City Historian, Brandi Burns

For my interview I chose Brandi Burns. Brandi is the Historian for the Boise Department of Arts and History. I have had the opportunity to work with her in developing some of the pieces of the Boise plat walk tour in July. Since Brandi is so well spoken, I shall let her responses serve as their own introduction.

ZB – You are a city historian which means you are involved in lots of stuff. If you could boil down what you do in a sentence or two—or a paragraph—what would you say?

BB – I serve as the Boise City Department of Arts & History’s Historian, which means that I see to the day-to-day operations of the History Division of the Department, as well as work on a variety of projects, including overseeing the publication of a weekly article for the Department’s blog; various projects for the BOISE 150; answer research questions from the public and other City departments; and maintain the oral history collection at the department.

ZB – What types of projects do you work on? Are there those that you feel are more successful? How do you measure the success of a particular project?

BB – Some of the projects I have worked on in the last six-nine months include a large digital tour of historic locations around Boise, which will be unveiled in April 2013; preparation and planning for a walking tour of the original Boise City plat for July 2013; a lecture about the love lives of Boise residents that I presented in February 2013; and preparation for an exhibit in the BOISE 150 Sesqui-Shop in April 2013. I’ve also worked on oral histories, content for the website, other exhibits, and collection management. The most successful projects in my opinion are the ones that the public and/or participants enjoys the most—I like oral histories for that matter because the narrator always seems liking having someone sit down and listen to their stories. Our blog has been very successful as well, and I attribute that to our writer’s voice, the sound historical research, and the medium the content is delivered through.

ZB – What issues do you run into in completing, or initiating a project?

BB – One of the biggest issues is that every project takes longer than you think it will, and you are often juggling several projects at once. It’s important to have progress deadlines, and to report about the tasks that you have completed. A project can also become more complicated when you have more than one person working on it, but it is so wonderful to be able to have interns at the Department to help rely on. We get to work on such a variety of projects that it also helps interns gain the experience that they are looking for.

ZB – While we’re on the topic of projects…do you get to pick your own, or are they assigned, or a blend?

BB – Projects are a blend of being assigned and picking your own project. So far I have not worked on a project that I haven’t enjoyed, even if it was assigned. I have also had the ability to work on projects that I have specifically picked, including a series for Preservation Month about the Homestead Act, presentation topics, and the blog.

ZB – Do you work with a particular demographic, social class, or an occupation?

BB – We try to have a wide appeal and tell inclusive histories. But I think we tend to appeal to the traditional history crowd, which tends to be a little older, while the twenty- and thirty-somethings are not as engaged. I think we are widening the crowd however with the great things we are doing with the BOISE 150. The Sesqui-Shop appeals to many groups and we are reaching people who didn’t even think that they would like to become engaged with local history. Our Think & Drink event in February drew a large crowd, and our big event planned for July 7th to commemorate the founding of the city will bring in a big crowd. Our Sesqui-Speaks lecture series is also bringing in people we have never seen at our other events, so the BOISE 150 project is really reaching new groups in the community.

ZB – What would be your ideal project? If you could choose (and had the money for) any project, what would it be?

BB – Remnants of Boise, the project that will be unveiled in April, has been my ideal project. It has combined digital history, research, interpretation, and traditional experiences like exhibits. It has been exciting, and I can’t wait to see what everyone thinks in April.   

ZB – How is your position funded? how are your projects funded?

BB – My position is funded with money for the BOISE 150 project right now, as are many of the projects that we are working on.

ZB – I know you work a lot with digital history. What do you see as the future for public history in the digital realm?

Digital history is very exciting! We have this great opportunity to create new ways to engage with audiences in meaningful ways. It makes public history easier to disseminate, and to help the audience engage with during their busy schedules. But it is just another tool for historians—we can’t forget the traditional tools of brochures, and interacting with a human being who can tell the stories of a place during a tour, or an engaging presentation. Everyone does not have a smart phone, and who can tell how long QR codes and other things of that nature will remain popular? Just as an example, I went to Spokane for a conference, and I really wanted to experience the city as a heritage tourist. But I could only find one brochure for the downtown core that was a self-guided walking tour. They had other tours online but I had no way of getting to the brochures while I was on foot, and when I tried to print them, they would not print in a usable way. It was terrible and frustrating. I kept thinking “how would someone not familiar with how to find resources like these tours experience the history of Spokane on their own?” “What would they do? Where would they go? What if they were like me and incapable of accessing online material on the go?” For me it was a real lesson in making sure our online content can be supplemented with paper, and thinking of how our paper can be supplemented with online content. We need to remember to create content for these two types of ways to experience history…much of it can be the same, but it should be presented in a way that each audience can gain something from the experience, and preferably not get frustrated.

ZB – What does your organization look for in hiring for a position such as yours? What level of education do they require?

