The board of directors of the Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society (RPWRHS) is currently in the process of transferring ownership of the bulk of the society’s collections to the Sulzer branch of the Chicago Public Library. Collections have generally loomed large in local historical societies and so the decision by the RPWRHS board to voluntarily rid the society of its collections might seem unusual to anyone familiar with local history groups. Many societies formed with the express purpose of saving local historical material from disappearing when long-time residents passed or moved away and have spent the decades since meticulously collecting and cataloguing local documents and artifacts. The RPWRHS is no different, and society volunteers had been growing and caring for the RPWRHS collections since founding the group in 1975.
In this post,
I’ll share why RPWRHS leadership made the decision to divest the society of its
collections and how they’re managing the transference of their material to the
Chicago Public Library. Their decision to find a new home for their collections
isn’t a good fit for every collecting institution, and that’s exactly the
point. The RPWRHS board took a step back, reevaluated their institutional
priorities, and made a decision that reflects the needs and interests of their
constituents. Their story exemplifies how creative problem-solving can help
local history groups navigate tough conversations about institutional mission
and purpose and come out the other side better prepared to serve their
The first part of this post is filled with a whole lot of navel-gazing. If you’re not here for that, skip down to “so, what can we do with this energy?”
Early Monday afternoon, my sister sent me a text message. “Did you see that Notre Dame is on fire?” she asked. The university in Indiana, I thought? Or the school I attended for seventh grade in Schenectady, NY? I jumped online and googled Notre Dame and saw what she meant. The Notre-Dame de Paris, the famous Cathedral, was on fire. It seemed inconceivable to me and yet there it was, in flames, smoke billowing from its roof and across the Paris sky. I watched live streams on and off for the next few hours, staring in open-mouthed horror as the fire spread and intensified and as the burning spire finally fell, feeling teary at the sight of so many Parisians and tourists from around the world watching silently from nearby bridges as flames ate away at one of France’s most visible landmarks.
I wasn’t alone in my reaction and, like millions of others, I felt relieved when French authorities reported that they had managed to control the fire, and again when they said that they knew for certain that no one had died in the blaze, and again when they shared footage showing that the sanctuary remained mostly-intact.
I’m deliberately emphasizing my emotional response for a reason. Material culture, including physical structures, has the power to evoke strong emotions and overcome some of the abstraction that can make it difficult to connect with people who lived so long ago. People care about historic buildings, ruins, and other historic elements of the physical landscape because, quite simply, they connect us in a very concrete way to an earlier time. They allow us to think about the humans who lived and loved and suffered in these spaces long before we came along. It’s the closest we come to meeting people who lived in the past– we can stand where they stood and know that they moved through the same space.
Rachel Boyle and Hope Shannon co-authored this post.
Like many of you, we’re gearing up for our trip to Hartford for the National Council on Public History’s 2019 annual meeting. We’ll be there by Wednesday afternoon and look forward to immersing ourselves in the camaraderie and paradigm-shifting conversations so typical of this conference. This is our favorite annual meeting and our intellectual home base and we’re so thankful to everyone involved in its organization. We’re especially grateful to the NCPH staff, program and local arrangements committees, sponsors, and other volunteers who build such a welcoming space year after year.
One of our favorite things about the NCPH annual meeting is the plethora of ways to meet and engage other conference attendees outside of traditional sessions. NCPH does a great job making these events as meaningful and productive as everything else on the conference program. Below, we share some of the non-session events that we’re most looking forward to and offer some thoughts on why you should include an ample number of these in your conference schedule. This guide is not meant to be an endorsement of these particular events or a slight to those we didn’t choose—we just want to highlight some of what makes NCPH’s annual meeting a highlight of our year!
time is ripe for small cultural institutions to think about how they can engage
their communities in conversations about voting, elections, and civic
disenfranchisement. For one, we’re in the early stages of the next presidential
election cycle here in the United States. We’ve seen several democrats announce
that they intend to run for the democratic nomination in advance of the 2020
election and I think it’s safe to say that this presidential race will capture
more attention than any other election in modern history. And even if we
weren’t approaching a presidential or congressional election, we’re almost
always at the beginning, middle, or end of some election. Here in Chicago we’re
facing a mayoral and aldermanic election in a few weeks, hot on the heels of
the November midterms.
In addition to the near-constant stream of election cycles, we’re now less than a year away from the beginning of the 19th amendment’s centennial. Celebrations of this important historical moment provide a framework cultural institutions can use to highlight issues related to suffrage, disenfranchisement, and human rights, past and present, in their local communities. Voter disenfranchisement has always been a serious human rights issue, and it’s especially pressing now as a number of states with voter identification laws on the books are attempting (and succeeding) in making these laws even more stringent and restrictive.
moments are important because they present small cultural groups, including
local historical societies and museums, with a number of opportunities to bring
people together to think critically about the role voting, elections, and
disenfranchisement play in their lives and in the lives of those around them.
We never need a reason to talk about the connections between past and present–
this can happen whenever, regardless of current events– but it’s particularly
important that we provide historical context for and facilitate conversations
about issues sitting at the top of the news cycle. High on that list right now
are what I mention above– voting, elections, and civic disenfranchisement.
