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Conferencing

by Danielle Raad

In November 2019, I spent ten days in the Alps. I landed in Munich and took a train south into the mountains. Mountains were a constant presence, in the abstract and the physical, the focus and the backdrop, on the trip.

I headed to Innsbruck, Austria, to attend the Annual Conference of the Austrian Association for American Studies hosted by the University of Innsbruck. The theme of this year’s conference was Mediating Mountains. The conference organizers, in their call for papers, wrote: “Mountains are not only objects of reflection that mirror, archive, and project human and cultural investments, but they can also be conceived of as ‘hyperobjects’ that affect the ways we come to think about existence, earth, and society”.  

Raad, Figure 1

My route through the Alps. A = Munich, Germany; B = Innsbruck, Austria; C = Verona, Italy; D = Milan, Italy; E = Morbegno, Italy; F = Sondrio, Italy. 

My weekend in Innsbruck was invigorating. I met people from different fields in the humanities and social sciences who study mountains in some guise or other. And while we scholars conferred, the snow-capped Alps loomed in the not-so-distance, visible from the room in which I gave my talk on the role of visual media and collective vision on the creation of mountains in 19th-century America. I also chaired a session called “Commodifying Verticality,” which included talks by three historians. Dr. Carolin Roeder, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, spoke on climbing grades, Dr. Rachel Gross, an Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado Denver, presented on commercial sponsorship on Everest, and Jesse Ritner, a PhD student at the University of Texas at Austin talked about making artificial snow. At the conference and in the weeks since, I have been thinking a lot about orogenesis, or the creation of mountains, quite a bit. Both the geologic movement of tectonic plates, which I know well from my days as a science teacher, but also in terms of the processes by which societies construct their mountains.

After the conference ended, I took a funicular and two cable cars up Hafelekar Peak, part of the Nordkette, or North Chain. I trudged through the snow to summit the 7,657-foot tall mountain. A Gipfelkreuz, or summit cross, greeted me at the top and signaled the primary religion of the community thousands of feet below. I could see before me all of the Inn Valley, the River Inn, and the city of Innsbruck. I also saw the elevated train tracks heading south through a mountain pass to Italy, which I would be on the next day. 

Raad, Figure 2

The view of Innsbruck from Hafelekar Peak.  

There is a tension between the Romantic gaze of mountains as unreachable, unknowable symbols of nature’s power, and the modern gaze of mountains as controlled and managed landscapes [4]. I was standing on Hafelekar Peak in a conference outfit and was carried most of the way there by machines. I also arrived and departed Innsbruck via machine. The construction of the railroads and trains which have transported myself and many others in and out of the Alps opened up the area to tourism and outdoor recreation.

But looking down from the cable car at the Nordkette below, I saw evidence of a massive avalanche in the form of hundreds of flattened trees, and was reminded of the awesome power of the mountains. They also dictate human movement through the Alps, forcing us to jump from valley to valley. The train that I took from Innsbruck south, headed for Verona, went through the Brenner Pass. Despite technological advancements, and indeed many tunnels have been carved straight through the rock, for the most part humans must react to the physical mass and resulting weather systems of the mountains.

On the way to Verona, I passed by the Italian town of Bolzano and stared wistfully out the window towards where Ötzi the Iceman, a mummified 5,000 year old proto-mountaineer, lay in a closed-on-Mondays museum. I emerged from the Alps momentarily and spent a day in Verona before taking another train west to Milan and yet another north, back into the mountains. I reconvened with my family and spent several days in Morbegno, the Italian village in the Valtellina valley where my father-in-law is from. 

One day we drove to Sondrio, the capital of the region, to visit Il Castello Delle Storie Di Montagna in Sondrio (CAST). This is a museum that tells the story of the changing perception of mountains. It is a sort of museum within a museum; it is housed in the Castello Masegra, a Renaissance villa. Interpretive signage provides information on the historic building as well as the mountain-related theme on each floor.

The first floor focused on the climbing (bouldering, sport climbing, and ice climbing). Against a backdrop of faded Renaissance frescoes, exhibits mirrored the tactile nature of the sport. Interactive touch screen maps displayed videos about climbing sites around the world. The theme of the second floor was mountaineering expeditions, global in scope yet emphasizing the Alps. In the banquet hall room, under an ancient wooden vaulted ceiling, were interactive timelines of the history of mountaineering and a virtual reality telescope. Visitors could take books on various topics off shelves and insert them into slots to activate videos on a screen, or place film negatives on a lightbox to trigger content on the role of cinema in mountaineering. The final floor dealt with the topic of environmental protection and the origin of parks, focusing on the protected areas of Valtellina and featuring interactive components as well.

