Challenging the Exclusive Past. How can we recognize the traditional narratives of the historic contexts in which we work or study? How can we disrupt that narrative to introduce visitors, students, colleagues and researchers to new spaces of discussion and nuance? How do we earn trust in communities with a history of exclusion in order to elevate and preserve a more diverse historical record?
These questions and more underpinned the theme of this year’s National Council on Public History 2016 conference. I often attend academic library conferences or meetings related to digital preservation, so the focus on interpreting and sharing history was new. And fun. At just how many conferences could you attend a session on “The Secret Lives of Trees: How Landscapes Adapt and Change over Time”?
What’s my big take-away from NCPH 2016? Well, it something that I already knew was important and the meeting only reinforced the value. My take-away is the importance of actively building diverse and inclusive archival collections. What’s preserved today is what enables future historians and future communities to learn about and share more interesting, more inclusive, more nuanced stories of our collective and individual identities and experiences. If we only have records for a certain type of “important” person, we simply continue the tradition of telling only a few selective narratives at historical sites, in books, and in museum exhibits.
Read on for a detailed recap of the sessions I attended. And by detailed, I mean it. I went a bit crazy recapping these sessions. You can also read the conference program here.
Curating Controversy – this session provided insight into two different museum curator perspectives on creating exhibits that represent controversial events. The presenters worked or previously work at the Nixon Library and May 4 Visitors Center (at Kent State). The panelists discussed the tension for curators in being true to the record that exists in the archives while still being sensitive to the disparate memory and feelings of people connected to those events. The panelists considered how there is a tendency for people to want to change narratives and evade truths. Curators need to be strong in representing the events in a way that is true to the available record yet also find a way to represent opposing opinions or memories (while being clear about what’s in the record vs. not). The panelists also talked about how historians’ understanding of a controversy evolves overtime as more records are released or oral histories are performed. Yet, for most of the public there isn’t a continual process of understanding a controversial moment in history. The person’s initial memory of it is what sticks.
I left this session wondering about how active, if at all, archivists need to be in interpreting the archival record and history – especially in a time when many institutions are trying to improve diversity of collections and social justice is a central topic of discussion in the profession. The “activist archivist” isn’t a new concept in the archival world, but it does seems like an area with an emerging wave of professionals pushing for diverse perspectives to truly change the way we approach our work. Often these dialogues occur via social media.
Preserving and Interpreting History on Capitol Hill – this session talked about the process of collecting records of Senate and House committees as well as the work of historians trying to present diverse accounts of congressional history. The two talks from the archivists didn’t really highlight specific practices for increasing diversity of the record, but did provide a solid overview of records management and archival work in a government context. The historians on the panel gave talks that more closely related to the conference theme. Betty Koed from the U.S. Senate Historical Office talked about revamping the script and stories told during the tour of the Old Senate Chamber. She found some interesting people to add to her script, but the challenge for her was thinking of ways to make these new perspectives part of the tour for all of the many tour guides who lead people through the Chamber. Terrance Rucker discussed his work in studying minorities in Congress. He discussed the importance of political and social history approaches to understanding Congress as an institution as well as the influence and work style of minorities in Congress.
Historical Interpretation in a Time of Global Climate Change – This session explored the way that public historians can create dialogues around climate change and environmental history via the interpretation of historic sites or landscapes. Overall, the panelists seemed to emphasize how conversations about climate change rooted in historical perspectives can bring nuance to the public discussion. One speaker was from the National Parks Service, Christine Arato. I missed some of her talk, but she seemed to be focused on discussing the NPS Climate Change Response Strategy. The Strategy is focused on four areas: Science, Adaptation, Mitigation, and Communication. Arato discussed goals to do more for mitigation. A couple quotes I enjoyed: “Every place has a climate story” and “Glaciers are archives.” She mentioned the National Colonial Farm Green History program as an exemplary program. David Glassberg, of UMass Amherst, discussed his experience leading a conversation about climate change and the Boston Harbor Islands. He discussed the role that pubic history and archival records should play in explaining the present climate situation. Glassberg brought up an interesting question in terms of how we decide what culture resources – landmarks, documents – get protection from effects of climate change? Who chooses and how does that affect us and the historical record? Another speaker discussed how changes in advertising and narratives around technological development in agriculture can tell people a lot about the history of energy use and human connection to the environment (tensions between celebrating dominance over the environment and trying to be more sustainable). The audience conversation and other panelists not summarized in this post were all very interesting! I would like to see more conversation in this area that directly involves archives and archival collections. Project ARCC is a group working on some of these issues.
Roots and STEM – This session explored how to create collaboration between scientists and historians as well as leverage the interest in STEM to promote the importance of the history of science. One talk from Laura Ettinger focused on how using archives and oral histories about women in engineering helped to start a dialogue about challenges and identity with current female engineering students at Clarkson University. Another speaker from the MIT News Office, Maia Weinstock, discussed some of her work to improve awareness of women in science through Wikipedia editing, writing obituaries, and even submitting women scientists to a Lego sweepstakes for new Mini-figs. The panelists also discussed how a historical lens is important for understanding how science and science policy are shaped and how social contexts affect the research that gets done. As one panelist noted: culture shapes budgets – budgets shape research. Additionally, a historical perspective makes space for social critiques and exploring the identity of STEM professionals. This type of exploration can disrupt the misleading linearity of many scientific discovery timelines. While the benefits of collaboration and connections between history and science are in many ways obvious, there are cultural norms in the various STEM fields and historical approaches that should be considered. As one panelist, I think Alexandra Lord, noted engineers want to solve things, but historians are in the business of complicating things and asking more questions.
