Reflections on the 2017 National Council on Public History Conference

In April 2017, a record number of UMass Public History students headed to the annual meeting of the National Council on Public History meeting, held this year in Indianapolis.  Our annual gathering of current students, staff and faculty and program alumni brought more than two dozen people together to reconnect with old friends and make new acquaintances.  We thought it would be fun to ask the current students who attended the conference about their experiences. Their responses are below!

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UMass Public History faculty, students, and alumni join together for dinner at NCPH 2017

What brought you to the 2017 NCPH?

Alex Asal: I attended NCPH once as an undergrad and was totally overwhelmed by everything that was going on. I wanted to make sure and visit now that I’m at UMass and a little more confident in the public history arena so I could really take advantage of all the exciting things happening there.

Shakti Castro: My poster, “Carlos Vega Oral History Project: Documenting Puerto Rican and Latino History in Holyoke,” was accepted for the poster session. I also serve as a committee member on the Diversity Task Force Committee, and had a committee meeting as well as a session for the task force.

Austin Clark: Having just joined NCPH and entered the world of public history professionals, I figured that it would be a good chance to network and learn about what is happening in the field. Though I had to research to present (next year!), I made the most of every day by attending panels and learning about Indiana history. I left full of energy and more excited than ever about my own work and future.

Erica Fagen: I presented on the panel “Touring Sites of Nostalgia and Violence: Historical Tourism and Memory in Germany, Poland, Turkey, and the United States.” I presented a section of my dissertation which examines how memorial sites themselves use (or do not use) social media for public outreach. I discussed the cases of the Auschwitz-Birkenau and Dachau memorial sites, and addressed their challenges in twenty-first century historical memory. I organized this panel and my co-presenters were Amanda Tewes and Yagmur Karakaya, a PhD Candidate in Sociology at the University of Minnesota. Yagmur and I met in June 2016 at a graduate student seminar on the topic of memory and mass violence in Bayreuth, Germany.

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UMass Public History PhD Candidates Erica Fagen and Amanda Tewes (right) at NCPH 2017, with fellow panelist Yagmur Karakaya (University of Minnesota).

Cheryl Harned: Last year Jessica Johnson linked me up with some folks who she met at NCPH 2016 and were interested in presenting a panel on the role of “whimsy” in public history for this year’s conference. Our panel, “Seriously Whimsical: Public History Whimsy in Practice,” offered four case studies in which to engage audiences with the past through various forms of seemingly light-hearted practices. The panel was organized by Rebecca Ortenberg at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, with Mandi Magnuson-Hung (Wells Fargo History Museum), Zachary Hotel (Shenandoah County Library) and myself co-presenting. Through my work with the Five College Mellon Public Humanities Bridging Grant I spoke about the Applied Humanities Learning Lab experience and discussed how whimsy can be utilized in public history pedagogy via course structure, class process, and audacious goals.

Gregg Mitchell: My poster, “A Local History of World War II Digitized: The Springfield Armory Mobile Phone Application,” was selected for the NCPH Poster Session. I attended last year’s NCPH in Baltimore, Maryland and felt the conference was both informative and enjoyable. That experience encouraged me to attend this year as well as apply to present my project.

Sara Patton: I presented a poster on my thesis, “Springing Forth Anew: Parks, Preservation, and Progress at Roger Williams National Memorial, Providence, Rhode Island.” I’ve also been a member of NCPH for seven years, but I’d never gone to the conference so it seemed like a good time to change that.

Rebekkah Rubin: I didn’t have a chance to attend NCPH last year, and I wanted to go before graduating from the M.A. program. I’m very glad I did. Not only was I glad to spend time with current UMass students and alumni, but I enjoyed meeting up with old friends and making new connections.

Camesha Scruggs: I finally decided I would come and see what was magical about NCPH. I had the opportunity to present a poster on a project I participated in regarding community partnerships and preservation of Shockoe Bottom in Richmond, Virginia.

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UMass Public History PhD student Camesha Scruggs discusses her poster presentation

Can you share a highlight from the meeting?  What was the most fun?  What paper or panel had the most impact on you?