Raad, Figure 3

View of the Tartano Valley from the Ponte nel Cielo. 

At sunset, we took a sickening car ride up the face of a mountain on what felt like a pilgrimage to the Ponte nel Cielo, or bridge in the sky. We took numerous switchbacks, which triggered my motion sickness and my thoughts about the futile nature of human insistence on dominating these mountains. The Ponte nel Cielo is the highest and longest suspension footbridge in Europe and connects two sides of the Tartano Valley. We paid to walk across it and to look out at the expansive view of the valley with Lake Como in the distance, then to walk right back. The bridge seems to exist for the sake of being a bridge, as an expression of the ability of humans to manage the mountain landscape. My nausea on the way down served as a reminder of the ways that the mountains, however, manage our bodies and our movements. 

Danielle Raad is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology and a Public History Graduate Certificate Candidate at UMass Amherst.

Sources:

Anderson, B. M. (2012). “The Construction of an Alpine Landscape: Building, Representing and Affecting the Eastern Alps, c. 1885–1914.” Journal of Cultural Geography, 29(2), 155–183.

Austrian Association for American Studies. (2019). AAAS Conference 2019. Mediating Mountains. Universität Innsbruck. Retrieved from https://www.uibk.ac.at/projects/mountainfilmstudies/2019-aaas-conference-mediating-mountains/index.html.en

Debarbieux, B., & Rudaz, G. (2015). The Mountain: A Political History from the Enlightenment to the Present (J. M. Todd, Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Morton, T. (2013). Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Taylor, J. E. T. (2011). Pilgrims of the Vertical: Yosemite Rock Climbers and Nature at Risk. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Faculty 2

With the 2019 National Council on Public History Conference located just down the road from Amherst in Hartford, Connecticut, UMass Amherst public historians arrived in impressive numbers. Everywhere I looked at the Connecticut Convention Center, I saw fellow cohort members, faculty, and alumni milling about, presenting their work, attending workshops, exhibiting posters, and otherwise participating in this foremost gathering of U.S. public historians. I joined a panel of public historians, ranging from professors to archivists to students like myself, in developing The Inclusive Historian’s Handbook. This will be a forthcoming free digital booklet for museum professionals and public historians to encourage accessibility, inclusivity, and equity. The environment was supportive and inspiring, as I sat beside alumnus Austin Clark ’18MA and saw Marla Miller and many peers in the audience. Among the dozens of sessions I attended, I found the roundtables “S51: Black Public History from Post-Emancipation to Neo-Emancipation” and “S61: When All is Gone, Whose Story Remains? Protecting Coastal Heritage in a Changing Climate” most informative and thought-provoking. In S51, Hannah Scruggs of Montpelier shared how, as a black woman, working at a former plantation-now-museum feels like an act of spatial reclamation. In S61, Kate Cell of the Union of Concerned Scientists described the emotional and physical toll of losing cultural heritage to rising seas. These two presentations epitomized the reasons I gravitate to public history: how historically marginalized communities claim and make space, and how we can respond to the loss of beloved spaces as climate change continues to threaten their existence. I look forward to exploring these themes deeper in my public history career and as a new member of NCPH’s New Professional and Graduate Student Committee. Thank you to all UMass folks who organized the event, especially NCPH President Marla Miller and LJ Woolcock ’19MA for their superb organizational skills and caring.

 

Public History master’s students Jacob Boucher, Emma Winter Zeig, Amelia Zurcher, Kendall Taivalkoski, and  LJ Woolcock met and reflected on the panel “Getting Sexy At Historic Sites”, a panel that took place at this year’s Association for State and Local History (AASLH) annual meeting. UMass students took advantage of our program membership to attend six “hot-topic” sessions, broadcast live at the Kansas City meeting.

The topic of sexuality is not commonly discussed in historic sites and museums, despite its rising importance in academic history. Some sites consider sex & sexuality to be “too sensitive” for a broad public audience; others may take it to be akin to sharing “gossip.” However, the history of sexuality provides us with powerful tools for understanding the lives of the people who inhabited our sites, and to unpack the structures of power which shape society and culture.

