More Cowbell? How About More Acronyms Instead?

Our Unprotected Heritage: Whitewashing the Destruction of Our Cultural and Natural Environment was a really befuddling read for me. I have to agree with Tom King that NEPA, NHPA, and all their various acronyms and sections are all super confusing, full of jargon, and inaccessible. Even King is unable to make the chaos of environmental & cultural preservation laws understandable. Thus, I’m going to be really upfront with you all and admit that I’m not sure that I followed King’s explanation of heritage laws very well. I have more questions than ideas this week.

Why is it bad that consultants work in the interest of the people that pay them? As a historian who believes that all history is biased, I find it sort of naïve to assume that consultants would work against their employer’s interests unless there was a Godzilla-sized problem. King and I agree that there is a moral responsibility to try and counteract this bias. (164-166) However, it seems like King never puts forth an obvious solution other than “build [new] administrative systems”. (166)

Don’t all of King’s complaints come back to the fact that the general public doesn’t really care about heritage protection until it’s right in their backyard? In the final chapter, King discusses how Republicans “launched attacks on both NEPA and section 106 of NHPA.” (147) However, these lawmakers seem to be doing their jobs, as a majority of their constituents don’t really care about heritage preservation. Broken NEPA & NHPA laws seem like sort of a minor symptom of a much larger disease. I mean, this is sort of obvious from the first chapter when King talks about how quantifiable bright green laws (AKA more STEM-esque laws) have had more success than their light green (AKA social science) counter parts. (11-13)

Finally, how will the government save money by fixing the EIA and CRM? King attempts to answer this question in the Epilogue of the book by saying, “ …I didn’t—don’t—think the changes I propose should cost money; instead they ought to save it.” (171) Except that one of his proposed solutions is to have the federal agencies CEQ, Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, Fish & Wildlife Service) gather together with the public to discuss how to fix the current laws. (163) Having the agencies talk to one another and the public they serve is a great solution! However, it’s still going to cost the government in man hours (meeting & subsequent retraining of personnel) at the very least. And this is just one of King’s numerous solutions put forth. If King really wanted things to change he should, at the very least, lay down a rough draft of how it will save the government money. Decreasing wasteful spending speaks volumes to both the American public and its lawmakers, I promise.

Tour Guides and Misinformation

Lesson of the week: If you use the Sons of Confederate Veterans as your main historic resource, you’re gonna have a bad time.

“What is the obligation of a public historian when the history you are presented at a historic site is not right? Do you smile and nod? Politely correct the presenter? “

I actually did correct a tour guide once (about infant skulls & how the bones fuse together). It was awkward and spoiled the rest of the tour. However, Larry Cebula’s publicly posted e-mail dialogue is an equally terrible way to go about correcting erroneous historic information. Sure, he states in the comments that he hoped his “tone” was okay, but that concern is sort of negated by the fact that he publicly posted the e-mail and its (equally unprofessional & totally unreadable) response. Edit: Apparently all the names were pseudonyms. Whoops!

Internet & professional etiquette aside, I do believe it is our important duty to help correct our fellow historian’s work. As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, the key in doing so is to not treat the error-maker like they’re a total buffoon.

A decent person would welcome the constructive criticism and/or help. They would adjust their research as needed or, at the very least, explain why they have chosen not to make your suggested changes.

A non-decent person is not  worth wasting your time correcting. If, for example, I tried to have a conversation with  Sons of Confederate Veterans or  the National Center for Constitutional Studies I would probably be met with hostility. No ground would be gained. These people are too far gone.

With my decent person theory in mind & having just read the piece about the Virginia textbooks, I know what you’re probably thinking, “If we don’t nip this bad information in the bud, then it’s going to get into our children’s textbooks!”  A couple thoughts: 1) Perhaps having an incorrect textbook isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It could provide an opportunity to teach kids the importance of not assuming everything written is true. This is a critical skill, especially in an age where kids are participating in online discussions at earlier ages than their predecessors. 2) Perhaps instead of instantly jumping on  the Virginia textbook author’s, Joy Masoff, case the PhD’s quoted in the article could have volunteered their time and expertise to help with the next edition of the book.

