I’m currently sitting on the Board of Directors of two organizations I care about – the National Council on Public History and the Sault Ste. Marie City Museum. I am still relatively new to both boards and I’m continuing to learn about board governance structures and procedures. In this episode I discuss the financial and in-kind costs associated with board participation, board diversity with in the heritage field, and recognition for service to the profession.
I would love to hear about your experiences serving on organizational boards. Leave a comment or send me a message on Twitter.
Representation matters. Seeing people like yourself within your profession, in leadership roles, and succeeding in their work can make a huge impact on the careers of new and emerging professionals. In today’s episode I talk about the lack of diversity within public history, archives, and the heritage field more broadly. I also provide examples of ways to make space for marginalized folks within the public history profession.
I would love to hear how other people challenge the status quo within their field or workplace, leave a comment or send me a message on Twitter.
I’m recapping my NCPH 2016 experience. I wrote yesterday about my experience on the first day of the conference and the LGBT history workshop. Day two was filled with sessions, connecting with colleagues, and quality discussions.
New Member Welcome
Day two started off bright and early at 7:30am with the new members breakfast. As part of the membership committee I attended the event to help welcome new NCPH members and new conference attendees. The group at the breakfast was a great mix of students, new professionals, and seasoned practitioners who were new to NCPH. I was lucky enough to meet a handful of archival students at this breakfast – it was great to see people excited about the possibilities of public history programming within archives.
Following the new members breakfast I headed to the “Uncomfortable Truth” panel that focused on the ways in which archivists and historians challenge truths and the need to bridge the gap between seeking to tell a more complete story while respecting community memory/stories of diverse audiences. This panel included Jennifer Wellock, National Park Service; Dorothy Dougherty, National Archives and Record Administration; and Jenifer Eggleston, Preserve Marshall County, National Park Service.
This session was well received by a packed room. The panelists focused on the different ways in which archives are used to challenge different types of truth — they can challenge personal/family truth, community truth, and national narratives. For example, people going genealogy research can find out unexpected realities about their families — arrests, mental health diagnoses, voluntary name changes etc that might be contrary to family myth. Similarly, a place with supposed historical value can be de-bunked using archival records or a community history can be challenged by bringing in new interpretations that include marginalized voices. This session really highlight the power of archives in truth telling and the value of incorporating archives in historical interpretation during all types of history.
The Uncomfortable Truth session ended with an activity that invited audience/participant members to engage with archival documents. This fairly standard archival instruction activity allowed participants to discuss how specific archival records could be used as teaching tools and what historians can learn from archival documents. The activity portion of the session was a bit rushed – but I think there was definite value in having participants engage in this learning exercise as it’s a great example of how archives can be brought into the classroom.
The People of the Founding Era project is “is a scholarly reference work that provides biographical information on over 25,000 people born between 1713 and 1815, drawn from the digitized papers of the Founding Fathers and other documentary editions of the Founding Era.” The project creates searchable biographical statements, and provides structured data for prosopographical study.
I liked the ideas behind this project – using a database to connect individuals and creating unique profiles of people mentioned in historical text. The project also aggregates information from a number of sources which has the potential to be extremely useful to researchers. However I had some ethical challenges around the copyrighted and pay-walled nature of this project. The project is tied to a publishing company and the material isn’t accessible unless you subscribe to the service. I was particularly interested in the initiative to document slaves and other marginalized people and the fact that this work would then be inaccessible to present-day marginalized community. The irony and ethical challenges of this was particularly striking.
Conversely the Foreign Relations Series project was created using completely open source technology. This project captured names of people mentioned in FRUS publications and created biographical data sets. It used Open Refine extensively to cluster and edit data, though the presenter did highlight the need for human intervention and checking the clusters created by Open Refine. This project was a great contrast to the Founding Era initiative and really emphasized the range of possibilities that can be done with open source software.
Change Starts Within Challenging Cultural and Structural Barriers to Inclusive Public History
This structured conversation was facilitated by Julie Davis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Abigail Gautreau, Middle Tennessee State University; Lara Kelland, University of Louisville; and Craig Stutman, Delaware Valley University. This was the only structured conversation I attended at NCPH. It was an interesting format that had participants organize their chairs in tiered circles and invited everyone in the room to talk about doing public history with marginalized communities.
A Google Doc was created to document the conversation and as place that participants could contribute to during and after the conversation. The document is worth a read to get a sense of the passion of the presenters around inclusive public history and the challenges of creating safe spaces and historical narratives that are reflective of multiple perspectives. I found this an interesting session that got participants really riled up about important issues. That being said, the physical space for the discussion wasn’t ideal. There was a large pole in the middle of the room so you couldn’t see everyone participating and the tired circles meant some people’s backs were to others. Also as commonly happens in any type of open discussion there were a couple of voices that dominated the conversation. Their contributions were worthwhile but I wish more people had the opportunity to contribute as well.
