Next week I’ll be heading to Indianapolis for this year’s National Council on Public History conference. The agenda is filled with great sounding panels, roundtables, and workshops. I’m really looking forward to connecting with other public history professionals and digging into some public history.
I haven’t selected which panels I’ll be attending during the conference but there are a number of events that I’m helping facilitate as part of my role on the membership committee. There are also a number of broader conference events that I definitely plan on participating in. If you’re interested in connecting during the conference I will be at the following events:
Membership Committee Twitter Chat (Wednesday April 19, 11:30am-12:30pm) *Virtual – join the conversation using the #ncph2017 hashtag.
First Time Attendee and Mentoring Connection Meetup (Wednesday April 19, 5:30-6:00pm)
Opening Reception (Wednesday April 19, 6:00-8:00pm)
New Member Welcome (Thursday April 20, 7:30-8:30am)
NCPH Business Meeting (Thursday April 20, 1:00-1:30pm)
This past weekend the Shingwauk Gathering and Conference was held at Algoma University. This event grew out of the 1981 Shingwauk Reunion and invites survivors, inter-generational survivors, those engaged in reconciliation and healing work, and community members to gather, share, and learn. This year the theme of the Gathering was “Fulfilling the Vision” and focused on present day responses to carrying out Chief Shingwauk’s Vision of teaching wigwams.
Since beginning to work at the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre (SRSC) in 2010 I’ve been fortunate to be part of five Gatherings. My role in the organization of the Gatherings has varied greatly from year to year. Sometimes I acted solely as an archives staff person supporting the work through helping with research requests, other years I helped planned special exhibits for the weekend or helped coordinate the schedule, and other year’s I’ve been responsible for most of the logistical planning of the event.
Most of this work falls under ‘other duties as assigned’ type work and is something I do outside my normal archival related duties. There were a number of comments during this year’s Gathering that resonated with me about the nature of this work:
“I had no idea that working in an archive could be so physical.” -Setup volunteer.
“What do you do the rest of the year when you aren’t organizing this event?” -Participant who was treated to an explanation of archival work.
“You need a fit-bit.” -Participant, after seeing me walk back and forth the length of the school multiple times.
Holding this type of conference is a huge amount of work. But every year I’m left with a feeling that I’ve contributed to something meaningful. The healing work that takes place during the conference is important. The event also continuously highlights the importance of the archival collections at the SRSC in documenting the residential school experience and the healing movement. Every year there are survivors or intergenerational survivors who are returning to the Shingwauk IRS site for the first time. Being able to share with them the history of the site, photographs of the school and possibly photographs of themselves at Shingwauk is an amazingly powerful experience.
For the past couple of years the Gathering has also included youth programming. In this case youth is very broadly defined and tends to include anyone ~35 and younger. This programming is some of my favourite to sit in on, hear about, and help plan. It’s inspiring to see young people engaged in community work, reconciliation, and learning about the history of residential schools. It’s all important work and the involvement of the youth gives me hope that the legacy of the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association and other survivor based groups will continue for generations.
Regardless of how I’ve been involved at every Gathering I’ve learned something new about residential schools, the survivor experience, and the realities of Indigenous life in Canada. I’m grateful to be welcomed in this space and the lessons I’m continuously learning are important for anyone engaged in archival work that documents residential schools or Indigenous communities. We need to work together as engaged scholars and engaged archivists and learning is the first step toward that.
I wrote earlier about project management and administration skills that have can be invaluable in a number of public history roles. Since moving into the Researcher/Curator role in February I’ve also had an opportunity to continue to expand a range of exhibition, design, and outreach practices.
Visualizing space and display design have always been something I have found challenging. These tasks are still challenging, but like any skill I’ve found that the more opportunities I have to practice these skills the easier they end up being. Some of basic exhibition and design practices that can be valuable to public history practitioners looking to expand their skill set include:
Start small. Curating an entire exhibit from scratch can be overwhelming. Filling a display case on a set theme can be a good place to start gaining practice in display creation.
Have a mentor. Installation and display design can involve a lot of hands on work. The best way to learn these skills is to do them and having someone around who is familiar with common practices can be a godsend.
