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In the Field

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roundtable discussion, Wikipedia versus Women

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

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

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

Poster for “A Night of Primary Sources”

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

Press Articles:

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

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

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

 

 

Austin Clark, MA Candidate, UMass Amherst

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

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

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

Austin Clark in front of the Mass Humanities farmhouse

 

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

Like this Manatee

 

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Perri Meldon, M.A. Candidate, UMass Amherst

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

View from the Rooftop of the Department of the Interior Building

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

What happens when museum professionals and public historians gather to discuss the future of historic house museums and face the challenge of thinking outside the box? To tackle these hard questions head on, the Greater Hudson Heritage Network (GHHN), New York State Council for the Arts (NYSCA), and “Museum Maverick” and co-author of the Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums (2016) Franklin Vagnone, hosted a “creativity incubator” workshop for regional organizations at Boscobel House and Gardens in Garrison, New York on April 25, 2017. Nearly 40 museum professionals attended the event to explore fresh interpretive ideas and push the boundaries of programming and operations at historic sites and house museums.

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Our eager group started the day with introductions and an exercise making sense of context, interpretation, and examining biases in presenting museum collections. To illustrate his point, Vagnone poured the contents of a bowl (represented a museum collection) out on the floor and asked the group to make sense of it. Naturally, we organized the material by type. Playing the role of a selective funder, Vagnone kicked everything out of order, asserting that he only wanted materials that were white in color. Several minutes later, our group placed the white bowl at the center of the floor, filled it with toilet paper, surrounded it with face down index cards, and sorted out white tic tacs, smarties, and life savers. After we completed this hands-on exercise, Vagnone explained that museums often treat collections selectively, thereby actively omitting narratives, stories, and broader context(s) that contribute to a more interesting interpretive narrative. In this collaborative exercise, he labeled standard curation pratices and institutional bias as one in the same. He also explained that selective periodization narrows interpretive opportunities and creates a bland narrative that loses the human aspects of a historic house museum’s story.

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What do Public History perspectives have to offer contemporary art museums? What do contemporary art museums have to offer public historians?  Recently, Professor Marla Miller sat down with Kelli Morgan and Kiara Hill, both PhD students in the UMass Amherst W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies who are pursuing the Graduate Certificate in Public History while also preparing for careers, to talk about those and other questions.

First — Kelli, you’re back on campus to talk about Kara Walker, as part of the University Museum of Contemporary Art exhibition Emancipating the Past: Kara Walker’s Tales of Slavery and Power.” As the Winston & Carolyn Lowe Curatorial Fellow for Diversity in the Fine Arts at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, can you share a little bit about you see Walker’s work at the intersection of history and art?

KM: Absolutely, I feel like Walker’s work is a dramatic illustration of that intersection, both materially and thematically. Her use and play with shadow through silhouettes – a historical form of portraiture – puppetry, and sculpture, visualizes the antebellum era in ways that trigger us…that force us to see just how much we carry the history of slavery and all its sordid events around with us in our contemporary moment. 

In your coursework, you contributed to several “field service” projects in partnerships with area museums…how do your experiences with public history practice inform your work now, at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts?

KM: Tremendously. I say all the time that one can’t responsibly engage with historical or contemporary African American art without having a sound command of the history of Black people in this country. For instance, while working on the permanent exhibition for the Samuel Harrison House in Pittsfield, MA, I learned how to read objects within the contexts from and for which they were made. You can read history books that will inform you of Harrison’s diligence as a chaplain and an abolitionist, but it was his meager shoe workshop that illuminated why he was so dedicated to his community and the greater cause of abolition. He didn’t make enough money to support his family on his activism alone, so both he and his wife had to supplement their income – he as a cobbler and she a seamstress – because even in “liberal” New England, a hotbed of abolition, racism prevented them from receiving equal wages.

