Teaching: Select Topics in Community-Based Public History

This fall I’ll be teaching HIST 3296: Select Topics in Community-Based Public History at AlgomaU. I’m thrilled to have this opportunity and excited to be able to share my love of public history with students.

From the course calendar: The course will introduce students to the theory and practice of community-based public history, with reference to local and regional examples. Students will explore the history and relevance of community-based efforts to make the past visible and comprehensible to the public. The social functions of museums, libraries, archives, and monuments, as well as web-based sites of historical commemoration, will be critically assessed. Contrasts between history, heritage, social memory, and tools such as oral history will be examined.

I’m still working on the planning of the course but in the meantime I’m using this as a reason to enjoy some public history focused books that I have been on my to-read list for ages.  So far my reading has looked at Parks Canada, commemoration in Canada, participatory heritage, museum writing, and exhibit design.  If nothing else this reading has filled my head with a lot of great ideas and also reminded me about the diversity of public history.  So much of my work is archives focused theses days. I do engage in a lot of educational programming, community outreach, and the occasional exhibit design – however it is all through an archival lens.  It’s been nice to take a step back from that really focused form of public history and to look at broader social trends, work that is going on in my local community, and interesting projects occurring across Canada. Onwards!

Meyer May House

Side view of the Meyer May House

Side view of the Meyer May House. Image by Jaydec, CC BY-SA 3.0.

During a recent trip to Grand Rapids, Michigan I had the opportunity to visit the Meyer May House designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.  The house was commissioned in 1908 by Meyer S. May and was built between 1908-1909 by Wright.  It is considered an example of Wright’s Prairie School era work.  In 1985 Steelcase, a Michigan based furniture company, purchased the Meyer May house and worked to restore the house to how it looked when the May family moved in 1910.  The house is operated as a historic site by Steelcase and is open to the public for free tours.

My visit to the house was fantastic – it included watching a video about the restoration process and an hour long guided tour of the house itself.  The video of the restoration process can be found in clip format on the Meyer May website.  The video highlighted the archival research that went into finding documentation on the original exterior design, furniture, and interior decorations of the house.  It discussed how photographs were used to supplement blueprint and textual records about the house.  The video also showcased the work of conservators, artisans and experts that went into reconstructing things like paint colours, murals, carpets, and light fixtures that were designed by Wright.

The docent who led my group was extremely well informed about the architectural styles, Wright’s influences, and the house itself. The tour docents are all volunteers and I was blown away by their professionalism and expertise on the house.  It was interested to learn about how the family lived in the home, the impact the family’s personalities had on Wright’s design, and the restoration work that has gone into preserving this history.  I was also a bit surprised by how busy the site was. There was around 15 people in our tour group and there was at minimum three or four other tour groups running at the same time.

I would highly recommend this tour to anyone interested in built heritage or the work of Frank Lloyd Wright.  We scheduled an extra day in Grand Rapids just so we could take the tour and it was well worth the effort.

Wikithon Roundtable Recording

As I mentioned earlier, I am very happy to be co-hosting the “Weikipedia As Outreach And Activism For Canadian History” with Jessica Knapp of Canada’s History Society. Last week we ran our first webinar which featured Jade Pichette, Skylee-Storm Hogan, and Ezra Winton discussing their experiences editing Wikipedia, hosting edit-a-thons, and sharing advice for those wanting to host or participate in future edit-a-thons. A recording of the webinar is available below.

Our next webinar is Wednesday July 19, 2017 at 2pm ET and will feature Amy Marshall Furness, the Rosamond Ivey Special Collections Archivist and Head, Library & Archives at the E.P. Taylor Research Library & Archives, Art Gallery of Ontario.  Amy will be discussing her involvement with the Art+Feminism editing community and how to use Wikipedia for outreach and activism in a GLAM setting.  Interested in joining us? You can register at: http://www.canadashistory.ca/Explore/Webinars/Wikipedia-as-Outreach-and-Activism-for-Canadian-History-Webinar-Series

 

Frederik Meijer Sculpture Park and Gardens

Leslie E. Tassell English Perennial and Bulb Garden

Leslie E. Tassell English Perennial and Bulb Garden

Recently while I was visiting Grand Rapids, Michigan and had an opportunity to spend time exploring the Frederik Meijer Sculpture Park and Gardens.  It was a wonderful few hours on a gorgeous summer day and I loved the mixture of art, nature, and cultivated gardens.  The Gardens opened in 1995, sits on 158 acres and aims to promote an understanding of gardens, sculpture, nature, and the arts.

