CHA Public History Prize

At this year’s Canadian Historical Association (CHA) annual meeting Active History was announced as winner of the 2016 Public History Prize.

The Public History Prize is sponsored by the  Public History Group of the Canadian Historical Association. The award recognizes work that “achieves high standards of original research, scholarship, and presentation; brings an innovative public history contribution to its audience; and serves as a model for future work, advancing the field of public history in Canada. Nominations are encouraged on the nature and evolution of public history; the workings of memory, commemoration, and their application in public life; archival practice and policy; museum studies; and the presence of historical events and themes in society.”
I’ve been very fortunate to be part of Active History since 2010 and couldn’t be happier about this announcement.  Many thanks to all of our supporters and the hard work of those involved with this project.

Digital Outreach and Wikipedia in the GLAM Sector

My most recent post “Digital Outreach and Wikipedia in the GLAM Sector” can be seen over on Activehistory.ca.  This post looks at why Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums (GLAM) might engage in Wikipedia editing and different possibilities for GLAM organizations interested in editing Wikipedia as a form of outreach.

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.

Reading Archivists

As a means of professional development and enjoyment I regularly read archival and public history publications.  This often comes in the form of reading The American Archivist or The Public Historian but sometimes also includes other journals and the occasional book.

I like love reading and find that it often inspires me to consider by own work and evaluate new approaches to my public history and archival practice.  I think it’s important to discuss what you read and one of the things I missed most after finishing my MA was the ease of access to people who wanted to talk critically about academic readings.

I felt like I needed a book club for archivists or public historians.  With that in mind I was delighted to find the online reading group “Reading Archivists” which aims to bring archivists together to read and learn more about the archival profession in the United States.  Readings for the group are introduced and analyzed on a group blog and then a discussion leader also organizes a twitter chat focused on the readings.

Virtual reading groups are a great idea and help great a sense of community for those working in smaller organizations or alone.  Has anyone else had success with starting up a virtual or physical reading group?

 

Archives Meet Public History

Earlier this week the Students and New Archives Professional (SNAP) Roundtable of the Society of American Archivists hosted a joint twitter chat with the New Professional and Graduate Student Committee of the National Council on Public History.  The chat focused on the intersection of public history and archives and generated a lot of interesting ideas for collaboration.

The first portion of the chat focused on introducing participants, discussing what interested them in archives and public history, and what they learned about archives in their public history program (or vice versa). The vast majority of responses seemed to indicate that many archival programs didn’t talk about public history and that most public history programs might include a class or two focused on archives.  A number of participants also mentioned gaining exposure to other fields through internships and work study opportunities.

The second section of the chat invited participants to share how they have interacted with public historians or archivists as part of their work.  A number of people (@Sam_Winn, @PubHistPhD, and @jessmknapp) mentioned that reference, outreach, and engagement work often allows them to interact with people from a variety of fields.

This was followed by a discussion of why archives, public historians, and museums don’t work together more frequently on advocacy issues. Holly Croft suggested that this disconnect might be rooted in the fact that archives only recently began to advocate for themselves.  Croft’s comment garnered a lot of discussion and highlighted the issue of similar fields committing for the same funding sources and lack of engagement between professional groups. 

The chat closed with practical suggestions of how these two related fields can work together.  A number of participants suggested holding more tweet chats or similar discussions which invite people from different backgrounds to engage.  Using digital and local history projects as points of collaboration was also suggested, as was the idea of holding joint professional meetings.

As someone who holds an MA in Public History and works in an archive I found the chat very interesting.  While I’ve worked in an archives focused role for the past four years many of the outreach and engagement practices I’ve undertaken are rooted in public history and the idea of a living archive.  There is tremendous potential for collaboration between fields to bring history to the forefront.

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.

NCPH Topic Proposals

This year the National Council on Public History (NCPH) introduced a new element for the conference submission process.  The 2015 NCPH Annual Meeting call for proposals included the option of submitting topic proposals.  This option was geared towards people who are interested in presenting but who might be looking for ideas to more fully develop a proposal or who are looking for co-presenters. 

The results of this initiative were 55 topic proposals that include a working title, abstract, and descriptions of the type of assistance the proposer is looking for.  The list of proposals can be seen here.  There’s a wide range of topics and a variety of people looking for collaborators.  If you’re interested in getting involved in NCPH this is a great way to connect with others and get started. 