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Kelli Morgan from her lecture last February: “The Art of Kara Walker”

Thus, my curatorial philosophy is firmly rooted in history first. My visual analyses typically begin with the object’s broader cultural and sometimes political context, then I move into its aesthetic and formal value. For example, now on view at PAFA is our WWI exhibition, which includes several pro-war posters commissioned by W.E.B. Du Bois in efforts to encourage Black men to enlist. I often lead tours that offer visitors a brief but detailed overview of the racial mythologies surrounding the Black male body during the first two decades of the 20th century, and how these mythologies were visually perpetuated through minstrelsy. This way, viewers come to understand that these posters functioned not simply as war propaganda, but as visual evidence of Black middle class families and Black men’s bravery and intelligence, as a means to show white American audiences that Black men and women were everything but stereotypical minstrel caricatures.

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

As representatives of cultural institutions and museums, how can we meet our audiences in an increasingly fast-paced world? This past summer, I confronted this question during an internship at Hyde Hall, an early nineteenth century mansion (built 1817 to 1834) overlooking scenic Otsego Lake at Glimmerglass State Park in Cooperstown, New York. Mainly, my work at Hyde Hall involved the digitization of the papers of the Clarke family, the home’s founding occupants and longtime land barons in Upstate New York. Beyond digital archiving, additional experiences working at the site included disseminating digitized materials via New York Heritage Digital Collections, brainstorming and event planning, leading tours, and expanding Hyde Hall’s online presence and social media. Simultaneously engaging audiences in physical and virtual spaces proved a challenging endeavor. In tackling these challenges, I piloted some of the ideas that Frank Vagnone and Deb Ryan present in their 2016 work Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums. Through adapting some of these concepts, I shared Hyde Hall’s story with visitors on the ground and audiences online.

The brunt of my digitization work on the George Hyde Clarke Family Papers (available here) required me to structure a sustainable digital archiving process for future interns or site personnel to follow. This process included organizing previously digitized JPEG files into more manageable PDFs, cataloging the files, and creating metadata for and uploading this material online. Through this process, the history of the family’s business and personal networks in America and England, and details of the mansion’s construction and occupation became accessible online. In this virtual space, this material delivers the story of Hyde Hall to not only scholars and genealogists, but also to visitors should they wish to learn more about the site after their visit. Ultimately, these physical remnants provided our audience with an digitally accessible connection to the past through a variety of documents, papers, letters, and business correspondence involving the Clarke family and their home at Hyde Hall.

Through social media, I worked to share our digital collections, build our following, and actively engage with the surrounding community. To share Hyde Hall’s story and collaborate with our neighbors virtually, I connected with businesses, museums, community organizations, and other cultural institutions in and around Cooperstown and Central New York. Echoing Vagnone and Ryan in the Anarchist’s Guide, I not only attempted to get to know and collaborate with our neighbors, but tried to “Get Chatty” with Hyde Hall’s Facebook and Twitter followers. The authors advocate to meet your audiences where they are online and communicate a more informal and collaborative dialog with followers, visitors, and other institutions [1].

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Maria Bastos-Stanek 
Art History and Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies Major, UMass Amherst

“Congratulations, Mr. Peter Hujar you have just won one million dollars!” read the first scrap of paper I encountered as I opened my first archival folder at the New York University Fales Library and Special Collections. This semester I had the chance to research the papers of the artist David Wojnarowicz for my art history honors thesis on HIV/AIDS art and activism. Wojnarowicz’s work spans multiple mediums – painting, photography, collage, installation, and performance – not to mention an impressive corpus of writing. His work concerns his involvement in the so-called “downtown scene” of the New York neighborhoods of SoHo and the Lower East Side during the 1970s and throughout the early 1990s, as well as his political activism during the HIV/AIDS crisis. His work takes on various affective dimensions as well, which is best described through the language of destruction. Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, Bush Fires in the Social Landscape and Fever are all titles taken from his books and exhibitions.

As an art historian, researching in the archive presents its own set of challenges and possibilities. Unlike historians who construct history through documents, art historians write history through images. We take material objects, whether it is a painting, photograph, collage, installation or decorative object as our primary source material. An image rarely exists in an archive but rather in comparable spaces like museums, galleries, or private collections. Similarly, an image does not spell things out so clearly like a document. Images require careful examination and close inspection. They require looking for long periods, a familiarity with the artist’s hand, and dealing with the affective responses elicited by the images themselves.

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View of my workspace while researching the David Wojnarowicz Papers. Photographed and included with permission from the New York University Fales Library and Special Collections.

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