Post NCPH2012 Conference Wrap-up

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.

    Historical Authority and Sense of Place

    On the Saturday of #ncph2012 I attended a number of great sessions.  My favourite session of the day, and perhaps the whole conference was “Letting Go? Historical Authority in a User Generated World.”  Despite being at 8:30am, this session was lively, discussion filled, and actively engaged attendees.  The session began by the presenters encouraging participants to use sharpies and post-it-notes to record thoughts on the idea of user generated content.   This simplistic activity did a great job of getting everyone moving and getting the conversation started.

    Some of the examples of user generated content and exhibits included:

    • 21st Century Abe, the project aimed to explore the idea of Abe’s long lasting impact 200 years after his birth.  Artists, experts, and people from all walks of live were invited to contribute their conceptions of Abe.
    • PhilaPlace, is a community driven project by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, that connects stories to places in Philadelphia’s neighborhoods.This project uses interactive maps to allow people to connect personal histories to the past and a sense of place.
    • Franklin Remixed, this initiative focused on school aged children sharing their perspectives on Franklin.  The children were exposed to primary sources and encourage to re-conceptualize and redesign a traditional exhibit on Franklin.
    • StoryCorps, a historical interview project that puts regular people at the forefront.  This form of history is highly personalized and without context, short clips are regularly played on NPR. 
    • Denis Severs’ House, an unconventional approach to historic house interpretation.  The development of this site was completely artist driven, and allows for a feeling of presence in a historical space.

    These great examples of user driven content provided a foundation for discussing the pitfalls and rewards of working with community groups to create and inspire content.

    The ideas inspired in this first session, were complemented by the session I attended next: “Right Here on This Spot: Place and Meaning in Historical Scholarship and Community Engagement.”  This session focused on the importance of place, the multiple interpretation of place, and the notion of location as storyscape. 

    Presenter Michelle McClellan, addressed the concept of space by examining the heritage tourism associated with the book, Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder.   McClellan noted how interpretation can greatly impact how visitors conceptualize a sense of space and that preconceived notions of space often shape tourism experiences. 

    McClellan was followed by David Young and his discussion of the Cliveden historical site.  In recent years the Cliveden site has been reinterpreted to focus more on the racial experiences than the history of the Chew family.  Young focused on the ability of a single geographic local to tell a wide array of stories and impact numerous communities. 

    Both of the sessions I attended Saturday morning sparked thoughts about how I approach history and ways in which traditional interpretation can be altered to improve visitor experiences.

    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.

    Museums, Steampunk, and Makers

    The first session I attended today at #ncph2012 / #oah2012 was focused on Museums and Makers.  The panel included @cathystanton, @katefreedman, and @publichistorian. To give you a taste of the variety and level of fun this session included, some of the things mentioned included: steampunk elephant, fire breathing bicycles, and knitted dragons.

    Overall, I came away with a number of thoughts about community engagement and material culture.  Hands on learning can be seen in steampunk culture that recreates aspects of Victorian science fiction and Maker Faires are all about engagement with the act of making.  Hands-on learning can be a powerful tool no matter what the setting.  Integrating active learning into traditional historical sites invites the public to look at history in a new way.

    The presentations and audience questions also touched on the tenuous balance of communities — hobbyists vs. professionals, fun vs. educational, and forward thinking vs. romanticizing the past.  All of these relationships highlight the complexity of the past and the variety of avenues which one can take to address the past.  History means many things to different people, we as public historians should encourage this broad examination of the past and continue to work to engage so called ‘sub-culture’ groups.

    This session was a great start to my day, both interesting in an academic and fantasy driven way.