Transformative Archival Methods: Inclusivity, Partnerships, Human Rights, & Activism – This group of panelist explored how archivists, archives and oral histories can have a meaningful impact on preserving marginalized histories and facilitating reconciliation. Trudy Huskamp talked about the International Council on Archives Human Rights Working Group’s effort to draft principles for archivists in supporting human rights. The other two speakers talked about specific record collecting and use cases. Patrick Stawski discussed his work as the Human Rights Archivist at the Rare Books and Manuscript Library at Duke. Marla Ramirez, a professor at University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, talked about her research related to the deportation and banishment of Mexican nationals and Mexican Americans in 1920s – 1940s. The research involved recording the stories of some of the effected people and their families through oral history as well as finding records in historical newspapers, archives and records still within the families. To me this panel emphasized the importance of earning the trust of the communities, focusing on partnerships rather than acquisitions in the traditional sense, and using archives to build a sense of belonging as well as a path for redress for the affected communities. This was a very inspiring session!
Listen Up: Podcasts for Pedagogy and Public History – this session focused on the Southern Oral History Project staff adventures in podcasting! The project started as an assignment for students, but as a result the staff decided they wanted to try out a more regular podcast series for the SOHP collections. The podcast is called “Press Record and is, as the website says, a “podcast about the joys and challenges of learning history by talking to those who lived it.” I think this is a really neat way to explore local history and use archival audio. The staff at SOHP learned a lot about the form of a podcast and how to frame a podcast show to make it better for listeners. The panelists also emphasized the importance of sticking to context and ethical use of oral histories even while working to create an entertaining and jargon-free story. The SOHP collections are almost all digitized, very well described and all transcribed – this has greatly aided them in being able to pull together podcast episodes and make the audio usable for student podcast projects.
NCPH lined up many different tours during the three day conference. I attended a walking tour – Civil Rights Activism in Baltimore’s Historic Wet Side. It was pretty windy that day and the tour guide was a little hard to hear, but the tour was an interesting look at some of the history of civil rights in Baltimore and the effects of various urban renewal efforts over the years.
Following the tour, I attended a session, Using Spatial History to Challenge the Exclusive Past, that looked at various ways GIS can be used to map historic changes and urban renewal projects overtime. Went very well as a follow up to the walking tour! Each of the presenters talked about projects that were so cool and really inspiring. One project from James Madison Univeristy used Sanborn maps and GIS to make it possible to explore the city at different time periods and add data about what businesses existed based on historic directories. Interact with the map here. Another project was focused on mapping and gathering stories about changes in Albany. See the project site for 98 Acres in Albany. During the Q&A, there were a few comments about the need for more GIS support for historians – and even a mention of how GREAT it would be for university libraries to provide such support. Good thing GIS and digital scholarship support is something more and more libraries are starting to provide!
Making Maryland’s African American History Public – This session featured three speakers who discussed three forms of public engagement with Maryland’s African American history. Courtney Hobson talked about her work to rejuvenate the interpretation of slavery at a house museum, Darnall’s Chance. She discussed her research into the legal battles of a family of mixed-race women in Baltimore. As she says, “Freedom suits not only tell us how race and slavery worked on a local level, they also help us reconstruct the family histories of enslaved people.” You can read a blog post on the story here. The second speaker discussed his experience as a history professor at the University of Baltimore in 2015 during the uprising and protests. Given the situation, he wanted to provide an alternative final assignment that would create space for dealing with the events taking place in Baltimore at that time. He created an optional oral history project that encouraged students to interview someone connected to the current protests or the 1968 Baltimore riots. Some of the students who participated donated the oral histories to the Baltimore Uprising website. You can view the collection here. The third presenter talked about the approaches she takes for engaging visitors in discussions about race, slavery and indentured servitude at the Hampton National Historic site.
Contemporary Collecting to Correct the Exclusive Past, Working Group – This session was a “working group” but really functioned like a normal panel session. The presenters talked about different experiences creating collections to document current protests and other activist movements and communities. Some of the collection development efforts took place in professional archives (Washington University in St Louis Libraries’s Documenting Ferguson) while others were led by historians or other community efforts (Baltimore Uprising or the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ History Project). The panelists discussed earning trust, organizing collecting drives, and, for the community led projects, connecting with a library/archive for long-term preservation. Another presenter talked about an app she developed called Open Archive. The app provides an alternative for protesters who want to share content online, but want to protect their location and identity – things that aren’t always secure in corporate social media platforms. The app allows for securely and privately uploading content that can then be access and preserved in the Internet Archive.
Thanks for reading! As a parting thought, I’ll leave you with some other odds and ends.
Odds and Ends
- I think there is a need for more awareness of the full scope of digital preservation in the world of public history given the focus on community archiving and/or historians creating archives of research materials or digital humanities projects (like GIS stuff or digitization). Archivists have an opportunity to consult on full digital preservation or simply provide some personal digital preservation advice.
- This podcast, Out of the Blocks, featuring interviews with Baltimore residents. So good! There is a full version and a summary version for each episode – a great idea. http://wypr.org/programs/out-blocks#stream/0
- Campus Histories working group. I didn’t attend the session, but the group created a Storify: https://storify.com/monicalmercado/campus-histories
- NCPH has a list of recaps from the conference: http://ncph.org/conference/2016-annual-meeting/conference-material/