Of Paychecks & Personal Histories

The first sentence in the American Historical Association’s “Historians as Consultants and Contractors” article perfectly encapsulates this career path:

A career in consulting is ideal for historians with a sense of adventure…”

Yes, please sign me up for the adventure of not knowing when & where my next paycheck is coming from! All joking aside contracting truly is the part of history where you regularly have to hustle and be vying for that next job in order to make a decent salary. It is entrepreneurship through and through.

“…or for those who prefer flexibility and a variety of projects.”

On the plus side, the AHA article mentions that contractors have more opportunities to pick and choose projects that interest them. It’s nice to have a new challenge every once in a while. I’m curious if researching for such a variety of topics creates a wide knowledge (knowing a little about a lot) rather than a deep knowledge (knowing a lot about a certain topic). I suppose it would vary based on what kind of opportunities were out there. How do contract historians to gain enough prestige and expertise to make their way out of grey literature?

The next article, “Crafting a New Historian”, implied that it was somewhat impossible to be both an academic and contract historian:

Was I ready to leave a job where I produced real things for immediate use in public history, to return to one where I produced papers for classes in anticipation of a payoff in the future?”

I’m not sure I understand why he could not continue making costumes as a side gig. Can you be a part-time contractor, or is there a non-compete clause that prevents historians from doing so? Is it there a stigma against historians who do side work like this? Or, did he simply not have enough time to do both? Even I’ve flirted with the idea of doing some freelance genealogy or personal history research for a little extra money. Is that something a fulltime employer would frown upon?

Speaking of personal history, I loved exploring the Association of Personal Historians website. I wonder if their work has become harder or easier to do since the advent of social media. Their “Find a Personal Historian” feature had no listings for Idaho. Opportunity knocking?

On the flipside of personal history is corporate history. I certainly think that this career path would be rewarding to some. The pay is probably steady and the research easier than many personal histories since companies often save documents for legal reasons. However, the marketing and PR departments would probably put a lid on any controversial topics that historical research might reveal.

Side note, I think offering classes on cultural resource legislation and entrepreneurship would be wonderful for the MAHR program!

Re: Wikipedia Bias

KCRW’s program Press Play covered the issue of Wikipedia & gender bias on the same day that we discussed it in class! What are the chances?

According to the report, people have begun to address some of Wikipedia’s issues by hosting “edit-a-thons”. At an edit-a-thon, a group of volunteers comes together to collaborate and edit Wikipedia. The volunteers usually all work on creating or editing pages based upon a specific topic, for example “Women in Art.”  One of the women interviewed in the KCRW piece mentions that it takes about 6-8 hours to create a well-researched article. That’s some hardcore volunteer dedication!

Power Struggles in Public History

As I read “Embedded with the Reenactors” I could see author Nick Kowalczyk struggling with a major qualm public historians face regularly, “How do I advocate for the appropriate practice of history while also maintaining empathy for those who happen to practice it incorrectly?”

On one hand, this regiment of reenactors and his host, Old Hickory, were kind enough to welcome Kowalczyk into their world. Despite this, he finds himself uncomfortable around the reenactors due to big ethical questions such as, “… I couldn’t help but imagine the 348 people who died and the many others who were injured or suffered. When they trembled for their lives could they ever have imagined that a bloodless, G-rated recreation of their deaths eventually would become someone’s hobby?”

I agree with Ann Little’s assessment that Kowalczyk’s article raises more questions than he does to answer them. Personally, I would have loved to see reenactors engage and try to answer some of Kowalczyk’s big ethical questions. I have friends who are members of misunderstood hobbyist communities who frequently have to defend themselves when outsider journalists publish articles similar to “Embedded with the Reenactors.” I’m certain that the reenactors have also spent some time wrestling with the ethical questions Kowalczyk asks in his piece. Perhaps they could have provided him with some insight. For example, where Kowalczyk finds it blasphemous to reenact death scenes, perhaps reenactors see it as a way to honor the dead.