Familiarize yourself with basic tools and ‘handyman skills.’ That home renovation you’re undertaking might have more value than you know — mudding holes in drywall, hanging artwork, cutting acrylic, building basic shelves, etc are all skills which can be used during exhibit install.
Learn how to plan things out to scale using graph paper. Or how to use Sketchup or a similar program to map out an exhibition place.
Following museum or art gallery listservs can be helpful. There are is also a wealth of material in many of these listsev archives which can be useful when looking to come up with options for a specific problem. (Eg. what type of mount to use when hanging artwork that is mounted on plexi and foam core).
Proofreading and writing skills are key to creating informative and concise exhibit text.
If nothing else this whole experience has made me take way more of an interest in the house renovations and building projects that partner is undertaking.
A lot of work I’ve been doing recently falls more under the project management and administrative support category than hands on archival work. All of my jobs have included administrative and planning tasks that many people don’t associate with public history. Getting ready ready to go public takes a lot of work. Exhibit schedules do not magically create themselves and educational programming doesn’t just happen when visitors are around.
On that frame of mind, some of the administrative skills I’ve found tremendously useful to have in my public history tool box include:
The ability to create, implement and evaluate work flows. I gained experience creating working flows while working as a Digitization Facilitator for the Our Ontario, Community Digitization Project. That experience allowed me to learn how to organize the work of multiple staff working on collaborative and individual tasks.
Short term and long term task management and planning. Juggling multiple projects, multiple priorities, and multiple stakeholders is fairly common in the public history world. Even more so if you are working in a smaller organization where you might have multiple hats.
Experience in general administrative tasks such as creating conference packages, troubleshooting printers, document formatting, book binding, filing, and general paperwork. Creating good meeting minutes, agendas, and experience running meetings are also skills that can be invaluable in collaborative spaces.
Copy editing skills. You know all those pretty exhibit labels, signage, handouts and other material created by heritage organizations? Someone had to create all of that and chances are some serious effort also went into the copy editing of the text. No one wants to see a giant sign go to print with the name of the organization misspelled on it.
Knowing when to ask for help. No matter how hard you try you can’t be good at everything. It’s okay to ask for help you need instruction or pass on a task because it is outside of your area expertise.
This by no means a definitive list, but it’s a good place to start thinking about the different type of work public historians do. Yes, some people work purely with artifacts or archival records. But, many heritage professionals are engaged in work that requires a diverse skill set. It’s worth thinking about all the things you do that don’t fall under typical notions of heritage work.
In September I talked about the online records management course I’m currently taking. As the course has progressed I have thought a lot about content delivery and methods of active engagement. One of the mandatory course features is participating in at least one online chat session. The idea being that chats can provide a real time chance for discussion amongst course participants.
The idea of fostering active discussion is great. But without proper facilitation discussion can easily fall flat. Discussion can turn into monologues, question/answer session, and conversations that fail to inspire further depth to class topics. Thus far I’ve attended two of the chat sessions and both times was left with a feeling of wanting more. Neither of the chats actually fostered any substantial discussions. Rather, students peppered the instructor with questions for 45minutes without connecting thoughts or engaging each other. This situation isn’t unique to online delivery — poor facilitation can occur in the classroom just as easily as online. It is also possible that in this case, Q&A is what the instructor saw as being valuable to students than a discussion based meeting.
Perhaps, my desire for meaningful discussion is somewhat inspired by time spent in classes where the core element of the course was discussion. Many upper year and graduate history courses I took focused on student interpretation and moved away from a teacher telling students all ‘the facts.’ Personally, I found this style of education more conducive to my learning style than large lecture classes where I will admit to doodling or snoozing away more than a few classes.
So, is discussion a necessary element in a learning environment? I’m not sure it is essential in absolutely every situation, but students and teachers/facilitators find it beneficial. Of course, lecture style presentation does also have a place in education and can work well alongside discussions. Discussion allows for a different form of learning and creates a level of personal engagement that is often not included in more formal lecture style approaches. Some of my most worthwhile and memorable education experiences occurred outside of a classroom. I have little memory of what my first year Russian history professor lectured on, but I can tell you all about the discussions my Historical Approaches class had during a prof’s office hours which were held once a month in the campus pub.