Alex Asal: I had two favorite panels. The first was S7, which brought in historians aligned in some way with the federal government in order to talk about how public historians can address issues of censorship and self-censorship in uncertain political climates. I thought it was significant that the panelists all agreed that, while censorship can be dangerous, self-censorship was more of a threat to the discipline as a whole, because it changes the very nature of what we do, whereas when it comes to outside interference, we can see it, resist it to some extent, or at least outlast it. On a lighter note, I also enjoyed S49, “What Does Religious Liberty Look Like? A Model for Museum Digital Distance Learning,” where two speakers from the American Jewish Museum shared a digital learning project they had conducted with local students. I really admired the way they incorporated different methods of learning, and how they structured their pedagogy in a way that reflected the museum’s Jewish roots. I thought it was a great example of how public historians can be creative in their outreach methods.

Shakti Castro: At S43, “Catching up with the Diversity Task Force,” a number of people interested and invested in diversity within NCPH and the field as a whole came to share their experiences. Working on the certificate in public history has made me think about “divergent” histories of the field, the formally defined one and the public history practices of marginalized communities. The session with the diversity task force committee was a chance for many practitioners to share their experiences of trying to merge those practices. I was really glad to hear about the realities of highlighting marginalized histories in the field, and how public historians of color navigate these various spaces with weighty histories.

Austin Clark: Do I have to pick one? The back-to-back panels on doing radical history in less-than-radical places and “whimsy” were definitely the highlight. I came to understand that even if I’m not an avowed radical, doing good history by challenging the dominant narrative is in itself a radical act. Immediately after that, I learned that being whimsical is ok! Whimsy is actually a good way to connect with different audiences (an important thing in public history) and helps those producing knowledge and research to explain and think about their work differently. Future goal – be whimsically radical! Or radically whimsical.

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UMass Public History MA Candidates Sara Patton, Austin Clark, and Gregg Mitchell at NCPH 2017

Erica Fagen: A highlight for me was S5, “Doing Prison Public History.” I had little knowledge about Public History in the context of prisons, and was interested due to some overlap in my research. (The concept of “dark tourism.”) I learned a lot on this panel, and saw the ways in which museums and community organizations challenge the public’s perception on mass incarceration.

Cheryl Harned: Connecting with other public historians and UMass alums and seeing trends in the field were the big NCPH highlights for me. Most notably S21, “Negotiating Place and Memory: Public History in Actively Transforming Communities,” the Indy “Behind the Scenes: Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art Walking Tour,” the Alumni Dinner, as well as many amazing conversations with friends new and old about public history writ large over tea, in random hallways, walking around the poster session sharing in the amazing work of our colleagues, over Twitter, and post presentations.

Gregg Mitchell: The highlight for me was definitely being able to present the project I had been working on for the past eighteen months. Sharing your work with other professionals in the field from all over the world is a great experience. Many times in public history we complete projects that are never used again, but this forum allows you to share that project with people from across the globe who may use it in their own classrooms or share it at their respective institutions. This session also allowed me to network with many other professionals in the field. One of the most fun parts of NCPH both this year and last year, was attending the UMass Public History Alumni Dinner. The gathering is like a “family reunion” where you can see people you haven’t seen in a while and catch up, or meet someone completely new who has been through the program you are currently going through.

Sara Patton: The sessions I attended on historians within the federal government, which provided some insights and networking opportunities for me as my goal remains to return to the National Park Service.  

Rebekkah Rubin: The working group on History Communications was a highlight for me. After attending the lightning conversations hosted by UMass last year, it was great to hear from other public historians thinking about the emerging field. Also, perhaps predictably for people interested in communication, the session had a lively Twitter hashtag, and it was fun to tweet along and share ideas with others in the room. I also really enjoyed the Kurt Vonnegut Walking Tour—I’m not sure when I’ll be in Indianapolis again, so it was great to learn more about local history and Vonnegut’s relationship with the city.

Camesha Scruggs: There were so many memorable moments at the conference. Connecting with fellow public historians that I follow on Twitter. Also, fangirling (is that a real word?) over practitioners from various agencies and organizations. Sitting in on the meeting with the Diversity Task Force made me seriously think about accessibility and audience in public history, pushing me to continue to do this work.

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UMass Public History Professor Marla Miller and UMass Public History MA candidate and NPR correspondent Susan Kaplan talk at NCPH 2017

What advice do you have for students thinking about heading to NCPH 2018 in Las Vegas?

Alex Asal: As you’re combing through the program and looking ahead to all of the great events, take a moment to think about how you’re going to meet people, because that’s really what takes the conference to the next level. Sign up for a Dine Around, an Out to Lunch, or Speed Dating. Talk to people at your cohort and see if you can join them for any events, because it’s much easier chatting to people if you have someone else to keep the conversation going. Make plans with friends and colleagues to meet any of their friends and colleagues who share your interests. And, when you’re actually there, follow through! It never hurts to go to a panel early or linger afterwards and chat with the people in the room. Sure, it might be awkward, but it’s better to feel some momentary awkwardness than to go home and regret the missed opportunities.

