“The Pride Guide”: Where the personal meets the professional in public history practice

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Editors’ Note: This post is the second of two History@Work pieces inspired by the current special issue of The Public Historian: “Queering Public History,” Vol. 41, No. 2. You can read additional LGBTQ reports from the field in this NCPH ePublication, which complements The Public Historian issue and these blog posts.

This image depicts the front cover of The Pride Guide: An Interactive Workbook for Exploring Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) History and Places. It includes a National Park Service insignia in the upper left. Splashes of color adorn the cover underneath the main text.

National Park Service, The Pride Guide: An Interactive Workbook for Exploring Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Queer (LGBTQ) History and Places (Washington, D.C.: The National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 2019).

When the National Park Service (NPS) released a groundbreaking theme study on LGBTQ America in October 2016, I read (and re-read) each chapter, fascinated by what the authors revealed about the influence of queer culture in American history. I was also struck by how much I learned about myself, and I grappled with feelings of relief and regret. Discovering new aspects of queer history and culture made me feel less alone, yet I wish I had access to this information ten years earlier. The content of the theme study is truly lifesaving, and I felt it was important to share it with those who need it most—young people struggling with their own identities, whether LGBTQ or not.

I had been given the opportunity to take part in a professional residency with the NPS earlier in 2016. When I joined the members of the Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education, located at the NPS headquarters in Washington, DC, they were in the process of finalizing LGBTQ America: A Theme Study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer History. Edited by Megan E. Springate, the theme study was the result of a collaborative effort between the National Park Service, National Park Foundation, Department of the Interior, and the Gill Foundation. The 1,200-page theme study documents the stories and places of queer history in the United States and provides guidance on how to recognize, preserve, and interpret LGBTQ places. Too large to print economically, the theme study is available online at the NPS Telling All Americans’ Stories website, where members of the public can download individual chapters or the full text.

As part of my work with the National Park Service, I sought to make the content of the theme study more readily accessible to a younger audience. This resource took the form of The Pride Guide, which includes summaries of each chapter of the theme study as well as discussion questions and activities. The chapter synopses provide an overview of recent LGBTQ scholarship that highlights queer history, social movements, and political activism. Offering opportunities for conversation and reflection, The Pride Guide encourages readers to express their creativity, connect with peers, and challenge their worldviews. Some of the guide’s most notable activities prompt young adults to use digital mapping tools to mark historically significant queer places in their neighborhoods, conduct oral history interviews with relatives and friends, and celebrate cultural traditions by hosting communal gatherings. The Pride Guide also includes context about language to use when talking about gender and sexual variance, providing tools to better express and communicate thoughts and feelings. This resource frames LGBTQ history as American history and inspires members of the next generation to think and learn about diverse perspectives, empowering them to be agents of change in their communities.

Over the past several decades, cultural institutions have adopted new interpretive strategies to better capture the public’s interest. Some practitioners have transformed the structure of historically-based organizations to “focus from the ‘what’ of history to the ‘why,’” in order to delve deeper into the human stories of the past and make history more relevant to visitors.[1] Others have advocated for greater public participation in the historical process through interactive exhibits, oral history projects, experiential programs, and facilitated dialogue.[2] Recent methods in public interpretation are intended to immerse audiences in a more meaningful approach to history, yet they also require a greater degree of openness on the part of the public. By encouraging visitors to make emotional connections, share stories, and interact with others (which I hope The Pride Guide will facilitate), we require them to be vulnerable—something we as practitioners should be willing to do ourselves. Our work is often informed by our identities and our personal interests in the past, a trend that should be more transparent in public history practice. A more authentic approach to public engagement allows for greater self-reflection about the stories we tell and why. It can also make us more aware of the voices we are omitting from interpretation and prompt us to consider how we can more fully recognize and include a diversity of communities in the historical narrative.

The idea of acknowledging our own stake in the creation of the historical narrative is not new. In her book, Black Feminist Archaeology, historical archaeologist Whitney Battle-Baptiste candidly described how her identity as a Black woman influenced her approach to the field. She does not shy away from addressing how categories of difference, including race and gender, influenced the excavation process as well as her interaction with stakeholders. Battle-Baptiste reminds us that objectivity is an important aspect of our work, but recognizing our personal connection to the past can lead to more robust and informed scholarship.[3]

I’ve come to appreciate Battle-Baptiste’s work on a deeper level, as I finish my work on the “Pride Guide,” which is becoming a reality due to the efforts of many passionate people. A number of community leaders and Washington, DC, high school students read and commented on the material, and outside organizations provided helpful feedback, including the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and History UnErased, Inc. Members of the NPS Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education enthusiastically worked through the activities and provided suggestions for improvement.

Today, as I look at the recently-released The Pride Guide, I realize that it’s both a product of my training as a public historian as well as a labor of love. It’s the resource I was looking for as a teenager trying to find my place in the world. It is now available on the “LGBTQ Heritage” section of the Telling All Americans’ Stories website. As I contemplate Battle-Baptiste’s approach to integrating the personal and professional, I hope to embrace the same authenticity in my own work and allow the aspects of my own identity to inform my scholarship and engagement with the public.

~Katherine Crawford-Lackey is a public history PhD candidate at Middle Tennessee State University.

[1] Bob Beatty, “Discovering the Power of Transformation,” in An American Association for State and Local History: Guide to Making Public History, ed. Bob Beatty, (Lanham: MD, Rowan and Littlefield, 2018), 27.

[2] In her book, The Participatory Museum, Nina Simon invites professionals to engage museum visitors through active participation. She theorizes that by offering opportunities for audiences to discuss and be creative, they can make more meaningful connections to the historical content presented. Nina Simon, The Participatory Museum, (Santa Cruz: Museum 2.0, 2010). This trend in visitor engagement is not exclusive to the museum world; National Parks and historic sites are also adopting new approaches. In recent decades, the National Park Service has explored new ways to connect with the public using the digital world. For example, Manzanar National Historic Site, located in a remote area of California, uses digital storytelling in the form of documentaries and archived oral history interviews to reach wider audiences. Anne Mitchell Whisnant, Marla R. Miller, Gary B. Nash, and David Thelen, Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service, (Bloomington, IN: Organization of American Historians, 2011), 34-37.

[3] Whitney Battle-Baptiste, Black Feminist Archaeology, (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2011).

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