Introduction written by Sarah Calise
Last week, April 15-18, all four graduate assistants at the Albert Gore Research Center–Brad, Casey, Evan, and Sarah–attended the annual conference for the National Council on Public History. In this blog post we will share our thoughts, reflections, and maybe a few critiques of the many sessions, working groups, and programs held at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Nashville. For all of us, it was our first time at an NCPH conference, and this year’s conference had a record-breaking attendance of over 800 public historians–that’s a lot of energized and passionate people! We mingled, networked, and reunited with colleagues from throughout the country and the world. We learned about innovative projects, took part in intense debates, and shared ideas about further connecting with the communities that public historians strive to serve. This year’s theme was “History on the Edge,” meaning how far can we push the borders of public history? It ignited provocative discussions concerning the limits of our profession. Each of us will summarize our experiences below.
Brad Miller: My first time attending NCPH was both exhausting and overwhelmingly rewarding. I had the great opportunity to present in a round table on Saturday with four other colleagues to talk about the MTSU Center for Historic Preservation’s approach to community-based preservation. I think it went very well and the discussion portion got into some core issues with preservation, namely the need to get past “beautiful buildings” and focus on lesser known buildings or landscapes and how people interacted with these built environments. Throughout the rest of the conference, one point that stood out to me was the need to interpret the whole story of the black freedom struggle, particularly Black Power. The popular narrative of the black freedom struggle remains very linear and celebratory, not to mention it generalizes a negative, militant image on organizations like the Black Panther Party. For example, one panelist found that there are very few historical markers recognizing places of importance to Black Power, and that this daily absence from the landscape only reinforces the movement’s marginalization on the memorial landscape of the nation. Reinserting these facets of the past back into the narrative and the landscape are important and will also help us understand the current social activism taking place in the African American community today.
Sarah Calise: NCPH was not my first rodeo, and I found it quite similar to the conferences I attend for the Society for American Baseball Research. These conferences are always slam-packed mental marathons from one profound and innovative discussion to the next, and then those conversations continue in hotel lobbies, at restaurants, and during any available downtime. It can be exhausting, as Brad mentioned above. No one is too old for a nap at a conference.
Overall, the content of the sessions was interesting and thought-provoking. One of my favorite sessions involved Joseph McGill from the Slave Dwelling Project, in which he invites people from the community to spend a night in a historic slave dwelling of some sort. The night before he presented, he spent the night at Travellers Rest. There is no script when he goes into these spaces; he stresses a flexible, free environment where participants can safely share feelings and experiences. The project stresses the power of place and engaging the community with the past. The true highlight of the conference for me personally, however, was meeting one of my favorite historians, Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries. He studies Black Power, the Black Panther Party, and the influence of grassroots organizing in the movement. He discussed the complete overhaul of exhibits at the National Civil Rights Museum and breaking down the myths of militancy. The popular narrative of the Civil Rights Movement typically neglects Black Power, and it is definitely not discussed in public schools. In the exhibits, he tries to create a continuity and narrative that makes Black Power more accessible to the common visitor. This is what public history is all about–making historiography more enticing to a mass audience and demonstrating how academic arguments relate to every day lives and current issues. A few of the critiques I have relate to the lack of sessions involving LGBT history and sports history, but maybe I can change that for next year’s conference in Baltimore!
Evan Spencer: Like Brad and Sarah, I loved my NCPH experience. I went to several panels that were thought-provoking. The whole experience made me extremely excited to get out there in the field so I can continue to be a part of these discussions as a professional public historian! All of the panels I went to were extremely enriching, but as the only archival management student among the graduate assistants, I’ll write about the “Community Archives” panel I went to.
The first speaker on the panel discussed finding the “hidden” collections within the African American community. The emphasis in archives is typically to gain physical control over records to ensure that they exist for long periods of time. However, gaining physical control can be problematic for a number of reasons: first, collections held within a community are often “hidden” or unknown to archivists. How do we find the collection in the first place? Second, and most importantly, communities may not want to relinquish control over their records (and for good reason, too!)
The historical record, which we archivists have claimed to protect, has been unkind to diverse and marginalized groups. History, for well…most of history, has been a very whitewashed, masculine enterprise. African American, women, LGBT, Native American–you name a “community,” you have probably named a group that has reason to be wary about an archivist coming in to “preserve your history.”
What is an archivist to do, then?
First, get to know people. Offer to listen to their stories, to hear history as they tell it. Don’t go into a community as a “knower,” but as a “learner.” Give up your conception of being a “keeper” of records. Building trust in communities takes time, but it is doable. The speaker shared personal success stories of gaining access to and eventually preserving photographs of an African American community in North Carolina. If she had gone into the community saying, “Give me your records, I want to preserve them!” people would have (and did) told her they didn’t have any records. With persistence and genuinely letting go of her perceived authority, she made successful inroads with the community.
This discussion was inspirational in a number of ways. Archivists haven’t viewed themselves as “passive stewards” of records for a number of years. This type of community activism is a way of actually connecting our desires to be more inclusive with the communities we want to include. Making connections and building trust within communities is a skill that must be more fully developed in the field in future years!
Casey Gymrek: As I was a complete conference noob, NCPH pleasantly surprised me with engaging enrichment and utter exhaustion. I participated as an audience member in several panels that challenged my approach to public history. Also, I was lucky in securing a spot in the “Speed Networking” opportunity and was fortunate to meet public historians working in the field! In many of the panels I chose, panelists discussed various approaches to interpreting history in new ways. My love for education makes me always on the lookout for possibilities to make history more interdisciplinary and welcoming to new types of visitors. One session I attended connected art with public history concepts. The session leaders came from a variety of museums and organizations but all attempted to give art a historical background. A particular program that interested me came from the Columbus Museum in Columbus, Georgia. Rebecca Bush, the museum’s curator of history described how the staff worked with Najee Dorsey, a local African-American artist to create Leaving Mississippi – Reflections on Heroes and Folklore. This exhibition highlighted Dorsey’s work, which used a mix of different media (paintings, sculpture, photographs) to tell the stories of civil disobedience participants in the 20th century. This partnered project showcased journeys of resistance against powerful oppressors. The curator discussed with the session participants how this exhibit allowed the museum to attract a new audience group. Prior to the exhibit, the museum had difficulty bringing in African American visitors, but found that partnering with a local artist from that community facilitated an openness and hopefully allowed for a new relationship to build.
Overall, my experience at NCPH was rewarding and immensely beneficial. My only critique would be a lack of LGBT history. I am hopeful that as NCPH grows and more public historians participate in conferences, we will see more professionals present LGBT history in exciting ways to the public. Let’s keep creating new opportunities and engage in meaningful conversations!
Now that the fun is over, we wish all of our colleagues the best as we push forward to finish up the semester. Summer is almost here!