“So…what is public history?” Folks attending Adirondack Architectural Heritage’s (AARCH) day-long tours ask me this all the time. My sarcastic answer is “it’s the opposite of private history,” followed by a more serious explanation that public history is applied history out in the world. A still unsatisfied, confused look prompts me to further explain that historic preservation projects, working with communities, public stakeholders, and local governments, museums, nonprofits, and other institutions on any project with history at its core qualifies as public history. My work as AARCH’s Educational Programs Director falls under this umbrella through public programming centered on architecture, history, historic preservation, and conservation, as well as institutional outreach toward communities both large and small.

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As a public historian, I am used to telling people that defining the field remains tricky. Just as anyone working to use or reuse pieces of the built environment may be a preservationist, anyone using proper methodological processes, interpreting primary and secondary sources, and drawing on wider contexts to create content for varied audiences may serve as a public historian. However, some recent scholars have worked to define public history as a practice. In her work on the early history of National Parks and public history as a profession, Denise Meringolo explains that public history retains its earliest roots in historic preservation. Mid-nineteenth century elite, white women formed the core of the preservation community through the establishment of organizations like the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association [1]. In his recent textbook exploring the field, Thomas Cauvin explains that public history emerged professionally during the 1970s. Practitioners initially defined “public history” as history practiced outside of the academy. However, this definition lacks the context of working inside and alongside of the academy out in the public. Cauvin concludes that while public history remains hard to define, “We may all become public historians, but it requires training and awareness of the challenges we can face while working in and for the public” [2]. Like defining oneself as a preservationist working in any capacity to reuse the built environment, defining public history remains in the eye of the beholder. After an AARCH outing, each participant becomes a preservationist and gains the insight to better understand the past in a wider context. They have the tools to explore deeper histories through architecture and become public historians themselves.

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Public historian working in preservation are also tasked with mediating the balance between history and the landscape. In the case of an organization with more of a preservationist and advocacy bent like AARCH, promoting the preservation of place itself is as important as conveying the stories that structures convey. For me, negotiating the boundaries between interpreting accurate historical contexts through a particular structure or piece of the built environment is what public history is all about. Just as our expert hosts discuss on AARCH’s summer outings, the built environment in the Adirondacks provides a window in the story of human interaction with the environment. In an era of observable climate change across the globe, understanding the Adirondacks as a space where humans’ interaction with diverse landscapes and environments proves crucial. Providing a history to preservation practice in the Blue Line of the Adirondack Park places the region in a larger context of understanding how communities and environments continuously interact with one another. Built structures and nature exhibit long, interwoven histories across the North Country. Everyone within the Blue Line, both resident and visitor, can gain the ability to become public historians in their own communities through exploring historic structures, buildings, memorials, and other pieces of the built environment.

Ultimately, as a practicing public historian and preservationist, my goal remains to task attendees and Adirondack communities to research, experience, and share their own histories. Simultaneously, I hope to use history as a base for cultivating a strong preservation ethic among regional communities supporting adaptive reuse, green projects, and interpretive progress across the North Country. This is public history and preservation in action. Each borrows from the other. Just as public historians are often preservationists, preservationists practice public history.

Nolan Cool is currently Educational Programs Director at Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH). This blog post is also cross-featured on AARCH’s blog at www.aarch.org/blog.

[1] Denise D. Meringolo, Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History, (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012), xiv; For more on early preservationist groups like to MVLA, see Patricia West’s Domesticating History: The Political Origins of America’s House Museums (1999).

[2] Thomas Cauvin, Public History: A Textbook in Practice, (New York: Routledge, 2016), 10-11.

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new coverThere I was looking through Google Images at spider after spider—and I an arachnophobe since early childhood. I was searching for an eight-legged creature that might plausibly be found in the rice paddies of Guangdong, China. In my academic writings on the history of agricultural science, I just note the significance of spiders for controlling insect pests and move on. But now the illustrator of the book I had written for children wanted to know what the spider in our story should look like. The hours I spent looking for a suitable spider served as a kind of exposure therapy. I’m less afraid of them now than I ever remember being. I’m also more aware of just how many things I don’t know in my area of expertise: the history of agricultural science in socialist China.