Shakti Castro: Go. Go to things you don’t think are for you. Go to sessions and meetings you know nothing about. Strike up conversations with strangers. Join committees. It’s important to give back in service to NCPH. We’re the stewards of this field, and a key part of that is service. Also, participate in the Diversity Task Force! You don’t need to be from a marginalized group to care about diversity and inclusion and doing public history well. If anything, these issues can only be confronted head on, can only be worked on, when a multiplicity of voices are a part of the conversation.

Austin Clark: Do it. Even if you feel like you have nothing to say, go to listen. You learn what other people are thinking, where the profession is going, and what to stay abreast on. Also, use Twitter! I didn’t believe it at first, but it’s an incredible networking tool that allows you to reach out and connect with other people at the conference, even if you haven’t met them yet. Plus, it can spark all kinds of discussion and adds another layer to the conference experience. It is also the nearest you can get to being two places at once. If you can’t make a panel or event because of a conflict, find the hastag or someone who’s tweeting about it, and catch up later or follow it (discreetly) in real time.

Erica Fagen: Try to present with people who are from different universities, scholarly backgrounds, and professions. I found that my session was really rewarding because I presented with a friend and colleague from Sociology and from a different university. Our moderator, Nick Sacco, works as a Park Ranger for NPS and he did a great job in introducing us and linking our projects together. So, I would definitely recommend working with someone from a museum or government agency. They bring valuable insight!

Cheryl Harned: If you can swing it try to have the full immersive NCPH conference experience. Room in the conference hotel if possible, enjoy a half-day tour or workshop to slow things down and explore something in more detail, don’t live with regret so say hi to your public history superhero, and remember, if you are presenting in any capacity, the department has funding to help with expenses.

Gregg Mitchell: If you are in anyway interested in public history, you should attend an NCPH conference. Once the annual program comes out, be sure to look through it before you head to the conference. If you want to attend any of the special workshops, you will need to register in advance. Also, see if there are any professionals or scholars that you have learned about in class, and attend their panels to meet them. This is a great networking opportunity. Plus, you can always count on a strong contingent of UMass alumni and current students to attend ensuring you always have people to hang out with. Assuming my schedule allows it, I will definitely be at NCPH 2018 next year. Vegas, Baby!

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Poster presentation from UMass Public History MA candidate Gregg Mitchell at NCPH 2017

Sara Patton: Plan ahead; don’t doubt that your research is of interest to others. Even if you hate live tweeting like me, give it a try. While I still don’t like it, it is a really valuable way to connect with people at this conference because everyone else is, in the you’re-missing-half-the-conversation-if-you-don’t kind of way.

Rebekkah Rubin: Take the time to go on walking tours or attend sessions that explore local history, and use mealtimes to explore what the city has to offer. Also, establish a Twitter presence before attending the conference and interact with other public historians; I’ve found that it’s easier to introduce yourself to someone you may not know at NCPH if you have already interacted on Twitter.

Camesha Scruggs: Try to attend a variety of events. You never know who you will meet and get advice from. Become aware of the state of the profession. Enjoy being around your fellow public history nerds.

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UMass Public History Professor David Glassberg and UMass Public History PhD Candidate Amanda Tewes

Anything else?

Alex Asal: You only need three things to feel truly professional: business cards, a leather bound portfolio, and a blazer. Everything else is just a bonus.

Erica Fagen: I know everyone says this, but networking is very important! Networking can be done in person (at a session, working group, or poster session) but also on Twitter. Social media is especially useful for those who are shy and/or first-time attendees at NCPH. Personally, I’ve found that Twitter is a really useful way to connect with people, as is LinkedIn.

Gregg Mitchell: NCPH is the most important conference for public historians! If you are interested in public history, attend to meet others in the field! If you are working at a public history institution, attend to keep up to date on changes within the field! Once you finish the program attend to see your UMass Public History family!

Camesha Scruggs: Have a social media presence and business cards. Like others have said, they help your network expand and grow. Plan accordingly and leave room to explore and have informal chats.  

Austin Clark: I’m still disappointed it’s over…

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UMass Public History PhD candidate Cheryl Harned and her fellow panelists from the well-received panel “Seriously Whimsical: Public History Whimsy in Practice”

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