I appreciated Dr. M-B’s decision to pair the reenactment articles with the Wikipedia articles. When it comes to reenactors, professional historians have a certain authority. However, when it comes to the wilds of the Internet, degrees don’t necessarily mean anything. It is an interesting power reversal. Famiglietti’s article perfectly summed up my thoughts about Messer-Kruse’s anti-Wikipedia rant.

As for the lack of women editors on Wikipedia, perhaps holding classes on how to edit Wikipeda could combat the all-male editor trend. I always see libraries holding courses on how to use Word or send e-mail, why not have more intermediate classes specifically targeting women who are well versed in technology, but not necessarily in a position to pursue a computer science degree?

Can We Restore It? Yes we can!

I enjoyed the second half of this book much more than the first half. Honestly, I was kind of dreading the reading another week’s worth of this book, but it transformed into a text that I’ll actually probably use in my day-to-day work.

“Can you tell me about my home’s history?” is probably the number one research request sent to me by members of the public. Prior to reading this section I was mostly relying on newspapers, Sanborn Maps, tract & ownership records, and homestead records. I didn’t even know the HABS/HAER/HALS collections existed (p. 207-210). So helpful!

If you have not yet had a chance, be sure to check out the resources in the rear of the book. There is an illustrated guide to architectural terms and a list of useful preservation websites. I only wish they would have included a list of lingo commonly used by architects to describe words like restoration or heritage areas.

“Indeed, much of the historic integrity of a structure can be lost through inappropriate work, even when the goal is restoration.” (p. 189) When I read this I couldn’t help but giggle and think about the Ecce Homo fresco in Spain that got “restored” in 2012. Interestingly, the botched restoration ended up attracting tourists and boosting the local economy. I think cases like this help drive home the point Tyler et. al. make in the heritage tourism chapter (p. 322). Sure Ecce Homo is drawing in crowds now, but if the little town doesn’t develop a tourism plan beyond its temporary popularity as a meme, then what will draw in future visitors in 50 or 100 years? Do you think it’s okay to use gimmicks like these in order to spark a long-term tourist plan? Is it opportunity knocking, or just tasteless?

The section on saving rural places really surprised me, as I didn’t know anybody cared about these spaces (p.294). Every time I drive out to The Village at Meridian, I see old tiny farms being devoured by the new development. As the population continues to grow in “rural” states like Idaho & Wyoming, I expect this situation will become increasingly common. I’d be curious to learn more about Oregon’s sprawl slowing laws and how we could begin implementing them early here in Idaho.

We are the Skyscraper Condemnation Affiliate

Early in Historic Preservation readers are presented with the ideas of Violett-le-Duc who’s preservation philosophy was to restore buildings to a better state than they could have been constructed originally. This reminded me a lot of that old Boy Scout rule my uncle taught me while camping, “Always leave the campground cleaner than you found it.” However, this philosophy is no longer en vogue.

Instead, there are preservationists who boast that they are environmentally sound and that their work benefits local communities. Yet, they also frown upon installing energy efficient windows and actively  at those who reuse of historic building’s remains in the construction of new buildings. (p. 16, 117-118).

Sure, it might not be historically accurate to do so, but I think that “remixed” buildings with non-traditional uses have a lot more potential to be helpful to society than these some of these preservationists want to admit.

Even guidelines for building rehabilitation are semi-problematic. “A property shall be used for its historic purpose or be placed in a new use that requires minimal change to the defining characteristics of the buildings and its site and environment.” (p.112) Which, according to Historic Preservation, means that a historic church should be restored for use as a religious bookstore or community space rather than a gym or clothing boutique. What if a gym, clothing boutique, or non-religious business was more beneficial to the neighboring community? What if these non-traditional uses improved neighborhood health or brought more jobs to the area?
I’m not saying, “Let’s pave paradise & put up a parking lot.” What I think I’m trying to say here, is that this book truly is an introductory text. Honestly, I’m getting a sense that the book might be more than a little biased as well. The issues of preservation are far more nuanced than Tyler & Co. are presenting here. Does anyone else get this impression?

