Omnia Blog

A Relevant Surrogate? Interrogating the Digital Exhibit as a Form

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.

But here we are, six years later (practically an eon in internet time), and your question remains: what’s the point of a digital exhibit? Continue reading “A Relevant Surrogate? Interrogating the Digital Exhibit as a Form”

How you can use history to “effect social change” at home right now

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.

Continue reading “How you can use history to “effect social change” at home right now”

Place of Protest: Curating a Digital Exhibit

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.

Continue reading “Place of Protest: Curating a Digital Exhibit”

What does “lost” history really mean?

James Farmer speaking outside Hotel Theresa, 1965. Image courtesy Library of congress.

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?”

The Conundrum of Capitalism and Public History

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.

Check out this recent blog post on NCPH@Work co-authored by Rachel Boyle examining the fraught realities of doing public history work within the confines of capitalism.

Prioritizing Outreach at Local History Institutions, Part 2 of 2

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”

Envisioning New Economic Models for Public History, Part III: Abandon Fundraising

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.*

Actual dog, tired of chasing its own tail

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”

Rethinking Collections at Local History Institutions, Part 1 of 2

Historical Society of Forest Park, Forest Park, IL.

If you’ve read anything I’ve written here on the Omnia blog or in the recent issue of History News, you know that I’m interested in local history institutions, both historically and in the present. For one, I study local history groups, including historical societies, in the decades after World War II (the vast majority of local historical societies in existence today were founded in the second half of the 20th century). Specifically, I look at what the people founding these organizations hoped to achieve and why, what these groups have done since they formed, and their broader impact in their towns and neighborhoods. In the present, my professional work and interests involve working with local history groups to help them reach their fullest potential as vital community assets. In my work, one of the issues I see pop up again and again is the Question of The Collection. I proper-named this because almost every local history group I’ve worked with, encountered, or studied spends (or has spent in the past) a significant amount of their time thinking about or doing something with their collection of historical materials. They’ve grappled with how to build and maintain these collections and, when they’ve amassed enough documents and artifacts, how to put them to good use.

Historically, at their founding moments, local historical societies almost always centered their identity around their collections of historical materials and the need for a facility to house those materials. This isn’t limited to the post-WWII groups I study, either. It’s true of most local history groups founded in the U.S. over the past two centuries. Here are just two (of many) examples that demonstrate the centrality of collections in local history groups. Continue reading “Rethinking Collections at Local History Institutions, Part 1 of 2”

Envisioning New Economic Models for Public History, Part II: The Cultural Co-Op

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.

Pictures from the Chrysler Village History Project, the inspiration for a cultural cooperative.

Continue reading “Envisioning New Economic Models for Public History, Part II: The Cultural Co-Op”

A Historian’s Thoughts on the Royal Wedding

I’ll readily admit that I woke up earlier than is my usual habit this morning to watch the wedding of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, now the Duchess and Duke of Sussex. Maybe it’s the historian in me, but I find the traditions that accompany royal events to be fascinating. Knowing that much of what’s involved in this affair descends from centuries—CENTURIES—of ritual gives me a little thrill. Watching the performance of these historical customs in real time is one of the ways we can access, even if it’s just in a small way, the experiences of people who came before, similar to how engaging with material culture and historic buildings can help us feel more connected to the past. Those things (often) existed before we did, and thus provide a bridge to ages and people we can’t ever know.

St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle

This isn’t to say that the traditions that unfolded at this morning’s wedding, and the British royal family, for that matter, aren’t steeped in a complex and controversial past. They are. Just like literally everything else in the universe, this particular moment has a history and it’s important to try and understand its historical context so we can better navigate its implications for the present. For example, knowing something of Britain’s long, violent, and racist imperial history provides important context for the Most Reverend Michael Curry’s sermon. Rev. Curry, the first black American to serve as the Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church, stood in St. George’s Chapel, a five-to-six-hundred-year old Anglican sanctuary at Windsor Castle, and talked about the importance of love in the face of poverty and racism, the histories and legacies of slavery and Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the Jesuit order, among other things, at the wedding of a bi-racial American to a member of a thousand-year-old monarchical tradition responsible for much of the Atlantic Slave Trade and an imperial legacy that’s had a profoundly destabilizing effect on much of the globe. And Rev. Curry did this with hundreds of millions of people tuning in from around the globe and with the leading members of that monarchy IN THE SAME ROOM.  Continue reading “A Historian’s Thoughts on the Royal Wedding”