Alumni in the World

By Marla Miller, Past@Present Editor

In Spring 2021, the Hatfield Historical Society received funding from Mass Humanities for an innovative project to explore how best to recruit and support digital volunteers; the work will unfold over summer and winter 2021-22 and conclude in early 2022.  Like many small local history organizations, the society grapples with issues of accessibility that have been exacerbated by the global pandemic. Digital engagement seems like a possible solution, but how might the HHS (and groups like it) engage and train mostly senior volunteers in a way that will fulfill existing needs for the Society, and incorporate the skills, interests and social needs of the volunteers?  To explore those questions, the HHS has received grant funding to consider how best to build a vibrant and sustainable volunteer program.  To contribute to the process, the HHS project will tap the experience and insight of two members of the UMass Amherst History community: alumnus Robert Forrant and Public History Program director Marla Miller.  In the interview below, Kathie Gow, curator of the Hatfield Historical Museum, Forrant and Miller discuss the project’s aims and potential, work that will surely be of interest to organizations across Massachusetts.

MRM: Kathie, can you kick us off by sharing a little bit about how you came to develop this project?  What activities will the grant funds support?

KG: When Meguey Baker (Hatfield Historical Museum Collections Assistant) and I sat down in January to discuss the coming year’s priorities — based on more general priorities set by the Hatfield Historical Society (HHS) board, which funds our two positions — we knew we wanted to do projects that would hit a lot of our goals. Those goals included engaging our community in Hatfield history, expanding our reach beyond those who already knew us, discovering and connecting stories about artifacts in the collection, and building a volunteer corps. (Oh yeah, and then add some reality in–like, we’re challenged to keep on top of collections management and project work as it is, with funds the Society has been able to raise from its generous supporters, AND, we’re in a pandemic, and no volunteers have been allowed into the museum since mid-March 2020). 

So Mass Humanities’ Digital Capacity grants couldn’t have come at a better time!

The grant will support staff time to work with a half-dozen volunteers over the coming year, plus our two Humanities scholars (you and Bob), all of whom bring great skills and experiences to the project. It will also pay for the first year of an upgrade to the Pro version of our free website builder (Weebly), which gives us capabilities we’ll need for the project, and help fund our upgrade to the paid version of Zoom, which will be our primary platform for engaging with volunteers.

This was one of the last times volunteers and visitors were allowed into the Hatfield Historical Museum in February 2020, just before Covid shut the museum down. Volunteer Wunderley Stauder is writing up artifact intake sheets with Megue Baker.

MRM:  Bob, how did you come to get involved?  What priorities will you bring to this initiative?

RF: During Covid Times I have been continuing to do research and have spent time in the Lawrence Public Library and the Lawrence History Center. I also exchanged frequent emails with archivists at the Massachusetts State Archives. Through the efforts of these institutions I was able to get quite a bit of work done and it made me realize how difficult the last fifteen months have been for dedicated people who care about, collect, archive, and make available the historical record for us. I had also spent a great few months working on a research project in Hatfield with boxes and boxes of materials lovingly organized by the folks at the Hatfield Historical Society. 

When I was asked about whether I would want to be involved in a project in Hatfield again, it was an easy decision. For people like me who engage in public history projects and want to utilize local history in their classroom efforts, it is incumbent that we do everything we can to support local history organizations. As a researcher and board member of the Lawrence History Center, I can add my knowledge of how institutions like this work to the project. At the same time, by being involved with a local history organization, I can learn lots about best practices for working in such organizations. It may also help me to identify how I want to volunteer when ever I decide to retire from UMass Lowell!

MRM: How has HHS been coping with the effects of the pandemic, especially around Hatfield’s anniversary year?

KG: Like for most museums and historical societies, especially small ones, it has been a challenging year, made all the more frustrating and sad because 2020 was our town’s 350th anniversary year. It was also the Hatfield Historical Society’s 50th anniversary, which should have been a great opportunity for us to promote the work HHS has been doing. It meant that most of 2020’s scheduled events got cancelled, and our opportunities to engage in person with the public disappeared.

But we did not sit idle! We shifted gears, and of course with growing pains (we are still figuring things out), we embraced the digital platform. We were delighted to be asked last fall by Bill Hosely (of Terra Firma Northeast) to participate in the Mass Historical Society Zoom program, “A Treasury of Massachusetts House Museums and Local History Orgs: Part III: Hidden Gems” (you can watch the program HERE) to introduce our organization and the collections we manage for the Town of Hatfield to their audience.

Read More

By Past@Present

P@P: First, it’s so exciting to see your photo on the cover of the new issue of The Public Historian—Congratulations!  Can you tell us how that came about?

RR: Thank you! I knew The Public Historian was publishing a special issue about childhood, gender, and play, but it was a surprise when the editor contacted me about using one of my photos for the cover. It’s such an honor to have my work recognized by colleagues in the field.

P@P: More than 3000 people follow your Instagram feed, @iamexcessivelydollverted.  When and why did you launch that project?  And how do you use this platform as a public historian?

RR: I began @iamexcessivelydollverted three years ago as a way to discuss and expand upon aspects of history related to American Girl’s historical characters. Over time, the project has transformed into a discussion of the history that is overlooked by American Girl. In recent years, American Girl has introduced more characters from marginalized backgrounds, but the vast majority of the dolls they sell are white and all but two of their historical characters are Christian. I am really interested in the idea of historical fiction as public history and how we can use fiction as an entry into understanding history, so I began creating my own historical characters from time periods and marginalized communities overlooked by American Girl. I use these original historical characters to discuss histories of non-white and non-Christian communities in the United States and elsewhere. I also use this project to connect history to contemporary events. All of American Girl’s canonical historical characters fight for justice and equality in their books, so it makes sense to me to use these historical characters to discuss contemporary issues of justice and equality and to trace how contemporary racism, sexism, and inequality is rooted in history.

