Let’s talk about work: an invitation to participate in the “Empowering the Public History Workplace” working group at the 2023 NCPH meeting in Atlanta

, ,

Empowering the Public History Workplace logoFrom Amazon and Starbucks unionization drives to the waves of strikes that have roiled higher education in recent months, American workers are thinking critically about labor and moving towards action. Museum and historical site professionals are no different. Projects like Art/Museums Salary Transparency 2019, and Instagram accounts like Museumworkersspeak, and Changethemuseum, have stimulated the conversation among art museum workers, but public historians have been comparatively silent.

The 2023 NCPH conference working group “Empowering the Public History Workplace: Information, Advocacy, and Salary” is reaching out to public history workers, students, and professors at this critical moment. We want to encourage the public history community to discuss the issues we face and the resources we need, or already have, at our disposal, when it comes to advocating for ourselves and each other.

Our working group will consist of multiple moving parts that blend traditional goals—discussions and the sharing of research-in-progress—with alternative and creative opportunities for engagement.

The Traditional: In the manner of a regular working group, we are coming together at the conference to share case statements, and to map out the many ways in which labor features in public history.

Join us from 8:00 a.m.-10:00 a.m on Friday, April 14, in Hanover AB. We want you there! We will be structuring the time to give attendees the opportunity to discuss new and emerging ideas. Discussants will host break-out groups on “Normalizing (and forcing!) conversations about public history and labor,” on how to build resources, and research on public history working conditions, wages, unionization,” on “emotional labor, virtue, and non-profits,” and more.

We are also seeking contributors for a special edition of The Public Historian on public history and labor. We want to meet or hear from anyone working on a public history labor topic in their research, or those working to organize or advocate on behalf of public history workers. You can come see us at the working group meeting, the table we will be maintaining during the NCPH conference, or email us at aturban [at] rutgers.edu

The Creative: Starting on Thursday morning, conference attendees will find a table next to registration where they can engage with working group members and each other about issues related to the public history workplace. We will be there to listen—openly and without judgment—and to provide space for you to express your concerns. We will be handing out stickers to spark conversations with new friends and old colleagues. And we will be providing markers, note cards, paper, glue, and sticky notes that attendees can use to explore the public history workplace through writing, drawings, or scrapbook/zine-style artwork. We will collect these to document the community’s needs and concerns, and to integrate the ideas and framings presented into the programs, publications, and resources we craft as our next steps.

Resources: Before, during, and after the conference, we are collecting resources; web pages, surveys, readings, and professional networks that can aid public history workers, professors, and students on their quest to better understand the public history workplace, and the power they have within it. We plan on making these resources available on-line after the conference. If you have resources that you would like to suggest, you can add them using this Google form.

Future: We are here for the future, not just the conference. We want this working group to help people take the next steps towards creating fair and equitable public history work. What we do next depends on you! After the conference, we are going to review what we have learned and plan for what we can do to help equip public historians with what they need.

Heading into the conference, it is unclear whether working group co-organizer Andy Urban will be able to attend in person, due to the Rutgers AAUP-AFT’s impending strike. As Vice President of the union’s New Brunswick chapter Andy will have to zoom in if a strike is called, albeit with firsthand updates from the picket lines.

At Rutgers, despite being a distinguished historian of the Civil Rights era, President Jonathan Holloway has vowed to seek an injunction to try and force workers back to their jobs. This has made the president a target of intense rebuke. The union has urged President Holloway to reckon with the arguments he has made as a scholar, and—to frame it in public history terms—to think about how what he is preparing to do in practice contradicts the lessons he has imparted through his research. Namely, the law should not be used as a tool to suppress the pursuit of what is just.

By way of previewing some of the working group themes that stem from this, Andy hopes to address how the union has engaged public history techniques by preserving activist accounts, experiences, and perspectives as part of a collective struggle. Lincoln Annex Histories, for instance, captures the stories of Latinx immigrant families—many undocumented—who protested the decision of the New Brunswick School Board to close the high-achieving school their children attended so that the university could expand its medical facilities, a battle that brought local families and faculty and graduate union members together in a coalition. Even though the university and developers prevailed, the archives explore how the Lincoln Annex fight laid the groundwork for the “Bargaining for the Common Good” strategy that now formally represents Rutgers workers’ commitments to the communities they labor in.

~Alena Pirok is an assistant professor of History and Public History at Georgia Southern University, member of the NCPH’s Environmental Sustainability Committee, and co-leader of this working group. Her research explores public history interpretation and historical memory centered on public history workers. Her first book The Spirit of Colonial Williamsburg: Ghosts and Interpreting the Recreated Past came out in Fall 2022 within The University of Massachusetts Press’s Public History in Historical Perspective Series. She is a contributing writer for the forthcoming edited volume Branching Out: The Public History of Trees and is currently working on a second book project Cell Block Revival: The Politics of U.S. Prison Museums

~Andy Urban is an associate professor of American Studies and History at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. His current book project explores the history of Seabrook Farms, a frozen foods agribusiness and company town in southern New Jersey that recruited and employed incarcerated Japanese Americans, guest workers from the British West Indies, migrant farm workers from the U.S. South, European Displaced Persons, and stateless Japanese Peruvians during the 1940s and 1950s. Andy serves on the Immigration and Ethnic History Society’s executive board and as the Vice President of the New Brunswick chapter of the Rutgers AAUP-AFT union.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.