Tom King and Bombing Boise

Tom King’s lifelong career in CRM has obviously led to great cynicism about the system in place to protect our national heritage (understatement of the century.) This perspective colors this text throughout, where he makes the groundshattering claim from the beginning that the entire system of bureacratic natural and cultural resource protection is in fact a sham. He is intentional in this claim, trying to explode readers’ perceptions of CRM, especially since most of his readers are interested or work in heritage management. While it is dismaying that all of the extensive regulations, policies, and agencies in place in King’s view are essentially accomplishing project proponents’ goals rather than actual CRM, I do trust where King is coming from, based on his extensive experiences as a consultant, working with different agencies, and his concern for the actual protection of resources. For these reasons, while I can very easily see where this could be a depressing read for those interested in entering CRM, I was very interested in seeing what King had to say, and what changes he suggested. Having read King before, I did enter with expectations of lengthy example cases, but I was dismayed that the bulk of the text was devoted to case examples with only the last chapter dedicated to possible solutions (many of which he admitted were near impossible, i.e. constitutional amendments). Now that I think about it, I think we were forewarned about this…

For me, the most disappointing part of the whole system that King described is that it is marked by lethargy, inertia, and an overall feeling of “that’s just the way it is.” The CRM personnel will contract themselves to project proponents, coming up with as few roadblocks as possible; the federal and state agencies will only step in and impede in the projects if there is a serious issue that others are sure to notice; the contractors will fudge on their bids about the amount of time compliance will take to get the job; and the proponents themselves will request bids for FONSI when they search for their EA contractor. (how is that even allowed?!) I appreciated King pointing all of this out, and trying to put a fire under the feet of everyone involved to say “this isn’t why we have this system in place! These laws and policies were created for a reason! Let’s put intention back into the system instead of regarding it as red tape that you just have to work your way through/evade!” A big part of it that King points out is the language of obfuscation that populates the regulations, public notices, and that they are based on a “good faith effort.” By not being hard and fast rules, it is easy to not consult the parties that the project proponents, or as King points out, even SHPO or other agencies realize could raise the biggest fuss or ask for more extensive review.  One of the weirdest gray areas to me was the idea of “cumulative impacts.” What is the point of a cumulative impact option if the site can be divided into smaller projects to allow for quicker review and project approval? How often would anyone acknowledge a cumulative effect? On the other hand, couldn’t anything be considered in a long-view and be included as  a cumulative impact? Also, King did extensively lay blame with the Bush administration, it would be interesting to see the specific policy positions the Bush administration took that were responsible for this in King’s eyes and how that looks now towards the end of Obama’s administration.

The most disheartening example King mentioned was between the Rosas and the BNSF in Abo Canyon, due to the extent of energy, time, money, and how thoroughly the Rosas engaged with the review process to work within the system to seek protection for the canyon. This clearly demonstrates that the process does not work, is controlled through the discretion of the project proponents and agency reviewers, and that community mobilization, heritage protection law, and even the work of CRM consultants isn’t necessarily the solution. I am torn here because the extent of the Rosas’ engagement with the process is a good example to follow in say, continual work to protect Minidoka from the interests of dairies and CAFOs, but also an example that doesn’t have a positive outcome. I think the saving grace for Minidoka may be that the federal agency, in this case NPS, is the one petitioning for protection rather than an outside reviewer or a project (CAFO) proponent.

As an aside, King briefly mentioned the conflicts between Native Hawaiians and NASA over building telescopes on spiritual places. This is ongoing and it was recently announced that the telescope under construction in Hawaii as the world’s largest telescope has since lost that ranking. If you are interested you can read about it here. There is also a pretty big movement for protecting Hawaii against further intrusions, including petitions here.


History Works

These pieces had so many quotable lines, and definitely addressed the trepidation that many experience with engaging the public as either an academic or public historian. For me, they reaffirmed the idea that history work can be engaging, active, important, and affect change in societal power structures.

Chauncey DeVega said that “history does political work,” and that “memory is a function of power.” This was especially true to the idea of perpretating myths of the Civil War in the Sons of Confederate Veterans “celebrations” that DeVega was writing about, but also pertained to the articles on false claims of black confederates in elementary textbooks, Cebula’s example of “bad history” at the Baron Von Munchausen house, and our past discussions on reenactments. These mindful and devoted public historians are doing great work to dispel the idea that false history is harmless or not important/impactful enough that there is a need to correct it. The most powerful article in the vein of history accomplishing political work was the one on fracking, in which Robinson noted the urgency in this particular instance of “using the past to challenge systems of exploitation and power.” The fracking article reinforced our earlier realization that NRHP protection doesn’t always amount to much, and for me emphasized the value of regional memory in addressing local issues. The million dollar question Robinson presented was “How can historians and publics use the power of the past to catalyze social change?”

