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!

Reading: Critical Archival Studies

The most recent issue of the Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies is a special issue focusing on critical archival studies.  The issue is edited by Michelle Caswell, Ricardo Punzalan, and T-Kay Sangwand and it is completely open access.

The journal issue tackles the ways in which “records and archives serve as tools for both oppression and liberation.”  Many of the articles discuss archives in the context of social justice, community activism, and human rights. The introduction defines critical archival studies as:

those approaches that (1) explain what is unjust with the current state of archival research and practice, (2) posit practical goals for how such research and practice can and should change, and/or (3) provide the norms for such critique. In this way, critical archival studies, like critical theory, is emancipatory in nature, with the ultimate goal of transforming archival practice and society writ large. As an academic field and profession, critical archival studies broadens the field’s scope beyond an inward, practice-centered orientation and builds a critical stance regarding the role of archives in the production of knowledge and different types of narratives, as well as identity construction. (p.2)

The application of critical theory has the potential to change the shape of archival practice and highlight the politics and power relationships involved in archival collecting.  The articles in the issue are largely focused on the work of archivists engaged with marginalized communities. I’m still working my way through the issue but so far Anne J. Gilland’s article of “A Matter of Life or Death: A Critical Examination of the Role of Records and Archives in Supporting the Agency of the Forcibly Displaced” and Jamie Anne Lee’s “A Queer/ed Archival Methodology: Archival Bodies as Nomadic Subjects” have both been excellent reads.

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.

Reading: Interpreting LGBT History At Museums and Historic Sites

Ferentinos-210x300Months ago as part of a National Council on Public History annual conference workshop I received a copy of Susan Ferentinos book Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic SitesI started reading the book months ago but somehow it managed to get lost in my to-read pile until fairly recently.  This book examines queer history in the United States, provides an overview of sexuality and gender studies in the US, includes three case studies on interpreting LGBT history at historic sites, and a lengthy additional reading list for more information.

I learned more than I anticipated in the sections which covered queer history in the US – perhaps partially because queer history touchstone events in Canada follow a different time line and the history of the LGBT movement in Canada has been documented in different ways than the US.  This background section is worth a read if you’re not familiar with queer history in the US. I also really enjoyed the case studies which included in the book – all of which looked at approaches and challenges related to interpreting LGBT history as a public historian.  The case studies looked at queer history in museum spaces, historic houses, and archival settings.  They also touched on the value of integrating queer history in permanent exhibition or interpretation guides vs the inclusion of LGBT materials in special or temporary programming.  For me these case studies where the real value add and the best part of the publication.

This book contains a lot of advice around consultation, community based interpretation, and the need to have institutional and local buy-in to projects relating to LGBT history.  It’s a great resource for anyone looking to learn more about queer history in the US or about successful initiatives relating to the display and discussion of LGBT history in the US.

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.

Friday Reading: ArchivesAware

Last most the Committee on Public Awareness (COPA) of the Society of American Archivists launched ArchivesAware a site deigned for those engaged in archival work to share experiences and ideas around raising public awareness of archives.

The blog has just started but so far the content has been promising and has showcased a number of interesting outreach projects.  Featured projects so far include a archival instruction videos created using LEGO and stop-motion video, an emerging comic focused on archives, and a look at an archives use of Tumblr to promote their collection and raise awareness about what archives do.  I look forward to see what other projects are showcased in coming months – there are lot of innovative and creative outreach projects out there in archives land and it’s great to see a professional organization taking the initiative to highlight this work.

The site is open to submissions of “Features” or short “Highlights”  and welcomes non-traditional mediums for more details and how to submit click here.

Friday Reading: #AHIndigenous Week

This week over at Active History guest editor Crystal Fraser put together an amazing line up of posts from Indigenous scholars in Canada.  For more information on the series as a whole check out Crystal’s “Politics and Personal Experience: An Editor’s Introduction to Indigenous Research in Canada.” Every post in this the series was worth reading and the week’s lineup included:

  • Monday, January 11 – Crystal Fraser, Editor’s Introduction; Leanne Simpson, “A Smudgier Dispossession is Still Dispossession”; Zoe Todd, “Conversations with my Father’s Paintings: Writing My Relations Back Into the Academy
  • Tuesday, January 12 – Claire Thomson, “Holding Our Lands and Places”; Daniel Sims, “Not That Kind of Indian”
  • Wednesday, January 13 – Adam Gaudry, “Paved with Good Intentions: Simply Requiring Indigenous Content is Not Enough”; Anna Huard, “A Wrench in the Medicine Wheel: The Price of Stolen Water on Indigenous Cultural Continuity”
  • Thursday, January 14 – Lianne Charlie, “Together Today for Our Children Tomorrow: The Next Generation of Yukon Indigenous Politics”; Norma Dunning, “Strengthening the Nunavut Educational System”
  • Friday, January 15 – Billy-Ray Belcourt, ” Political Depression in a Time of Reconciliation”; Mary Jane McCallum, Title Forthcoming

Archival Photo Books: A Century Of Progress

cover_1I recently received a copy of A Century of Progress: A Photographic Tour of the 1933-34 Chicago World FairThe book is a collection of archival photographs from the Chicago Tribune collections documenting the world’s fair held in Chicago from 1933-1934 to celebrate the city’s anniversary.

