Seeking a Narrative: Reflections on the National Council on Public History’s Past, Present, and Future

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These past few months, I have had the pleasure of interning at the National Council on Public History (NCPH), largely working on research for the organization’s upcoming 40th  anniversary in 2020. I’ve been helping to think through NCPH’s strategy for commemorating the anniversary, and also digging into the organization’s history. Delving into NCPH’s institutional history, however, has proved a greater challenge than I anticipated.

In this color photograph, a person sits on a brown tufted bench next to two cardboard boxes that contain books and papers. The person has short brown hair and is wearing a navy blue dress. They are holding a blue and white mug with the NCPH logo on it while smiling.

NCPH summer intern Kirbie Sondreal with boxes of NCPH archival material outside the NCPH executive office at IUPUI in Indianapolis, Indiana. Photo credit: Meghan Hillman.

Despite boxes of archival records, NCPH hasn’t been able to dedicate the staff time or resources to the interpretation of its history. The irony is acute but likely familiar to other history non-profits: an organization that helps its members navigate questions of memory and commemoration has not had the capacity to tackle these questions about its own past. The upcoming anniversary is an opportunity to change that.

Given the instinct of historians to collect and preserve, it is no surprise that NCPH has a large collection of records from throughout its 40-year history. NCPH’s records, like the organization itself, reside on the campus of IUPUI in Indianapolis, and 24 boxes of its records have been cataloged and stored by the wonderful staff of the Ruth Lilly Special Collections and Archives, where several other boxes await processing under the careful stewardship of archivist Angela White. At the NCPH office, too, there are a few stray boxes of materials collected throughout the years, including photographs from past conferences, mini-cassette tapes of oral histories and videos, material culture like old conference swag, and four decades’ worth of conference Programs we hope to get online in the near future. The problem is not, then, a lack of potential sources of information, but rather an abundance of them.

The volume and scope of NCPH’s records are incredible given the transient nature of the organization at its beginnings and its grassroots founding. Glances through early newsletters list dozens of addresses for NCPH. Incorporated in Washington, DC, in 1980, the organization operated on the hard work and goodwill of its dedicated early members, without even a part-time staff person until 1987. Early members of the Council divvied up tasks from their various locations, balancing full careers with getting the new organization on its feet. The administration and resources of NCPH bounced around from California to Iowa to Massachusetts and elsewhere before the consolidation of staff and records in one place was possible. By 1987, NCPH established an official archive of older documents at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Western Historical Collections, at which point former executive secretary Barbara Howe reached out to constituents for a retroactive collecting of relevant documents. Travelling between NCPH’s first home in DC to its current location in Indianapolis, both the organization and its records have logged thousands of miles yet have always remained in careful hands.

A long-time lack of resources or staff time to truly delve into these invaluable records prevented anyone from using them to develop a comprehensive narrative history of NCPH yet. Due in part to the scattered address changes, segmented operation of the organization, and lack of staff capacity, it makes sense that institutional history was sidelined for so much of NCPH’s existence. That neither reduces the irony of being a history organization without a historical narrative of its own, nor does it make rediscovering its past any less challenging. Previous anniversaries included efforts to create such a narrative, but these focused primarily on the organization’s founding. For example, Barbara Howe, who served as NCPH chair (1988-1989) and is currently active in the NCPH Council of Past Presidents and NCPH’s 40th Anniversary Ad Hoc Committee, wrote an 1989 article called “Reflections on an Idea: NCPH’s First Decade,” published in The Public Historian (TPH), as well as “The National Council on Public History: Reflections on a Twentieth Anniversary” for the 1999 special issue  of TPH. Barbara Howe and other founding members and individuals who have served on the NCPH Council of Past Presidents have been incredibly generous with their time and memories, and we have many interviews, oral histories, and records that we are working to make accessible. See, for example,  two recent History@Work blog posts based on an interview with Wes Johnson, the first chair of NCPH.

As NCPH approaches 40, I sought to build upon this narrative and uncover some of NCPH’s later history. As I waded through our records on this mission, I was at once enthralled and exasperated. Some papers were rich with tidbits alluding to exciting programs or past events, but decades’ worth of largely unsorted paperwork do not lend to quick findings or clean leads. Hidden in the papers also might be written documentation of stories I heard of over coffee in the office, like the hiring of the first full-time director and the development of what has now become the NCPH blog, History@Work. I was able to begin piecing bits of our story together, but my work was just one part of what will surely be many in an ongoing process for years to come. There is an opportunity in this work for thinking about what we’ve done (or not done) and where we’ve been to better understand who we are now and where we might be headed in the next ten years.

My peek into the archives is just the beginning. There will be more to come about NCPH’s upcoming 40th anniversary over the next year, including retrospective and forward-looking sessions at the NCPH conference next March in Atlanta, an e-publication that will put NCPH’s past into perspective and explore more recent history of the organization’s growth and development, and the continued collection of oral histories from founders and more recent leaders alike. It will be an opportunity to continue to “pull back the curtain,” as NCPH President Bob Weyeneth proposed, on our own past for everyone with a stake in the work that happens here—including our members past and present, but also anyone who might happen across our publications. NCPH has so much to explore and to be excited about in its history and archives that will benefit not just NCPH itself but also the greater field of public history. These records provide a glimpse into the collaborations, proposals, visions, and goals of so many public historians through the years, all latent with potential for assessment, interpretation, and reflection. Unpacking all this history and creating this institutional narrative will require effort, but now, on the cusp of our 40th year, NCPH has the foundation, the resources, and the perfect occasion to dig in.

~ Kirbie Sondreal is a master’s student in History Museum Studies at the Cooperstown Graduate Program of SUNY-Oneonta. Her research interests include oral history, public memory, and commemoration.


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