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
The first part of this post is filled with a whole lot of navel-gazing. If you’re not here for that, skip down to “so, what can we do with this energy?”
Early Monday afternoon, my sister sent me a text message. “Did you see that Notre Dame is on fire?” she asked. The university in Indiana, I thought? Or the school I attended for seventh grade in Schenectady, NY? I jumped online and googled Notre Dame and saw what she meant. The Notre-Dame de Paris, the famous Cathedral, was on fire. It seemed inconceivable to me and yet there it was, in flames, smoke billowing from its roof and across the Paris sky. I watched live streams on and off for the next few hours, staring in open-mouthed horror as the fire spread and intensified and as the burning spire finally fell, feeling teary at the sight of so many Parisians and tourists from around the world watching silently from nearby bridges as flames ate away at one of France’s most visible landmarks.
I wasn’t alone in my reaction and, like millions of others, I felt relieved when French authorities reported that they had managed to control the fire, and again when they said that they knew for certain that no one had died in the blaze, and again when they shared footage showing that the sanctuary remained mostly-intact.
I’m deliberately emphasizing my emotional response for a reason. Material culture, including physical structures, has the power to evoke strong emotions and overcome some of the abstraction that can make it difficult to connect with people who lived so long ago. People care about historic buildings, ruins, and other historic elements of the physical landscape because, quite simply, they connect us in a very concrete way to an earlier time. They allow us to think about the humans who lived and loved and suffered in these spaces long before we came along. It’s the closest we come to meeting people who lived in the past– we can stand where they stood and know that they moved through the same space.
time is ripe for small cultural institutions to think about how they can engage
their communities in conversations about voting, elections, and civic
disenfranchisement. For one, we’re in the early stages of the next presidential
election cycle here in the United States. We’ve seen several democrats announce
that they intend to run for the democratic nomination in advance of the 2020
election and I think it’s safe to say that this presidential race will capture
more attention than any other election in modern history. And even if we
weren’t approaching a presidential or congressional election, we’re almost
always at the beginning, middle, or end of some election. Here in Chicago we’re
facing a mayoral and aldermanic election in a few weeks, hot on the heels of
the November midterms.
In addition to the near-constant stream of election cycles, we’re now less than a year away from the beginning of the 19th amendment’s centennial. Celebrations of this important historical moment provide a framework cultural institutions can use to highlight issues related to suffrage, disenfranchisement, and human rights, past and present, in their local communities. Voter disenfranchisement has always been a serious human rights issue, and it’s especially pressing now as a number of states with voter identification laws on the books are attempting (and succeeding) in making these laws even more stringent and restrictive.
moments are important because they present small cultural groups, including
local historical societies and museums, with a number of opportunities to bring
people together to think critically about the role voting, elections, and
disenfranchisement play in their lives and in the lives of those around them.
We never need a reason to talk about the connections between past and present–
this can happen whenever, regardless of current events– but it’s particularly
important that we provide historical context for and facilitate conversations
about issues sitting at the top of the news cycle. High on that list right now
are what I mention above– voting, elections, and civic disenfranchisement.
The National Inventory of Humanities Organizations (NIHO) is exactly what it sounds like– an online database documenting humanities institutions currently in operation in the United States. NIHO, which was developed by the Humanities Indicators project at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, “encompasses not-for-profit, for-profit, and government institutions engaged in humanities scholarship and/or in bringing humanities knowledge or skills to various audiences.”(1)
I learned more about NIHO at the National Humanities Conference in New Orleans, LA a few weeks ago. Carolyn Fuqua, a senior research analyst at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and I both presented (along with several others) at the “Effecting Social Change Through the Humanities” session. She spoke about how the Humanities Indicators team designed NIHO to elevate the profiles of humanities organizations, encourage collaboration between them, and provide funders with a more comprehensive picture of the humanities landscape. Continue reading “Resource Alert: National Inventory of Humanities Organizations (NIHO)”
A couple of weeks ago, I presented about outreach and community engagement for small history institutions at the National Council on Public History’s first-ever Twitter Mini-Con, “(Re)Active Public History.” My presentation dealt with some of what I’ve discussed here in the past– mainly the important role these groups play in their towns and neighborhoods and how they can shuffle or modify existing priorities to ensure they play active and essential roles in the communities they serve.
More specifically, we considered why so many small history groups have, historically, prioritized collections-based work above other projects, how to adjust this model in the present to make more room for outreach- and community-based work, and how to involve constituents in a way that ensures and demonstrates institutional relevance. Some of the issues we covered were how to start this conversation, who to bring to the table and how to get them there, how to identify institutional priorities (and, similarly, how to identify what can be eliminated), using these self-reflective processes to build bridges between people across diverse communities, and how to make hard, self-reflective discussions part of an institution’s regular agenda.
I’m particularly grateful to the people who stayed until the end to engage in a rich and thought-provoking discussion about the realities of being a history and/or museum professional trying to do this work on the ground. I’m including our conversations here as a kind of part 3 to my two earlier blog posts (part 1, part 2) about community outreach and engagement in small history institutions.
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.
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”
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”
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”
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.