Friday, April 15, 2011

Digital history: When a tool, when a toy?

One of the items discussed at The Public Historian editorial meeting in Pensacola on Thursday, April 7th was the January 5, 2010 blog post "History museums in a wiki world." In her 10th anniversary review of Wikipedia's roles and potential for public history applications, Lori Byrd Phillips, a project leader for WikiProject Public Art, describes current practices using the Wikipedia model and invokes Roy Rosenzweig's hopeful 2006 JAH essay. Respondents to the post, including Steve Lubar at Brown, suggest the importance of retaining the signed curatorial statement.

Members of the TPH editorial board located several examples in which history (and art) museums - Museum of the Chinese in America, the National Museum of American History at Smithsonian and Metropolitan Museum of Art have developed collections-based digital timelines & item descriptions, all with some degree of visitor responsiveness and interactivity.

A Friday afternoon conference session at Pensacola showcased a couple of projects that looked at digital media, public interaction and the delivery of program services. Michael Frisch from SUNY-Buffalo and Anne Conable from the Buffalo & Erie County Library presented work from a pilot program in public humanities that focused, first, on digitization of community-wide Depression era (1930s) collections from many institutions in the area and, second, on public access through inventive programming devices such as customized personal walking tours using the digitized materials and construction of public meeting formats structured around social
history/human dimensions of policy issues such as government's role in the arts. The quality of the images showcased was wonderful - portraits of musicians at work from the Colored Musicians Union, exquisite puppets produced during the WPA, Science Museum collections most of us would never see. Mark Tebeau discussed the regional history vignettes (using oral histories, documentary footage, historic images, voice over narration) produced at Cleveland Historical - a free mobile app developed by the Center for Public History and Digital Humanities at Cleveland State University - emphasizing, as Frisch and Conable had - the need to figure out one's audience; what do access and interactivity mean for them? Digitization is not useful if not connecting people to people. In Tebeau's view, mobile technology is an increasingly important tool in reaching audiences.

I am not doing justice to the content of the Buffalo and Cleveland images and oral histories in this brief discussion. However, both projects, along with a third quite different museum project at Connor Prairie that places visitors in the midst of a Civil War raid, grapple quite inventively with the issues of using digital technology to engage visitors and connect with them. These presenters have digitized with purpose and imagination - and a programming use in mind. To this end, they've created models well worth our collective attention.

~ Jo Blatti

Thursday, April 14, 2011

NCPH 2011 in the blogosphere

Aside from the conference reports and reflections here in the conference blog itself, there's lots of commentary on Pensacola 2011 by other bloggers:

A positive review of NCPH's focus on digital history and a report on "Constructing and Circulating Historical Narratives on Stamps" by Sheila Brennan of the Center for History and New Media

Priya Chaya's two-part round-up for PreservationNation, the National Trust for Historic Preservation's blog:
Part I
Part II
and her more personal reflection on food and public history in Pensacola (in which fried green tomatoes inevitably make an appearance)

Debbie Doyle's posts for the American Historical Association blog:
on the public plenary with author Tony Hortwitz
on international public history
and on the Civil War sesquicentennial plenary

Suzanne Fischer's report on THATCamp NCPH on her Public Historian blog

Leslie Madsen-Brooks's reflections on her Doing History blog about fee-for-service issues at public
history centers

Nicole Moore's ruminations on the conference on her Interpreting Slave Life blog

Monday, April 11, 2011

From blog to Wordle

Priya Chaya mentioned Wordle in the first installment of her post-conference wrap-up today, and I can never resist playing around with Wordle. So here is a word cloud generated from the postings here in the conference blog over the past week (click on it to see the full-sized version):

Wordle: NCPH 2011 Conference Word Cloud

Word clouds are seldom terribly deep, but they're fun!