Other things that day two included – the NCPH business meeting where Stephanie Rowe was announced as the new executive director of NCPH. I also had a wonderful lunch with some archives folks. It was great to see so many people who work in archives at NCPH this year – I think it’s definitely a growing group of members. My evening of day two was spent at the Walters Art Museum, which I’ll recap in a separate post.
Regardless of the size of the city, town, or rural community you live in there is a good chance your community has a historical society. These societies are often comprised of passionate volunteers who care greatly about the preservation of community history. What role does your local historical society play in the preservation and interpretation of your community’s past? How active is your local historical society? How do historical societies fit amongst heritage institutions such as museums and archives?
One of the great things about historical societies is that membership is often open to anyone. By volunteering with a historical society people looking to gain more experience in the heritage field can participate in fundraising, research, and interpretation projects. Historical societies are also a great place for people who are just generally passionate about history or who would like be more involved in their community. Additionally, anyone one with a professional background in heritage, who is willing to share their expertise, is usually enthusiastically welcomed by historical societies.
The volunteer nature of historical societies is great for the variety of people the societies attract. However, there is a downside to being a volunteer based organization. Without active and committed volunteers local historical societies can easily become inactive and in some cases disband entirely. The problem of the disappearance of historical societies is particularly troublesome when a historical society has acted as a collector of community history. What happens to a photo collection or archival collection held by a historical society when there is no longer a group of dedicated volunteers to maintain the collection? Good historical societies have plans in place to deal with this possibility. These plans may include donating the material to a local heritage institution or appointing a knowledge community member to act as curator of the collection. Regardless of how vibrant a historical society is currently, the volunteer nature of most historical societies makes it essential that plans are created to ensure to the longevity of any holdings the historical society maintains.
Historical societies play an important role in increasing public awareness of local heritage. Many historical societies run genealogy workshops, walking tours, lecture series, and in some cases play an active role in heritage preservation initiatives. In addition to their role as promoters and educators of local history, some historical societies have taken on a role of collecting community histories. In some cases this is done in terms of collecting oral histories, preserving photo collections, or working in tandem with local heritage institutions. Examples of historical societies acting as collectors of community history include: the Guelph Historical Society which maintains its own archival collection, and the Milton Historical Society which has partnered with various libraries and other historical societies to digitize their photo collection. Both of these historical societies are active in their respective communities and have made an effort to increase accessibility to their collections.
The preliminary results of a 2008 survey of public history professionals was recently released. These results are available via the American Historical Association publication Perspectives on History and in the NCPHnewsletter.
This survey was organized in an attempt to provide better understanding of the public history profession, and perhaps create a clearer definition of public history. Almost 4,000 persons were surveyed, in an attempt to gain an understanding of “who is drawn to this area of employment, and what their concerns were.”
The results of the survey, reflect the current vagueness of the public history field. Many of those surveyed did not define themselves as public historians, even though they may be involved in history outside of academia. Similarly, some historians working in academia defined themselves as public historians based on what they teach and research.
Can one be a public historian while working in academia? I would say yes, however it is not a common occurrence. There are some professors who write for a larger audience and aim to engage people outside of the ivory tower, however these persons are not the current norm.
Additionally, the most common field associated with public history is currently museum based work. Museums are definitely within the realm of public history. However there are many more ways in which historical work can be turned into public history. One of the great benefits of practicing public history is the diversity of the field, it is not limited to museums. Greater awareness of the different types of public history needs to be created.
 “Preliminary Results from the 2008 Survey of Public History Professionals.” Perspectives on History, September 2009, http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2009/0909/0909pub1.cfm
After completing the course work portion of the UWO Public History program, I packed all my bags and moved to Ottawa. I spent the summer working as an intern for The History Group and volunteering at the Canadian Museum of Nature. I enjoyed my time at both organizations, and was able to gain a number of valuable experiences.
The History Group (THG) is a historical research company that focuses on a variety of research topics including: archaeological, first nations, anthropological, and civil litigation. While working with THG I worked on various source identification, and research organization projects. This work was primarily involving collections held by Library and Archives Canada. Working with these collections was both time consuming and interesting. My experience with THG allowed me to gain an understanding of how to organize huge amounts of material effectively, and which research techniques work best for me.
While volunteering at the Canadian Museum of Nature I assisted in the botany collection. Prior to volunteering my knowledge of botany was limited at best. Spending hours mounting various types of grasses from British Columbia, forges a new interest and appreciation for botanists. Additionally, unlike many of my past experiences the Canadian Museum of Nature was not comprised soley of those from the historical field. A large portion of the staff at the Museum of Nature are scientists and researchers. This mix of professionals was interesting and exposed me to a facility which combines history with numerous other fields.
Overall, my summer was filled with diversity. Historical research and museums collection work are drastically different. This diversity is something which speaks to the field of public history and the variety of fields which a public historian can find employment in.