Omnia Blog

Big Ole and Minnesota’s imagined white past

In a recent article for Belt Magazine, I chart the history of Big Ole, a 28-foot-tall Viking statue that stands in the heart of the Minnesota town where I went to high school. Although many consider Big Ole a kitschy tourist attraction, I argue that he promotes an imagined white past like a cross between Paul Bunyan and a Confederate monument. I believe it’s important for white settler Alexandrians–myself included–to reckon with this harmful symbol of our cultural heritage. Check out the link below to read more!

No more collections: How one local historical society changed course to better serve its communities

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 communities.

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“The Inflamed Egotism of Women” on Nursing Clio

At the end of an alimony hearing in Chicago in 1919, Emma Simpson brandished a gun and fatally shot her husband in a courtroom full of witnesses.

Head over to the Nursing Clio to read my latest piece on the murder trial of Emma Simpson in 1919. Was she a hysterical victim or dangerous New Woman? Read to find out!

Let’s Change the Way We Talk About the Midwest

Movement, changing urban landscapes, and environmental violence are all Midwestern stories. A 4-11 Fire Alarm, Chicago. Source: The Newberry Library

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~

~Inevitable description of a cornfield~

~Cutting remark about liberal coastal people’s perceptions of the Midwest made by an author from a liberal coastal publication~

~Tired revelation that Midwesterners are not simple provincial folk~

~Obligatory reference 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.

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Reflections on #NCPH2019

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.

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Omnia History’s Guide to NCPH 2019

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!

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Questions to Ask Before Adopting a Digital Tool

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:

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