Oh Freedom!: Roundtable on The Albany Movement

Singing "Oh Freedom!," chair Brian Joyner of the National Park Service began the session with music in the tradition of civil rights meetings typical of the Albany Movement. The importance of music to the Albany Movement continued as a theme in panelists’ answers to both Joyner’s and the audiences questions. After shortly describing this coalition of civil rights groups that challenged segregation in Albany, Georgia in 1961 and 1962, Joyner turned the session over to the roundtable discussion, asking questions about the Albany Movement both historically and as viewed and commemorated today.

The roundtable worked particularly well for this session. Panelists Jeanne Cyriaque of Georgia's Historic Preservation Division, Bill Austin of Dorchester Academy, and Marna Weston of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida ably answered Joyner and the audience’s questions and the audience eagerly discussed the issues and, with other authorities on the topics in attendance, even answered some questions! The session not only provided information about the Albany Movement, shedding light on its history and importance to the growth of the 1960s civil rights movement across the South, it also addressed some issues of particular interest to public historians, especially when thinking about race.

Discussion about connecting with African American communities emphasized building relationships. Marna Weston stressed the importance of long-term relationships and being patient; for instance, when he practicing oral history he gets to know the people he’s interviewing over a period of time, beginning by asking them questions about themselves. Relationship-building also begins within institutions. All panelists agreed that discussions about race with both colleagues and the community are hard but necessary. When approaching such discussions, be sure to listen and remember that people are people first. Through discussions and long-term relationships we can build collaborative efforts to create projects and programs that memorialize local events of particular significance to the African American community like the Albany Movement.

All panelists agreed that commemoration of local events and people is important. “People just want something,” Joyner said, and it is our job as public historians to make sure documentation is happening. We need to advocate even for simple recognition. For instance, while large projects like the National Register may be time-consuming or impossible for various reasons, we shouldn’t forget about other forms of commemoration like statues or state historic markers. The roundtable’s discussion brought to light the importance not only of learning about issues like the Albany Movement and their connection to wider histories, but also building relationships and making sure to document and commemorate local stories in order to better serve our diverse communities.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Teaching the Practicum Course: A Discussion Regarding Best Practices

Public historians’ most important skills cannot be learned by reading a book or listening to a lecture. In recognition of that, most public history programs require students to take at least one practicum course. Like an internship, a practicum course provides students with an opportunity to learn by praxis. It differs from an internship by enabling students to engage in dynamic, collaborative work under the guidance --indeed the sense of security—provided by a university course.

Perhaps because a practicum attempts to balance classroom learning and hands on experience, it is often difficult to find just the right ingredients for a satisfying and successful course. The National Council on Public History’s Curriculum and Training Committee is dedicated to working with public history educators to help establish useful guidelines for creating and running essential courses. Thus, on Friday morning, the committee sponsored a roundtable discussion on teaching the practicum course.

Session participants and audience members engaged in a lively and candid discussion that helped quantify the specific challenges of the teaching practicum.

The semester or quarter model for university can work against success in a practicum course for several reasons. First, students have been trained to believe the end of a semester is the exit point for a given learning experience. Most practicum experiences do not, however, fit neatly into a 9 week or 15 week session. Second, university professors are expected –even required—to craft a course syllabus that includes measurable goals and outcomes, establishes a calendar of readings and assignments, and identifies a clear class project. Yet, most practicum environments are fluid, requiring instructors to be flexible and class planning to remain open-ended.

Many practicum courses are based on partnerships with museums, preservation entities, historical societies and other external. On the one hand, these partnerships mean that students are engaged in real world work and they have the opportunity to develop relationships with professionals in the field. On the other hand, sometimes external partners define project parameters in ways that challenge public history educators and their more conservative colleagues to rethink the nature of scholarship and intellectual rigor. At its most basic level, this challenge means students are worried about how the class work will be counted and how they are assigned grades. At a more philosophical level, this challenge leads to another, pressing problem for public history educators.

