the least favorite, but several spoke of the session’s importance in both the training process and understanding white privilege. For the first time, some volunteers thought about privilege or considered the appropriateness of their word choices. Other volunteers attributed their opposition to their learning styles and exposure to diversity training outside of their volunteer work. In addition, some maintained that they already held progressive or neutral views on race. They argued group work in general did little to facilitate their learning and labeled some exercises too “touchy feely” and “silly.” The two volunteers who claimed the session added little to their previous professional diversity training used “the blacks” to refer to the black community in their oral histories. One volunteer, who recognized institutional racism and the challenges of white docents interpreting black history, called the session “one-sided.” The docent had shared a volunteer experience at a black history site where a black visitor argued all white baby boomers were racists. The docent thought her presence refuted this allegation and the visitor was prejudiced, but the session leader used the story to open a dialogue about perceptions of “white do-gooders.”

Regardless of the level of acceptance, several docents from both groups acknowledged exposure to the concept of white privilege mattered and was a critical concept for the tour. Recent graduate school attendance had previously exposed the majority of paid docents to concepts of inclusive language and privilege. Three concluded the training appealed to them on this intellectual level. If anything, it was the timing of one’s education, not the level of it obtained, which explained volunteers’ ambivalence about the session. Four docents, three of them volunteers, previously participated in diversity training as part of their professions. Only one of the volunteers from that group thought that there was nothing new to learn from the workshop. Furthermore, among the volunteers I surveyed,  five held master’s degrees and two earned PhDs in a range of fields including history, English, political science, education, library sciences, and hospital administration.

Overall, the results of this project suggest training in language and cultural sensitivity is a best practice. It keeps an organization’s cadre of well-educated, retired volunteer docents current with cultural sensitivity theory and trends even if they do not fully embrace the ideas. It also appeals to professional public historians on staff. As one weekend staffer surmised, “We can all use a little more training on sensitivity and language.”

Readings:
White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack

Video: Second episode of Race: the Power of An Illusion

Handouts and Activities:

  1. Ten Things Everyone Should Know about Race
  2. “Tour Guide Etiquette: a Guide for the Well Intentioned Volunteer,” a modification of the pamphlet “Cultural Etiquette: a Guide for the Well-Intentioned
  3. “Challenging Your Assumptions,” modified from Teaching Tolerance: Writing for Change
  4.  The privilege walk

~ Jennifer Whitmer Taylor, a PhD candidate in history at the University of South Carolina, is completing her dissertation Rebirth of the House Museum: The Woodrow Wilson Family Home and Commemorating Reconstruction. As lead facilitator of the museum, she crafted tours, trained docents, and evaluated audience reception.

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Linda Shopes and Amy Starecheski <![CDATA[Disrupting authority: The radical roots and branches of oral history]]> http://ncph.org/?p=22848 2017-03-03T13:41:51Z 2017-03-03T13:30:37Z

William Colbert of Alabama, ca. 1936. Born in slavery, Colbert was interviewed by the Federal Writers’ Project. Photo credit: Library of Congress

Oral history, like public history, is now old enough to have its own history, its own founding narrative. As one might expect from a field so deeply devoted to challenging incomplete and exclusive narratives, oral historians are now asking what is left out of their own history and filling in some of the gaps they have found. Read More

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William Colbert of Alabama, ca. 1936. Born in slavery, Colbert was interviewed by the Federal Writers’ Project. Photo credit: Library of Congress

Oral history, like public history, is now old enough to have its own history, its own founding narrative. As one might expect from a field so deeply devoted to challenging incomplete and exclusive narratives, oral historians are now asking what is left out of their own history and filling in some of the gaps they have found.

Historiography typically locates oral history’s origin in the United States with the work of journalist-turned-historian Allan Nevins at Columbia University, who in 1948 established what is generally recognized as the country’s first and largest academic oral history program. The Columbia program was soon followed by similar programs at other universities, libraries, and historical organizations, given impetus, in part, by the widespread availability of relatively lightweight, inexpensive tape recorders. For Nevins and many others, oral history has been understood as a fundamentally archival practice: to record and preserve new knowledge about the past for future use. The task of the oral historian, from this point of view, has been to add interviews to the extant record, providing new evidence for future users, understood primarily as scholars and other serious researchers, to create more complete histories.