The fair was marketed as the Century of Progress Exposition and featured exhibitions on technological feats, and futuristic ideas.  It moved beyond an anniversary celebration of a single city and became an exhibition of hope and progress for the nation.  More than 48 million people visited the fair – a huge feat considering the event was held during the depression.

The book contains over 100 photographs drawn from hundreds of photographs held by the Tribune.  One of the points I found interesting was the inclusion of archival photographs that have been damaged — primary acetate negatives that fell victim the commonly occurring vinegar syndrome. As an archivist I was interested in inclusion of a note about the condition of the photographs in the About section and liked the fact they still included some of these imperfect images.  History is not perfect and neither are historical photographs, it’s important to show that reality.

The 136 paged book is filled with black and white photographs that show a range of perspectives on the fair — the construction of the fair site, the exhibition halls, and every day people interacting with exhibits. Some of the images are funny, some beautiful, and some unusual. Many of the captions accompanying the images include quotes from the Chicago Tribune from when the images were first taken.

I liked these bits of commentary but found myself wishing for notes about when the comments were published, the context, who wrote them etc.  I understand why this information wasn’t included – it would have cluttered the clean style of the book and potentially removed attention from the images. I also found myself wondering how the Tribune archive was organized, the book does not contain accession numbers – were items processed? How labour intensive was the search for these images? Concerns of an archivist that probably wouldn’t occur to the average reader.

The archive does have a virtual portal where it is possible to search some of the back issues and photo collections held by the newspaper.   The website is in the beta version so isn’t perfect but it would have been nice to see more of a link between the digital and this physical book.  A digital counterpart that includes map of the fairgrounds with geo-located photographs would help readers get a sense of the size of the exhibition and the layout of the space.

Having visited Chicago in the past few years and being interested in history broadly I found this an intriguing book.  I like the idea of getting archival photographs out to the public in a diverse range of mediums.  Be that via social media, digital archival databases, or coffee table books like this one.

Journal of Western Archives: Native American Archives Special Issue

The current issue of the Journal of Western Archives focuses on Native American Archives.  The articles are open access and on a range of topics including tribal archives, decolonizing archival practice, developing training opportunities for Indigenous archivists, and the challenges faced by archives holding contrived photographs of Indigenous people.

I’m still working my way through all the articles but Zachary R. Jones’ article, “Images of the Surreal: Contrived Photographs of Native American Indians in Archives and Suggested Best Practices“, is an excellent read for anyone interested in the complex nature of colonial photography.

Contested History and Multiple Chronologies

While  driving  being a passenger on the drive to London I finally finished reading through the August issue of The Public Historian.  A couple of the articles in this issue sparked some reflection on my historical practice, including Charles W. Romney‘s “New City Guides and Anachronic Public History” article.

Romney examined historical cities guides including the Cleveland Historical app, the Infinite City atlas, the book Map of Perceptions, and the Wildsam field guides. This examination looked at the ways in which each city guide uses multiple chronologies to tell the history of a place.  Romney makes a number of interesting points about contested chronologies that are applicable to many public history projects. His analysis is applicable to many historical narratives outside of city guides.

Most public history initiatives adhere to a single timeline or chronological framework.  This can commonly be seen in written narratives, museum exhibits, living museums, and preservation projects.  A single chronology often works well to deliver simplified narratives and can serve as an organizing idea.

However multiple chronologies have a place in some public history projects and can be beneficial to project looking to highlight a range of perspectives.  As Romney notes

multiple chronologies can enhance public that stress relationships between different developments and that connect events from different time periods.  Multiple chronologies also improve public projects showing uneven spatial and temporal shifts.

Fragmenting time and presenting multiple narratives that are intertwined can allow for a diversity of experience and voices to presented in a project.  When reading this article I was struck by how this approach would be particularly useful when discussing contested spaces and to bring forward the voices of marginalized groups.

The obvious example in my work is residential school buildings that are now used by mainstream organizations.  These spaces have multiple narratives to tell and many are still evolving as living history spaces.

In some cases collective memory is contested.  Presenting a timeline of  a contested space might involve imposing an unaccepted chronology on a project.  There may be better ways to display history for this type of project than using a chronological order.  Multiple chronologies, unstable and changing chronologies, and contested timelines all have a place in public history.  It’s up to public history professionals to think critically about the best ways to interpret and present historical narratives.