The practicum courses are extremely labor intensive. They require instructors to build, nurture, and maintain partnerships; to become active participants in the learning process; and to carry on projects over the course of multiple semesters and multiple years. In departments that do not recognize collaborative work as scholarship or the maintenance of external relationships as departmental service, then, teaching practicum courses is often done in addition to meeting the terms of tenure and promotion.

Despite these daunting issues, session participants reinforced the idea that the practicum is a worthwhile and necessary educational tool. They identified several key ingredients that seem related to course success:

1.     A well designed project that can be accomplished in finite pieces over several semesters.
2.    A collegial partnership between like-minded individuals and complementary institutions
3.    Applying reflexive practice to the classroom
a.       Requiring students to think critically and candidly about their work process
b.      Revising assignments and readings in response to student needs
c.       Working with external partners to revise project goals as necessary
4.    Confronting departmental reluctance to recognize collaborative work as scholarly
5.      Participating in conversations about the nature of intellectual work and the value of a multi-disciplinary, complex learning environment in shaping students’ approach to research and their disposition toward public engagement.
6.      Educating colleagues about the labor required in designing and implementing public history courses and making sure that such courses are adequately accounted for in workload measurements
7.      Capitalizing on departmental and institutional commitments to civic engagement, service learning, and/or social entrepreneurship to help legitimize practicum courses, student work, and collaboration

This conversation is just beginning, and the summary in this blog entry is entirely my own. I likely have missed some issues that other session attendees believe are essential. My goal is to use this blog entry as the starting point for a longer and broader discussion about pedagogy, administration, and balance for public history educators. Please join me on the educators listserv or email me directly at if you are interested in taking the next steps for developing best practices guidelines for the practicum course.

Enshrining heritage, contesting development?

As I was blearily scanning the local free paper while waiting for my taxi to the airport at 5 a.m., my eye was caught by a report on the statistics about the residential demographics in Pensacola’s downtown. This is a part of the city that there has clearly seen heavy reinvestment in in recent years, much of it of the “culture-led” variety and most of it involving entities like the University of West Florida’s Public History program, our host for the conference.

Historic Pensacola Village is in a ten- or twelve-block area of the downtown that combines the picturesqueness of a living history site with the consumer-centrism of a tourist town. It’s pretty, but rather eerily empty except when there’s some kind of organized group activity. Lawyers’ and realtors’ offices seem to dominate, with the usual scattering of galleries, boutiques, and restaurants. The “village” moniker seems contrived; this is very obviously a historic district that’s being asked to take a lead role in a redevelopment effort.

According to the director of the Downtown Improvement Board, writing in the free paper (Downtown Pensacola Crowd, April 2011, p. 4), it has been relatively successful in doing that, despite the ongoing implosion of Florida’s real estate market and general economic woes. He points out that the new residents in the downtown skew slightly female (56%) and older (a third are retirees). Race was not mentioned, interestingly, but I feel pretty confident predicting that it would also skew white. 88% have been to college; a third have completed some grad school. Polled about their reasons for moving downtown, they mentioned convenience; proximity to the waterfront, cultural attractions, and restaurants; and walkability (although 87% do own cars). Ads and articles in the paper, and a few days of walking around the neighborhood, reveal a now-standard repertoire of strategies for encouraging this new population trend: performances and festivals (jazz, crawfish, wine, and goombay), open-air markets, and various other activities that turn the preserved and renovated historic environment into a space for recreation and consumption (for example, a cell-phone-powered treasure hunt using neighborhood clues in search of a $10,000 diamond ring).

None of us likes to think that we’re a party to gentrification, but you know what, folks? This is what gentrification looks like, and there’s no getting around public history’s central role in helping it happen in Pensacola. At the two conference sessions focusing on gentrification and public history, which others have also blogged about here, the focus was on what we might do to counter the powerful push toward the upscale, the professional, the white, the middle-class.