Given that the site is 158 acres and that we had a limited time frame we were selective about which areas of the Gardens we explored.  We spent the bulk of our time exploring the Sculpture Park which is 30 acres of outdoor paths, formal gardens, and natural landscape all geared to showcase large outdoor sculptures.  There was a mixture of modern and traditional sculpture with some of my favourites being huge metal sculptures that were large enough to walk under. I also liked that they intentionally left some areas of the sculpture park ‘wild’ or more natural, it provided a great contrast to the sculptures.

One of my favourite sculptures from the Sculpture Park

In addition to the sculpture park during our visit there was also an indoor exhibition, Ai Weiwei at Meiher Gardens: Natural State.  As part of this show Ai Weiwei’s work was in a formal gallery space but also located in conservatories and public spaces. Ai Weiwei is known as an activist and artist and much of his work on display was politically motivated or providing critical commentary on social events.

We also spent some time viewing around the indoor conservatories, the British style outdoor garden area, and the kids garden.  We concluded our visiting the daylily show and competition that just happened to be occurring the day we visited.  Lilies are one of my favourite flowers and I adored seeing the range of colours and styles of flowers featured in the show.

Overall this was a really great way to spend a morning, I left feeling like I learned something and also feeling really relaxed after spending so much time outside among beautiful garden spaces.  I would definitely recommend this site to anyone traveling through Grand Rapids.

Reading: Make Roanoke Queer Again

Person holding book.

Used under CC0 license.

The latest issue of The Public Historian featured a number of great articles including “Make Roanoke Queer Again: Community History and Urban Change in a Southern City” by Gregory Rosethal. This article explores the specifics of interpreting queer history in Roanoke, Virgina but also focuses more broadly on queer community history projects, resistance through grassroots history, and interpreting urban history through a queer lens.

Rosethal argues that “queer public history projects can utilize cities as living laboratories for the exploration of the queer past” (p. 43). When discussing the history of urban environments and marginalized communities looking at places of past activism, past conflict, past meeting/social connection venues can be hugely powerful.  Similarly community experiences of erasure of flourishing can frequently be tied to physical spaces.  Rosethal uses the examples of the Make Roanoke Queer Again bar crawl and the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project of examples of community history rooted in collecting, preserving, and sharing queer histories.

I loved this article’s emphasis on the idea of queer history being connected to physical spaces, geographic places, and as a lived history.  In many communities queer history has gone undocumented and at times is seen as non-existent or as irrelevant. Grassroots activism and community based history initiatives are one of the many ways to document queer pasts and realities – and I think that acknowledging the diversity of queer* experiences and histories is something that is hugely important when creating local history narratives.  Rosethal’s article is well worth the read if you’re at all interested in community based public history or queer history interpretation projects.

Reflection: 2016 Accomplishments

1469923511-mc-hp-1For the past few years I’ve reflected on my professional practice and accomplishments at the end of the year.  I’m going to continue that tradition with this blog post albeit in a slightly more list based format than the reflective posts I’ve done in the past.

In 2016 I did a lot of things including:

Talks and Presentations

  • In March I spoke as part of aFinding the Embedded Archivist” panel at the National Council for Public History annual meeting in Baltimore, MD.
  • This year I provided instructional programming to over 1,250 people.  The bulk of these instruction sessions related to residential schools, the history of the Shingwauk Indian Residential School, and reconciliation.  However a handful were also related to teaching about archives and archival literacy.
    • As part of this work I’ve taken a serious look at how I present residential school history and revamped my instruction practices to make sure I’m giving priority to Indigenous voices.

Committee Work

  • I was appointed as the co-chair of the membership committee for the National Council on Public History
  • In August I was appointed to the Steering Committee on Canada’s Archives (SCCA) – Response to the Report on the Truth and Reconciliation Task Force.   I am really honoured to be part of this committee and engaged in this important work relating to Indigenous communities and archives.

Outreach

  • I started seriously editing Wikipedia.  This was a bit of a rabbit hole for me – it initially started as a way to expand some of the archival outreach I do and evolved into a hobbie and something I really enjoy. I also organized a small edit-a-thon at Algoma University geared toward increasing content relating to Indigenous women on Wikipedia.
  • I spearheaded the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre’s contributions to the Archives of Ontario Family Ties: Ontario Turns 150 exhibition.
  • I curated and co-curated a number of smaller scale exhibitions on campus including one about local author Brian Vallée, and one focusing on Indigenous Women Activists and the Water Walk movement.
  • I setup and have been maintaining social media accounts for the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre. I also learned a bit more about different tools to help schedule and manage this outreach work.

