Usually the highlight of my spring, the Annual Meeting of the National Council on Public History held additional appeal this year as I escaped Chicago’s third winter to visit sunny Las Vegas for the first time. While I found the Strip to be a garish hellscape of capitalist excess, the conference proved jam-packed with weighty and thoughtful discussions. I’ve been to enough conferences, NCPH and otherwise, to know that they should be approached as a marathon, not a sprint. Yet, my first three events—a workshop on consulting, the speed networking event, and a working group on ethics and economic justice in public history—resulted in so many provocative conversations that I couldn’t help but recklessly ride the adrenaline rush until I woke up on Friday morning like:
Having recovered enough to reflect on the conference, I am ruminating on the conversations at NCPH that focused on either project-based work or how to navigate the power structures of institutions. Stories of project-based work often served as a source of great inspiration by focusing on community-centered, responsive public history. At the same time, the frequency of independent public history projects starts to feel a manifestation of the gig economy with unreliable and temporary funding, little to no employee benefits like insurance or retirement, and often requiring an alternative source of stable income like holding a university job or relying on a partner’s income (both positions of significant privilege).
Working in a government or nonprofit institution holds greater promise of financial stability for public historians, as well as potential for leveraging long-term commitment and greater resources to benefit the public. However, these places often carry substantial cultural baggage and many presenters spoke to the struggles of trying to change the system from inside. Without strong, progressive leadership, institutions can and do continue to perpetuate the harm of decades past.
I maintain that we must make a way forward in our field where public historians can make a living and do responsive, community-centered work. I think this will mean fundamentally reconfiguring our social relationships and economic structures (more on that to come). In the meantime, I’m beginning to realize that we also need to be willing to creatively blend different economic models, funding sources, and coalitions in order to ethically accomplish our work. This year’s NCPH has me hoping that, regardless of setting, emerging best practice instructs us to align ourselves with other stakeholders invested in a shared vision of social change and then use history as a tool to advance that vision.