I read the New York Times article detailing more information on the Sons of Confederate Veterans event, and it raised an interesting point I hadn’t considered before. It noted that “commemorating the Civil War has never been easy. The centennial 50 years ago coincided with the civil rights movement, and most of the South was still effectively segregated, making a mockery of any notion that the slaves had truly become free and equal.” This highlighted the inanity that Civil War commemoration is so rampant now, when a short 50 years ago it was taboo, for obvious reasons. How is it that our national memory is so short that we can’t contextualize these “commemorations” now, but 50 years ago, at the centennial celebration, the implications of the history were so obvious? Admittedly, there was a congressional centennial commission in charge of the events, which “lost credibility when it planned to meet in a segregated hotel.”

Cebula’s piece was a surprising read for me, not because of the fact that small house museums are rampant  with historical inaccuracy or glossing over of the unfortunate truths, but in the nature of the seemingly harmless myths that the museum was perpetrating, and the fact that they were 5/10 of the Colonial Williamsburg foundation’s myths that should be dispelled. I wondered at how these almost trivial “facts” about colonial times have been repeated over the years. Of course most people would find these untruths a bit of harmless fun, some trivia for visitors, but the fact that docents and interpreters would willingly impart false information goes entirely against the entire purpose of historical institutions serving the public as they do. Not that the unpaid, volunteer docents were doing so maliciously or even knowingly, as Cebula acknowledged, but the director’s response did surprise me in its unwillingness to acquiesce to anything Cebula pointed out. Of course, we can’t expect every text book author, museum docent, historical house manager, etc., to be a trained historian, but when engaging with historical work I believe we must hold them to the same standard that historians hold themselves and their peers to. I would think that there would be a certain review process to vet out the incompetent/false histories, but as a commentator on Cebula’s first article pointed out, there are state historical museums in Wisconsin (and other states closer to home *cough*) that haven’t updated their exhibits in 50 years that may do a decent job at interpreting a now outdated historical understanding. I guess my main point is that new generations of museum educators, curators, exhibit designers, and academic and public historians at large, have plenty of work to do. To answer Robinson’s question, doing history always has the innate opportunity to catalyze social change, if done vigilantly and to the greatest standard possible, especially if it works to include “both the diversity of opinion and the question of specifically politicized values into our public history work.”

Cowboys & white, middle-aged, body-painted Indians

These articles raised some interesting questions about how the public practices history. I think we had mentioned the re-enactors in class and considered them hobbyists, rather than professional public historians, but it was fascinating to delve into the details of the people (mostly one person) that really subscribe to it as more of a lifestyle than a hobby. Wikipedia entries were a surprising topic choice for me, as I hadn’t previously put much thought into who contributes, what is accepted, what obstacles contributors or editors face, etc. I think a common thread between the original articles, “Embedded with the Reenactors” and “The ‘Undue Weight’ of Truth on Wikipedia,” and also a topic that critics of these articles highlighted were questions of inclusion/exclusion, democratization of practice, and general demographics of participants in these two realms.

