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.*
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”
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.
“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.
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.