As a public historian, this project is an extension of my other work. I typically write history articles for online and print outlets, on topics ranging from suffrage history to environmental history. On @iamexcessivelydollverted, I often discuss topics that I’ve written about for websites and magazines, but I’m able to interact with a different readership—over half of my followers are 18-34 years old and the majority are women. Too often, history writing aimed at a popular audience is synonymous with weighty tomes about men written by men. By using American Girl dolls to discuss history for a popular audience, I’m fighting against that stereotype; writing popular history is and should be a feminist act.

American Girl dolls dressed as early 20th-century suffragists used for the cover of The Public Historian’s February 2021 Issue.

Read More

An Interview with Brad Paul

Brad Paul is the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Community Action Program Association (WISCAP). He has twenty years of local, national, and international experience developing partnerships and managing policy, education and research agendas related to issues of land, labor, housing and poverty reduction. Brad earned his PhD in History from UMass Amherst in 1999. His dissertation focused on 19th and 20th century U.S. labor, and comparative labor and industrialization in South Africa and the American South. Brad has long been active in national anti-poverty and homelessness policy and advocacy work, serving as both the Housing Policy Director and Director of Public Policy at the National Coalition for the Homeless and then as co-founder and Executive Director of the National Policy and Advocacy Council on Homelessness (NPACH). His writings on housing, homelessness, human rights, and labor have appeared in Clearinghouse Review, Ms. Magazine, Shelter Force, International Union Rights, and the Encyclopedia of U.S. Labor and Working Class History. He is also the primary author of the 2003 Bringing America Home Act, comprehensive federal anti-poverty legislation introduced in the 108th Congress. Prior to joining WISCAP, Brad worked in the field of international development for a number of organizations, including Technoserve Mozambique and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). He has previously served as Visiting Scholar in the Department of Community and Environmental Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and as Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of History and Department of Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Brad lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

Brad Paul

As the executive director of the Wisconsin Community Action Program Association, you are involved in anti-poverty and homelessness policy and advocacy work. Can you share a bit about the challenges and the rewarding aspects of your work?

One in ten Wisconsinites live below the poverty line, and close to 40% of all households struggle to meet their basic needs. Last year, local school districts identified over 18,000 homeless kids in the state. Taken together, it shows just how fragile economic life can be for low-income families. Our challenge is to impress upon lawmakers, the private sector, and the public where they fit in and how they can make a difference. As an agency, we often struggle to secure the necessary support that allows us to pursue policy and programs that can make a real difference for people. The donor community understands how their dollars contribute to direct service, but less so of the equally critical need for public education and policy change. On the other hand, the rewards seem obvious. Last year, close to 250,000 low-income Wisconsinites received some form of assistance from our member agencies. Knowing that we have an important role to play in helping meet the emergency and longer-term economic needs of individuals and families with children is both daunting and immensely satisfying.

You earned a PhD in History from UMass Amherst. What drew you to labor history? How does your background as a historian inform what you do?

Read More

By Meghan Gelardi Holmes, Kathrine Esten, and Rebecca Simons

Imagine a United States embroiled in a deadly pandemic, divided over something as simple as whether or not to wear a mask. Or imagine a United States drawn into distant military conflicts despite deep societal tensions at home. Or imagine Americans going into a presidential election wishing that the previous four years had never taken place.

We’re not discussing 2020. This is 1920. Starting on October 1, the Gibson House Museum, a historic house in Boston’s Back Bay, is featuring a new outdoor exhibit titled “1920: The Gibsons’ New Normal.”

The exhibit follows the Gibson family and their staff through three waves of dramatic societal change that preceded the election of 1920: the Influenza Pandemic, the Women’s Suffrage Movement, and the First World War. The impetus for the project came after the Gibson House Museum was forced to close to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Museum staff wanted to find a way to remain connected and relevant to the neighborhood community.

While these areas of study are fascinating under normal circumstances, their centennial anniversary comes at a time when the lessons of the past are more relevant than ever. Seeking to understand the Gibson family’s eagerness to embrace a “return to normalcy,” the staff and interns at the Gibson House Museum found themselves reflected in an America burdened with instability and social tension.

Read More

Interview with Amanda Goodheart Parks

“The best piece of advice I can give students is to take full advantage of the opportunities that exist in your area,” says Amanda Goodheart Parks.

An alumna of the UMass Amherst History Department and the Public History Certificate Program, Parks is Director of Education at the New England Air Museum in Windsor Locks, CT.  She completed her PhD at UMass Amherst with fields in the history of women and gender, public history, nineteenth century U.S. history, and environmental history. She defended her dissertation, “No Seas Can Now Divide Us: Captains’ Wives, Sister Sailors, and the New England Whale fishery, 1840-1870,” with distinction in May 2018. Parks has worked as a public historian, museum educator, and historical interpreter for more than a decade with experience at Mystic Seaport, Strawbery Banke Museum, Historic Deerfield, and the Springfield Museums.

In an interview with Past@Present, Parks shares the trajectory of her research and career as a public historian and museum educator.

You are an alumna of the UMass Amherst History Department (’18PhD, ‘10MA) and the Public History Program (‘10PhCertificate). Your PhD dissertation, “No Seas Can Now Divide Us: Captains’ Wives, Sister Sailors, and the New England Whalefishery, 1840-1870,” studied whaling captains’ wives who defied social and industrial norms by going to sea together with their husbands aboard whaleships in the mid-nineteenth century. Why did you choose this topic for your PhD dissertation?