Something that I found telling in the Kowalczyk article was when his guides pointed out other reenactors: “That one over there is actually female; she’s a graduate of the Air Force Academy. Him over there, he’s a real Army colonel. Another is a meteorologist. Another is a schoolteacher. One’s a naturalist for the state of Ohio. And we have one young man with us on leave from Mosul in Iraq.” Considering Old Hickory’s military background as well, this gave me the overall impression that reenactors are more like the image Kowalczyk painted of Tim, basing his love of reenactments more on the joy of childhood games of cowboys-and-Indians and treehouse charters than on the historical pursuit of the subject. It may have been different if the reenactors were pointed out differently, with “her over there, she’s a real author on this battle. Another is a local museum expert of the subject, mainly the material culture surrounding the war. Another is a professor at the local college, and teaches on the war.” Overall, I wondered at the line of spectators, and what drew them in, especially when the actual battle was described as slow, boring, and with enough breaks for the overweight reenactors to catch their breath. I laughed along with Kowalcyzk at the prospects of Old Hickory finding a 18th century reenacting and sewing girlfriend, and at the wife chastised by her husband for using her cell phone. I did marvel at Old Hickory’s commitment in the Washington-Rochambeau March as well as his borderline obsession with being, not portraying, Andrew Jackson. I do wonder, like The Atlantic author Levin, at the continued popularity of reenactments, and if it will be a dying hobby. I didn’t realize that there were reenactments of Vietnam and Korean War era battles, and I find it hard to believe that anyone would want to reenact the Iraq or Afghanistan conflicts, though that is probably because we are more embroiled in the current emotional issues surrounding the war, whereas in the future what remains is the factual accounts of the events and a desire to honor the legacy of those that participated, like the current reenactments of the F&I War. I appreciated The Historiann’s treatment of the Kowalcyzk article, questioning the inclusion and exclusion of the narratives and subjects portrayed in reenactments. For reenactments to tastefully include non-majority groups (unlike the body-painted white “Indians” in the F&I reenactment), they must be willing to attribute agency and historically important roles to the normally excluded “others.” I would optimistically say that these types of reenactments would be an interesting exercise, but considering how racialized wartime narratives have been preserved up to this point I don’t see it likely that reenactments could portray the Iraq war, for instance, without demeaning the enemy. I would, however, like to see reenactments of subjects like Cesar Chavez’s march, African American civil rights events, and others suggested in the Historiann article, but I do doubt that very many “middle-aged white men” could be “persuaded to cede the heroic roles to other reenactors,” unless they really are interested in representing the entire narrative, perhaps as actors, activists, and even professional historians.



Historic Pres pt. II

I think I was on the same page as everyone else regarding this reading-  I loved the second half of the Tyler book and had to start dog-earring pages after I ran out of sticky tabs.

I was glad the text explained the National Register Criteria, Criteria for Exclusion, and types of intervention which I had attempted to explain and botched in class last week. One thing I found interesting was that they mentioned in passing the 50-year rule, but didn’t go into notable exceptions as much… surely there are better examples than the original McDonald’s from 1953. In my mind, very notable structures can gain huge historic significance very quickly if some sort of event of national or global significance occurs there. Obviously 50 years is an arbitrary number. Another intriguing idea was that an owner would request for a property to lose its designation, which is generally not allowed. I wondered at why a property owner would request to be de-designated, especially after learning how designation doesn’t provide any real protection or obstacles for making changes to a property. Perhaps it is due to the same misunderstanding that people have about not wanting to designate properties in the first place. In fact, these misguided concerns were laid out very clearly as possible basis of opposition to the designation of historic districts later on in the text, though these were more concerned with ideas of profit loss at a business level.

The chapter on preservation technology (ch. 7) was helpful from the get-go at answering many of the questions I had raised last week about what exactly one does when they work in preservation, and what the qualifications are. This explanation was both disheartening and encouraging : “Work in the field of preservation technology is multidisciplinary, involving architects, engineers, planners, archeologists, architectural and object conservators, curators, educators, managers, tradespeople, historians, contractors, technicians, and students” (p. 189). Obviously this is an overwhelmingly technically skilled, professional group of tradesmen/women. The very small sliver of hope for us MAHR folks, then, is as conservator, curator, or historian. Of course even conservation technology/skill is something that each of us would need to learn through specific field training. The research and documentation of historic properties, on the other hand, is something each of us is very equipped to handle. My first thought in reading this was “well this is what Kaci does on a daily basis.” Though Tyler gave a great overview of the different resources that are used in historic property research, he was less detailed in telling us how or why this research is even necessary, what it is used for, how to find the previous research, etc. I think this was a missed opportunity as this information is not only subject of federal programs like HABS but invaluable in gaining designation, lobbying against new development, and building a case for preservation to begin with.

Tyler also mentioned the examples of Uluru and Sangre de Cristo Mountains as culturally significant landscapes, and that many times indigenous peoples fight for usage limitations for these types of landscapes. Something that we discussed in my CRM course that was interesting was that not only can these groups lobby to protect the sites themselves, but the skyline of the greater area surrounding these sites, or any adjacent areas of development for having an environmental impact on trails used to access these sites, noise pollution, or disturbing the view. Some of this information is a bit foggy so if Dr. Green comes to our class this might be something to discuss.