For these reasons, we were thrilled to watch and discuss “Getting Sexy at Historic Sites.” The panel focused on how to bring the topic of sexuality into the museum, and especially within historic house museums, where these types of stories are particularly relevant but often go unaddressed. We were expecting to hear about the interpretation of LGBTQ history within historic houses, and looked forward to hearing about interpretive techniques that have been successful in incorporating sexual narratives into museum exhibits and tours.

To open the panel, Susan Ferentino (author of Interpreting LGBT History in Museums & Historic Sites (2015)–winner of the National Council on Public History prize for best book in the field that year) presented an overview of the scholarly study of sexuality, and how it views sexuality as much more than just sex acts. The history of sexuality, she observed, encompasses diverse areas such as childbirth, marriage, love, cultural assumptions and anxieties, gender, and race, all of which are already being interpreted at many sites. She then moved on to discuss why sexuality should be interpreted within the context of the historic house museum. Scholars often look to sexual narratives to discuss power dynamics – how standards of sexuality enforce behavior in men and women, who has access to sex with whom, and how race, class, and gender intersect in matters of sex and sexuality. She pointed out that historic house museums provide wonderful opportunities for the public to experience the intersection between personal intimacy and the broader topics of race, class, the family, and policing. They are the locus of sexuality in people’s lives, and were also the site of a lot of sexual education before that subject was taught in public schools.  

Angela Smith of North Dakota State University then presented on the ongoing research on Melvina Massey, a African American Madam in Fargo, North Dakota, in the late 19th century. She discussed the discovery of Massey in archival sources, the process of research on her life over the course of five years, and the various ways that she and her students interpreted Massey to the community of Fargo, including museum exhibits and documentaries. Smith focused less on Massey herself than how she brought Massey’s story into the college classroom. A good deal of the research was done by her students, and Smith described her undergraduate students’ enthusiasm for uncovering Massey’s life through public records and archives.  

Kaci Lynn Johnson, another member of the panel, was among the students in Smith’s class; she has since become the curator at the Cass County Historical Society, whichhas continued to display exhibits on Melvina Massey. Johnson spoke about the different historic sites in Cass County that are beginning to interpret sexuality, including historic houses, a saloon, and a school.

Ferentino’s analysis of historic house museums made us think about the importance of bringing sexuality into museums and engaging our audience with the stories and questions it brings up. However, we noticed a change between Ferentino’s introduction and the rest of the panel — namely, a difference between the academic definition of the history of sexuality and the one that most visitors carry in their minds. Ferentino described a broad historical purview, while the latter two speakers focused more on the aspects that visitors to their sites would be interested in learning about: how often did people have sex? How do historians know something like that? And how did LGBTQ identities play into the sexual lives of historical figures?  

Angela Smith’s project showed the potential to bring sex and sexuality into a historic landscape by trying to find the present day locations of historic brothels. Her students used mapping and historical archaeology to uncover the site of Massey’s brothel.  More than just illuminating the landscape of the town, this investigation shows how brothels and sexual desire fit into the town’s life and social structure. Johnson’s work built on this initiative, as she showed how the sites run by the Cass County Historical Society provided the opportunity to break down scholarly conceptions underlying the history of sexuality for a broader audience. Further, by interpreting multiple sites in conversation with one another, we can bring together multiple narratives of sexuality in the same geographic area. The home, the saloon, and the brothel speak to different sexual experiences, but exist simultaneously and in relation to one another.

While this panel raised many possibilities for implementing stories of sex and sexuality in historic houses, we found one important narrative largely missing from the discussion: LGBTQ history. None of the panelists directly addressed the unique questions that come with interpreting LGBTQ narratives in a public context, which was concerning, considering the dire need for these stories to become a part of the larger historical landscape. However, it underscored the difficulty of interpreting LGBTQ stories in domestic spaces, and in particular historic house museums. Much of  LGBT history took place in the streets, in bars, clubs, cafeterias, and other public spaces, which are not represented by the home. Some attempts to interpret LGBTQ history came up in the discussion that followed the panel, as members of the audience shared their institutions’ attempts to interpret LGBTQ history for a broad audience. Examples include the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, and Parkeology’s “Queen’s Circle” exhibit on cruising in San Diego.