For example, one of the most interesting parts of this reading was the brief section that discussed how the Chinese, Native American, and Japanese cultures view preservation. (p. 24-5) This portion really deserved to be expanded upon because the ideas presented were completely different, but just as valid as those presented in Historic Preservation. I wanted more detail into why these differing ideas are not a solution for contemporary America’s historical buildings.

I’m hoping that the chapters assigned next week will better detail how preservation connects with economic revitalization, gentrification, and similar issues.

Stray Observations:
-Loved the Eisenman’s Arrow thing. (p. 104)

-What is happening with the citations in this book? They are so few & far between.

Thoughts On The Participatory Museum

I don’t really have one cohesive, overarching thought about this week’s reading. So here’s a collection of my random thoughts while reading!

– Making personal profiles for visitors and taking tools from amusement parks. I wonder if The Wizarding World of Harry Potter changes their visitor’s experience based upon what Hogwarts House they’re sorted into. It’s like J.K. Rowling planned ahead to have a participatory amusement park or something!

– I’m glad Simon mentioned adding a sticker color or label for those who do not want to talk to others about the exhibit. As someone with social anxiety, trying to make small talk with people is extraordinarily difficult for me. This is especially true in situations where I feel like I’m being put on the spot. If a stranger randomly asked me about my opinion on a painting, I’d freeze up and feel uncomfortable. One thing I hate museums doing is designing part of an exhibit where you HAVE to interact with another person in order to proceed through the exhibit.

– You’d be surprised how many of these participatory ideas Starbucks is using to attract repeat business. As a barista I was empowered as a front line employee to give away free drinks & food whenever I felt it was necessary or would help connect with a customer. Now, as a retired barista, I still follow Starbucks’ news, continue to care an abnormal amount about cafe quality, and expect a certain level of customer service when interacting with other businesses. I mean they’ve somehow made me invested in this company even after we officially parted ways. Further, they have both the free membership card featuring custom coupons and a coffee passport book to help engage return visits.

-Simon asks how we might put Illich’s Phonebook of talents into play. While I don’t really have a solution, it would be interesting to post a listing on something like Fiverr offering to pay people $5 to teach you something new. Anyone up for a social experiment?

-One thing I do worry about is that many of Simon’s ideas are require a high level of technical savvy. How many museums are going to have funds and skills to accomplish these ideas? Not to mention upkeep. During my visit to BAM for this class, I noticed that half of the interactive exhibits were broken. “Managing & Sustaining Participation,“ AKA the chapter of broken museum dreams, did little to settle my worries. It just made me even more worried that wonderful institutions full of great information will fall by the wayside due to their inability to keep up.


Career Talk With The Barefoot Genealogist

During RootsTech 2015, I had the privilege of talking with Crista Cowan about her job as a Corporate Genealogist for Ancestry.

Crista majored in business management during college, as she was unaware that her passion for family history could be transformed into a career. After graduation, she took a position in LA as a software support manager. On the side, she continued learning more and more about genealogical research. Eventually, her hobby transformed into a career. She opened her own genealogy business and never looked back.

A little over ten years later, Crista was hired by Ancestry to assist both in research and in growing their brand. Some of her projects as a corporate genealogist and PR guru include recording a series of YouTube videos as the Barefoot Genealogist and doing behind the scenes research for TLC’s Who Do You Think You Are? She finds the work extremely fulfilling and even gets enough autonomy to continue researching her own family while on the clock. This helps Crista stay up to date on all the new resources, techniques, and technologies available in her field.

Technology has made staying up to date in genealogy a difficult task. In fact, Crista believes that education is the biggest issue in her field right now. There is a great challenge in trying to help the public find their ancestors on top of teaching them how to use the new tools and documents as they become available. There is simply too much happening, too quickly.

