TBD to Historical Urgency: Reflections on Gathering as Public Historians

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This puzzle, like the conference, pulled disparate pieces and people together into one place. It served as catharsis, and a conference long exercise in collaboration. Puzzle 1, April 2023, Atlanta GA. Photograph courtesy of Priya Chhaya.

In the Spring of 2023 public historians gathered—in person for the first time in four years—for our annual meeting in Atlanta. Months later, as I organized my photographs from the trip, I kept coming back to a series of images from the exhibit hall, images of a puzzle slowly coming together, one piece at a time. As so many of us consider attending NCPH and Utah Historical Society’s joint Annual Meeting from April 10-13, 2024 in Salt Lake City, look no further than what we experienced in Atlanta, Georgia for reasons that this year’s meeting can bring value to the work we do across the world.   

With a little distance, I channeled my inner Priya Parker (author of The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters) to consider how, just like the puzzle, the NCPH 2023 conference organizers built an event that fit our needs as attendees in this time and place. 

From the start, the trio of 2023 conference chairs, Marla Miller, Tara White, and Lacey Wilson, were the perfect hosts, giving us a theme with a solid and clear foundation, “To Be Determined,” which set an intention for our gathering right from the start. In describing the focus for the conference, Miller, White, and Wilson asked us to come with a sense of determination despite the past four years, while also recognizing that as a field what comes next is something we still need to determine. The theme stated, “taking a page from the unconference tradition [a flexible conference format, often designed by attendees] the 2023 theme acknowledges the open-endedness of this moment—for our communities, for our organization and our field—as we reset both the annual meeting and the direction of public history.”

Here the puzzle is almost complete–an apt analogy to a conference that brought a community that had been fragmented together again for a common purpose. Puzzle 2, April 2023, Atlanta GA. Photograph courtesy of Priya Chhaya.

With that in mind, here are four things that made NCPH 2023 a successful gathering for me: 

  1. Gatherings within Gatherings: While some of the week kept the familiarity of conferences past (traditional receptions, a first-time attendee gathering, speed networking, concurrent sessions) NCPH created smaller gatherings for specific topics, defining more space, physically and conversationally, to further explore topics with limited programming. I am so thankful for having the space to attend “Future Visioning: A Collaborative Inquiry Activation with The Incluseum” where the focused small groups added a different dimension to the bigger convening. 
  2. Moments of Respite: While this is not necessarily replicable at every venue, the exhibit hall was enormous. Half the space was reserved for exhibitors, the other side, for the poster sessions. For someone who is still managing mild post-pandemic claustrophobia every now and then, it felt nice to have breathing room even within the crowd (and also many coffee breaks). In between the two rest areas were a row of round tables that featured a series of activities, including puzzles, coloring books, and markers. This somewhat liminal, unprogrammed space existed if you needed a moment to breathe, to focus on something other than networking or talking to people, or to take a break to gather your thoughts while keeping your hands busy. This was in addition to the separate quiet rooms set aside for a more private break.

    This view of the stickers, bookmarks, and swag I picked up at NCPH 2023 is just one window into the conversations and topics that came up while in Atlanta. Some of these conversations were unexpected, some of them were places where I learned more about a topic I hadn’t engaged fully with in the past, and others were all about catching up with old friends. Also, who doesn’t love stickers?! NCPH 2023, April 2023, Atlanta GA. Photograph courtesy of Priya Chhaya.

  3. Celebrating our Successes: 2020 was a big year for NCPH. The organization completed a multi-year fundraising campaign with the goal of getting our endowment to a million dollars in time for our 40th birthday (NCPH was incorporated as a nonprofit on May 1, 1980). Celebrations were scheduled for our annual meeting in Atlanta in Spring 2020. We found, even as the world fell apart around us, that our community was rich with generosity, and we made our goal in spite of global uncertainty. It would have been easy to take the win and move on, but three years later when we finally made it to Atlanta our development committee made sure to celebrate and–more importantly–thank all that helped us get to where we needed to be. The success included lapel pins, shout-outs at various public events, and that delayed gala celebration at the Atlanta History Center. I am so thankful that we had that moment and time to mark the occasion.
  4. Considering the Future: Even with the effervescent joy I felt when I got on the plane to return home, there was an undercurrent of tension running throughout the conference about the uncertainty public historians and educators still confront today. In a lot of ways this is where I felt the dual meaning of the conference theme the most. So much in our world is uncertain, and it often feels as if we are pushing a boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back again. And yet this gathering asked the questions that needed to be asked. The 2023 Annual Meeting pushed us to consider better labor practices, consider further collaboration—in partnership with our publics—with communities taking the lead, and to reconsider some of the fundamental ways we do our work so that we could do it with more empathy and care. 

It asked us to be bold, to be brave, and—yes—to be determined. 

That sense of determination is something we can all carry as we consider the theme for the 2024 NCPH and Utah Historical Society annual meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah, “Historical Urgency”. This year’s program sets forth the following questions: “What constitutes an urgent historical need? What is the difference between historical urgency and a historical emergency? How have people in the past responded to urgent matters, and what can we learn from them? How do we prioritize our work when everything we do feels urgently pressing?”

At NCPH-UHS 2024, sessions will provide approaches and opportunities for explorations bringing us together, once again, as a community to consider the ramifications of  our practice as public historians, out in the world. In this way, the slow construction of the puzzle that is our work in the here and now, continues. 

~Priya Chhaya is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation and on the board of the National Council on Public History.

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