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.
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.
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”
“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”
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.
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”
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:
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.
Congress recently passed the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), and criticsargue that the legislation will put both sex workers and sex trafficking victims at risk. Even before the bill has become law, Craigslist responded by shutting down its personals section and a Kindle policy change sparked fears about the de facto suppression of erotica.
FOSTA/SESTA harkens back to Progressive Era reformers who routinely conflated sex work with sex trafficking in their cries against “white slavery.” One of the driving narratives of anti-vice crusades, “white slavery” proposed that corrupt urban men seduced white women into sexual impropriety, ultimately trapping women in a life of prostitution. White slavery rhetoric drew on strains of abolitionist language that elevated reformers to white saviors of a weaker population. Notably, fears of white slavery eschewed any concern for women of color participating in commercial sex. Additionally, while some women may have felt trapped or deceived into prostitution, the white slavery narrative ignored the agency and economic choices of women forging tenuous lives in an industrializing city.
It’s officially spring, and for public historians that means it’s almost time for the National Council on Public History annual meeting. I’ll be there with bells on. Besides it being a highlight of my professional year, I’ve been in Chicago all winter and this year’s meeting is in Las Vegas. Nothing could keep me away.
I’m looking forward to this trip for several reasons (sun and warm weather are high on the list), but chief among them is the roundtable I’m facilitating called “Exploring the Ties Between Local History and Grassroots Change.” Joining me are Andrea Blackman from the Nashville Public Library, Kimber Heinz of Bull City 150, Duke University, Victoria Hensley from Middle Tennessee State University, and Timothy Kneeland from Nazareth College. We’re presenting case studies that show some of the ways people and institutions use local history as a tool to shape and influence political and social issues in their towns and neighborhoods.
Omnia is a public history collaborative led by Rachel Boyle and Hope Shannon, two historians invested in harnessing the power of the past to promote social change. “Omnia” is the Latin word for “all,” reflecting how history connects to everything and our desire to use it as a tool to serve society. Over the coming weeks and months, we will be sharing more about our work, suggesting lessons learned from our research, and posing questions about the state of the field and our world. Subscribe to our blog for updates! We also encourage you to learn more about us or contact us.