Together we wondered what strategies for interpretation were employed, and the individual stories that these institutions had found and presented to the public. We heard about many different types of interpretation–museum exhibits, documentaries, house tours, and more–but presenters did not go into detail about the individual storie they told, or how these broke down the topic of sexuality to a broad audience. For example, how do we address complex topics such as power structures along with the stories of individuals within our sites? Integrating these two together seems to us to be essential to bridging the gap between scholars and museum professionals’ ideas of sexuality, and the ideas that the public brings with them to our institutions.

Sexuality is an essential topic that all historic sites, not just historic house museums, need to begin to address. Sex and sexuality are powerful tools of interpretation, as they are closely linked to our own lives and experiences. The question remains, how can we provide complex and inclusive interpretation that reflects the historical contingency of sexuality, breaks down big concepts, and brings our visitors stories that they will find meaningful and memorable?

Part II[i]


This is the second of two posts by Marla Miller reflecting on The Role of Historians in Public Life symposium. For Part I, click here.

As I traveled to Prague to participate in “The Role of Historians in Public Life,” a symposium organized by Tammy Gordon of North Carolina State University and Jaroslav Ira of Charles University, at the North Carolina State European Center in Prague, I expected to think about intersections between history, heritage, and capital-P Politics. But I didn’t expect to have such a rich opportunity to explore comparative issues in local history. 

These conversations were timely for me, as I am at the end of a long (l-o-n-g) book project that sits at intersections of early American women’s history, labor history, material culture and local history. Mark Salber Phillips’ On Historical Distance loomed large through the day as I absorbed this fascinating series of talks.[1]   How much distance—temporal and spatial—is enough?  How is distance across time mediated by the nearness of place? 

The book I am finishing—a microhistory of women, work and landscape in Hadley, Massachusetts (the town where I now live, though I didn’t when this project commenced twenty years ago) in the half-century after the American Revolution—seeks to contribute to historiographical conversations about evolving social relations of labor over decades that witnessed profound transformations in U.S. women’s lives.  It is not a work of public history, but it is deeply grounded in the methods and sources of (and my deep respect and affection for) local history, and considers in its conclusion the role of public history practice (both in specific local institutions, and more abstractly, across the U.S.) in shaping popular historical understanding of (or, misperceptions about) early American women’s work.

What’s more, the work depends on just the kinds of local history institutions that my fellow presenters from the Czech Republic were considering in their own research.  Hadley boasts three small museums: The Hadley Farm Museum (founded 1930), the Porter Phelps Huntington  House Museum (1955), and the Hadley Historical Society (1976).  In the weeks just before I left for Prague, I was writing about how these particular organizations, together with others further afield, in the stories, documents, buildings and objects they preserved as well as those they discarded or suppressed, helped create the public understandings of early American labor that my study seeks to address.  As familiar as the strengths and liabilities of local history work are to those of us who practice local and public history in the U.S., I was somehow nevertheless unprepared for how familiar the local history organizations, local historians, and community dynamics considered by the day’s presenters would seem. 

Jakub Jareš explored the absence of the recent past in local history interpretation, and raised the problem of “proximity”—not just in time, but in place.  The historical actors and families involved in difficult local events often remain the neighbors they have long been; the prospect of re-opening old wounds mitigates against close examination of sensitive subjects. Maja Konstantinović suggested that local history can play roles in reconciliation, offering by way of example her organization’s work around the expulsion of German-speaking populations after WWII. Their project “The Disappeared Sudetenland”—which puts pre-war and contemporary photographs in then-and-now pairings—doesn’t aim to propose any particular trajectory (that is, that things were better or worse then as compared to now), but rather seeks to show “the most striking changes in the countryside in the border region and especially the hard-to-replace cultural losses due to the post-war displacement of Germans.”  The effort was controversial, as some observers worried that it would at the very least revive local tensions, and could have (some feared) worrisome implications for property claims, but has been successful in that it plants seeds of reconciliation. In discussion, Konstantinović reminded us that anthropological research indicates that temporal distance of at least two generations is important; heritage work is possible once direct connections to the events under consideration have been lost, and problems become more abstract, less emotional. 

Linda Kovářová’s presentation resonated in its discussion of the degree to which local history projects can rise and fall on the powerful personalities behind their creation; her organization’s “community coordinators” help move conversations forward in many ways—among them helping make fresh connections and see opportunities that inhabitants of a given place, settled in their ways, may miss. Jaroslav Ira’s discussion of the “social functions” of local history practice—correcting narratives, supporting memory work, fostering local identity, placemaking, and other more instrumental uses—touched on that issue as well, and was particularly productive for historians like myself who write about the places they live, and play visible roles in local history landscapes, as scholars and public speakers as well as members of historical commissions and history organization boards.  His survey of a range of local history expressions—brochures and publications by both professional and avocational authors that could just as easily have been images of books and posters for events associated with Hadley’s 350th anniversary celebration in 2009—touched on scholarly monographs as one end of this local history continuum.