Self-Care and Other Priorities

  • I kept with my commitment to make my physical health a priority.  I’ve been consistent in going to the gym on a regular basis and have been trying to eat better.
  • After much years of debate my partner and I made a decision to move.  We’ve bought and house and will be moving in 2017.  This move will mean I’m much closer to my work, it will cut down my commute significantly, and result in me getting to spend more time with my daughter.
  • I’ve been meeting regularly as part of two writing groups – an academic one (online) and a non-fiction group.  Both of these have been key in keeping me motivated on some ongoing projects.
  • In November I was honured to stand beside my sister as during her wedding.
  • I’m raising a funny, energy filled 2 year old who can identify Doctor Who on my t-shirts and who loves playing tea time.

At the end of 2016 I am very grateful for great colleagues, a community of public historians who energize and inspire, and challenging conversations.   Onward.

Collaborative Digital Workspaces

collaborationRecently a couple of projects I’m part of have been trying out collaborative digital workspaces for communicating with large groups, sharing documents, and scheduling.  In both cases the desire is to streamline communication, avoid excessively long email chains, and facilitate collaborative digital projects.  The two platforms I’ve been using are Slack and Basecamp.

Slack

Branded as a communication tool for teams, Slack allows groups to organize conversations using ‘channels.’  Channels are ways to categorize discussion based on project, team, topic etc and can be created to suit your group’s needs.  You can also use Slack as a file sharing tool and it integrates with Google Drive and Dropbox.  Similarly you can sync an existing Google Calendar into the slack interface.

Slack is available as a desktop program or as an app.  I’m still new to this product and the slack ‘team’ I’m part of is still working on how Slack might fit into our workflow.  I do like the mobile app and the way you can customize notifications based on your preferences.  We’re only using the free version, so there is a limit to the number of messages that are searchable (10K) and file storage is limited to 5GB.  But as a communication cool even the free version seems to be fairly agile and good at aggregating conversations.  It also has hashtag functionality to help facilitate after the fact searching and navigation.

Basecamp

Basecamp is a more robust digital tool than Slack.  It is a project management and collaborative workspace than simply a communication tool.  Similar to Slack it’s available as a desktop and as a mobile app.  The pricing model for Basecamp is slightly more aggressive than Slack, the first Basecamp you setup with an account is free but beyond that is $29/month. Basecamp is simple to use and has a fairly clean interface that facilitates the creation of to-do lists, message boards, group chat spaces, the uploading and sharing of files, and scheduling. It has some basic reporting functionality an some search functions.

There have been some criticisms of Basecamp’s functionality as a project management tool – it doesn’t allow the assigning of tasks to multiple people and it doesn’t allow time tracking.  Outside of those flaws I think Basecamp works well as a collaborative space.  It’s been incredibly easy to share documents on and to facilitate conversations among a dozen people. I could see larger groups having difficulty keeping up with content on Basecamp – in my mind huge message chains on a message board are only marginally better to keep on top of then a lengthy email chain. Similar to Slack I like the app functionality of this particular platform which is easy to update and review while not physically at a computer.

What digital collaboration tools have you found useful in streamlining group workflows?

Reading: Unwritten Histories

oldbookA few months ago I stumbled across Andrea Eidinger’s Unwritten Histories blog.  If you haven’t already come across her site it’s well worth a visit.  I’ve particularly enjoyed her Historian’s Toolkit posts and her “What’s in My Bag?” series which uses material culture as a lens to examine the past.

Andrea has been wonderfully consistent in posting new content and typically maintains a schedule of a new blog post on Tuesday and a Canadian history roundup post on Sunday which highlights other Canadian history content online.

I commend anyone who is able to maintain that type of schedule for numerous months and still come out with interesting and insightful content.  I also love the name of her blog and the implications of exposing histories and parts of historical practice that are not commonly discussed.

Teaching and Learning in the Archives

231011361_4a4a257a60The Hack Library School (HLS) blog recently included a post titled “How to Librarians Learn to Teach?”  The post looked at the challenges of being thrown into the librarian instruction fire and the lack of formal training many librarians (and archivists) have in teaching, despite the fact that many will probably run instruction sessions at some point in their careers. Last year HLS also featured a two part post by Liz McGlynn’s on “Instruction Instruction” which looked at learning about instruction while in library school and seeking out opportunities related to teaching and educational programming.

