Friday, April 8, 2011

History That Is Difficult to Do

I can't believe its already the end of the day on Friday--and while today began, oddly enough, with Pensacola in a fog bank, it was filled with sessions that tried to see through the fog. I for one, enjoyed the 81 degree heat and humidity (ask me again come August in DC if I feel the same), mostly because it enticed me to get more ice cream from Dolce! without the need of secondary layers.

I started out the day looking at the confluence of place, race, and leisure before heading over to the panel on European Public History that Eleanor Mahoney talked about below. Both very good sessions with some important questions about the field and the past.

My final panel was a session discussing the act of collecting objects centered around difficult subject matter. While each of the presentations varied in detail, each presenter (one who spoke about her work at the National Law Enforcement Museum, another dealing with collecting for sweatshops, and a third looking at collecting objects dealing with illegal immigration and drug trafficking) depicted a public history question mired in complexity, one with no single right answer. More specifically--why collect these histories--and how do you go about doing so in the easiest way?

Here are a few of the take-aways:
1. Be careful, and conscious of the external and internal politics you may be dealing with. Be open and engage all the players in the beginning so that you are not the only one taking the risk.

2. Recognize that even though these issues are one's that should be dealt with, the public may not be ready to acknowledge them. That there is a difference between putting an object into the collection, and putting it on exhibit.

3. "Somebody's Mayflower." Each object you pick up tells the story of an individual--that (and the phrase in reference to an object of illegal immigration) that each object has value within that larger narrative, but also serves as an entry point into individual stories and individual lives.

In the end, the commentator stated that it isn't necessarily that the subject matter is difficult, but also that in the case of these three situations, this is history which is difficult to do. That it does take more than just knowing what objects may work with what story.

I think I found this panel to be fantastic on many levels. On one hand each of the case studies emphasized the importance of relationships in having a successful acquisition trip. Make phone calls, eat breakfast, play basketball--you never know when you will develop sufficient TRUST to give you that piece you never knew existed. I also thought that it underscored the lessons learned from the culture wars in the 1990s. That in collecting the "tough stuff" of American history, we are playing the role of stewards to a particular American vision--and that being mindful of that vision is incredibly important to our actions and reactions in the field.

Note: Learn more about my experience at THATCamp and the first day of the conference on the blog. You can follow me on Twitter @pc_presnation.

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