 I first discovered this topic during an internship at Mystic Seaport Museum. It was the summer before my senior year of college, and while I knew I wanted to write my senior honors thesis on women’s history, I had yet to find a topic I was passionate about. That all changed when I began researching the history of women in the whaling industry as part of my internship. When I learned that a small group of American women went to sea with their husbands aboard whaleships during the mid-nineteenth century, I was fascinated. Who were these women? Why did they go to sea? What were their experiences like? How did their decisions impact their husbands, families, and communities? The more I read, the more questions I had, and by the end of the summer, I had spent hours in the Mystic Seaport archives pouring over the letters and journals these women left behind. That research became the basis of my senior honors thesis, which in turn became the writing sample that got me into the UMass Public History M.A. Program.

This topic also played an important role in my decision to pursue my Ph.D. When I first came to UMass in the fall of 2008, my plan was to earn my M.A., build up my network of professional contacts, and begin my career in the museum field. However, after turning my research into a graduate level article (which later won the department’s Caldwell Prize), I realized I was not done studying these remarkable women. Fortunately, I did not have to choose between my professional career and my academic interests. Thanks to the support of my wonderful advisors Joyce Berkman, Marla Miller, Manisha Sinha, and Barry Levy, I was able to continue my research as a Ph.D. student while working full-time in the museum field.  So in a way, could say my background as a public historian led me to my dissertation topic, and my Ph.D. is a result of my personal connections to that topic.

You’ve worked as a public historian, museum educator, and historical interpreter. What skills did you build while pursuing your graduate studies to prepare for public history jobs? And how did your experience as a public historian inform your graduate work?

 One of the reasons I chose the UMass Amherst Public History program for my graduate training was its reputation of blending academic theory with hands-on practice in the field. The program did not disappoint me in this regard, as some of my most valuable experiences as a graduate student stemmed from the program’s focus on practice. My field service projects, internships, and part-time work at local museums gave me the practical skills I needed to prepare for a career in this field. Meanwhile, my work as a public historian shaped my academic research in significant ways. I wrote my dissertation with public audiences in mind, and I used material culture as well as print sources in my research. As such, my dissertation reads more like a popular history than a traditional academic work, and includes references to everything from journals and letters to clothing and gravestones.

How can students learn about different career options in the public history job market? In what ways do you think public history programs and history departments can best prepare students for careers outside academia?

 The best piece of advice I can give students is to take full advantage of the opportunities that exist in your area. In addition to internships, volunteering, and part-time or contractual work, I recommend reaching out to local public history practitioners to request informational interviews. I subscribe to the “pay it forward” belief, meaning that because I was so graciously helped by people in the field when I was a student, as an established professional, I now have an obligation to give back. I also really enjoy mentoring students – it’s the educator in me! – and I think many people in our field feel the same, so don’t be shy!

As for graduate programs, I think they need to help students develop the skills non-academic employers want to see in potential job applicants. Things like budgeting, grant writing, and supervisory experience will go a long way in landing a job upon graduation. I also think graduate programs should encourage students to start working in the field as soon as possible, even while pursuing their degree. The job market is very competitive, and the best way to stand out among a sea of newly minted graduates is to have experience on your resume and a network of references who will champion you within their professional networks. Finally, I think graduate programs need to help students master the art of networking. Crafting an elevator speech, developing a professional brand, and knowing how to work a room are all vital to not only getting a job, but growing your network within this field.

Your dissertation explored New Englanders at sea, and today you interpret New Englanders in the air; can you tell us a little about the New England Air Museum?  What are some of your favorite aspects of your work today? 

The New England Air Museum is the largest aerospace museum in our region, home to over one hundred historic aircraft ranging from century old biplanes to modern military aircraft. Founded in 1960, our mission is to preserve and interpret New England’s aerospace history while inspiring the next generation of aerospace innovators. In my role as Director of Education, I create opportunities for visitors to engage with the past, present, and future of aerospace in fun and meaningful ways. Whether it’s field trips for local students or special events like Women Take Flight or scout overnights – yes, I sleep at my museum several times a year! – my department helps the museum fulfill its educational mission. Because we are a relatively small museum, I am involved in all facets of our programming, so while I am a senior staff member, I am not stuck behind a desk everyday. I can see the impact our work has on visitors first hand, which as a public historian and museum educator, is very fulfilling. I also work with a wonderful team of staff and volunteers, many of whom have decades of experience in the aerospace industry, so I am always learning new things about our collection. It’s a fantastic museum, so I encourage you to come see our work for yourself!

— Interview by Mohammad Ataie

“I’ve learned that if I’m not writing, then something is missing from my life,” says Roger Atwood, an independent writer and journalist, who graduated magna cum laude with a BA in History from UMass Amherst in 1984. “I started working in journalism in Argentina about a year after I graduated, liked it, and made a career out of it,” he tells Past@Present.

Atwood’s articles have appeared in magazines, literary presses, newspapers, and academic journals, including The Guardian, National Geographic, The Washington Post, ARTnews, Mother Jones, Scientific American, and Archaeology, where Atwood is a contributing editor. He is the author of Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World, a study of the global illicit antiquities trade, published by St Martin’s Press in 2004. He also co-edited an anthology of non-fiction writing about growing up in the American working class, Coming of Age in a Hardscrabble World: A Memoir Anthology, which was published by University of Georgia Press in 2019.