In fact, “exposure” makes a good overarching theme for my journey in writing Moth and Wasp, Soil and Ocean: Remembering Chinese Scientist Pu Zhelong’s Work for Sustainable Farming. The title itself—its absurd length and characteristic format—marks me inescapably as an academic. My name on the cover and photo on the back flap has also exposed something deep that my colleagues avoid discussing but many other people want to know: how does a white woman with a German last name, born and raised in the US, claim to speak about the experiences of Chinese people? Academics rarely question one another’s authority to speak on “our” subjects. Suddenly I have to confront just how much I depend on those three letters (Ph.D.) and how little they can mean outside academic circles.

In children’s book publishing, if the author does not have ethnic credibility, the illustrator needs to make up for it. (This is standard in the industry; my publisher did not make it up!) So the editor found and hired a talented new illustrator named Melanie Chan. As it turned out, Melanie was not Chinese either—her husband’s family was. Another exposure, this time of American assumptions about race and authenticity: Melanie’s authority exceeded mine by just one letter (C-h-a-n to my P-h-D).

And yet, Melanie is connected to China in ways that enriched the book tremendously, and her name was the clue to that connection. Her husband’s ancestral village is in a part of Guangdong not that far from where our story takes place, which meant she could draw on the knowledge of her in-laws and on her own visits to the area. Less tangibly, Melanie’s aesthetic sensibility appears satisfyingly “Chinese” not just to Americans, but to people in China as well. Academics might see this as evidence undermining essentialist views of culture: despite our different social positions and relations to political power, we each inherit a cultural heritage far more diverse than usually recognized. My non-academic Chinese friends would more likely point to yuanfen—the cosmic connection that brings people together, often against the odds. It’s what they often generously use to underscore the rightness of my being in China; maybe it’s also what brought Melanie and me together in this picture book on insect control in Guangdong.

One of my goals in the book is to share with children an example of Chinese people working for environmental sustainability, in contrast to the images of Chinese polluters that dominate Western media. I am also excited to introduce a way of thinking about scientific knowledge—as produced by scientists and farmers working together—that was characteristic of socialist-era China. But within the worlds of publishing and education, the most fundamental purpose of such a book is to “expose” young readers to China. To accomplish such exposure, the book has to look immediately and recognizably “Chinese,” which means clearly different from the worlds inhabited by the target audience.

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But what “looks Chinese”? The line between iconic and stereotypic proves troubling. Peasants in conical hats scream “China” to American audiences, but that is a stereotype—perhaps deriving from the history of the US war in Vietnam. The hats of farmers in Guangdong are too similar to our own straw hats to “look Chinese,” so we needed to find other visual cues for the cover. Meanwhile the design concept that Melanie originally chose for the borders (intricate, polished wood carvings) “looked Chinese” and reached the bar of cultural authenticity in a broad sense, but I felt the carvings represented too elite an aesthetic for 1970s rural China. In the end Melanie found a perfect alternative: the art of paper cutting is recognizably Chinese, “traditional,” and yet folksy enough that it was affordable for Chinese rural people and easily accommodated within revolutionary politics.

In truth, few picture book authors are allowed as much contact with illustrators as I had. An important part of the editor’s job is to prevent pushy authors from squashing the artist’s creativity. Contrary to what many people assume, picture book illustrators are not there to draw what the author dictates; they are full partners in the creative process. In our case, Melanie brought a whole new angle to the depiction of history: she conceived of the narrator actively curating his memories by painting pictures, tearing pages from his field notebooks, cutting out photographs, and assembling all of these, along with the paper cuttings, into a scrap book memorializing his mentor, Pu Zhelong. My respect for the contributions of both the illustrator and the editor grew every day we worked together, and I very much hope I succeeded in my efforts not to overstep my authority. That kind of restraint was something of a new experience for me in publishing. Whether or not we deserve it, academic publishers treat scholars with a deference we’re unlikely to find if we venture into the world of children’s literature. The exposure, in all senses, is worth it.

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 Sigrid Schmalzer, Moth and Wasp, Soil and Ocean: Remembering Chinese Scientist Pu Zhelong, (Tillbury House Publishers, 2018)

This past semester, a group of graduate students from the history department worked on “Gender, Media, and Access to Audience” as a follow-up to the “Women of Rock” project that Tanya Pearson, PhD student, started in 2014 while attending Smith College. She explains below the origins and the process of this project that received great attention.

My group mates and were assigned to a project: To organize a Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon. So they weren’t working on the Women of Rock Oral History Project collection. We just used the interviews as historical context and had intended to create pages for those women on Wikipedia, and to create a subject page for the collection. But we had hoped to focus equally on local musicians. Wikipedia’s rules and regulations created almost impenetrable hurdles and so we organized the two part event, Gender, Media, and Access to Audience.