I was also impressed at Tyler’s treatment of rural preservation and countering urban sprawl. I had always heard about urban sprawl as a problem-child of rural-turned-suburban areas, especially growing up in Meridian/Eagle, but I never realized there were actually actions being taken to prevent it. This discussion also gave us a really useful background discussion if we end up using it as one of our conversation topics for Common Grounds.

Lastly, the chapter on heritage tourism (ch. 11) was my personal favorite, since history and travel are my biggest passions. I loved the idea of improving sight-seeing tourism with living history interpretations and history and culture-based introductions of cities rather than superficial sight-seeing based tourism, which could be considered sort of the facadism of heritage tourism. Anytime I go to a new city for the first time, I like to do a quick bus tour, usually with a hop-on hop-off component to get my bearings of the geography and a quick overview of the history, development, and different districts of the place. Though these are always a great introduction to a new place, the most memorable of these will always be the tour I took in Savannah, when I showed my mom the city on her first trip. It was completely unexpected, but we had probably 4 or 5 “characters” join us on our tour, including Forrest Gump and a confederate soldier. I was also fascinated by the case study of Cape Hatteras lighthouse. Though I visited the site about a year and a half ago, I either didn’t learn or didn’t remember that they actually moved the entire structure a half mile inland due to coastal erosion. Considering the steep cost of $12 million, I wonder why they didn’t move it even further to prevent having to move it again in the not-so-distant future. I can imagine part of it has to do with making sure it is still in its coastal context.


Historic Preservation

Although I had a lot of the information on federal preservation policy pounded into my head between interning at SHPO, a cultural resource management class here at Boise State , and in the actual process of reaching Section 106 compliance in the historical guard tower reconstruction at Minidoka, I found this a highly engaging piece that covered the basics of preservation pretty well.

Was anyone else blown away that Independence Hall was one of the first examples of American Preservation? I am constantly running across Independence Hall in readings for this class as well as personal reading, and they really do seem to have a lot going for them in terms of setting precedents for historic preservation and interpretation. I was surprised to see how far back that legacy reaches. I think one of my favorite sections of the text was on matching, contrasting, or compatible addition designs. The Church Court Condos and Greenwich Village townhouses were fascinating case studies. I loved the treatment of both, and would find it exciting to live in an apartment with the shell of a historic church built into it, though I think many would easily find this an inappropriate adaptation of a historic structure. I think it is inspiring to see the ways in which the architects considered the historic significance of the townhouse, and symbolically represented it in a compatible design that still stood out. It is never a guarantee, though, that architects will value the significance or context of a building, or that developers will find anything worth saving after considering their impacts through Section 106 compliance. Local examples of this are obvious with the urban renewal that wiped out Chinatown and so many amazing structures. A contrast, then, would be the Owyhee renovation, which has turned out to be very engaged with the community and uses so many beautiful and original structural and design details.

As an aside, if this interested you in any way I highly recommend Tom Green’s CRM class. It’s a graduate anthro class but it covers all of the history of preservation law, actually navigating the policies, ethics and philosophies  of cultural heritage preservation in the US and how it differs in other countries, case studies of Section 106/NEPA/NAGPRA compliance, advice for pursuing careers in federal agencies, etc. Dr. Green used to be the Idaho Deputy SHPO and directed the Arkansas Archaeological Survey so he has a lot of interesting experiences and advice. Really useful stuff, hoping it comes in to use for me someday in the future.

That said, I really do enjoy the idea of working in preservation. Reading this stoked an old flame and kind of got my wheels turning. I even started googling historic preservation professional certificates. As much as I want to be done with school forever, things like preservation, conservation, archiving, etc. seem to involve such specific, technical skill sets that you can’t really learn unless you’re in a practicum/field work type situation. Similar to Michelle, it is pretty disconcerting to think I would have to do an additional MA or MS to have enough of a practical background in preservation to be employable. Architectural history seems pretty simple to study, and could be condensed into a short course. Most of the styles here in Idaho I’ve picked up just by reading NRHP nominations.I would also like propose a conversation in class to discuss the options for breaking into this field or what exactly one does when working in preservation… Having seen a small corner of what happens at SHPO, it seems like a lot of lobbying, paper pushing, and bureacracy, so not all that appealing. Although that comes from someone hoping to secure employment within the umbrella of Department of Interior…I’d rather be involved in a more hands on way. Not by chaining myself to an old building that is about to be razed, but perhaps in the field working on actual restoration and preservation. Maybe I actually could draw on some of my construction management skills… Another aside, if anyone is really interested in learning more about character-defining features, Secretary of the Interior’s standards for historic preservation, or some really cool examples of different types of properties around the state, I know both Tom Green and SHPO have presentations they do for different agencies/partners/tribes/firms etc.

