We are excited to announce that Omnia History is officially offering a new service to help cultural organizations center the needs of the public and thrive as agents of social change: database management. We have been doing this work for years and are intentionally growing it into a core part of Omnia History because we have witnessed how effective database administration can positively impact cultural organizations.
Five years ago, Hope and I became involved with a local historical society that was financially struggling and working to reorient its strategic priorities. Among other issues, the organization’s mailing lists, event registrations, membership rolls, donations, and volunteer information were all located in different software, spreadsheets, and physical files, if they existed at all. In an effort to prioritize outreach, a team of volunteers and I decided to install and maintain CiviCRM, an open-source constituent relationship management system that could consolidate the organization’s contact data. Since then, I have transitioned to a contracted consulting role as I continue to refine the system, streamline data input, and integrate forms into the society’s website.
Over the course of the last eleven weeks, I had the honor of joining a cohort of historians, librarians, and other scholars in a course sponsored by Wiki Education and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). We received technical training on the ins and outs of Wikipedia and contributed to articles relating to women’s suffrage in anticipation of the centennial anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment and an associated exhibit on the topic planned by NARA. I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to be a student again, and benefited greatly from the excellent facilitation by Wiki Education staff and thoughtful conversations with fellow Wiki Scholars. By the end of the course I contributed to Wikipedia pages on the Sheppard-Towner Act and Catherine Waugh McCulloch. Here are three things I learned from the experience:
Nestled on page 112 of The Leopold and Loeb Files, Nina Barrett features an excerpt from noted social reformer Judge Ben B. Lindsey of the Juvenile Court of Denver who declared that the Leopold and Loeb crime was symptomatic of a “modern mentality and modern freedom of youth, with the misunderstandings between parenthood and childhood…the indifference to the rights of others in the stealing of automobiles, in joyrides, jazz parties, petting parties, freedom in sex relations and the mania of speed on every turn.”
Although Lindsey’s comments were perhaps unduly alarmist, he does hit upon how the Leopold and Loeb case struck a nerve in the historical moment of 1924. The trial became a way to explore fears about modern life in the Progressive Era, including anxieties about:
the limits and risks of science and rationality
the meaning of intellectual, urban masculinity
the effects of improper femininity and maternity
sexuality as action, orientation, and identity
the questionable security promised by wealth and respectability
the proper social and psychological development of children
Kristin Emery and Rachel Boyle are longtime friends, colleagues, and collaborators in the humanities who frequently reflect and strategize together. Here they grapple with the value of digital exhibits by considering their potential educational value, intended audiences, and the realities of online habits.
Rachel: I’ll be blunt: What is the point of a digital exhibit? Is it just unsuccessfully shoving an analog idea (physical exhibits) into a digital space? If I am looking for a cultural activity out on the city I might stop by a gallery exhibition, but if I have downtime on my computer or phone, there is no way that I will purposefully explore a digital exhibit. I might try to learn something new by going down a Wikipedia hole, settling in for a #longread, or following a social media thread, but I have never once sought out a digital exhibit. And I’ve proudly curated several! Hence the crisis—why am I building something I would never seek out myself?
Kristin: When I took the first iteration of Kyle Roberts’s “Digital Media for Public History” class at Loyola University Chicago in 2012, we spent the first several class sessions on the “digital versus analog” debate. A 3-D model of the Lourve could never replace the experience of going to the museum; but at least it gives those who may never be able to actually visit a chance to experience the museum in part. Digitized collection items can be viewed with the help of enhancing software that might allow for more complete analysis. You get the picture. We also talked in those early sessions about the concept of hypertextuality (lol that is literally an example of hypertextuality) and the exciting opportunities for digital exhibits to use the concept to break down the constraining linear nature of physical exhibits.
I am proud to announce the launch of a brand new digital exhibit: Place of Protest: Chicago’s Legacy of Dissent, Declaration, and Disruption. Featuring collection material from the members of the Chicago Collections Consortium, the exhibit covers fifteen events spanning nearly 150 years to explore how protesters in Chicago occupied space with their bodies, voices, and possessions. Visit the digital exhibit by clicking here or read on to get my take on the curatorial process, see what ended up on the cutting room floor, and learn more about upcoming events.
We have sometimes worked for supervisors, stakeholders, or institutions who are more interested in palatable fables than rigorous truths—with some feeling as though our ethics must be compromised lest we lose our job. Many fight the good fight at great emotional, mental, and financial cost—a cost especially compounded for women, people of color, Indigenous, LGBTQ+, and other marginalized folks. We may feel pressured to pander to tourists and coddle local lore rather than rock the boat. We might pass by or abandon important community collaborative projects that don’t have financial backing. We sometimes work second night jobs at restaurants to keep working day jobs at the museum and pay off student loans. Under pressure from anxious students, parents and administrators, we cater to the notion that public history leads to good jobs. We lead quiet lives of desperation in full knowledge that despite our historically-informed perspectives, we are not outside capitalism’s peculiar power to obscure inequity, patriarchy, and racial discrimination as “natural market forces.” Like everyone else, we are trapped in its snare.
In my previous post, I alluded to the problems of cultural organizations relying heavily on grants and wealthy donors. I would like to dig into that a little more and argue that, even if cultural organizations do not pursue a strictly cooperative model, there is still good reason to abandon fundraising and adopt a public-oriented approach to resource development. In other words, shared authority is not just good public history, but a sustainable financial model for cultural organizations.*
First of all, I acknowledge that funds from foundations and wealthy donors can accomplish high-impact work and supply the start-up money for self-contained or self-sustaining projects. As I learned at NCPH 2018, sometimes project-based work can resist the problems inherent in institutional work. However, organizations risk becoming dependent on short-term, high-dollar grants for basic operation over the long term. It might start with grant guidelines reshaping a project’s scope; over time, institutional priorities may shift to accommodate the interests of philanthropists and foundations. Cultural organizations seeking grants can quickly become like a dog chasing its own tail, neglecting the needs and interests of the broader public who cannot immediately provide that high-dollar high. Continue reading “Envisioning New Economic Models for Public History, Part III: Abandon Fundraising”
If you work at a cultural nonprofit, think of all the time and energy poured into securing and abiding by grants or navigating the restrictions of wealthy donors. Now imagine devoting the same resources to listen to, engage, and serve the local community. I propose that a cultural cooperative offers a way to fundamentally reorient the economic and social relationship between a cultural organization and the people it aims to serve. A public history co-op in particular offers an alternative way to do our work while institutions crumble around us.
“Structure vs. story” could be historians’ equivalent of the “nature vs. nurture” debate. At heart, many historians are storytellers trying to connect to the humanity of our ancestors. At the same time, humans live under conditions not of their own making and we can’t understand individual stories without understanding big-picture, structural impacts of forces like capitalism, war, or slavery. Public historians are not immune to this push and pull between our individual stories—what we personally can accomplish to dismantle white supremacy or the patriarchy in our own lives and cultural organizations—and the structural realities of who has the money and power to fund institutions, serve on boards, and hire or fire public historians. I see fellow professionals doing great work in traditional institutional settings, but phenomenal employees and even leaders cannot always undo the multi-generational impacts of imperialist, racist, and patriarchal institutional policies. While we cannot stop doing the good work of institutional reform, we also need to address the question of structure—can we envision new ways to move forward? Continue reading “Envisioning New Economic Models for Public History, Part I: Crumbling Institutions”
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:
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