Omnia Blog

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”

Envisioning New Economic Models for Public History, Part I: Crumbling Institutions

“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”

Long live the idea that historians should be advocates

On the last day of the National Council on Public History annual meeting in Las Vegas, I saw a couple of conference tweets that really resonated with me.

A pin I received at the 2017 AASLH annual meeting.

These struck me in part because I very much see “using history…for advocacy” and “speak[ing] out as advocates” as core tenets of my professional identity, but also because it was the first time I really felt like history as advocacy took on a central role at a public history conference. Don’t get me wrong—it’s always there—but I’ve always felt like I had to seek it out on the fringes, and it wasn’t always easy to find. This year was different. The idea that historians should be advocates seems to have taken a much more central role in conference sessions than ever before. Continue reading “Long live the idea that historians should be advocates”

Flexibility or Stability?: Reflecting on NCPH 2018

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:

Having recovered enough to reflect on the conference, I am ruminating on the conversations at NCPH that focused on either project-based work or how to navigate the power structures of institutions. Continue reading “Flexibility or Stability?: Reflecting on NCPH 2018”

“How a place learns to do differently”: Local History as Change-maker

A few years ago, at the American Association for State and Local History annual meeting in Louisville, I went to a session about the Missouri History Museum’s (MHM) response to Michael Brown’s death. Melanie Adams led the session, and the story she told was so thought-provoking that I still return to it from time-to-time when thinking about the relationships between cultural institutions and the public. Essentially, MHM established a partnership with the St. Louis police that brought community members and police officers together to engage in open dialogue about local policing, crime, and related issues. Adams noted that MHM has a number of these kinds of partnerships with stakeholders representative of a broad array of core community functions. The museum works to build spaces in which people can engage in dialogue about a variety of pressing community needs.

MHM’s actions are representative of the larger turn the public history and museum fields have taken over the past few decades toward the idea that cultural organizations should provide opportunities for people to come together to discuss and find durable solutions to present-day problems. This isn’t a new idea in 2018, of course, but these kinds of big shifts don’t happen overnight and there are still miles of row to hoe before this kind of relationship between public and institution becomes the norm, instead of exceptional exception.

One area with immense potential for this kind of problem-solving work is local history.  Continue reading ““How a place learns to do differently”: Local History as Change-maker”