As far as pres here in Boise, I think the Boise Architecture Project is a very cool initiative. To involve students at such a young age in a public service project that directly benefits the city, and gets them interested in and learning real skills in preservation seems like such a win-win. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve drawn on that resource when I find myself curious about different buildings around the city. It’s interesting to see how things differ between 2010 and now with those “Endangered in Boise” listings, one of the most disconcerting being the Central Addition homes. Right now there is an entire block of Queen Anne houses all boarded up, and I can only think that they’ll end up being razed. Preservation Idaho tried/is trying to raise funds to purchase/preserve them, but they have a long way to go… Check out their site on this here.

Preservation Idaho also considers Minidoka to be a threatened site. Though it is a National Park, meaning any development in the area or using agency funds must follow Section 106 compliance, as many of you noticed not all preservation policy actually has teeth. Since receiving monument, then park status, and recently benefitting from federal grant programs for Japanese American Confinement Sites to restore some of its structures, Minidoka is in very high danger of losing everything. This is because they are currently fighting a huge CAFO, or concentrated animal feeding operation being established within a mile of the park. This could mean nearly 10,000 head of dairy a mile upwind, completely eradicating any visitor experience value and very negatively impacting the ability of the park to serve its mission. Friends of Minidoka and NPS are working together, along with the support of community members, in reaching land trade agreements to move it elsewhere or otherwise mitigating the effect of the CAFO. This has been an ongoing battle for almost 5 years. See what Friends of Minidoka are working on at their website.

Tyler’s book noted that National Historic Landmark nominations can be accessed in person in DC, but you can also access them here in Boise at SHPO’s office. They also have most of them scanned and linked online as PDFs. I actually pull these up on my phone all the time, to tell the poor people around me about the buildings we are in/near/passed on the way to get lunch. Here is a link if you’re interested. 

On Appealing to Creators and Lurkers

The Participatory Museum is perhaps one of the most useful reads we have had so far. I appreciate that Nina Simon has thoroughly developed design models surrounding types/ levels of participation, but also spews out basic brainstorming around each of the types to get the ball rolling for readers and perhaps spawn creativity in translating the case studies and levels of interactivity into their own institutions.

Firstly, I love the idea of “multi-directional content experiences.” It seems common sense that not every museum visitor should have the same experience or take-away from their visit. In fact, even if this is what the institution was aiming for it would be impossible since every visitor has their own unique set of experiences, values, preferences, that shape their understanding. Why, then, is there so often a single narrative and direction in which to follow it? The idea, then, of “opportunities for diverse visitor co-produced experiences” to me reads like a choose-your-own-adventure story. I find it thrilling and democratizing that visitors should shape their own experience in the place, and even more so when Simon considers the ways in which an individual visitor’s actions can shape the experiences of other visitors in the me-to-we vein.

I also appreciated Simon’s different types of web participants and how that could translate to an institution. Not everyone is a creator, some choose to consume media as spectators, other simply like to lurk. Further, these identities should be structured as a continuum, or a fluid identity that changes between moments, platforms, subjects, etc. I also liked that in encouraging increased opportunity for participation in museums, Simon continuously reminds us that we shouldn’t simply replace the rigorous content-driven approach with co-curated level 5 interactivity, but to create opportunities for each type depending on the preference of the users. Another idea we have previously discussed that reappeared in this reading is the idea of dissonance, and productively using it as an opportunity to advance dialogue. My favorite example of dissonance here was the use of profiling/division as a tool, in separating visitors to the Apartheid Museum upon entry. This could be used in institutions with missions related to race, gender, or other types of identity that have been politicized at certain points in time. It needs to be used gently as does create discomfort, but I think the dissonance can be particularly useful in helping visitors understand the discomfort that certain individuals experience(d) daily. I think this goes beyond the passport/nametag approach that tries to encourage identification with historical figures on a surface level.

Like Katrina, I tremendously enjoyed the scaffolding model for encouraging participation in a guided manner. It seems odd that a blank canvas is more daunting than a coloring book page, especially to sophisticated audiences of cultural institutions, but the guided-participation approach is more productive for both the institution and the visitor. I think one aspect in which it is more useful for the institution is that it stays relevant to the theme or learning objective of the exhibit it corresponds to, ensuring that its later incorporation or display (which Simon points out is an integral part of developing the participatory model into the higher stages) remains relevant, educational, dialogic, etc. for the institution and later (perhaps returning) visitors.

