Contested Public History and Public Engagement

The Spring 2014 issue of The Public Historian focused on contested histories, addressing controversy through public history, and the relationship of controversy and commemoration.  Christine Reiser Robbins and Mark W. Robbins’ piece “Engaging the contested Memory of the Public Square, Community Collaboration, Archaeology, and Oral History at Corpus Christi’s Artesian Park” is an excellent example of the challenges and potential benefits of tackling contested histories, issues of identity, and public input.

The article uses the case study of Corpus Christi’s Artesian Park to highlight the potential of using community engaged methods and collaborative designs that integrate oral history, archaeology, and archival research to build historical narratives.

The history of the Artesian Park and its commemoration has been filled with controversy.  In 1975 and 2002 attempts to commemorate the the park were filled with community disputes, disagreements of interpretation, and debated history.

In 2012 a public archeology and oral history project was launched in the community to focus on expanding historical narratives relating to the Park.  The project highlighted the possibility of creating a new narrative that combines personal histories, civic history/myth, and national narratives.  And the results showed the diversity in experiences and histories relating to the park. 

Christine Reiser Robbins and Mark W. Robbins’ argue that “engaged public history frameworks that are community driven and incorporate multiple methodologies can be a ‘source of empowerment’ in the pursuit of more open and contested cultural heritage.”  This project was open to all segments of the community which allowed for a range of participation and an increased understanding of the community itself and the history of the park.  The project also allowed for “new relationships to the place and to the community to be formed.”

This case study is a great example of the importance of community participation, collaboration, and the integration of multiple narratives into historical interpretation.  The long held nostalgic civic histories of the Park represent only a portion of the complete heritage of the Artesian Park.  Community collaboration and community input is crucial when addressing heritage the is contested and deeply community rooted.  Public history projects have the potential to bring together communities and start conversations relating to heritage and broader community issues.

Representation of the Indian Wars and Networking Galore

The second session I attended as part of #ncph2012 focused on the reinterpretation of the Indian Wars by the National Parks Service (NPS).  The panel contained a number of NPS service staff who worked at specific parks and at the upper management level.

The main desire to reinterpret many historic sites has arisen from many Forts clinging to older interpretation models which approach the past in a ‘John Wayne’ fashion or only tell one side of the story.  Many of the sites which were crucial to the Indian Wars make no mention of the impact of colonialism or take into account the Native point of view.  NPS hope to change this in upcoming years. 

The panelists had a number of good ideas about the importance of creating programming with the audience and not for the audience.  Some individual parks have made efforts to connect with local native groups and begin to start to understand a more complete history of their site.  These conversations and ultimately partnerships are crucial to any approach the NPS takes in revamping their interpretation strategy. 

I found a number of parallels between the interpretation of the Indian Wars and Canada’s ongoing struggle to educate the general public about the legacy of Residential Schools.  Both pieces of history are important to their country’s past, but have been long neglected in national stories of interpretation.

Following the session on NPS reinterpretation I attended a speed networking session, desert before dinner, and the opening reception of the conference.  All of these events provided me with opportunities to meet other new and experienced professionals, discuss trends in the field, and get a better field for the NCPH.   The conference continues to be a great learning experience.