Thinking about how idiosyncrasy and personalities affect local history practice was productive for me as I bring my current work to completion.  My chapters revisit, reinterpret and challenge ideas long cultivated in local collective memory; they also offer new insight, as they narrate (for instance) histories of enslavement and mixed-race families in the town, as well as the lives of hardscrabble households that sometimes turned to theft and other strategies to keep body and soul together. The project involves the significant historical distance that Phillips would say confers scholarly legitimacy, but that distance in time is not large enough, perhaps, to overcome nearness of place.  I think a lot about how the stories I tell will play when I take my seat at next year’s town meeting, and wonder what my responsibility is to the descendants of my subjects.  The lines separating “academic” and local history are less clear when I live down the street from the great-great-grandchildren of my historical actors, see them at the library or serve alongside them.  How much distance—temporal and spatial—is enough?

A post-symposium walk along the Hadley common with the always-thoughtful public historian Margo Shea gave me an opportunity to reflect further on these questions in the very setting that raised them.  Margo reminded me of the need for local historians to summon additional courage, noting how easy it can be to hesitate to “compromise one’s own standing in a community where deeply invested pastkeepers can resent interpretations that do not reflect the stories they value and emphasize.”  Certainly the historians engaged alongside Tammy Gordon, putting themselves at very literal risk in their town square, demands a kind of courage that far exceeds my own concerns.  “Perhaps,” Margo added, “engaging the consequences of our scholarship needs to be part of the story we tell.” 


[1] Mark Salber Phillips, On Historical Distance (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013).

[i] I’d like to thank Tammy Gordon and Margo Shea for their thoughtful engagement with this post.

Part I[i]

Sometimes the best place to think about local history is four thousand miles from home.

In early June, I had the great good fortune to participate in “The Role of Historians in Public Life,” a symposium organized by Tammy Gordon of North Carolina State University and Jaroslav Ira of Charles University, at the North Carolina State European Center in Prague. Having a longstanding fondness for Prague and the Czech Republic, I was eager to learn more about public history and heritage practice in places where I have never been a practitioner, but rather an appreciative tourist.  But I didn’t expect to enjoy a conversation so productive for thinking about local history, both as a genre of public history practice and as part of my own scholarly identity. And so, in this and the next post, I share some highlights from the symposium, as well as some reflections on how those experiences resonated for me as an academic, public and local historian.

Over the course of the symposium, eleven speakers addressed topics in and around public history and heritage management.   My own paper, “Pedagogies of Activism: Helping Students Confront Mass Incarceration” (which focused on our experience at UMass Amherst as a contributor to the Humanities Action Lab’s project “States of Incarceration: A Global Dialogue of Local Histories” joined a panel exploring how public historians address social problems.  Maja Konstantinović of the NGO Antikomplex discussed her organization’s fascinating effort to explore, reconcile and support memory culture in the Sudetenland. And anthropologist Linda Kovářová’ of Charles University and Anthropictures (an Anthropological Studio for Applied Research) shared insights from several compelling “social innovation projects” that aimed to expand and support sustainable development in “structurally damaged and peripheral rural regions and small towns.”

This conversation at intersections of public history and social action was advanced by other presenters as well. Kenneth Shefsiek of UNC-Wilmington commented on the “quiet activism” of cultivating empathy in historic house museums. For instance, Lisa R. Withers—a doctoral candidate at NC State University—described her insights as an oral historian researching school desegregation.  And organizer Tammy Gordon gave a powerful presentation on the extraordinary work she has been doing in Raleigh, North Carolina, as Historians for a Better Future confront the racist history of monuments in the town square.

Questions of temporal distance threaded through most of the day’s conversations.  Jakub Jareš of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes opened the topic as part of his fascinating look at how contemporary history is (or, more correctly, is not) represented in Czech local museums. Having considered some thirty museums around the country in a range of settings, Jareš found that the vast majority stop short of engaging recent events.  Most fall silent around 1948, when the Communist Party seized control of the Czech government.  Other timelines end surprisingly earlier (the museum in the Moravian capital of Brno narrates its history only to 1919, for instance, and the City Museum of Prague ends its story as early as 1784.)  Jareš remarks raised complex questions about time, proximity and historical distance that would linger through the day.