I’ve written about archival literacy before and both of these posts had me thinking about all the instruction and education based outreach work I do and how to create better learning experiences for new professionals.  For the past number of years I’ve handled 75 to 100 educational groups a year.  Often these groups are coming to learn about the history of the Shingwauk Residential School site and about residential schools more broadly.  The style of each visit varies but generally includes a presentation, a walking tour, discussion, and maybe a hands-on activity or two depending on the length of visit and the age of the participations.  I’ve done this style of programming for a whole range of groups: day camps, K-12 classes, post-secondary classes, professional organizations, and small family groups.  This type of instruction is more public history/heritage site in style and is a bit out of the norm for most archival settings.

When I started there was no training process of learning how to conduct our standard walking tours – essentially you went along a number of them with a more experienced coworker and then were thrown into the fire to handle your own group.  I still encourage new staff or student assistants to go on a number of tours before asking them to run their own.  However I also often have them co-facilitate a couple of tours before handing over the reigns and I’ve also created a ‘tour cheat-sheet’ that has important dates and talking points that they can use while they are still learning.  We also now have a more formal walking tour companion handout that staff and visitors can use to guide them around the site.

The other type of instruction I do occasionally is more standard archival literacy based instruction and focuses on teaching about our collections, accessing archival materials, and what archives actually are. These sessions tend to be very syllabus driven and are often shaped based on faculty collaboration. This type of archival/special collections instruction can be very case specific but having some type of documentation about your process can be a huge boon for future coworkers and provide institutional consistency to programming.

I’ve also been working the past couple of years to develop a small teaching collection that can be pulled out when classes visit.  The collection is made up of duplicates and de-accessioned material and can be passed around without fear of damage.  I often pull a couple of boxes of relevant material to the class as well but I’ve found it’s nice to have a prepackaged toolkit of material that has lots of different formats and is in varying states of preservation to use as examples, without having to lug up a mountain of different boxes.

I really enjoy the instruction and educational outreach part of my job.  It can be exhausting – every time I have a group of particularly energetic school children I am very glad I didn’t go into teaching – but the rewards are well worth the effort.

Service, Professional Development and Privilege

coffee-break-1177540_960_720I’ve been thinking a lot about service expectations, professional development opportunities and privilege.  A lot has been written on the connection of conference attendance and privilege, conferences are expensive to attend and in the academic world that you often essentially pay to present your research.  If you’re lucky enough to have a job that includes a professional development fund your travel and attendance might be covered but for many individuals these expenses come out of pocket.  I’m very lucky (and privileged) to work in a place that has consistently supported my participation in conferences. I also have the time and financial stability to be able to attend professional development events and serve on professional committees without putting myself at financial risk.

I still think conferences can be valuable and have the potential to offer opportunities for connections with colleagues and skill building.  I really look forward to the NCPH annual conference for this very reason and I have been on the organizing committee of a handful of conferences. However there definitely needs to be a more open dialogue about the financial challenges associated with attendance that is faced by students, early career professionals, and those in positions of precarious employment. In the academic world there is a huge sense of urgency that you need to build your CV by presenting at conferences but the very people who most need to build their CV through conference presentations are the ones who can least afford it.  This sense of urgency is perhaps not a potent in the Canadian archives and library field but it is definitely still there – especially if you want to open career possibilities.

It’s important for conference organizers to think about what financial barriers their registration fees, hotel choices, and funding options place on attendance.  Room sharing, attending smaller regional conferences, and other creative cost saving approaches can help on an individual level.  As someone who lives in a region that rarely holds conferences related to my profession I understand the very real expenses associated with traveling for professional development.  But this is a discussion we need to be having on a larger scale and is something we need to consider when running events.  Creating opportunities for digital professional development, informal networking meetups, or running shorter less expensive single day events is one way to help with this.  Similarly, joining planning committees and organizational committees where you can bring concerns and alternative suggestions can help.

Conferences are expensive to run, I get that. But there also needs to be a way that we can acknowledge the implicit privilege of conference attendance and work to create more inclusive spaces.  This is particularly important for public historians and heritage professionals who work with communities and want to cultivate more community involvement.  If we want to build meaningful collaboration and diversify our profession we need to create spaces for that to happen.