Historical Reminicents: 400 Posts Later

This is the 400th post I’ve written on Historical Reminiscents since I started this blog back in September 2008.  I began this blog for a digital history class I was taking as part of Western University’s Public History MA program.  I had no idea that the blog would be so long lasting or prolific.

Over the years I’ve been asked numerous times what I get out of blogging here and at Activehistory.ca.  Some of the top reasons I’ve continued to blog are: the blog format allows less formal writing that traditional academic scholarship, blogging combined with other social media has connected me to colleagues that I otherwise would have no interaction with, and lastly (and perhaps most importantly) I enjoy it.

Looking back here are some of the most read posts from the last six years:

Decolonial Public History and Shared Authority

The winter issue of The Public Historian  contained an article by Katrine Barber titled “Shared Authority in the Context of Tribal Sovereignty: Building Capacity for Partnerships with Indigenous Nations.”  Barber’s article addresses the challenges of Indigenous and non-Indigenous public history projects, historical colonial practices, and the idea of shared authority and decolonial public history practices.

Decolonial spaces have been written about and practiced in a number of different fields (namely art, sociology, and oral history) but this was the first time I’ve seen a decolonial practice merged with public history instruction and practice.  Barber describes decolonial public history as a a methodology that “abandons faith in the superiority of the dominant culture, acknowledges Indigenous communities and their histories, engages Indigenous experts identified by their communities, respects tribal protocol and governance, and develops narratives that debunk and oppose those that naturalize the colonial past.”

Using this definition of decolonial public history as a starting point Barber goes on to discuss the challenges of redeveloping historical narratives, the need to acknowledge the current atmosphere of colonialism, and hurdles in developing Indigenous/non-Indigenous partnerships.

The examples employed by Barber in her discussion of historical contact narratives and the shifting of perspectives in these narratives is particularly telling.  She compares the standard entry for the Lewis and Clark expedition — “Lewis and Clark arrive in Chinook terrritory on the north side of the Columbia.” with a revised text that shifts the narrative perspective.  The revised text moves readers away from the typical exploration narrative and focuses on the experience of those people already living in the area: “Four Chinook Indians paddled a canoe filled with wapato root to meet the members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, who had entered Chinook territory on the north side of the Columbia River for the first time.  Expedition leader William Clark alerted the men that they did not have anything with which they could trade at that time.”

This example brought home the potential impact of shared authority on historical writing and the benefits of approaching public history from a decolonial perspective.  The article left me examining my own public history practice, particularly given the work I do with Residential School Survivors and reconciliation.  What preconceived notions and practices am I bringing with me when I approach a community project? And how can public historians generally learn more about fostering decolonial spaces. Barber’s work is well worth a read for those interested in Indigenous history, community collaboration, and decolonial spaces.

Artifact Meanings and Contextualization

In the museum world, objects are generally described with reference to their designers, or purchasers, or donors…But the whole history of an objects intersects with many other people, who employ many other skills and attach many other meanings.1

The above quotation from Richard Rabinowitz’s article highlights the traditional way that museums tend to display and think about artifacts.  Artifacts are often included in exhibitions with labels about where they were created, who they belonged to, and who donated them.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Provenance allows for the context of an object to come to the forefront and helps tell a specific part of history.  However, Rabinowitz’s statement also rightly points out that artifacts don’t exist in a vacuum.  

Objects are frequently handle by people other than their owners.  For example, the average car comes into contact with an uncountable number of people throughout its existence — the assembly line workers, transporters, the staff at the dealership, mechanics, cleaners, insurance appraisers, junk yard staff, etc. 

In Rabinowitz’s case the inspiration to look beyond the original owners of an object was generated by a lack of artifacts representing the experience of salves in New York.  The possessions of people at the margins have tended to be less likely to end up in museum collections.  The Slavery in New York exhibition included numerous heirloom objects from upper class families accompanied by the text “everything is touched by slavery.”  The point being that household items were polished, cleaned, and maintained by slaves.  Using well known eighteenth century items and re-framing them with contextual research about slavery allows the items to be part of the exhibit in a meaningful way.

In my mind, the whole idea is brilliant.  It allows the hands of those who touched the artifact but aren’t normally associated with it to be exposed.  The example also highlights the importance of curatorial planning, research, and interpretation.  Without interpretation artifacts are just old objects. Interpretation is needed for contextualization, the creation of narratives, and to engage visitors.



1 Richard Rabinowitz, “Eavesdropping at the Well: Interpretive Media in the Slavery in New York Exhibition,” The Public Historian, Vol. 35, No. 3.