I was drawn to the “I like museums” trails, and I think it is an important lesson in curation vs. contribution. While originally the editors/staff created trails surrounding specific interests, visitor types, location, etc., the ability for the museum-going public to contribute their own trails not only creates interactivity between visitors with different interests but contributes to a deeper understanding to the value of institutions to unexpected visitors. If there isn’t an American version of this I think there should be. I also liked the paper approach in museums which is easily replicable. I think one of the insights I gained from Simon is that every participatory initiative need not be an expensive, time-consuming, digital platform, but can be similarly accomplished in simple traditional ways such as brochures of different guided tours depending on your mood, “talk to me about stickers,” a plywood advice booth, physical “punch cards” on a wall, sticky notes, and voting booths. An institutional model I gained a lot of insight from was the idea of different levels or types of memberships, which allow visitors to customize their own interactions with the institution and gain a certain experience from them depending on their desires or interests. I think this could be easily applied to the focus groups and behind-the-scenes experiences Simon mentions, but could also be useful in more “risky” encounters such as the dialogue series we have mentioned in class.

Informational Interview with a Consulting Historian

I interviewed Morgen Young of Alder, LLC. Morgen is a consulting historian based in Portland, Oregon.

Morgen received her B.A. in History, with a concentration in Latin American Studies from Furman University in South Carolina. She went on to receive an M.A. in Public History, with a specialization in Historic Preservation from the University of South Carolina. The main impetus to pursuing public history came to Morgen in the form of a job she held for one year between her undergraduate and graduate studies. She worked as the Cultural Research Coordinator for an Alaska Native Corporation in Anchorage, Alaska. While there, Morgen directed an oral history program to document subsistence traditions, and helped manage a language preservation project. In hindsight, Morgen realizes that that position gave her valuable experience working in the capacity of public historian as well as consulting historian. That experience convinced her to go to graduate school, where she initially enrolled in a traditional history M.A./Ph.D. program. Realizing she didn’t want to teach, she switched to the Public History program by the end of the first semester.

Morgen claims she owes her post-graduate success to being obstinate. Upon finishing grad studies she moved to Portland, and unable to find paid or even voluntary work, she convinced her former employer in Alaska to hire her on a freelance basis for a project. From there, she says, she “registered a business and slowly, but surely began acquiring clients. Now I work full time as a consulting historian.”

Alder, LLC provides a variety of services, from researching house, company, community, and family histories; working in preservation through National Register of Historic Places nominations and Oregon Special Assessment applications; conducting and transcribing oral histories; developing and curating exhibits and museums; writing and editing reports, articles, digital and web content, and marketing materials; educational walking tours, lectures, and workshops; as well as providing photography. Because of this broad array of services, Morgen doesn’t really have a “typical day on the job.” Some days she meets with clients, some days she conducts research in both physical archives and by utilizing digital resources, and some days she focuses on writing content. Morgen also noted the importance of devoting “a fair amount of time” to project management, considering that “on any given day, I’m focusing on anywhere from two to ten projects.” Because of the solitary nature of her work (she is the sole employee of her business), Morgen says her favorite part of her work is working directly with community members. She says that any opportunity to work directly with people is both wonderful and rewarding.

Morgen notes that her skills as a good public historian, namely research, interpretation, and educating outside of a traditional classroom setting have prepared her for a wide variety of work. While she doesn’t have specific technical skills in the digital aspects, she can populate an existing website with her content and appreciates the advantages of digital platforms and works with web designers to achieve them. She has experienced an ability to reach new audiences and interact with multiple generations, through web platforms and social media marketing, and by combining both physical and digital components.

As a last bit of advice, Morgen recommends that young public historians engage with the National Council on Public History. She has been involved since grad school and found it helpful when seeking employment and volunteer opportunities. She has served as a Co-Chair of the NCPH Consultant’s Committee, and is currently a candidate to serve on the Board of Directors.