After you graduated in 1984 from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, you worked as a journalist and correspondent in the U.S. and Latin America, where you reported from Argentina, Brazil, Peru, and Chile. What made you interested in journalism, especially reporting on Latin American countries?

My original plan when I graduated was to go into an academic career. But I had done an internship at a newspaper in Mexico and written a lot for The Collegian, so when I went to Argentina a few months after graduation, I was drawn to journalism as a way to make a living, and somehow it became a career. I was influenced also by reporters who showed me how journalism could be a way to find an immediate, very fleeting kind of truth about what was happening in politics and society. I saw journalism as a way to grasp and write about what was happening around me, which, in Argentina in the mid-1980s, was the return to democracy and a gradual liberalization of society.  

I worked at a radio station in Buenos Aires, then an English-language newspaper, then found a job as a reporter at the news agency Reuters in 1986, in Buenos Aires. I stayed with Reuters until 2002, but I worked at so many different offices of Reuters that it never felt routine or stale. I was a correspondent in Rio de Janeiro, Lima, and New York, and then bureau chief in Santiago, Chile. Finally I was a senior editor at Reuters in Washington, where I was working on the day of the 9/11 attacks. Much as I loved it, I left Reuters in 2002 because I wanted to grow as a writer, and, after 16 years, it was time for a change. Since then, I’ve written a book called Stealing History, a study of the global illicit antiquities trade; co-edited an anthology of memoirs which was published in 2019 by the University of Georgia Press; and written hundreds of articles in magazines, literary presses, newspapers, and academic journals. My main job these days is at Archaeology magazine, for which I write about archaeological digs around the world. For an independent writer, it’s a nice gig. I like to work hard, and I’ve learned that if I’m not writing, then something is missing from my life. So I keep writing. 

You did your undergraduate degree in History at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. How did your history degree influence your journalism work?

For me, and I’m sure for others, history was a superb preparation for journalism. You learn the historical background of the places or issues you’re reporting on, but even more importantly you learn how to take huge amounts of information and distill it down to a coherent argument or narrative. Historical scholarship teaches you to grapple with information from many different kinds of sources – archives, interviews, published texts – and write about them with accuracy, originality, empathy, and flair, all qualities that go into good journalism. Writing history teaches you to follow the facts where they lead you, to question your own assumptions, and to keep an open mind – again, all qualities that journalists should aspire to. 

Everything I do, every article or book I write, is informed in some way by my UMass education, which taught me the value of scholarly inquiry while exposing me to people and ideas from outside the insular, American middle-class world in which I had been raised. I loved the diversity and progressive spirit of UMass, and in the years since I’ve come to realize what a big impact UMass had on my outlook on the world, how it opened my perspectives and gave me an education in the fullest sense. I had fantastic professors who transmitted their enthusiasm for Latin America to me and many other students, in History and other departments in the humanities and social sciences. My chief mentor was Robert Potash, who taught me to research and write to high standards and helped me win a summer scholarship in Argentina in 1983 that proved really pivotal for me.

How can journalists benefit from history, especially when it comes to analyzing the U.S. foreign policy and the U.S. role in Latin America?

A historical perspective helps to understand the U.S. role in Latin America and how Latin Americans feel about people from the United States. It is a rather complicated relationship, with some inherited resentment at our role in supporting dictatorships during the Cold War and imperial adventures before that. This is more important in some countries than in others. When I was a student at UMass, U.S. policy in Latin America was dominated by the Reagan Administration’s misguided efforts to maintain the traditional, conservative order in Central America and prevent the left from coming to power. UMass was a place of intense activism against U.S. policy and in favor of human rights and a more progressive future for Central America. I have nice memories of traveling with other students to Washington, DC, in 1982 or 1983 to protest against U.S. military aid to El Salvador.

Although feelings about U.S. influence ran pretty strong, Professor Potash and others at UMass – Jane Rausch in History, Harvey Kline in Political Science, Lawrence Pinkham in Journalism, among others – encouraged us through their example to think about Latin America as not just a place where U.S. influences played out, but rather on its own terms, as a place with cultures and histories of its own. That was an incredibly important perspective. It helped me grasp the complexity and beauty and texture of Latin America in a way that perhaps not many other journalists did.

You frequently speak on radio and television and write for various print media. One of your recent articles was published in The Guardian. It is impressive how you can communicate about your research with various audiences in and outside the United States. What can historians learn from journalists about getting their research findings out to a wider audience?

That article in The Guardian was about organic farming in Cuba, and how Cuba had moved from a cash-crop, sugar monoculture to a food-based model in an attempt to gain some independence over its food supply. I must have interviewed 30 academics in the United States and Cuba for that story, and it was sometimes a challenge to put their very technical language into words that the general public could relate to. For anybody writing for the general public, as opposed to an academic audience, it’s important to use vivid language – active verbs, a sense of the visual, no clichés. There needs to be a compelling point, an argument, if you will. You can assume that readers have more knowledge than maybe we give them credit for, but the narrative has to move quickly and it needs to be focused on people, because that’s what journalists write about, people. It needs good description. Sometimes you have to stop to think: what does this look like? What does it feel like to be here? How would I describe this event or place or person? Put that in your story. Don’t go overboard.

This past October you spoke at Ursinus College outside Philadelphia on your book Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World (Macmillan/St. Martin’s Press, 2004). Your book sheds light on commercial looting and grave-robbing of archaeological sites in countries like Iraq, Peru, and Hong Kong, to show how the worldwide antiquities trade is destroying what’s left of the ancient sites before archaeologists can reach them. After your talk at Ursinus College, you wrote on your website that you were struck by how the book’s basic message still resonates: “that the illicit antiquities trade is compromising our ability to learn more about the story of humanity.” Do you think that your work and reports about the global traffic in stolen archaeological objects has changed the approach of governments and collecting museums to acquiring antiquities?