Small workshops, group tours, and hands-on-learning are all methods of facilitation which can encourage discussion amongst participants. Many heritage organizations and public history practitioners see history education as a dialogue that tries to actively include the audience in the learning process. With a topic such as history, that many people associate with boring elementary school lessons, I think active approaches to content delivery are key. Heritage organizations that see regular visits from the public are in a unique position to reach audiences that may never open a history book.
What have been some of your best education experiences? Has a museum or heritage site visit inspired you to look at history differently?
What to superheros, anime, and history education have in common? They can all be found in graphic comic format. Recently a number of publishers, historians, and education professionals have attempted to make lessons of history more tangible. This has contributed to a variety of history based graphic novels being produced.
This month Renegade Arts and Entertainment released The Loxelys and the War of 1812.This hardcover graphic novel chronicles the experience of Canadian family living in the Niagara region during the war of 1812. The family’s experience and the colourful accompanying graphics are framed by actual historical events. The graphic novel covers bits of perspectives from the American, Canadian, and Indigenous sides. The target audience is children over the age of ten, making this a more kid friendly than adult oriented publication. However, The Loxelys have the potential to provide an introduction of the War of 1812 to a wide range of school aged children.
There are graphic novels covering a surprisingly wide range of historical topics. Some of the more interesting novels I’ve come across include:
A number of works by Rick Geary focus on history in the 19th and early 20th century. Geary’s works cover topics such as the assassination of Lincoln, a biography of Trotsky, the Lindbergh kidnapping and number of other topics.
The Age of Bronze series by Eric Shanower. This series explores the Trojan War via graphic novel at a level that would appeal to youth and with a surprising amount of historical detail.
Maus by Art Spiegelman. This graphic novel does a good job of broaching a difficult historical topic, Maus focuses on the experience of Art’s father in concentration camps during the Holocaust. The comic addresses the Holocaust in a way which is educational, powerful, and appropriate for youth to adults.
I think I’m still coming down from a conference high. Despite the backlog of email and reference requests that awaited me upon my return, I’m extremely happy that I was able to attend #ncph2012. My thoughts about specific sessions and networking opportunities I attended can be seen in previous posts.
What did you get out of the trip? A question that could also be phrased as “was it worth us spending the money to send you?”
The conference provided me with a sense of perspective on my own work and career path. Despite being what NCPH classifies as a new professional (albeit I’m just on the tail end of that description), talking with professionals who have been in the field slightly longer than myself made me appreciate the breadth of experience I’ve gained in recent years. This realization combined with being asked for advice by other public history professionals in recent months has helped me realize the mutual benefit of sharing experiences and continuing to seek a variety of development opportunities.
I live in rural Northern Ontario, while my home has a breathtaking landscape I feel at times disconnected from larger professional community. The conference helped reinforce the fact that a large public history community does indeed exist, and that I’m not floating alone on a iceberg somewhere. The conference also allowed me to meet and build on digital relationships that I’ve made over the past couple of years.
Attending #ncph2012 allowed me to get a sense of what type of sessions and what type of presentation formats might work well for ncph2013. I attended sessions that included formal reading of papers without any visuals, powepoint presentations, roundtable discussions, and sessions which actively attempted to get the session attendee’s to participate in discussion. Each type of format has distinct advantages. Personally I found the sessions which were less traditional and more focused on engaging discussion far more valuable.
Lastly, but perhaps most tangibly #ncph2012 introduced me to a variety of new ideas, examples of successful projects, techniques for evaluation of unsuccessful initiatives. I’ve returned to work with a number of projects and open source initiatives that I want to learn more about (and now know the names of people to contact if I want more information). The focus of these projects range from community building to crowdsourcing to basic exhibit development to building a successful oral history program. Granted, ideas are great but putting them into practice is an entirely different matter – but learning about new things is bound to be the first step towards progress.
Future self. Imagine yourself five years from now. What advice would you give your current self for the year ahead? (Bonus: Write a note to yourself 10 years ago. What would you tell your younger self?)
The advice I would give myself for the year ahead is to be open to opportunities and to have faith that things will work out. There is no shortage of ways to expand knowledge and skills if you are open to trying new things and actively searching for new resources.
Advice I would give myself ten years ago: Listen to the interesting stories and personal histories of the elderly people you meet. Very few people write down their personal histories. Oral history is well worth listening to and preserving.