* I learned about Morgen’s work through her Uprooted Exhibit, which is currently on display at the Minidoka County Historical Society Museum in Rupert. See the project website here:

Museums and a Culture of Justice

This week’s readings regarding the role of museums in responding to current events centered around ideas of social justice all came from a progressive, activist stance within the museum field. A fundamental question to the readings was “what is the role of museums?” in addressing social justice, current events, race, activism, etc. In this regard, they were all in agreement that museums do have a role. No one argued that they don’t. I thought the articles/blog entries were inspiring, but only a few times did they mention the landscape they are up against. Perhaps it is difficult in this time to find anything written from a staunchly opposite viewpoint, but I am interested in the type of resistance proponents of socially conscious institutions face. One roadblock that was mentioned surrounded funding, a reoccurring and discouraging aspect of museum work for us this semester. Writing about the invisible histories of privileged institutions which are linked to infrastructures of colonialism and slavery, Trivedi remarks, “Now that I’ve worked at a museum for some time, I have a better understanding of why these histories aren’t included in museums’ narratives. Museums and cultural institutions in the U.S. function in an economic system that requires us to make decisions that will lead to reliable monetary outcomes.” This theme of brushing difficult or disruptive subjects under the rug as to not upset the precarious balance of traditional values and big-name endowments to an institution is a reality in the field at large. How can it be overcome to allow for the type of engaging, productive, community-focused education that the institutions in these articles advance?

That said, I do agree that museums have a social responsibility to address difficult issues that are happening in their environment, rather than act as a utopian space of humanity and enlightenment. They should serve as forums for community discussion, key players in community building, provide opportunities for continuing education, and a safe space for questioning and healing.

Two articles or examples stood out to me the most. First, the Northwest African American Museum’s #Ferguson PechaKucha stood out as an innovative way to build community and address pertinent national issues in locally-driven way. The featured panelists didn’t act as authorities on a topic, but were chosen to open discussion and introduce ideas from a broad range of perspectives. The use of the hashtagging continued the conversation locally, allowed participants to broadcast their perspectives during and following the event, and allowed them to participate in a national conversation. In this event, the museum served as a safe space for people to connect with the issue, engage each other in addressing it, shape a broader conversation, and provide tools for activism. It can be easily replicated in other institutions, dealing with a variety of issues. It allows the institution to participate in community building and in social justice in a democratic way, making their resources available without defining the way they will be used. Heeding the advice of Adams in “Practical and Compassionate Advice on Museums and Community Conflict,” however, this model can go even further. Adams cautions against reactionary engagement,  arguing that “Exhibits and programs with a community focus should not happen only after a tragic community event, but take place throughout the year.  By providing a space for difficult conversations on issues of race, class, gender identity, and immigration, museums establish themselves as a place where communities can come together to discuss conflict and begin to find resolution.” This is in the same vein as dialogic musuems and something that Sites of Conscience especially keep as part of their mission, but I think it is something both important and possible for a variety of cultural institutions, which broadly aim to serve the public.

Slavery and Public History

I thought this was a powerful read that was jam-packed with inspiring reflections on the links between collective memory, place, and the intricacies of presenting difficult history. I must be a glutton for punishment, because I’d love to be involved in the tricky interpretation at the types of sites explored in these essays, especially the national parks.

Blight’s piece on memory and history stood out to me as the root difficulty of interpreting sites or historical moments of shame or conscience. Particularly useful was the equating of history and memory to a contrast between reason and emotion; history stands out in its (theoretically) secular tradition of carefully crafted, painstakingly researched argument, whereas memory functions as the sacred property of an individual or group, blurring together a site and its context where history seeks to tease out the complexities between the two. The polarity of secular and sacred speaks highly to type of ownership and intense reactions people have to the stories discussed in the rest of the book.

Horton’s piece raised an interesting question to me, especially in light of my fond reaction to the previous piece we read on dialogic history. I think dialogue-minded site interpretation is a venerable task, working to inspire action as a result of visiting a site of conscience. Horton’s piece raises the question of what a nationwide dialogue on these difficult subjects might look like, and if it is even possible. Time and time again the book mentioned the overarching uncomfortableness of visitors, both black and white, to antebellum sites that introduced the interpretation of slavery. Much of this was tied to context, such as the taboo discussion of slavery inside a plantation home of a powerful or historically important figure, but the ready attention of visitors to the culture of the enslaved in an area equated with servitude or separate quarters. I think a big barrier to productive national dialogue is the astonishing lack of knowledge of the American public of contentious history, or in some cases very basic history. I was in disbelief at the public history education statistics and ignorance of slavery in curriculums, though perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising considering similar treatment of Japanese incarceration, a much more recent historical blemish. Public historians are tasked then, not to dive right in to these juicy thought-provoking dialogic interpretations, but first with the responsibility of basic education of the bare facts. I have a hard time reconciling the idea that a costumed Williamsburg interpreter can still be barraged with anachronistic ideas and insults that they are trying to educate the public away from with one author’s cautioning against underestimating the public’s ability to discuss complex and sensitive issues in the appropriate context. I guess a main takeaway from this book then, is a survey of the current national landscape for public historians. We are tasked with a complicated goal of confronting difficult history and the equally difficult current issues that are legacies of these histories, in a way that both educates the public on the basic facts and teases out complex and layered interpretations.