Museums used to buy antiquities that had been looted from archaeological sites quite brazenly – this is why so many museums found themselves in legal trouble – but I sense they’ve become more circumspect about it. Some of them are still acquiring legally dodgy pieces but are more discreet about it; others, I think, really have tightened up their policies out of an awareness that their acquisition polices in the past were encouraging looting and destruction of archaeological sites by commercial grave-robbers. Did my own reporting contribute to that change? Well, I’d like to think so, but there were many journalists doing excellent reporting that demonstrated the complicity of big art museums in the illicit antiquities trade. Lawsuits brought in U.S. court against museums by countries demanding restitution of looted goods also had a big effect; museums saw themselves as custodians of the treasures of the past, and they did not like getting sued. And pressure from those governments – particularly Italy, as well as Peru and a few others – on the U.S. government to do something about the problem had a decisive effect. All this has changed the climate in which unprovenanced antiquities are bought and sold in the United States. But has it led to a reduction in looting? I think that’s harder to say. In some areas, yes. On the northern coast of Peru, where I reported most of Stealing History, certainly.  

Since its creation, the ISIS has been profiteering from plundering and selling antiquities in Syria and Iraq. In 2015, UNESCO warned that the looting in Iraq and Syria was taking place on an “industrial” scale. According to various reports, the U.S. and western European countries are the main destination for looted goods and the sales of these goods are said to be funding ISIS activities. What is your take on the role of major U.S. and European museums in enabling the billion-dollar illicit trade in antiquities to continue and thrive? What should museums do to address the illicit antiquities trade which you criticize in your book?

With regard to antiquities pillaged at sites in Syria and Iraq, I think the demand at the moment is more from private collectors than from the big museums. Yet some of those private collectors may later try to sell or donate looted antiquities to museums; this is what happened to the Bible Museum here in Washington, which acquired unprovenanced cuneiform tablets from Iraq and was forced to return them and pay a settlement. Some collectors of Near Eastern antiquities have a great appetite for looted antiquities. They like the feeling of owning things taken freshly from the ground. Maybe they find the legal perils exciting. But the demand for those objects is what fuels the destruction of ancient sites, and, when you buy looted goods, you’re also at risk of buying worthless fakes. My position is that no one should buy antiquities, period. No matter what the dealer says about how the piece has spent decades in someone’s collection, or derived from legitimate sources, the risk that you’re buying a plundered work of art is just too great. If you’re buying an antiquity, most likely it’s looted or fake.   

What dynamics within museums are behind their drive to acquire antiquities from illegal sellers?

Acquiring is in the nature of great museums. That’s what they do, and to ask museums to get out of a whole area of collecting – unprovenanced antiquities – is a pretty big ask. But they have been forced to do so and to revise their whole acquisitions philosophies, because they faced legally enforceable demands from source countries for the return of looted antiquities. For the great collecting museums – the Met, the Getty, the Boston MFA – it has been a sea change. They have learned some hard lessons.

— Interview by Mohammad Ataie

This post is the first installment of a new series of Past@Present interviews exploring the diverse #CareersinHistory that UMass History Department alumni have pursued. In these posts, alumni reflect on current issues in their respective fields, as well as the ways in which their training as historians have prepared them for their work in the world.

In November 2018, the Washington Post published a story with the headline, “Historians: What Kids Should Be Learning in School Right Now.” In asking this important question, the reporter chose to only ask historians, all of whom were university professors, authors, or filmmakers. The ideas presented were thoughtful. However, none of the people asked were K-12 history teachers.  

The next day, I noticed on social media that some history teachers and teacher educators (which is my line of work; I prepare future history teachers at UMass Boston) were upset with the Washington Post’s snub. One colleague Alex Cuenca posted on Twitter, “Feel free to ask K-12 teachers. … We have a clear stance on what kids should be learning.” Others had similar comments. While the views of historians on the subject are certainly important, it would have been nice to include a very important groups of history educators: K-12 classroom teachers. 

It was in this moment that I realized that we need to do much more to connect historians and history teachers. So, I started a hashtag and a social media campaign…

Realizing that many teachers (#SSChat) and historians (#twitterstorians) are now using Twitter and other social media sites to learn and share, I decided to try and connect the two using the hashtag #BridgingHistoriansAndTeachers. I asked the teachers who I followed on Twitter to tell me what historians they followed. I then chose a new historian each day, Tweeted at them that I was following them as part of this campaign, and I challenged them to follow back any K-12 teacher who followed them. Of the 42 historians from the U.S., Canada, and Mexico that I followed, 33 followed me back and promised to follow K-12 teachers. I then made a Twitter list for historians to join and teachers to subscribe to; we currently have 136 teachers (teachers: consider subscribing) and 49 historians (historians: you can e-mail me to join) included. I received many messages from K-12 history teachers and historians that they were thankful for this campaign and that we needed more ways like this to work together.

In January 2020, I had an opportunity to speak on a panel at the American Historical Association Annual Meeting about my social media campaign and possible ways to build bridges between historians and history teachers. I argued that this must be a two-way bridge. Historians and history teachers need to start collaborating around historical research, pedagogy, and public history. They should be learning from each other. More teachers should be invited to work on historical research projects. More professors should visit K-12 classrooms and observe some of the creative teaching techniques that are being used. Both groups should work together by designing history curriculum and materials from kindergarten to graduate school.

