Our scholarship informs our work at Omnia History, whether engaging public audiences online, through exhibits, or in classes and workshops. Understanding the past is a critical part of our mission to promote change in the present. In an upcoming adult education seminar at the Newberry Library, we will be focusing on women in turn-of-the-century Chicago to explore the changing nature of gender and violence in an industrial city.Check out this excerpt from my research to get a glimpse of what we’ll be discussing in the course.
“Biler Avenue” was the nickname for a two-block stretch of Pacific Avenue in late nineteenth-century Chicago made notorious by “women without husbands” who “got ‘biling drunk,’ and were in a “state of constant riot and effervescence,” according to the Chicago Tribune. The women of Biler fought, drank, stole, and engaged in sex work to forge tenuous lives in an unforgiving industrial city. Although the women’s economic activity rarely translated into expanded wealth, it did provide the foundation for ward bosses to secure personal fortunes and political power.
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
For the past several years, articles on Midwestern History and Culture seem to follow this same basic outline:
~ Personal anecdote
about author’s small town roots or first visit to the Midwest~
description of a cornfield~
~Cutting remark about
liberal coastal people’s perceptions of the Midwest made by an author from a
liberal coastal publication~
that Midwesterners are not simple provincial folk~
to 2016 election~
~Cautionary warning against generalizing a region at the end of an entire article generalizing the Midwest~
Even as Seemingly Every Article on Midwestern History and Culture aims to complicate understandings of the Midwest, they still start with the assumption that the Midwest is a static, white, rural place. This assumption is not reflected in the historical record, contemporary scholarship, or the lived experiences of so many Midwesterners (including myself); rather, it is a harmful and political statement. For example, in Minnesota the narrative justifies elevating violent legacies of colonizers while erasing past and present Indigenous presence in battles over place names at Bde Maka Ska and Historic Fort Snelling at Bdote. Meanwhile, the Board of Regents at the University of Minnesota is unwilling to reckon with the racist histories associated with campus building names. The nostalgic characterization of the Midwest as perpetually white and simplistically rural is not cute or benign—it perpetuates the violence of colonization and racism and should no longer be entertained as the uncritical starting point for the next reflection on America’s heartland.
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.
Wow, what a conference. I met and reconnected with so many public historians doing fantastic work and had many opportunities to reflect and work on my own complicity in oppressive structures that shape our field. I also spoke to many fellow practitioners who are struggling to make a living or secure health insurance as they cobble together jobs or rely on partner incomes. There are too many stories of public historians lacking support when facing sexual harassment (see Dr. Lyra Monteiro’s Twitter thread or Hope’s blog post) and others who risk losing their jobs while trying to do ethical public history within inflexible institutions.
I was disappointed to hear a few well-established public historians I respect dismiss some of these concerns as “career anxieties” or “entry level” folks needing to “pay their dues.” This is not an issue relegated to a few nervous emerging professionals—the widespread inability to earn a living doing public history affects the ability of a diverse range of people to access and sustain involvement in the field. Labor conditions also profoundly affect the (lack of) racial and gender equity within the field. Addressing public history as work is a critical link within the broader repair work discussed at #NCPH2019.
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!
After announcing Omnia’s database management services in my last blog post, I now offer a broader reflection on the role of digital products for small cultural organizations. Specifically, I want to assert that digital services and platforms are not ends in and of themselves, but merely tools to advance an organization’s mission. This is certainly not a new sentiment in the digital humanities world, but it bears repeating especially for small organizations with precious limited resources. It can be all too easy for institutions to spend money on digital tools or produce digital products that do not meaningfully engage audiences or advance an institutional mission; on the other end of the spectrum, some organizations are understandably wary of engaging with digital services because of the initial cost of change. I believe there is a middle ground where cultural institutions can responsibly approach digital services by asking how the tool will help the organization accomplish its work. To that end, here are three critical questions for cultural organizations to ask before adopting a digital tool, whether for social media, digital collections, database management, and beyond:
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.
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.