But this is only part of the story. Oral history, i.e. in-depth interviews with individuals knowledgeable about aspects of the past, existed well before the work of Nevins at Columbia—one has only to think of the Federal Writers Project interviews, for example. Moreover, scholars, activists, and artists have long been developing projects and conducting oral history interviews, not solely for archival purposes but for a variety of social purposes, with public outcomes in the present—dramatic presentations, exhibits, forums, walking tours, films, websites, and so on. As Daniel Kerr has recently shown in his Oral History Review article titled, appropriately, “Allen Nevins is Not My Grandfather,” at times oral history has been used to anchor—to inspire and support—progressive social action; indeed, it has been deeply implicated in movements for social justice.

A gathering of Groundswell: Oral History for Social Change at the 2015 Allied Media Conference in Detroit. Photo credit: Groundswell.

We can trace our roots back not only to the archive, but also to the spaces of organizers, from the Highlander Folk School in Appalachia in the 1930s through the 1950s, to the Massachusetts History Workshop in the 1970s and 1980s. Today many activist oral historians, as well as cultural workers, community organizers, and documentary artists, have coalesced around Groundswell: Oral History for Social Change, a network of practitioners who use oral history in creative ways to support movement building and transformative social change. Yet the historiography of oral history has typically obscured or marginalized these more expansive roots and branches of the field.

As part of the Radical Roots of Public History collective research project, our group has been excavating some of the radical roots of oral history. As we seek to conceptualize the relationships between archival, public, and radical oral history, one concept we have found to be of continuing relevance is “shared authority,” first articulated by Michael Frisch in his 1990 collection, A Shared Authority, aptly subtitled Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History. According to Frisch, because an interview is intrinsically dialogic, that is, constituted by a back-and-forth exchange between two individuals with different frames of reference—different domains of knowledge or expertise—authority by definition is “shared.” An interviewer’s authority is evident in the question she asks; a narrator’s in the answer he gives. And so on. Over the years, oral and public historians have shifted the “-ed” to “-ing” and coined the term “sharing authority” to describe a collaborative relationship between communities and historians through the entire public history process, from initial conception of a project to final products. Indeed, it has become something of an ethical imperative in public history; certainly it reflects the democratic, non-hierarchical approach necessary if activist-oriented work is to achieve even a measure of success.

Still, as we consider the salience of shared authority for our work, it is perhaps useful to consider the context within which Frisch articulated it. From the 1970s onward, as interviews with those sometimes termed “nonelites” came to dominate oral history, oral historians became acutely aware of—and highly critical of—the power dynamics operating within an interview. Simultaneously, while some continued to maintain that the role of oral history was to add sources to the archive, not destabilize the traditional practice of history, others, recognizing the power of the first person voice, argued that interviews provided an unmediated and inherently valid view of the past, one not requiring the skills or critical input of the historian. “Shared authority” became a way to think though these dilemmas.

It’s important to emphasize that Frisch argued that oral and public historians must share authority with their narrators, not give it up to them. The historian must recognize and problematize her own authority, but still own it. And so today we ask, what does this look like when oral history work is done independently of the archive and the historical profession? Or when the main goal of a project is social justice, not historical knowledge? What is the value of the researcher’s skillset for social justice work? In these difficult, even dangerous times, as we seek to intervene in public life in meaningful ways, are there occasions in which sharing authority might not be advisable, when we need to exercise the authority of our knowledge? And are there times when we might better disrupt authority? In our mini-symposium at the NCPH annual meeting, we will be presenting work that actively seeks to disrupt the structures of authority that shape the production of historical knowledge and the continual reproduction of structural inequality.

~ Linda Shopes is a freelance editor and consultant in oral and public history. She is coeditor, with Paula Hamilton, of Oral History and Public Memories (2008), published by Temple University Press, and author of numerous articles in oral and public history.

~ Amy Starecheski is a cultural anthropologist and oral historian who co-directs the Oral History MA Program at Columbia University. In 2015 she won the Oral History Association’s article award for “Squatting History: The Power of Oral History as a History-Making Practice,” and in 2016 she was awarded the SAPIENS-Allegra “Will the Next Margaret Mead Please Stand Up?” prize for public anthropological writing. Her book, Ours to Lose: When Squatters Became Homeowners in New York City, was published in 2016 by the University of Chicago Press.