At the AHA Annual Meeting, I argued that K-12 schools are where people first learn history in a serious way, including where they begin to develop their historical thinking skills and interpretations of the past. Sadly, many Americans never study history beyond high school (at least in an academic way, many adults report routinely visiting historical sites and museums, discussing history with their families, or watching history media). 

At the same time, history education is facing some serious challenges. We have all heard the troubling statistics about the decline in history majors and the number of college students taking history courses (which may also be related to a decline in future teachers-who make up a large percentage of history majors and students taking history courses).

Historians and history teachers are in this boat together, yet we rarely work (or even talk) to each other. We need to be allies in the important mission of educating the public about the past. While there are about 3,300 Americans who identify as historians, there are 232,000 middle and high school history teachers and 1.1 million generalist elementary teachers. As an undergraduate student in history and education at UMass Amherst years ago and now a professor at UMass Boston, the history professors whom I have worked take seriously their role in educating future and current teachers. However, at many colleges and universities, history faculty do not see themselves as teacher educators and rarely collaborate with education faculty). 

If we regard historians to be historical experts, then it makes sense that they would want to work regularly with teachers (who are providing most of the academic history instruction to the public). The work of the historian is one of investigation, questioning narratives, and seeking new understandings of the past. History teachers often have a thirst to learn new information about or interpretations of past events. Most history teachers’ summer reading lists are full of the latest history books (it is also important to note that there are many K-12 history teachers and teacher educators who are also historians; they may be well positioned to help connect the two groups). 

If we regard teachers to be pedagogical experts, then it equally makes sense that historians might want to learn new methods of teaching from them. In my research, which focuses on elementary- and secondary-level history teaching, I have found that classroom teachers (especially here in Massachusetts) are making progress in more regularly using inquiry-based methods and teaching traditionally underrepresented groups’ histories (i.e. people of color, women, the poor and working classes, LGBTQ people). They certainly could serve as models for many university history professors and historians, where lecture is still the most common form of instruction and many voices are still left out of their courses.

My hope is that this small social media campaign might lead more collaboration between historians and K-12 history teachers, with the ultimate goal of improve history education for everyone. It may take a major culture change in the academy to happen, but I certainly believe it is possible (and know others agree).

Christopher C. Martell is an assistant professor of social studies education at UMass Boston and an alumni of the UMass Amherst History Department (’02). 

Margo Shea 2In 2015, I set off for south-central Tennessee’s South Cumberland plateau to take up a two-year  Mellon fellowship with the Collaborative for Southern Appalachian Studies at Sewanee: the University of the South.  The Collaborative, a partnership with Yale, envisioned starting and sustaining multidisciplinary, community-engaged, curricular projects that had place as their focus. In other words: pretty much any public history endeavor would fit the bill.

I had some basic goals for my Mellon project.  I wanted it to be something I could begin and complete in two years.   I wanted it to be digital.  I wanted it to engage local history and memory.  I wanted students with different interests and strengths to have meaningful roles to play.  Most of all, I wanted to undertake a humanities project that the pragmatic people of the region would see as useful — if not while I was doing it, then at least when it was done.  The long and tortuous history of scholars traveling to Appalachia to study its cultures and leave again seemed like another link in the chain of extractive industries and weighed heavily on me; I hoped to contribute something through my work.

I did not arrive as a scholar of Appalachia.  I am not even, strictly speaking, a U.S. historian.  Prior to Sewanee, my major research and project experiences were in Northern Ireland.  When I discussed this opportunity with David Glassberg, my mentor, he said, “You are a scholar of place and memory whose first project was in Northern Ireland and whose second project will be in Appalachia.”  I was given a chance to broaden and deepen both my scholarship and my public history practice.   It is a rare and wonderful thing to be handed an opportunity to create a project and to have lots of time and money to make it work. The flip side, of course, is that if it fails, fingers are inevitably going to point at you.  Hanging my professional identity on the hook made it all a little scary but exciting.

Margo Shea 1.png

The Places Project  emerged  and evolved as a crowd-sourced placemaking project.  A series of digital maps, it collects, shares and preserves stories of places that matter to the people who live and work on and around “the mountain:” south central Tennessee’s South Cumberland plateau.  In eighteen months, it engaged college and high school students and community members to create of a “people’s map” of 600 stories and reflections of significant places and why they matter.   During this time, stories were collected, recorded, geocoded, sorted and visualized using Tableau data visualization software.  Online maps can be searched by a variety of variables, including community, age, theme, etc. We also constructed a physical map —  an aerial photograph of the region with pockets built into it to hold stories and photos and a series of quotations from participants’ stories written on the map itself.  We updated a Facebook page, had a website, talked it up on local television and got mentions in local newspapers.  It became a topic of conversation and a window into possibilities for local residents to think about and reflect on their stories, their histories and what they want for the future.

What made the Places Project particularly significant was place.  The South Cumberland plateau is geographically, historically and culturally uniquely illegible — certainly to outsiders but also to residents.  Outcroppings, bluffs and coves mark a topographically diverse landscape, leading to the development of very small communities with little or no interaction with one another.  It is sparsely populated and is often described in terms of what is wrong with it: poverty, infant mortality, lack of educational and educational opportunity.  And it is home to the University of the South, which was founded on the eve of the Civil War by the Southern dioceses of the Episcopal Church so that young men of Southern stock could get a liberal arts education without leaving the region.  The university covers 13,000 acres, provides a liberal arts education, is a major employer and represents a place apart, with gates at its main entrance to sever it from surrounding communities.  