Roundtable discussion, Wikipedia versus Women

I’d also experienced Wikipedia’s gender bias, first hand, when I attempted to update pages and create a page for the Women of Rock Oral History Project (all of this is documented in the articles below).

Part 1 was a roundtable discussion, Wikipedia versus Women and part 2 was a live event, A Night of Primary Source Performance.

We pitched the event to local media and advertised it on Twitter and Facebook. We had about 40 people attend the roundtable discussion– musicians, publicists, bookers, fans, and one Wikipedia editor. The conversation centered around the gender bias that exists in local media (and larger media outlets), documentation, “notable” sources and grassroots organizing. The live event featured 22 local bands/musicians and was covered by the Valley Advocate–we intended to draw attention to bands who would not normally be granted access to that kind of exposure.

Poster for “A Night of Primary Sources”

Finally, a female Wikipedia editor from NYC saw our tweets and Facebook posts and created a page for the Women of Rock Oral History Project. She belongs to a group of women wikipedia editors who prioritize creating and updating pages for ‘marginalized’ individuals (women/queer/trans subjects). We’ll be working together, plotting, scheming and making space for women in the future.

Press Articles:

http://www.gazettenet.com/Clubland-13616588

http://valleyadvocate.com/2017/11/27/leave-it-to-the-women/

http://valleyadvocate.com/2017/11/20/basemental-a-wikipedia-rant-by-will/

 

 

Austin Clark, MA Candidate, UMass Amherst

The heat beat down, while an endless stream of tour busses filled the air with an ambient grinding noise. The air also smelled faintly skunky (thanks to recent legislation in Massachusetts). But between it all, I managed to keep the twin speakers booming out the words of Frederick Douglass, rendered in 56 different voices.

This is Boston Common, July 3rd, 2017, and clustered around the 54th Massachusetts Memorial are almost 250 people, gathered to participate in “Reading Fredrick Douglass.” Every year Mass Humanities, the organization where I interned this summer as a Hyde Fellow, coordinates the public reading of Fredrick Douglass’s speech “What is the Fourth of July to the Negro” in almost twenty locations across the state. Boston Common is the flagship event, where people line up to take turns reading a paragraph from the famous speech, or to simply follow along on a on smartphones or printed copies. This program is public humanities in action.

Mass Humanities, like the public humanities, is deceptively complex. When asked to explain what the organization is, I usually start by saying that Mass Humanities is the Massachusetts Humanities Council. If that doesn’t clear things up, I move onto the technical definition: Mass Humanities is a small non-profit organization that distributes grant money from the National Endowment for the Humanities and numerous other sources (both public and private) in support of public humanities programming throughout Massachusetts. With a description like that, you might be fooled into thinking that the organization is larger than it is. But as it stands, Mass Humanities is 10 employees working out of an 18th century farmhouse in Northampton, MA. It used to be less.

Austin Clark in front of the Mass Humanities farmhouse

 

Two of those employees were my supervisors, Abbye Meyer and Rose Sackey-Milligan. They worked as Grant Program Officers, in various capacities, and with them I completed most of my work as an intern. It was a diverse array of work, from working out how to giveaway 11,000+ books to editing grant applications, but it all asked the same question, again and again. What is public humanities? Understanding Mass Humanities internal definition of humanities, as well as honing and coming to understand my own, helped make my experience vibrant.

Like this Manatee

 

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Perri Meldon, M.A. Candidate, UMass Amherst

The Department of the Interior (DOI) is a monolithic building located in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington DC. Its neighbors include the World Bank, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and just down the road the White House and the Washington Monument. The building, constructed in the 1930s, is adorned with paintings from Native American artists and prints from Ansel Adams. It is home to, among other divisions, the Bureau of Land Reclamation, Bureau of American Indian Affairs, and the National Park Service (NPS). Tucked into a wing of the seventh floor is the NPS Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education (CROIE), where I had the honor of completing my Hyde Scholarship-sponsored internship in the summer of 2017.

View from the Rooftop of the Department of the Interior Building

The cafeteria of the Department of the Interior features paintings rendered by Native American artists in the 1930s

 

My supervisors were Barbara Little, an archaeologist and program manager of CROIE, and Paloma Bolasny, youth program coordinator and historian. I worked with a team of inspiring colleagues; they are the innovative minds behind the NPS Teaching with Historic Places program and the NPS LGBTQ (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgendered Queer) Heritage Theme Study. My assigned tasks with CROIE were two-fold. I was to assist Paloma with DC-area events for other National Council for Preservation Education (NCPE) interns. My internship, though with NPS CROIE, was through the National Council for Preservation Education. My second task was to develop the content for a disability history series on the Telling All Americans’ Stories website.