BB – I know when I look for interns, I like to see an interest and a passion in local history (and that local history does not necessarily have to be Boise). If they have this interest and passion, than the skills that they bring can be transferred to create really great projects about Boise. Being an intern/part-time employee or contractor, you need a BA in history or some related field, and an MA/MAHR can really set you apart. My position needs to be filled with someone who has a Master’s.

ZB – Any advice for someone entering this field?

BB – Be flexible. Be flexible with both where you work (location and/or institution) and even where you volunteer. You never know when or where your volunteer hours could lead to a more permanent position. Concerning where you work, history positions can be anywhere, even if they do not specifically call out history in the job description—you have to really watch this in positions that appear to be doing digital history work. Historians can be great content providers in the IT field. I also like to remember, and it applies equally to anyone entering the field, that I don’t have to be trained in everything—like GIS mapping, or how to code a website, etc.—I’m a historian, and I can provide special analysis, interpretation, content, and point of view that may have been overlooked. Historians are great to have around, even if they are not fulfilling a traditional role. Your skills are marketable beyond the history field, so don’t sell yourself short.

Why don’t Historians Cry?

Perhaps historians don’t cry because they have little emotional connection with their subject.

Perhaps from years of logic, analysis and rational study we have trained ourselves against such purposeless reactions.

It was a scrumptious bit of irony that the name of the author defending nostalgia was Spock. On the other hand, in Star Trek VI, I believe it was that Spock actually seemed to develop an illogical response. Throughout the series, Spock served as both the logical informant and defender of human emotion. In In Defense of Nostalgia Dan Spock encourages the historian to remain in contact with that emotional connection to his subject, while also informing the public. He encourages museum workers (and by extension, I would suggest all public historians) to be both informant to the patron and defender of the his seeming irrational behavior. So, now that I have outed myself as a nerd…

So, why don’t we historians cry? Simply because it is illogical? Does emotion not have a place in a venerable institution that is the museum? Are we torn in the middle, knowing always that our reactions would be emotional if not for our careful analysis? Is it that internal conflict that keeps the tears at bay? Do we know so much about the past that we have, as Spock suggested, “Cauterized something in our own souls?” What might happen if a historian actually showed some emotion in a presentation? Should we not be moved to tears at the death of six million of a single ethnic group? Or the brutal torture of humanity that was slavery? Should we not despise the part of our own being that fears it might do the same in the same context? Yet it seems that these troubling emotions that we face, we tend to transform into anger and direct that toward the audience, as if they are the only beings capable of such atrocity. For me, I feel this is often the case. Somehow it is easier to believe that historians are wizards, somehow above that class of non-historical muggles with their absurd and uneducated approach to history, as if a story their grandpa told them could approach the edifice that is my own knowledge. But then I consider, if grandpa’s story of his childhood is not history, what is it? Is it fiction? Call it what you will, but I actually want to relate this to my current project which is oral history.

Historians talk about convergence of evidence, as if their job is more appropriately associated with criminal justice than humanities. Oral historians are repeatedly judged as lesser historians because they simply listen to stories, rather than do real historical research. This is a discussion in every oral history book I have read. The second discussion is a review of what history is. The difference between classical academic history and oral history is a matter of interpretation of the philosophy that drives the historian. It comes down to a basic understanding of whether the individual belongs in history or not. Spock touched on this issue too saying that history is discussed “as groups, as social classes” etc, and “rarely as individuals.” Yet the oral historian is entirely concerned almost exclusively with the individual. Most museum goers are not likely to tell their own story in terms of a social class, they will tell it in terms of what I will call the self-sun, the idea that history revolves around and acts in relation to me. Grandpa’s stories are a manifestation of my own identity. The activities that he took part in were not driven by a careful analysis of the circumstances, but his emotional reaction to stimuli. Likewise, his stories will be tainted with that emotion. Is that not history?–the telling of emotional reactions.

People want a museum where they can go to remember–a place they can experience, often emotionally, what their part is in this story of humanity. It is embarrassing for me to emotionally respond when my guide is a slate-faced, gray scale classifier. I at least want a place where my stories matter. I discovered recently, in searching through old Boise directories (for an entirely different reason) that my great-grandfather owned a business in a storefront on a street I drive nearly every day. The building is no longer there, but there is a story I have now. That is important to me. I would imagine that others are trying to find their connections as well. A museum, or a historical interpreter that cannot emotionally connect a person in relation to the history he is telling has failed to provide a useful experience for his audience. It would be great to have people who have gone through a museum provide a short description of what and how they connected, or if they did not connect. I have an inkling that most of their responses would be filled with “I” statements, and/or “My father told me…” or “An old family story goes…”. I bet few people would every give a dispassionate academic analysis of the old stuff in the museum.

Historians must find a way to relate emotionally, or at least provide a space for emotional reaction and connection within their discipline. Nostalgia must be made more central, stories must be told, people must be heard.