The idea behind the Places Project was to change the story of “the Mountain.”  It invited people to share what mattered to them in a format that brought experiences and narratives together without collapsing them, privileging some over others or pathologizing their tellers.  It did not focus on the university community, nor did it exclude it.  By collecting stories at fairs, festivals and heritage events, a large cross-section of residents were able to participate. People gathered around the booth, looked at maps, listened to each other and shared stories and memories.   In many ways, the open-ended and organic participatory engagements the project made possible actually performed the very functions and forms cultural memory actually takes within community life —- establishing connections, developing usable pasts, bridging the individual and the group and producing a coherent, if oblique, narrative of community values, worries and aspirations.

The stories themselves ran from quotidian patterns: “This is my favorite place to go for a walk with my mom” to epic life-changing moments: “We got married at this construction site.  The Justice of the Peace was the contractor and this was the only time he had to do it, and we really wanted to get married.  So now it is our place.”  There were many stories of places with historical import — the site of the Irish workingman’s camp in the 1870s, the farms where German prisoners of war labored during World War II, the place where African American convict laborers were housed when they were forced to work in coke ovens, the site of the University’s first spring.  Places like the Highlander Folk School, many sites of Jim Crow segregation and a geography of local sites that were erased by the university sit side by side among children’s stories of Grandma’s cooking and memories of the baseball diamond.  In this way, controversial places could be reintegrated into the weft and weave of local history.

Some stories were funny.  One of my favorites was shared by Mrs. Barbara Mooney Myers.  She remembered the place in the yard where her mother hid coffee in an old flour bin, sneaking out to get it every morning after her husband left for work.  He was a strict Seventh Day Adventist, but Barbara’s mother always insisted that “nobody was ever kept out of heaven over a cup of coffee.”  People told stories about where they collected turnip greens to put on the family table, where they had their first kiss, where their Dad would take them for a Sunday drive.  On their own, the stories are interesting.  Taken together, they form a complex and rich tapestry of family and cultural history and create a narrative of place that is both a sum of its parts and a story about how those parts coalesce into something in its own right.

The project wanted to avoid simplified and uncritical celebrations of place and its meanings and to complicate and contextualize memories without diminishing the valence they hold.  I will continue to work on making observations about the stories themselves and am trying to make sure the project continues and the data already collected can be used locally on the mountain.  You can check out the maps here: and learn more about how the project evolved here:

This summer, Professor Tore Olsson kindly accepted to answer few questions about his experience at UMass and his recent book Agrarian Crossings: Reformers and the Remaking of the US and Mexican Countryside. 

Olsson 1.jpg

-Adeline Broussan: First of all, could you tell us a bit about you?

Tore Olsson: Sure thing! I’m currently an assistant professor of history at the University of Tennessee, where I teach modern U.S. history. Considering my personal background that’s a rather unlikely career path – I was born and raised in Sweden and knew essentially nothing about the United States before my family and I emigrated to Brookline, MA, in 1990, at the tender age of eight. However, it wasn’t long before I began to take an interest in American history. I still remember my lovingly-worn trading cards of U.S. presidents from third grade (Franklin Roosevelt was my clear favorite!), and into high school, my favorite classes were always my history classes. But it was really during my years at UMass – 2000-2004 – that I was swallowed whole by history as a discipline and profession, not just a collection of stories. I left UMass with a burning desire to dedicate my life to the study of the past. From there it was on to graduate school at the University of Georgia, where I earned my Ph.D. in spring 2013, and that fall I began work at the University of Tennessee, where I’ve taught since. Coming to the United States as an immigrant, it was a career that few would have predicted!

– AB: What led you to study history at our department and what memories do you keep from your time here?

TO: I came to UMass undeclared, and was uncertain – really quite bewildered – about what sort of career I wanted to pursue. I knew I wasn’t a math or science type, but beyond that I had little clue. Then, during my very first semester, I took my first GenEd history class – Leonard Richards’ early American history survey – and was so enthralled by it. I’ll never forget our discussion of Shays’ Rebellion, the 1780s violent uprising against the new U.S. government right there in my new home of western Massachusetts – an episode that was entirely new to me and really opened my eyes to the messiness and unpredictability of the past.

But I was still reluctant about declaring a history major. I was under the impression that it brought limited career options, and I wasn’t certain I wanted to teach, especially at the high school level. (Having just escaped high school, I had no desire to return!) These are stereotypes that still live on, unfairly, today. But I’ll never forget a life-changing conversation I had in Spring 2001 with an older history major. He gave me the same advice that I now give to all of my students pondering a history major: that it’s a discipline that teaches you to read, write, do intensive research, digest vast amounts of information, make arguments, and communicate them effectively to others – in a nutshell, it prepares you for pretty much every career out there!

Having declared my major, I eagerly jumped into coursework. From the smorgasbord of classes offered, I ate a wide and varied diet. I delved deeper into early American history with Prof. Richards and Gerry McFarland. I think I took every course on modern Europe that Neal Shipley offered. Ann Jefferson gave me my first introduction to Latin American history, which was unlike anything I’d studied before. I took a wonderful honors seminar with Larry Owens on science and the state in modern America – a class that I wish I could retake now, considering my current research interests.

– AB: How did your training at UMass shape you as an educator?

