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.