Let’s talk about discrimination and sexual harassment at small public history sites, history museums, and related organizations. A large number of public history organizations run with staff of three, two, or even one and many public historians spend part or all of their careers at places run by only a handful of employees.1 Work under these conditions can be incredibly joyful, impactful, and fulfilling, but people working in these settings seem to face a special set of challenges related to harassment and discrimination. They routinely work one-on-one, sometimes alone, with board members, members, and donors, and often lack human resources departments or other internal mechanisms designed to help them seek protection and recourse against inappropriate and predatory behavior.
I recently asked a few senior public history professionals for advice on how we might better support people facing these kinds of challenges. One person advised me, a young female professional, to avoid drinking at work functions and to bring my husband with me whenever possible. This is unhelpful at best, victim blaming at worst, and it misses the point. I’ve already learned these lessons through personal experience and from whisper networks of women and others who have dealt with this their entire lives (hold your keys in your hand when walking home/to your car, don’t walk outside at night, never leave your drink unattended, don’t dress provocatively, and so on). Responses from the others were more helpful, though just as discouraging. They agreed that this has been and continues to be a serious problem, that little sustainable action has been taken to remedy it, and that we need to do more to support people working in vulnerable positions and who have few or no avenues of official recourse.
So, how do we deal with this? How can we better support people facing harassment and discrimination at small and under-resourced public history organizations? And, though the onus shouldn’t be on victims to stop predatory behavior, what can employees do to protect themselves?
The National Inventory of Humanities Organizations (NIHO) is exactly what it sounds like– an online database documenting humanities institutions currently in operation in the United States. NIHO, which was developed by the Humanities Indicators project at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, “encompasses not-for-profit, for-profit, and government institutions engaged in humanities scholarship and/or in bringing humanities knowledge or skills to various audiences.”(1)
I learned more about NIHO at the National Humanities Conference in New Orleans, LA a few weeks ago. Carolyn Fuqua, a senior research analyst at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and I both presented (along with several others) at the “Effecting Social Change Through the Humanities” session. She spoke about how the Humanities Indicators team designed NIHO to elevate the profiles of humanities organizations, encourage collaboration between them, and provide funders with a more comprehensive picture of the humanities landscape. Continue reading “Resource Alert: National Inventory of Humanities Organizations (NIHO)”
A couple of weeks ago, I presented about outreach and community engagement for small history institutions at the National Council on Public History’s first-ever Twitter Mini-Con, “(Re)Active Public History.” My presentation dealt with some of what I’ve discussed here in the past– mainly the important role these groups play in their towns and neighborhoods and how they can shuffle or modify existing priorities to ensure they play active and essential roles in the communities they serve.
More specifically, we considered why so many small history groups have, historically, prioritized collections-based work above other projects, how to adjust this model in the present to make more room for outreach- and community-based work, and how to involve constituents in a way that ensures and demonstrates institutional relevance. Some of the issues we covered were how to start this conversation, who to bring to the table and how to get them there, how to identify institutional priorities (and, similarly, how to identify what can be eliminated), using these self-reflective processes to build bridges between people across diverse communities, and how to make hard, self-reflective discussions part of an institution’s regular agenda.
I’m particularly grateful to the people who stayed until the end to engage in a rich and thought-provoking discussion about the realities of being a history and/or museum professional trying to do this work on the ground. I’m including our conversations here as a kind of part 3 to my two earlier blog posts (part 1, part 2) about community outreach and engagement in small history institutions.
I’m traveling to New Orleans in early November to present on the “Effecting Social Change through the Humanities” lightning round panel at this year’s National Humanities Conference. I’ll talk about the role local history has played in local change in the past and how to harness local history to effect change at home in the present. Since the conference is in November, and I’ll be preparing for it at the same time as the final stretch to the midterm elections, I can’t help but think about this and other panels at the conference in the context of what’s happening nationally right now. So many of us, myself included, are desperate for good news, for a wave of blue victories across the country, for any sign that attacks against human rights and progressive policies and will slow-down or stop.
I sometimes hear people who talk about the past refer to “lost” histories. Unsurprisingly, this phrase seems to come up most often in discussions about histories of women, people of color, LGBTQ people, impoverished people, and other historically-marginalized groups.
I’ve always found this rather strange. Describing a particular kind of history as “lost” gives a pass to the forces that led to its obfuscation. Gaps in historical knowledge occur because people in power ignore or devalue the ways the groups they marginalize shape change over time. People in power sometimes destroy historical records in a deliberate way and/or manipulate information so as to maintain and strengthen their control over others and elevate their own accomplishments. They do so until challenged in some way, but in the meantime they have the means by which to secure their legacies and influence the historical record. Continue reading “What does “lost” history really mean?”
This post is the second of a two-part piece about collections, outreach, and reshuffling priorities at local history institutions. Click here for the first post, “Rethinking Collections at Local History Institutions.”
In June, I wrote about the problematic tendency of many local history groups to prioritize the collection of historic artifacts and documents above vital outreach and community-building work. This needs to change. This isn’t the case for all of these groups, of course– there are some whose staff and volunteers use history to bring people from diverse communities together and into their institutions, and a wonderful handful who use their collections to help with these efforts– but there are many more who neglect this work.
Local history groups that have not yet prioritized outreach need to do so as soon as possible. For one, we need these groups to provide opportunities for local change-makers to come together to discuss the applications of historical knowledge to present-day problems. But beyond that, demonstrating relevance in this way can help local history groups survive a critical stage in their life cycles– the point at which their founder or founders have left the organization and current leadership has to consider how to step forward without the original cohort’s momentum and influence.¹ Continue reading “Prioritizing Outreach at Local History Institutions, Part 2 of 2”