NCPH so white?

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NCPH Diversity Task Force logo. Image credit: Kesha Bruce

NCPH Diversity Task Force logo. Image credit: Kesha Bruce.

2015 will be remembered by historians as the year of #BlackLivesMatter, an intersectional civil rights movement that merged direct action, political activity, and social media to force a national discussion around issues of police violence and institutional racism. It’s also pushed to the forefront discussions about diversity in various other kinds of American institutions, from Hollywood movies to Silicon Valley. Public history institutions, museums, and arts organizations are also taking a hard look at themselves and asking why their staffs and constituents are predominantly white.

The statistics are troubling. The Mellon Foundation found that art museum staffs are 72% white and non Hispanic. Nonwhite staff members are most likely to be employed in facilities, security, or finance offices rather than as registrars, curators, or educators. The Wallace Foundation has gathered case studies of organizations that have successfully diversified their audiences along lines of race, ethnicity, and age, while also acknowledging that much work needs to be done.

So what about public history?

In 2008, the last year for which we have good statistics, NCPH partnered with ten professional history and public history organizations, including AHA, OAH, and AASLH, to survey their members regarding demographics. Out of a total sample of 3,800, the survey found only 7% of respondents identified as a person of color. Anecdotally, it seems as if not much has changed since then.

Why not?

This question is critical because diversity makes us stronger. As public historians, we deal with hard questions about the past, unearth forgotten stories, and collaborate with publics. If we are not diverse ourselves, then how can we do these jobs well? What blind spots do we have as we look at the past? What publics are we ignoring?

The NCPH Diversity Task Force is examining these issues and developing strategies to address them. We want to know whether there are impediments to people of color participating in NCPH (both the organization and the conference) and how we can change that. The task force is co-chaired by Brian Joyner, National Park Service, and Kristine Navarro-McElhaney, Arizona State University, and includes Kathleen Franz, National Museum of American History, Mary Rizzo, Rutgers University-Newark, Modupe Labode, IUPUI, Blanca Garcia, California State University, San Bernadino, Aleia Brown, Middle Tennessee State Unversity, and Alima Bucciantini, Duquesne University. Stephanie Rowe, NCPH Interim Director, has been offering support.

We’re using the upcoming conference in Baltimore as a stage to begin a wider discussion with our members, conference attendees, and public historians who are not involved with NCPH. We’re beginning with a Twitter chat about diversity on March 17 from 11:30 am to 12:30 pm. This will allow us to talk to people who can’t come to the conference as well those who are attending. Follow the hashtag #HistoryInMyImage .

That evening, we will host an un-conference and salon to continue the Twitter discussion at Teavolve Café (1401 Aliceanna St, Baltimore, MD 21231) from 7-9 pm.

On Friday, March 18, there will be a pop-up exhibit on diversity in the conference’s Exhibit Hall in the Baltimore Ballroom. Want to contribute to the exhibit? Bring at least one item that speaks to you about diversity—either where we have been, or where we should go. Follow the hashtag #NCPHDiversity for all the diversity efforts occurring at the conference.

What questions should we be asking during our Twitter chat? What are the issues around diversity in public history that are most pressing to you? Use the comments below to offer suggestions.

~ Mary Rizzo is Assistant Professor of Professional Practice and Associate Director of Public and Digital Humanities Initiatives.

4 comments
  1. Linda Shopes says:

    It’s not just impediments to participating – it’s a history and culture of whiteness. Outreach is important, but so is “inreach,” like that photo on the website, which concerned me, who is about as white as they come – How was the decision made to use that photo?

    1. Cathy Stanton says:

      Do you mean the one on the main NCPH website, Linda, or the [email protected] one of the assembly line? If the latter, we thought that it showed working-class history, at least! And if the former, we were trying to find something that conveyed that public history has people in it rather than just showing a building or historic site.

      It’s actually incredibly challenging to find photos that are (a) high-resolution enough, (b) available for us to use legally, (c) useable in both horizontal and vertical formats (a new challenge with a mobile-optimized site), (d) suggestive of “public history” (a surprisingly difficult thing to convey quickly with a single visual image), and (e) not boring.

      We would be very happy to have new contributions that fulfill all of the above conditions and show greater diversity from around the field!

      1. Linda Shopes says:

        I thought they were one and the same, though I see now that they are not. But i was referring to the photo on the homepage (which I see now is partially obscured by some design), which I took to convey the enthusiasm and verve of public historians. Who also appear to be all white – that fact hit me quite forcefully when I first saw it on the homepage. I appreciate the difficulties you note, but still . . . It’s like when I see something I might be interested in illustrated by all men or by Gen Xers, I sigh and wonder if I should bother or if I’ll be confronted by same old, same old.
        }

  2. Rachel Kline says:

    Since I am actually in this picture, I hope I am not the “same old, same old,” but an active Public Historian that is valuable to the field. There is also an Asian women and Latino man in the picture, so I disagree with “as white as they come.” Remembering some of these people, there is also a German man and a partially deaf woman. The photograph was taken after a NCPH Conference community service project at Fort Pickens and Gulf Islands National Seashore, helping clean up the park after a major storm. Public Historians from many different walks of life showed up to help out. If we are going to “Challenge the Exclusive Past,” then I hope we include peoples of all classes, races, and genders and strive to build one another up, not create more exclusivity and devalue others.

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