National Archives at NCPH

The final session I attended on Thursday at NCPH was “Competing Narratives, Competing Needs: The Roles and Responsibilities of a National Archive and its Audiences.”  The panel was comprised of staff from Library and Archives Canada (LAC) including: Rebecca Giesbrecht, Jenna Murdock Smith, Jennifer Wilhelm and Katherine Comber as facilitator. 

Giesbrecht began the session by comparing display practices and national concern surrounding Canada’s founding documents with that of the United States.  I wrote about my views on this drastic national difference in 2012 when I made a visit to the NARA in Washington, D.C.  Giesbrecht’s presentation provided a framework of national identity to examine the treatment of ‘founding documents’ by archival bodies and provided insight into LAC’s past and current preservation practices for founding documents.

Following Giesbrecht, Wilhelm discussed the role documents held at LAC have played in relation to the Indian Residential Schools legacy.  Wilhelm also spent considerable time explaining the creation bias and archival bias that impacts the IRS documents held by LAC.  How LAC describes IRS photographs and documents is linked to archival standards, which often results in titles of records reflecting the Euro-centric views of their creators.  Wilhelm also mentioned Project Naming a LAC program designed to identify Inuit in photographs of Canada’s north and LAC’s participation in past Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) national events.

The panel concluded with Jenna Murdock Smith looking at the changing archival policies surrounding documents relating to the Japanese Canadian Redress Secretariat.  The Japanese Canadian Redress was the first instance of an individual compensation process being created in Canada to address historical wrongs.  Smith’s presentation focused on the archival apprasial of case files relating to the Redress.  Early on these case files were considered not of archival value for LAC and slated for destruction, even though these case files contained massive amounts of individual and potentially relevant information.  Smith described the challenges of attempting to find a new home for these records and the ultimate the decision to keep the case files because of a technology failure that lost related information.

This was an interesting panel.  It was great to see staff from LAC engaging with the public history community and sharing their experiences documenting Canada’s ‘official’ past. 

Cultural Landscapes at NCPH 2013

Tongariro National Park, NZ

Thursday afternoon I attended the “Whose Public? Who speaks for Cultural Landscapes” session at  NCPH featuring Susan Gray, Elizabeth Pishief and Aurelie Gfeller.  This session was a more traditional format with the presenters each reading a formal paper.  The common theme in the session was the preservation of cultural landscapes and the connections that indigenous people have to traditional landscapes.

Pishief spoke about her experience in the development of  land use and cultural landscape policies in New Zealand.  Pishief’s presentation provided insight into the cultural practices of the Maori people and the impact of their beliefs have had on the development heritage discourses.  Perhaps most signficantly, Pishief described the Maori understanding of land as being both material and spiritual and uniquely connected to a sense of place and belonging. This presentation provided food for thought regarding Canadian indigenous conceptions of land and stewardship. 

Gfeller’s presentation was focused on the UNESCO world heritage designation process.  Though this presentation was not focused directly on indigenous conceptions of heritage, Gfeller did explain the roots of UNESCO designation and the difficulties many indigenous communities have getting their cultural landscapes recognized.  Gfeller indicated that indigenous communities are often hampered by the UNESCO application process, the need to apply through formal government channels, and the need to explain non-tangible conceptions of cultural landscapes. 

This panel concluded with Gray’s description of her experience working as an expert witness during litigation surrounding the 1836 Treaty of Washington with an emphasis on the historical and contemporary definitions of settlement.  I found Gray’s discussion of settlement as a European term which is closely linked to the transformation of forest into farms intriguing and appropriate considering the many land disputes that are still occurring in North America. Understanding  language used in original treaty documents is crucial to land dispute resolution.

Overall, I found this panel to contain a lot of interesting ideas about indigenous and settler conceptions of cultural landscapes across international boarders.  The only drawback of the panel was that the format left limited time for audience questions and interaction.

Conference Engagement: Presentations and Papers

Anyone who has attended Canadian Historical Association or Association of Canadian Archivists or any other mainstream academic conference is familiar with what more traditional conference sessions look like.  There are typically two or three presenters per session and the majority of presenters simply read a formal paper.  These papers are at times accompanied by a powerpoint presentation but many of them are simply stand alone papers.  Reading of these papers is typically followed by an extremely short question period, in which a small handful of the audience asks questions.

People reading can be engaging, but it depends on the topic, style of writing, and reading style of the presenter. Some people are dynamic and engaging while talking and don’t really need additional props.  But there are also the monotone presenters, those who hardly look at the audience, and obscure topics that aren’t contextualized for the audience.  Often the content of the presentation has the potential to be interesting, the format of the presentation just lacks any level of engagement.