I highly enjoyed the piece on Philadelphia’s Independence NHS, perhaps because it was a lesson in how not to act as an NPS interpretive planner: in support of the grand narrative of American exceptionalism, in ignorance of academic history, and without collaboration with experts on the subject or in the local arena. It made me ponder on Kaci’s objections that academic and public historians have the same goals – I think that broadly they do have the same goals, but their missions are made complex considering audience and context. This piece was inspiring in the public’s desire to receive the entire history, blemishes and all, at a place so susceptible to ignoring the painful past to glorify an honored national myth. The international dialogue that the Library of Congress incident sparked was surprising, as I wondered how Mining the Museum received such a contrasting reaction, as both could be viewed as an insulting version history to any of the institution’s workers. Perhaps it is entirely dependent on which set of workers is insulted and what is viewed as politically correct. I loved the combined interactivity and dialogic nature of the feedback comments in the MLK Library’s exhibition, and again the public outpouring of support to confront a difficult history. An interesting idea in these examples is the role of dissonance in aiding historical understanding, and the role of the site to serve as a forum for this confrontation. It seems like something public historians would generally try to avoid, when in fact it seems to signify a sort of point of no return for visitors, who have no choice but to confront their understanding of a difficult history and question the motives behind its past interpretations and its current relevance.

I thought the discussions of Rhode Island’s examples of confronting slavery in cultural institutions could also prove to be instructional to our class. It seems the letter-writing and collaborative campaigns to introduce more critical, informed interpretations of historic sites really are effective, and I was reminded of the possibility of our doing something similar to improve the state of historic interpretation of state history here in Idaho…

Letting Go: Part 2

I’m not exactly sure what it was, but the second part of this book didn’t quite grab my attention like the first half. The examples didn’t seem as diverse as in the first half, perhaps since they were all surrounding the theme of artists in public history, and maybe because it didn’t enter discussions of agency, shared authority, and the role of visitors like the first half. I thought they kind of beat a dead horse in showing how the two fields of art and history could converge, but that is just my opinion.

I thought the piece on community performance in West Philadelphia did a good job at exploring issues of power in embarking on a project in a disadvantaged community. I liked how Yalowitz stressed his and the students’ role of being led by community members, acting as listeners and learners, then offering their skills to assist the residents in telling their story. This is an important aspect of the community-collaboration model, especially when working in historically oppressed communities. It was interesting to consider the ways that the project itself could be at danger of repeating institutional racism in the way it was carried out.

Like others, I have been interested in StoryCorps for a while now so it is interesting to see representations from advocates and critics of their work, and the different spheres it can be evaluated in: history or…not history. I think it is very possible to appreciate it for what it is, not for by-the-book oral history and its traditional uses, but for “inculcating history-mindedness.” It encourages broader audiences to consider the stories and hidden pasts of everyday people, and appreciate the every-man role in making history. These aren’t groundbreaking reflections, just reminders that arise from considering the subject in the readings.

Perhaps the most intriguing example of art in public history for me was Dennis Sever’s House. House museums are such a ubiquitous part of the American historical landscape, from the really mundane to the extraordinary, so it was interesting to consider it in a sort of upside down approach. I think I might prefer the absence of a docent, though it would be unsettling not to have any reference or interpretive material. I like the idea of having it appear lived-in, as a snapshot of a specific time in a way that comes to life. Sever’s house is troubling for historians in that it is more of an art installation than a typical historical site, with anachronistic features arranged throughout. I think it is both satisfying and troubling in the same vein that historical fiction is to academics; it is “real” enough to be immersed in it, but chock-full of historical inaccuracies that in some ways serve to paint a prettier or more vivid picture. So do you credit it for drawing in the atypical visitor/audience, or discount it for all of its fluff and incorrect history? I think I would quite like to visit Sever’s house, it reminds me of being on the set of a historical drama – like Downton Abbey, plastic water bottle on the mantle included.