*This post is part of a series from the “Radical Roots: Civic Engagement, Public History, and a Tradition of Social Justice Activism” collaborative research project. You can find other posts in the series here. Research project members will be presenting a mini-symposium at NCPH’s annual meeting in Indianapolis on Friday, April 21 from 1:00-5:00 pm.

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David C. White <![CDATA[Make queerness relevant again]]> http://ncph.org/?p=23073 2017-02-26T22:05:48Z 2017-03-01T13:30:46Z Poster for Sporter's, one of Boston's earliest gay bars, c. 1960s. Photo credit: The William Conrad Collection, The History Project, Boston.

Poster for Sporter’s, one of Boston’s earliest gay bars, c. 1960s.  Image credit: William Conrad Collection, The History Project, Boston.

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a series of posts reflecting on Gregory Rosenthal’s article, “Make Roanoke Queer Again: Community History and Urban Change in a Southern City,” published in the February 2017 issue of The Public Historian, and on how the Roanoke project relates to other LGBTQ public history projects. Read More

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Poster for Sporter's, one of Boston's earliest gay bars, c. 1960s. Photo credit: The William Conrad Collection, The History Project, Boston.

Poster for Sporter’s, one of Boston’s earliest gay bars, c. 1960s.  Image credit: William Conrad Collection, The History Project, Boston.

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a series of posts reflecting on Gregory Rosenthal’s article, “Make Roanoke Queer Again: Community History and Urban Change in a Southern City,” published in the February 2017 issue of The Public Historian, and on how the Roanoke project relates to other LGBTQ public history projects.

David C. White is writing on behalf of the History Project, Boston.

 

Forty years ago, Jonathan Ned Katz published his groundbreaking Gay American History. Based on Katz’s 1973 play, Coming Out!, the book is a collection of primary sources exploring gay life from the colonial era to the present. From the outset, Katz intended for Gay American History to serve one very important purpose: to ground the transformative activism of the 1970s within a historical context. Yet, even as he collected a mountain of evidence to support his thesis, Katz couldn’t help but wonder whether Gay American History was too bold a title—did such a thing really exist?

In the four decades since, Katz and his contemporaries have proven beyond a doubt that not only does gay history exist, but it exists in cities and towns around the world as far back as one can reasonably search. It is found in court documents, private photo albums, and the diaries and memories of older LGBT people who had lived double lives. Inspired by the work of researchers like Katz, community-oriented queer public history programs around the country have spent decades unearthing these stories, effectively putting an end to the pervasive belief that queer people had no social or cultural history.

Reading Gregory Rosenthal’s essay in the latest issue of The Public Historian, “Make Roanoke Queer Again: Community History and Urban Change in a Southern City,” I couldn’t help but think of Katz and his goals for Gay American History. Rosenthal’s essay details his effort to establish and grow the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project in Roanoke, Virginia, and to “preserve our history from ‘queer erasure.’”  Following Katz’s lead, Rosenthal grounds Virginia’s LGBT history within a historic context and the larger narrative of urban renewal and gentrification that has shaped present-day Roanoke. But Rosenthal’s attempt to “Make Roanoke Queer Again” is about more than just preventing erasure of Virginia’s queer communities from public memory. It’s also about reviving the spirit of radicalism that’s been tearing down closet doors since the first brick was thrown outside the Stonewall Inn forty-seven years ago.

In many ways, Rosenthal’s essay is a snapshot of the present state of queer public history. From situating LGBT history within a larger social framework to recognizing the need for more diverse representations of queerness, the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project reflects a thoroughly modern, inclusive approach to public history unique to the twenty-first century.

As he led a group on the #MakeRoanokeQueerAgain bar crawl, Rosenthal used oral histories and a 1970s-era bar map to paint a picture of a vibrant, active queer community displaced by urban renewal, gentrification, and heteronormative backlash to the nascent gay rights movement. More than a mere walk down memory lane, the bar crawl acts as an exploration of the various ways in which Roanoke’s gay community resisted oppression. Though they are often overlooked or underappreciated, the bars, baths, and cruising spots are excellent examples of how an uncompromising occupation of public space can act as a powerful means of rebellion. As if it were kismet, Rosenthal’s lesson is emphasized at various points by bar staff asking that they “keep it cool” (read: tone it down), effectively linking civil rights–era intolerance with present-day apprehensions about overt displays of nonconformity.