In discussion, Hana Havlůjová, a Lecturer at the Department of History and History Didactics in the Faculty of Education at Charles University, pointed out that one way that more contemporary history does get presented in the Czech Republic—and a phenomenon relevant to public historians in the US as well—is in exhibits that tap the appeal of nostalgia, a place, she observed, lays “between history and memory.”   Linda Kovářová added that while contemporary history is often missing from permanent exhibits in large museums, it may get attention in temporary exhibitions (in the Czech Republic, I learned, local history is less dependent on the avocational, and/or self-trained staff; any permanent exhibit is likely to have been created by museum professionals, while temporary exhibits offer space for local initiatives).  As an example, in her remarks Kovářová reported a growing interest in the Aš region among the “safeguards”—members of groups that once patrolled the boundaries of the Iron Curtain—in­ coming together for pastkeeping purposes, their interests being less, she explained, about situating themselves or that work in larger geopolitical narratives than to “meet and remember ‘how it was’” (her organization’s “community coordinators” bridge local interests and professional expertise, helping participants place their experiences in a larger frame).  In underscoring the importance of attending to contemporary events, University of Essex Professor Alix Green, citing the value at looking at Brexit in the context of its historical roots and precedents, noted that “the present is a hugely valuable resource.”

Another theme across several papers was, unsurprisingly, local history and economic development. Linda Kovářová’s described efforts to tap agritourism (e.g. around hop production in Žatec region, which grows the Saaz hops so popular among both industrial and home brewers) that would be very familiar to public historians across the U.S.  She also discussed efforts to address a common problem in my home region: what to do with historic but empty churches as church attendance plummets (this very issue was the topic, just two weeks later, of the Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife “Our Vanishing Landmarks,” where the efforts of the Preservation Trust of Vermont and New Hampshire Preservation Alliance would be very familiar to their Czech counterparts).  Lud’a Klusáková, Professor of History and chair of the Seminar of General and Comparative History at the Faculty of Arts at Charles University, shared the findings of REACH (Redesigning Access to Cultural Heritage) in her presentation on “the uses of the small towns’ heritage as adaptation strategy,” which focused the various ways heritage resources have been engaged across small towns in the Vysočina region.  And Alix Green, drawing on her work with the John Lewis Partnership (a large retailer in the UK), called for more public history presence in business history and corporate archives.

Lastly, in a session on “Interventions in Local History,” Jaroslav Ira, Assistant Professor at the Seminar of General and Comparative History at Charles University, contemplated the “social functions of local history in small towns.” How, he asked, do small towns represent their heritage?  What is the role of local history practice in the rhythms of the town’s social and cultural life?  In a way, Ira’s remarks brought us full circle, to Jareš’ proximity question.  How does history function in small-town settings when both the historical events and their narrators are so deeply embedded, still, in still-unfolding trajectories? What conditions constrain local history practice?  Does the size of a given place matter?  Tammy Gordon closed the day with her powerful presentation on the very physical intervention she and others have made in Raleigh, and the skills, training and straight-up courage that those very personal interventions demand.

Unsurprisingly, another theme throughout the day, one also familiar to U.S. practitioners, was the difficult work of interpretation and the need for more and better training in facilitation, dialogue and cultural competencies.  While Freeman Tilden’s Interpreting Our Heritage is, I learned, being translated into German and may someday appear in Czech, given efforts by the Czech Association for Local Heritage Interpretation, participants acknowledged the book’s limitations, noting the vast differences between the interpretation of, say, woodland habitats and sites of genocide.

In assembling these presenters, Gordon and Ira aimed to help public historians from their respective locales better understand and learn from their counterparts whose practice unfolds elsewhere around the globe.  Anyone who has had the opportunity to participate in international conversations about public history has come to appreciate the extraordinary value of learning more about the work of peers and colleagues around the world—what sounds familiar, what sounds unfamiliar, and how recognizing both put the contours of our own work in greater relief—that is, the rewards of collapsing distance.

Click here for part II


[i] I’d like to thank Tammy Gordon and Margo Shea for their thoughtful engagement with this post.

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.