One strategy, which I’m of two minds about, is to try to bring the processes of historic preservation and culture-led redevelopment themselves into the picture somehow. In The Tourist, his classic work of tourism theory, Dean MacCannell called this “enshrinement.” In MacCannell’s formulation, putting the mechanisms of heritage and preservation themselves on display—as the archaeology displays (above) around Historic Pensacola District do—actually enhances a place’s stature and appeal for visitors, thus furthering its transformation into a sacralized “must-see” destination for tourists.

I saw another instance of “enshrinement” in the headquarters of West Florida Historic Preservation, Inc., where an exhibit about the redevelopment of the downtown area has been put on permanent display after its run at the nearby Florida State Museum. This takes more of a public history approach, historicizing the choices and dilemmas faced by those seeking to reverse the area’s architectural and economic decline. The panels pose sharp questions and invite real reflection, potentially challenging the standard urban narrative of decline and rehabilitation.

But…its potential is limited by its location, and the fact that it’s now likely to be seen only by those already within the same demographic stratum that the redevelopment project overall is trying to attract (professionals, museum-goers, public historians and archaeologists themselves). How might we move these critical conversations into other venues and connect them with discussions about housing, jobs, environmental responsibility, and other pressing issues? In other words, how might we introduce a bit of needed grit into the redevelopment machine to buy some time for more widespread reevaluation of what it does?

Saturday, April 9, 2011

History, the National Park Service, and the Public Good

I have waited until the conference was over to add my reflections to this blog, partly because I was not sure what to focus on. Plus, the conference was so busy! Now, relaxing in my room overlooking the highway flyovers the dominate parts of the Pensacola downtown landscape, I would like to pull together some insights before heading out to the beach for a few hours.

This year's meeting felt like a conference within a conference, as a majority of my time was consumed with conversations that relate in some way to the large three-year study I'm working on with colleagues Marla Miller (UMass-Amherst), Dave Thelen (Indiana University), and Gary Nash (UCLA) on the "state of history in the National Park Service." The project, originally conceived by former NPS Chief Historian Dwight Pitcaithley and carried forward by current Chief Historian Bob Sutton, is co-sponsored by the Organization of American Historians.

The project started in 2008 and has involved a large survey of NPS personnel working in and around history, dozens of conversations with current and former NPS employees and interested scholars outside the agency, and site visits to a number of parks and offices. We've met with top NPS leadership, including Director Jon Jarvis, and have conducted focus groups at NCPH meetings, OAH meetings, and the National Association of Interpretation meeting. The aim is to produce a survey of current practice and recommendations for the revitalization of history in the agency; a final report is due August 1.

As I'd expected, this NCPH meeting proved a productive time for getting some final input from many quarters. On Thursday, Marla and I conducted a session dedicated to discussion of our preliminary findings with about 40 people, many of whom have given input ever since we began. On Friday, Marla met with a about a dozen NPS historians, and on Saturday, we heard an inspiring talk in which the new NPS Associate Director for Cultural Resources, Stephanie Toothman, detailed her vision. We spent the rest of the meeting, it seemed, huddled in one corner or another having one-on-one conversations with NPS staff members or contractors we'd planned to meet.

What was somewhat unexpected was how well several sessions that were completely unconnected to our project fed us some fantastic ideas, information and insights. Let me share a few:

At a session on Thursday on "Integrating History into Landscape-Level Conservation Initiatives," three speakers (Catherine Moore from National Parks Conservation Association, Rachel Kline from Heritage Stewardship Group USDA Forest Service Enterprise Unit, and Alexandra Wallace from Colorado State's Center for Environmental Management of Military Lands) presented creative ideas for how history work done to fulfill the mandates of either natural resources conservation or federal historic preservation legislation can be repurposed to provide interpretive and educational historical outreach to public audiences.