TO: What I love most about my job as a history professor is the research – the painstaking but so incredibly exciting work of sifting through the past to find untold stories or new perspectives on why our world looks as it does. And without doubt, I got my taste for it at UMass! The most transformative experience for me came with my senior honors thesis, which I wrote under Gerry McFarland on the topic of “Bleeding Kansas” – the political violence that tore apart Kansas in the years before the outbreak of the Civil War. I was trying to tell the story of the New England Emigrant Aid Company, a group of antislavery activists who sent settlers to Kansas to vote against the extension of slavery into that territory. I followed the Company’s trail across many floors of the DuBois Library, into newly digitized archives online, and ultimately to the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester. Digging through dusty books and records and records might seem dull to some, but to me it was a thrilling detective adventure. I’ll never forget checking out a library book whose last check-out date was 1913! During that year, I learned the fundamentals of research that I’ve relied upon ever since.

But my years as a History major also made me who I am as a teacher. I was particularly inspired by the many lecturers who were able to captivate a large room with their wit, humor, and erudition. It is truly my lifelong ambition as a teacher to replicate the on-the-edge-of-your-seat lecturing style of Neal Shipley explaining Jeremy Bentham’s ideas on crime and punishment, or the subtle brilliance of how Larry Owens mediated a discussion of nuclear arms policy in post-1945 America. I still rely upon many of my old UMass syllabi when crafting my own courses, particularly in terms of assignments and projects that seek to stretch the thinking of students.

– AB: Could you tell us about your hot-off-the-press book “Agrarian Crossings: Reformers and the Remaking of the US and Mexican Countryside” (Princeton University Press, July 2017)?

Olsson 2

TO: Absolutely! In many ways my book grows from my personal background. As a Swede studying American history, I’ve always been bothered by studies of U.S. history that seem to think that it played out in a vacuum – as if our country existed on a different plane of existence from the world beyond its borders. I think too many folks draw artificial boundaries around American history that can hide what actually happened in the past.

My book explores how such artificial boundaries have hidden the deep entanglement of U.S. history with Mexican history. Today, I think many Americans consider their nation and Mexico as polar opposites – one rich, one poor, one stable, one chaotic – whose histories have entirely distinct trajectories. The rhetoric of our recent election only reinforced that sentiment. In my book I argue the complete opposite – that the histories of the United States and Mexico share far more than we realize. In particular, I look at the 1930s and 1940s, when rural reformers in the United States and Mexico waged unprecedented campaigns to remake their countrysides in the name of agrarian justice and agricultural productivity. In the U.S., this was pioneered by Franklin Roosevelt; in Mexico by its president Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-1940). My book basically tells the story of how these campaigns were conducted in dialogue with one another, as reformers in each nation came to exchange models, plans, and strategies with their equivalents across the border. It’s very much a book about how Mexican ideas influenced U.S. politics – a very important story to remember today, when the relationship of those two countries seems much more imbalanced.

–  AB: Thank you Professor Olsson!

In spring 2017, alumna Claire Blaylock participated in NextGen 2017, an executive education program for museum leaders offered by the Getty Leadership Institute at Claremont Graduate University. We asked her to share her thoughts. 

Claire Blaylock with fellow NextGen 2017 museum leaders at the Getty Leadership Institute

This past March I had the pleasure of participating in the Getty Leadership Institute at Claremont Graduate University. With an eye towards emerging trends in the museum field, I was excited to spend an intensive month interacting with my peers from around the globe and learning from top notch faculty.

Basically,  I got to go back to graduate school, but without final papers, late nights in a library, or the questionable contents of the student lounge fridge.

As the director of a small museum and historical society, I immediately felt a little like a fish out of water. I had the smallest budget of all the participating institutions, but I quickly learned that my small museum experience actually gave me a leg up since I am involved in literally every aspect of running the institution. In fact, my colleagues from some of the most prestigious institutions in the world expressed genuine admiration for how we (small museums) manage to accomplish so much with few resources.

Regardless of institution size, we were brought together to dissect the field from all angles and address as a group the challenges we ALL face – funding, organizational development, audience engagement, basic management skills, and how technology is playing a more active role in our field.

Taking a page from traditional business school curriculum, we worked our way through market assessments of our institutions. We learned the basics of business strategy and analysis. We read management analysis of large corporations like Microsoft! Much to my surprise, these types of readings really resonated with me. It provided a framework to start thinking about how my organization can take steps toward greater long-term stability. I frequently find myself going back to these texts on a weekly basis to help guide me in my current role. For example, I have started to lead my staff in creating a basic market analysis of the heritage sites in our community. What are the programs and experiences already being offered? Where do we fit in this market? Is there a niche that we can address and better set ourselves apart from the ‘competition?’ This exercise has been illuminating for our organization and has helped guide us toward new programs and curriculum.

How can we guide our institutions forward with this in mind? One way is to start approaching our field like business people. Institutions from small (local historical societies) to large (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) are concerned with long term stability and the solutions to these concerns need to come from our generation of leaders. Think outside the box and look to other fields for answers. What organizations are successful? Why are they successful? Can you mirror any of their same techniques for success? These types of questions may yield surprising but illuminating results!

Want an easy place to start? Does your organization have a business plan or a strategic plan? If not, then it is time to develop a guiding document! One of the best examples of such a document is the Chicago History Museum Visioning Document. This has inspired organizations large and small to take a more holistic approach to organizational development. It should be required reading for everyone involved in historic institutions.

To the shock of no one, my Next Gen classmates and I  came to the conclusion that collections, museums, and organizations can no longer afford to exist as the bastions of antiquarians and enthusiasts – we need have clearly articulated and BOLD vision, missions, and purposes. But just as importantly, we as museum leaders need to be driven by bold vision missions and purposes. The Getty Leadership Institute empowered me to be a stronger leader by giving me access to a whole new tool box of skills. These skills will allow me to take important next steps for my career and the future health of the historic institutions in my community.