agriculture and public history


Debra Reid, The Henry Ford
David Vail, University of Nebraska at Kearney


Julia Brock, University of West Georgia
Leisl Carr Childers, University of Northern Iowa
Chris Fite, University of Pennsylvania
Debbie Grinnell, Naper Settlement
Al Hester, South Carolina State Park Service
Aaron Hollis, West Virginia University
Ann McCleary, University of West Georgia
Andrew Patrick, Kentucky Historical Society
Donna Sack, Naper Settlement
Cathy Stanton, Tufts University
Amrys Williams, Hagley Museum and Library

About this working group:

Agriculture once defined routines for most of the world’s population – farmers. The rhythms of the seasons and the needs of livestock and crops dictated work performed by women, men, and children on farms. Cultural distinction resulted, and cultural clashes erupted over land, trade access, and power. Environments changed; ecosystems collapsed. What role does public history play in the interpretation of this all-encompassing topic?

Engaging the public in this history requires reading in agricultural and local history, and thinking creatively about the content. Working group members believe that their work will increase agricultural literacy – a humanist’s prerogative – and that it warrants the effort. Several recent publications can provide a starting point for more precise strategies. Debra A. Reid’s book, Interpreting Agriculture at Museums and Historic Sites (2017), emphasizes steps to take to put a humanist spin on the STEM subject, while Michelle Moon’s book, Interpreting Food at Historic Sites and Museums (2016) does the same for foodways programming. Several venues provide opportunities for public engagement. Guests can interact with domesticated animals at historic sites, open-air museums, and living history farms. Visitors can talk to people using tools to plow, disc, plant, harrow, and harvest crops. Community supported agriculture (CSA) and farmers’ markets allow customers to engage with farmers and agricultural processors. Restaurants, breweries, and wineries gain cachet by emphasizing locally sourced supplies. Michelle Moon and Cathy Stanton addressed this potential for increasing interpretation in a 2014 NCPH workshop (Engaging with Change: Local Food, Farming, and Public History), an article in The Public Historian 36:3 (August 2014) and in their co-written book, Public History and the Food Movement (2017).

This working group takes up where these other efforts have left off. It will unpack the terms “agriculture” and “farming.” Participants will explore regional distinctions, crop and livestock cultures, and how humanities (history, art, theater, philosophy, literature) and social sciences (politics, culture, economics, cultural geography) can inform interpretation of agriculture. The group work will offer a framework for museums, historical societies and historic sites (including living history farms) to develop collection and interpretive plans that address agriculture and farming in their own locations. Subjects of interest include how gender and race affected power and authority on the farm, how place affected crop and stock management and human relationships over time, how rural-urban dichotomies began and thrived, and how agriculture differed between the city and the country.

The working group’s written reports will become the basis for article submission(s) to The Public Historian and Agriculture History (the journal of the Agricultural History Society) and a book proposal for the “Interpreting History” series for Rowman & Littlefield pitched as a follow-up to Interpreting Food, Interpreting Agriculture, and Interpreting Environment (in progress). These numerous products can contribute to public interpretation of agriculture and farming.


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