The group’s future-oriented framework notwithstanding, their efficacy appears to be undermined by a challenge that is neither new nor unique: how to reconcile the present and the past. Although it is an accurate telling of the past, there is an undeniably romantic and nostalgic slant to the #MakeRoanokeQueerAgain bar crawl; a pining for the relatively more exciting social climate of the 1970s over the post-assimilation banality of the present day. Despite the subtle links between the intolerance of the past and assimilation and gentrification of the present, the relevance of the bar crawl, as described, is ultimately overshadowed by the more theatrical elements of the event, including conspicuously queer appearance and a dramatic attempt to reclaim a previously gay space by chanting “We’re queer, we’re here, serve us a drink.” The end result is ostensibly an engagement with the past that feels more like a reenactment of history than its thoughtful application to the present.

The original members of The History Project, Boston Pride, 1980. Photo credt: The History Project, Boston.

The original members of The History Project, Boston Pride, 1980. Photo credit: The History Project, Boston.

In no way do I want this to be perceived as a criticism of Rosenthal or the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project. Indeed, that I can recognize this with a degree of ease is likely due to my own struggles to make LGBT history relevant in the present and future. As a member of Boston’s History Project, I too am drawn to the concept of space and urban (re)development as a framework for sharing and contextualizing our story. In my time with the History Project, I have attempted to build on our knowledge and understanding of, among other things, Boston’s gay bars, drag performers, and other representations of radical queerness.

The mandate of most public history programs is to engage the audiences in the practical application or understanding of their collective past. It is precisely this that makes LGBT history projects so exciting, complicated, and valuable. At the History Project, we try hard to balance a celebration of the big names and events with a focus on the everyday lives of queer Bostonians, encouraging the latter to see their experiences as equal to those of the former. Through our public lecture series, “Out of the Archives,” we present broad topics such as Boston’s drag history or the South End neighborhood, while also engaging participants in more personal, resonant concepts, such as the ways in which their private photographs represent queer history or how gay pornography helped strengthen social connection in Boston’s gay community.  Nevertheless, I wonder whether our current frameworks and approaches are relevant to present-day audiences, or whether they see LGBT history as little more than a momentary exercise in nostalgia.

A warning to Boston gay community from Gay Community News, c. 1970s. Photo credit: The History Project, Boston.

A warning to Boston’s gay community from Gay Community News, c. 1970s. Image credit: The History Project, Boston.

When Jonathan Ned Katz published Gay American History, it was with the intention that his work would strengthen the foundation of a gay rights movement oriented towards a more tolerant future. Ironically, it’s largely the success of that movement for equality and integration that’s made visible, radical queerness nearly obsolete in the twenty-first century. Moreover, the activism and advocacy that we often use to frame our historical narratives was a direct response to the oppressive forces of the era. The problem with making Roanoke (or anywhere else) “queer again” is that it overemphasizes the romantic aspects of the gay rights movement, while overlooking the larger context that created a need for activism in the first place.

None of this seems lost on Rosenthal. Even as he encourages Roanoke’s LGBTQ community to “Make Roanoke Queer Again,” he appears to recognize the discrepancies between the sentimentality of oral histories and the complex realities of our collective past. The history of queer people, before and after Stonewall, is undeniably inspiring, but it is also a story dominated by white men and rife with examples of animus towards lesbians, bisexuals, and trans people, among others. This doesn’t diminish the achievements of those who’ve come before us or the tremendous efforts of the civil rights movement that has consistently moved us closer to equality. It does, however, raise important questions about what our history means to us in the present. If queer history projects are to remain a source of education and empowerment, to be something more than an entertaining time warp, we must find a way to make our history relevant to twenty-first-century audiences.

~ David C. White is an independent historian and researcher whose work focuses on the overlooked or underrepresented aspects of Boston’s queer history, from the turn of the twentieth century to the rise of the gay liberation movement.

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