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“…The stories we craft, and the stories visitors to exhibitions both bring to, and craft from, their encounters, can expand empathy and create transformative experiences, provide new insight and catalyze action.” Marla Miller, Professor, UMass History

The New England Museum Association (NEMA) held its annual conference in Portland, ME, on November 4th-6th. This year’s theme was “the language of museums,” and many sessions explored the importance of communication. Students, faculty, and alumni from the UMass Amherst Public History program attended the conference, and several of us maintained an active presence in the conference’s Twitter conversation, #NEMA2015 (click the link to see our tweets on Storify).

UMass Amherst Public History faculty, alumni, and students at NEMA 2015.

UMass Amherst Public History faculty, alumni, and students at NEMA 2015.

Many sessions that we attended focused on making museums inclusive spaces that combat systems of oppression, but there were also sessions on visitor engagement and photographing museum collections. Other members of the UMass Amherst Public History cohort attended sessions on objects and emotion, creating empathetic experiences, legislative advocacy, statewide collaborations, having difficult conversations in museum workplaces, and graphic design.

Here are some reflections from faculty and students on #NEMA2015:

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Amanda Tewes, Ph.D. candidate, UMass History

For the robust group of public historians in the UMass History Department, the annual meeting of the National Council of Public History (NCPH) (http://ncph.org/cms/) serves as holiday of sorts—a great way to meet new people, see new places, and hear about the state of the field. Conference goers also have the opportunity to attend speed-networking sessions, mingle at the Graduate Student and New Professional Mixer, and take in local history.

UMass students Erica Fagan, Katie Garland, Amanda Tewes, and Emily Pipes

This year in Nashville many of our students and faculty also represented UMass Public History well by shaping conference content and participating in working groups, presenting on panels, and moderating discussions. Emily Pipes even won an NCPH travel grant to attend the conference and participate in the working group “Who Speaks for Us?: Government Historians and NCPH.”

Emily Pipes receives her Travel grant from NCPH Executive Director John Dichtl

One of the most popular panels at the conference—at 8:30 a.m. no less!—was “Selfies, Tweets, and Likes: Social Media and its Role in Historical Memory,” featuring UMass’s own Erica Fagen as a presenter and Jon Olsen as commentator. What this panel got right was not just its exciting content, but also the way it inspired other public historians in the audience to think about using digital sources in their own work, pushing the boundaries of what is “history.” As panelist Jennifer Evans (Carleton University) explained, looking to forums like Instagram and Flickr as sources for historical research brings “new actors into the conversation” about “who is making that history and who is analyzing that history.” Not surprisingly, such an engaging topic had audience members jumping out of their seats to ask questions.

Erica Fagen’s session, “Selfies, Tweets, and Likes: Social Media and its Role in Historical Memory,”

NCPH is also a great place to connect (or reconnect) with UMass alumni across the United States and abroad. The Department sponsors a dinner with current and former public history students to reminisce and discuss careers in the field while experiencing the local nightlife.

Professor Miller reconnects with alumna Jill Ogline Titus

Most importantly, NCPH is a great opportunity for graduate students, new and seasoned professionals, as well as faculty to meet and discuss the future of public history. Participating in these discussions not only reinvigorates conference goers, but also helps shape the field.

I hope you can join us next year!

Chelsea Miller, M.A. student, History Department

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One broad theme I noticed during this weekend’s conference was the translation of ideas from abstract forms to material consequences. From aesthetics and political imagination to social justice in the classroom, my attention was drawn to the question of how our ideas and imagination manifest as art, interpersonal interactions, and teaching materials. These can either uphold or resist power dynamics and oppression.

Chelsea Miller asking a question during the opening panel

Chelsea Miller asking a question during the opening panel

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By Amanda Goodheart Parks, ABD Ph.D. Candidate, Department of History

This past November, I had the privilege of participating in the first ever NEMA Career Growth Studio. Due to work conflicts, I wasn’t able to attend this year’s conference, so as hundreds of my fellow museum folk headed home after three days of NEMA, I wandered into the Cambridge Hyatt feeling as though I had walked in late to a really great party. However, my fears of feeling left out were quickly assuaged when I was greeted by Dan Yaeger, Marieke Van Damme, and Sarah Marcoux Franke, my guides for this exciting new Career Growth Studio experiment.