However, technology has also helped open up family history to new audiences. Crista recalled that many of the people she interacted with ten years ago were American women over the age of 55. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to receive e-mail from a teenager or a European asking for assistance in their research.

Crista mentioned that there are two main paths for those who are looking to make a career in genealogy. For those who enjoy academia, the first route requires attending a Family History program at a university. The largest of these programs is stationed in nearby Provo at Brigham Young University.

As Crista’s career path demonstrates, there are still great opportunities in the field of family history that do not require a formal degree. Getting in the door as a self taught genealogist requires becoming ingrained in the family history community. Typically, this is done by attending conferences such as RootsTech or by attending intensive genealogical institutes.

Crista has learned a plethora of information from these genealogical institutes. In fact, when she first began taking on clients she ran into a little turbulence when many of her clients came to her asking about their Jewish ancestry. At the time she had no experience tracing Jewish lineages, but by attending an institute or two and asking her cohorts, she was able to answer her client’s questions. Eventually, she gained enough skill in researching Jewish families that it has become one of her areas of expertise.

There is decent money to be made as a genealogist. The amount a professional genealogist will charge their clients depends on the intensity of the work completed. For fulfilling simple requests, which only require a quick visit to an archive to obtain a document unavailable on the web, most genealogists charge about $15 per request. Genealogists working in a niche part of family history can charge upwards of $150. An example of a niche genealogist would be an individual who have the ability to read and access documents in an uncommon foreign language.

Crista’s job is funded through Ancestry subscriptions, but most independent genealogists run their own businesses and earn their wages through completing freelance research for clients.

A big thank you to Crista for granting me an interview! I learned a lot and have even begun looking into upcoming genealogical institutes.

Ferguson & Museums

Q1: Should museums be involved in current politics/movements & should they be taking a stance? If so, in what ways?

This week’s readings are difficult to respond to because they are just so easy to agree with. If I’m remembering correctly, the goal of early museums was to strengthen the community, promote deeper thought, and encourage civic engagement. As women and people of color have started to become more equal participants in our society, this early museum goal should simply extend to include them.

Additionally, I agree that museum employees should seek to create meaningful relationships in their community, not just crawl out of the woodwork whenever it becomes convenient and marketable to support minority groups. The advice that museum management should strongly encourage their employees to spend time volunteering is fantastic. The time spent building camaraderie within the community will undoubtedly pay for itself tenfold.

I wonder how much the educational requirement of working in public history (i.e. requiring advanced degrees) hinders our ability to truly become democratic institutions within the community. As it stands now, the situation is tied deeply to economic privilege and creates a top-down power dynamic.

Q2: If they want to address current politics without taking a stance what would a neutral version of interpretation look like?

A neutral interpretation would be a nearly impossible challenge. Perhaps, poising two sides of the argument against one another in the interpretation and then leaving the conclusion up in the air for each person to determine for their own selves could create a neutral position.

Critics would still find a way to find fault in the interpretation. You would have to be meticulous in making sure that one “side” of the interpretation has an equal number of words and artifacts as the other.

Q3: Find somebody who’s arguing for museum neutrality/not taking a stance in modern times? Include a link if you can find one.

I was unable to find an article or link arguing this, so I’m looking forward to seeing with other people can dig up.

However, I think museums with really niche topics can absolutely get away with not making a stance about hot topics. For example, in my hometown sits the Cowgirls of the West Museum. While they could probably manage to tie women’s history and representation to Ferguson, their lack of funding and expertise on issues of race would likely result in a very superficial interpretation. A rushed interpretation might do more harm than good. In these cases, Craig Ferguson’s advice about voicing your opinion seems apropos. [Warning: Video contains cursing.]

However, this does not excuse niche museums from working towards a more inclusive overall story. The Cowgirl museum can (and should) still work towards including a diverse collection of cowgirl stories in their exhibit, but they don’t necessarily need to be front and center when it comes to Ferguson or other trending news.

If anyone is still interested, here’s the link to the mock border crossing I mentioned in class last week.