Moore, for instance, gave examples of how thee parks, Rocky Mountain, Lake Clark, and Timucuan, have used an expansive and integrated definition of history that encompasses environmental history to both conserve and interpret. At Rocky Mountain, the nomination of East Longs Peak Trail to the National Register produced historical research and an oral history collection that the park has also used in wayside and museum interpretation. And at Lake Clark National Park and Preserve in Alaska, created in 1980, a mandate to conserve park lands historically used for subsistence has undergirded substantial research into the historical connections of people to the land in the park area, including oral histories with Dena'ina elders about the Telaquana Trail area. In a cooperative arrangement with the University of Alaska, the park has posted many of those oral histories online.

Efforts within the Department of Defense and the U.S. Forest Service to similarly mobilize compliance-related (Section 106, Section 110) work for educational purposes also provide inspiration for how NPS might address the key challenge of bridging the divide between cultural resources management and interpretation. This divide, our team has observed, hobbles the agency from making the most of the prodigious and often excellent historical research it sponsors.

Another NPS-related session on writing park (or forest!) administrative histories made a similar point. As described by the panelists (who have posted information about their session here), administrative histories need not be the boring documents many may imagine. Although their initial audiences are park staff who need to understand how a park (or in some cases a particular problem, like fires or grazing) has been managed over time, the panelists described ways to widen the reach of these studies.

Independent consultant Joan Zenzen, who has written four administrative histories, has published several of them with university presses (Battling for Manassas, Fort Stanwix). Forest Service Chief Historian Lincoln Bramwell described translating content from a lengthy administrative history into an electronic presentation with interactive timelines that allowed users to see both chronologies and thematic changes. (I wish he'd demonstrated this!).

Most interesting to me were insights offered by Temple University historian Seth Bruggeman (see Here, George Washington Was Born) and OAH Public History director Susan Ferentinos (who has managed about 15 administrative history projects done for NPS under the OAH cooperative agreement, including one I co-authored with my husband David Whisnant, Small Park, Large Issues: DeSoto National Memorial and the Commemoration of a Difficult History).

Bruggeman and Ferentinos observed that administrative histories often trace parks' struggles with evolving historical memory about people or events, changing notions of what is important in the past, and the National Park Service's own role as agent and history-maker. They offer, therefore, golden opportunities for parks to develop "self-reflexive" interpretation -- interpretation that recognizes and transparently acknowledges the agency of the interpreter in creating the story.

This approach could be fruitful at many sites where, by now, park service interpretation is old enough to have changed many times over. Certainly it would have been a creative way to re-interpret De Soto National Memorial, which itself is a product of a certain moment in De Soto historiography, now more or less discredited. (Some of those issues are described here.)

The panelists suggested that talking about how histories presented in parks have changed, and why, could provide visitors a window into how history works, and how the Park Service has both shaped and been shaped by history. Unfortunately, since, as Chief Historian Bob Sutton noted, there is presently no central dedicated funding for park administrative histories and no requirement that they be done, this process may proceed unevenly and slowly.

Finally, speaking of funding, yesterday afternoon I attended a screening of a new film on the WPA Federal Writers Project, which produced, among other things, the WPA state guides. The film, Spark Media's "Soul of a People: Writing America's Story," described the evolution, productivity, problems, and ultimate demise of the program between about 1935 and 1943. Authors including Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Studs Terkel worked for the program. Its interviews of former slaves produced an unparalleled archive of oral histories.

Yet, the film described how this creative program, whose cost as a percentage of the entire WPA was miniscule, was attacked and killed by right-wing opposition led by Texas Congressman Martin Dies, who led the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 30s and accused the Writer's Project of harboring communists.

Watching this film while considering the state of history in the National Park Service and observing the ongoing ideological battles dominating the budget negotiations in Washington, I felt profoundly sad. The combination of history and nature that the National Parks gives us feeds our souls, elevates our understanding, promotes thoughtful civic engagement, and costs us relatively little. Yet prospects for expansion of funding for the parks seem dim, and the very idea of the "public good" that they serve seems under attack. I leave this conference hoping that the optimistic, publicly committed spirit that is the core of public history work and that was on display here all week will ultimately prevail in our national discourse.