We began with a cocktail hour, a welcomed opportunity for the twenty-five or so attendees to meet and mingle. Topics of conversation varied. Some dove straight into networking mode, while others debriefed about conference sessions. I chose the “get to know you” route, and quickly discovered I had much in common with my fellow CGSers. Most of us were women in our 20s and 30s with graduate degrees, and though our respective jobs, institutions, and life goals varied, a common theme began to emerge in one conversation after another— “I love working in the museum field, but…” More on that in a bit.

After we ventured upstairs to the penthouse suite overlooking the Charles River, I sat down at a table of CGSers I hadn’t met during the cocktail hour, and over a fantastic spread of seasonal delights such as butternut squash bisque (the food was spectacular!), we began chatting. Sure enough, that pesky refrain began to crop up again— “I love working in the museum field, but…” Shortly thereafter, Marieke joined our table and talked about her Joyful Museums project, an initiative dedicated to inspiring positive workplace culture in museums…and then the floodgates opened. Suddenly, our friendly dinner conversation transformed into a confessional for overworked, underpaid, emerging museum professionals. Comments ranged from, “…I’m grateful for my full time museum job, but I feel trapped and undervalued in my current position,” to “…Every job posting requires 5-7 years of full time experience. How will I ever get hired?” to “…On the outside, my organization looks like a great place to work, but our director’s management style is toxic…”

At first, we feared it was just our table. We feared we were the only ones caught up in a seemingly endless venting session — it wasn’t just us. Sure enough, all four tables of CGSers were using our first meal together as a forum to voice gripes, fears, and guilt relating to working in the museum field. Luckily, Dan, Marieke and Sarah sensed our need to voice these frustrations, so our first activity was filling an entire flip chart with our concerns in an act that seemed more like group therapy than career growth. Afterward, we took our first of many “mindfulness pauses” to reflect and jot down our homework before calling it a night. Yes, I said homework. We were assigned the task of committing the following things to paper: Our biggest professional regret, our proudest professional moment, and a goal we wanted the Career Growth Studio to help us achieve.

Career Growth Studio Blog Photo

When we reconvened the following morning over an array of breakfast delights (did I mention the food was spectacular?), the mood was one of relief and excitement. Relief because we had unburdened ourselves of our worries the night before, and excitement because we were looking forward to gaining new skills and knowledge to help quell said worries. Through a series of modules on topics ranging from Networking to Leadership, we spent the morning getting to know one another’s work situations, identifying solutions to our challenges, as well as sharing tips and best practices. Our facilitators offered points of departure for discussion, but for the most part, the best conversations stemmed from the group itself. Dan, Marieke, and Sarah jokingly referred to us as guinea pigs at the start of our time together, and to some extent, we were, but their willingness to structure the workshop around our specific needs, rather than stick to a pre-determined agenda, was what made the Career Growth Studio so beneficial. After an amazing lunch and some wrap up conversations (seriously, did I mention the food?), we ended with an agreement to create a private Facebook group to continue our conversations. We also plan to meet at next year’s NEMA conference in Portland, just as NEMA welcomes a second cohort of CGSers into the fold.

While the best part of the Career Growth Studio was working toward my individual professional goals, here are a few universal takeaways from my CGS experience:

1. Lead by example regardless of your position in your institutional hierarchy.
2. It can take up to two days for your body to recover from a stressful event, so find a stress management technique that works for you and stick with it!
3. Two words: Elevator Speech. Write it, memorize it, but most importantly, be it! You should have a different elevator speech for each of the following situations: Networking, Social Events, Representing Your Institution, and most importantly, Representing Yourself.
4. Reflective practice isn’t just a conference buzz word! Incorporate reflection and mindfulness into your daily life to inspire creative thinking and positivity.
5. And finally, never underestimate the power of a hand written thank you note.

In conclusion, as a museum professional in the early stages of my career, I found the NEMA Career Growth Studio to be equal parts catharsis and inspiration. In my opinion, the opportunity to talk to colleagues from other museums is the best part of NEMA conferences and workshops. The Career Growth Studio took this one step further. By granting my fellow attendees and I a safe, encouraging, and supportive environment to speak frankly about our professional challenges, goals, and dreams, NEMA allowed us the opportunity to not only better ourselves as museum professionals, but our New England museum community as a whole.

Amanda Goodheart Parks earned her M.A. in Public History from UMass in 2010. Currently an ABD Ph.D. candidate, Amanda works full time in the Education Department at the Springfield Museums in addition to her ongoing work on her dissertation which focuses on gender in the New England whaling industry.