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Alex Asal, History M.A. Candidate, UMass Amherst

The summer before I started my career at UMass, I finally got around to reading a book that had been recommended to me a half-dozen times: Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II, by Allan Bérubé. I’ve also been interested in the history of LGBT people pre-Stonewall, and this book was particularly fascinating to me because World War II has such a prominent role in Americans’ cultural memory. Immediately I wanted to find more—more stories, more analysis, more intersections, more everything. Unfortunately, scholarly work that looks at LGBT people during the war is relatively thin on the ground, and much of what I found drew almost entirely on Bérubé’s work rather than bringing in new sources.

Therein lies the problem. How can one find “new sources” for this topic and this time period? Bérubé was lucky enough to collect oral histories from gay and lesbian veterans, but in 2017, few WWII vets are left to tell their stories. The federal government may preserve documents about anti-homosexual policies and trials, but those often fail to capture the details of an individual’s lived experience. And in a time when “queer” and “homosexual” were dirty words and related terms were not widely known (or not yet invented), few LGBT people put their identities on paper in clear, readable terms. If historians want to draw any conclusions, they have to dig through mountains of documents, dozens of archives, and a near-impenetrable wall of careful innuendo. It’s almost impossible for someone who doesn’t already know where to look.

So I set the topic aside until the summer of 2017, when it popped up again in an unexpected place.

This summer, I was an intern with the Archives Center of the National Museum of American History. Like many archives, the Archives Center frequently fields requests from offsite researchers and provides them with scans of relevant materials. The Archives Center, however, is ahead of the curve when it comes to digitizing their materials. Every scan that is requested is carefully catalogued in the Archives Center database, with the goal of ultimately making it digitally accessible to the public. My job was to process these scans so that they could be uploaded to the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archive (SOVA), which hosts the finding aids for all Smithsonian-related archives.

The first step was to open a collection in Adobe Bridge and add or correct metadata for each image. One collection that fell under my purview was the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Collection, an artificial subject-based collection that aims to collect materials “related to all aspects of the LGBT community and the civil rights issues pertaining thereto.” Not everyone represented in the collection is LGBT, but the accessioning archivists do their best to find as much material as possible to represent the lives of both acknowledged LGBT people, and those who lived in same-sex environments regardless of sexual orientation. By studying these environments, historians can start to theorize what was considered “normal,” slightly suspicious, or definitely “queer” according to the time period in question.

I was going through the collection in Bridge when I first came upon this photo:

A photograph of Billy and Howard, last names unknown, in suits and Navy caps. LGBT Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

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Nolan Cool, Public History M.A. Candidate, UMass Amherst

When I first walked into the Belchertown Stone House Museum, its potential hit me from all sides. This unique community fixture proudly houses the material and archival history of its community. After an eventful first year in the Public History Program studying museums, asking questions, and seeking answers about the value of historic house museums to the communities they serve, I viewed the Stone House as a canvass for testing, experimenting, and tinkering with potential ideas. Using the house’s spaces, I wanted to explore how the site could better serve its neighbors and visitors alike. Through several weeks of testing the ideological boundaries with Belchertown Historical Association (BHA) board members and the museum committee, my hope remains that I left a positive institutional impact toward the goal of building and sustaining a greater level of visitor and community engagement.

 

Although the site is only open one day out of the week, core tasks that I undertook included using PastPerfect software to catalogue documents, photos, and objects in the site’s extensive archives, as well as giving tours to visitors. Alongside developing a more simplified, flexible, and institutionally accessible tour script, I catalogued several historical photographs and some new collection accessions. Working only one day on-site proved challenging, but also provided time to study, and later digest, the ebbs and flows of the BHA’s institutional culture. As a very small organization of roughly twenty engaged representatives, all of whom volunteer, management limitations created some difficulty in figuring out my role as an intern. I opted to work on developing and presenting a core institutional message geared toward reevaluating the site’s relevance to its surrounding community, as well as its visitors. For example, I replaced basic “Do Not Touch” signs with wittier, more light-hearted text. Although only a small step, I believe that these minor actions present a more human side of the organization.

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