How we grow: Camping Con

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One of the best things about NCPH is its openness to experimenting with new approaches to fostering conversations among public historians and facilitating reflection about public history. The NCPH “mini-con” program of small, topically focused regional gatherings, supported with funding from the NCPH endowment, epitomizes this agile and creative spirit. During 2015 and 2016, I saw the strength of the “mini-con” program up close when Tammy Gordon and I co-organized Camping Con 2016: Outside Public History, a weekend public history conference conducted in October 2016 at the Cades Cove group campground in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Camping Con 2016. Photo credit: Anne Whisnant

The idea emerged serendipitously from conversations on a Facebook post by Seth Bruggeman in April 2015. Seth wrote, “Why can’t NCPH meet somewhere I can park my camper?” And Tammy replied, “I’m with you on this! Honestly, I would agree to a meeting that took place entirely in a campground, with keynotes around evening campfires.” She proposed a location in the Smokies. Given my long work on various Appalachian national parks, I joined the discussion. Larry Cebula suggested a connection to the NCPH mini-con program, and several other outdoorsy NCPH members said they would love to come. By mid-summer, Tammy and I (based near each other in North Carolina) had a proposal together and Camping Con 2016 was born as an official NCPH mini-con, timed to occur during the 2016 National Park Service Centennial.

NCPH supported the conference with both funds ($250) and planning and logistical help (managing registrations, securing an NPS permit, and publicity). Our modest conference budget of about $2,600 included group campsite rental, permits, firewood, and two evening meals for all 45 participants. With other small subsidies from North Carolina State University, Young Harris College, and East Carolina University, we were able to keep conference registration at an affordable $40 per person. Many of our participants came from the southeast and mid-Atlantic (though several came from much farther away), and our number included quite a few individuals new to NCPH—even people who do not primarily identify professionally as “historians.”  

Camping Con 2016. Photo credit: Anne Whisnant

Just as public history fosters historical conversations in many settings, Camping Con 2016 urged innovation, inclusion, connection, and community by disrupting the often stuffy and off-putting traditions of formalized academic and professional gatherings. Tents and hammocks replaced hotel rooms. Huddling in a picnic shelter with warm coffee took the place of chatting over crudités and wine in a windowless conference center ballroom. Through history-themed hikes, interactive outdoor presentations, and campfire talks, participants explored specific histories of particular places within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Elkmont, Cades Cove, Chimney Tops) and general opportunities and challenges (not least, coping with leaking tents in soaking rains!) of practicing and learning history in park spaces.

Thanks in part to a strong NCPH endowment, the NCPH mini-con program affords our organization’s members the opportunity to test new ideas and find meaningful ways to connect throughout the year on a smaller, or different, scale from that of the annual meeting. It provides a responsive space to move quickly from concept to reality. It may even spawn new mini-movements! Indeed, as I write this, the announcement for NCPH Camping Con 2019 (organized by one of our early cheerleaders and a Camping Con 2016 participant, Larry Cebula) just arrived. Join your outdoorsy public history colleagues next September in San Juan Island National Historic Park in Washington State!

~ Anne Mitchell Whisnant is co-principal and senior historian with the public history consulting firm Primary Source History Services, based in Chapel Hill, NC. She has previously taught at UNC-Chapel Hill and East Carolina University. Her teaching, research, speaking, consulting, and writing focus on public history, digital history, campus history, and the history of the U.S. National Parks.

This post is the first in a series that illustrates the role of the NCPH Endowment in supporting and growing the field.  To find out more about how the NCPH Endowment Fund supports the work of public historians and to make your pledge to the 2020 Vision campaign, please visit:

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