Ethics and Laws

There was some discussion in the readings this week about ethics vs. legality. This is a discussion that I frequently like to visit and consider in my own time. I find ethical considerations in general quite fascinating, mostly because it seems to be so important to peoples’ individualities. At the same time those individuals believe that their precedents are universal, or can at least be more broadly applied. This dichotomy seems to occur in many places—I am reminded of my own behavior saying that there are different historical interpretations to an issue, while at the same time ardently arguing for only one: usually my preferred interpretation. While there was a discussion in Deaccesioning about the difference between legal standard and ethical standards, it seems that most of those ethical standards derive from some legal basis. That is to say that when I consider it unethical to sell an artifact on the open market, I find the grounds for that ethic with an allusion to theft. Perhaps this is just the effects of growing up in a society that is completely saturated with the idea of law—a republic. Or perhaps it is something more. That is a discussion for another day, so you just read all of that to whet your appetite for what I really wanted to discuss: who owns the truth?


In Mining the Museum the question was asked, “Do museums have corners on historical ‘Truths’?” I believe this to be possibly the most important question that can be asked in consideration of public history. A shift has taken place in museums over the ages. They have gone from giant collections used mostly as bases for classification to interpretive devices (this was discussed last week). Generally truth is talked about in terms of interpretation. If that is the case, then it seems museums—and by extrapolation the historians working in those museums—are putting themselves in an extremely precarious position of dividing truth. If people trust museums to provide some sort of truth, and we as historians believe that truth to be a matter of interpretation, then are we not presenting a mere representation of the truth? And if this is the case and we are knowingly presenting something that is a matter of interpretation as truth, is that not deceptive? Is it then ethical to allow people to believe that what they are seeing is truth? The answer to this seems to be a disclaimer—a legal liability limiter. So we are right back at law versus ethics.


So this leads me to consider another issue and that is whether I am using law as a convenient cop out of the ethical quandary that is so often public history. In Deaccessioning the suggestion was presented to create written ethics standards. Perhaps ironically that sounds a lot like a legal codex. The discussion becomes further muddled when one realizes that it is extremely difficult to create ethical standards or legal standards for every situation. The ramifications for these questions crosscut every section of public history, from questions of artifacts—where they came from and who they belong to and how they were acquired—to administration—who owns the museum and their right to direct the presentation. While it seems that drawing a line between ethics and law is a solution, there seems to be a very practical and necessary relationship between the two and public historians ought to consider the cross-section or these.

Reinventing the Museum – Part I

Through the course of some research on Garden City history this week, I ran across an article on education and the need for reinvention in schools. The journal article was a practical analysis of schools that have done well at incorporating the precepts suggested by Charles Reigeluth in a chapter of a book that he edited on change in education. The article, which included Garden City Community School as a case study–the reason that I ran across it in the first place–discussed the need for change in education. It suggested a need not for reform or improvement, but for transformation–a complete change of form, a systemic overhaul. In reading “A Framework: Reinventing the Museum,” and “The Museum, a Temple or the Forum?” it struck me just how similar education and public history are in many ways. Both are tools to educate, both have historically used highly defined systems to effect that education, and both, under more severe public scrutiny have had a tendency to become defensive rather than responsive.

In the readings in “Reinventing the Museum,” I find a lot of discussion about how museums can reinvent themselves, how they should be more reflective, how they should be more sensitive and inclusive, and numerous other catchphrases and key words, what I don’t read as much is discussion of external perspective. Much of what is being said is from internal entities–people in the museum that are working off an already biased perspective of what they believe the public is experiencing. Socially, our culture is at a point that demands individualized education rather than en masse programs. The article on education talked about it in terms of industrial world vs. new world. In the former education was done for the purpose of producing a product that would function as a seamless part of a giant machine. The intent was to de-individualize the parties so that they could be controlled all at once in an efficient manner. The new world, the modern world, has seen a (caution: catchphrase ahead) paradigm shift in how society thinks about education. In this new world education is about the individual, it is about satisfying the belief that each person learns differently.

My questions are at a more philosophical level when it comes to museums. It seems that museums and the people that run them have identified that there is a problem. The solutions that are proposed, on the whole, seem to discuss what types of structures could be erected (both intellectually and physically) that would serve the public. What if it is those structures that are the problem? What if no structure could be devised that could satisfy the public? Perhaps the question that needs to be under greater scrutiny is how to effectively reach the public by individualization. Simply restructuring does not seem a rational course of action in a society and culture that dislikes structures and institutions. Of course individualization of history can sound a lot like (watch out, another catchphrase) selling out. But it seems to me that, if at some point the museum was born–and I am sure that it was a radical notion at some point in history–then at some point it must adapt, and that adaptation may be, nay, should be, as radical as the birth. Perhaps, the era of the museum is altogether over, and it is time to invent, rather than to reinvent. I don’t know. Thoughts?