One of the many reasons I loved the National Council on Public History (NCPH) conference last year was the dynamic, engaging nature of many of the sessions.  The formal reading of papers is fairly non existent at NCPH conferences and I found sessions which involved active audience participation to be the ones which stuck in my mind, provided stimulating thoughts for future projects, and were generally the most enjoyable.

Recently, an email was sent out to NCPH 2013 presenters that reinforced the idea of engaging presentations at the annual conference.  It was suggested to presenters:

1) not to read your presentation if you can help it, but to present as if you are teaching or interpreting at a historic site;
2) bring the audience into the program (don’t leave the audience only five minutes at the very end for questions);

3) see the session as an energetic, highly-informed start of a conversation, not simply a report on work done in the past.

I  really love the idea of presentations as conversations that involve the audience.  I also like that there is an emphasis on “presentation” not “papers.”  A thoughtful carefully written academic paper is not the same thing as a well crafted interactive presentation. Many attendees of the NCPH annual conference come from outside of academia.  I’m sure that this in part is due to the spectrum of people engaged in public history, but I think it could also be attributed to the style of the conference — those not well versed in academic conferences feel completely comfortable presenting in their own style, which might not fit into more traditional conferences.

I’m looking forward to NCPH 2013 which is being held in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada in April 2013.  The conference program and registration details are available online.

What makes a good conference session? Have you attended a conference that used an innovative presentation style?

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.

Canadian Public History

My earlier lament about the state of the Canadian public history community needs an update.  Some great news for public history in Canada was announced yesterday.   The National Council on Public History is coming to Canada in 2013.  The annual NCPH conference will be held in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, April 17-20, 2013. The call for proposals has been included below:

“Knowing your Public(s)—The Significance of Audiences in Public History”
2013 Annual Meeting, National Council on Public History
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, April 17-20, 2013
In 2013 the National Council on Public History will meet at the Delta Ottawa City Centre, in the heart of downtown Ottawa, Canada, with Canada’s Parliament buildings, historic ByWard market, national museums and historic sites, river trails, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Rideau Canal, and numerous cafes and restaurants within easy walking distance. The program committee invites panel, roundtable, workshop, working group, and individual paper proposals for the conference. The Call for Poster sessions will be issued in fall 2012.
As Canada’s capital, Ottawa is the national centre of the museum, archival and heritage community, and its historical and cultural attractions draw 5 million national and international tourists annually. Ottawa’s two universities have strong connections to public and applied history. The federal government employs many history practitioners and creates a market for private consultants. With so many diverse fields of Public History theory and practice represented, Ottawa is an ideal place to consider issues and ideas associated with the theme of “Knowing your Public(s)—The Significance of Audiences in Public History.”
These could include:

  • the changing nature of the public and the evolution of the discipline over the last forty years;
  • how the public and Public Historians influence each other in the production of history;
  • the effects of changing approaches to public participation, reciprocity, and authority on Public History theory and practice;
  • the impact of digital media on expanding or excluding public engagement;
  • generational differences including Public History for the millennial generation;
  • intersections between Public History practised at universities and in the broader community;
  • issues related to working with ‘closed’ audiences in fields such as litigation, or government-directed, research;
  • access to and use of grey literature
  • the increasing need for audience relevance in times of economic recession;
  • and diverse cultural and multi-national approaches to commemorating events such as the bi-centennial of the War of 1812 or the 60th anniversary of the armistice of the Korean War.

We welcome submissions from all areas of the field, including teaching, museums, archives, heritage management, tourism, consulting, litigation-based research, and public service. Proposals may address any area of Public History, but we especially welcome submissions which relate to our theme. Case studies should evoke broader questions about practice in the field. The program committee prefers complete session proposals but will endeavor to construct sessions from proposals for individual presentations. Sessions are 1.5 hours (working groups may be longer); significant time for audience discussion should be included in every session. The committee encourages a wide variety of forms of conversation, such as working groups, roundtables, panel sessions, and professional development workshops, and urges participants to dispense with the reading of papers. Participants may be members of only one panel, but may also engage in working groups, introducing sessions and leading discussions. See the NCPH website at www.ncph.org for details about submitting your proposal and be sure to peruse past NCPH programs for ideas about new session/event formats.

Proposals are due by July 15, 2012.
All presenters and other participants are expected to register for the annual meeting. If you have questions, please contact the program committee co-chairs or the NCPH program director.
2013 Program Committee Co-Chairs
Michelle A. Hamilton
Director of Public History
The University of Western Ontario
mhamilt3@uwo.ca
Jean-Pierre Morin
Treaty Historian
Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada
JeanPierre.Morin@aadnc-aandc.gc.ca
NCPH Program Director
Carrie Dowdy
dowdyc@iupui.edu
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