“Meeting in the Middle”: A Report on the 2017 Meeting of the National Council on Public History


Last weekend public historians met in Indianapolis for the 2017 meeting of the National Council on Public History.  Emily Esten (@sheishistoric), a first year MA candidate in the Public Humanities program at Brown University, was in Indy and agreed to write this post for The Way of Improvenent Leads Home.  Blending digital humanities and a fascination with history, Esten is interested in exploring how historical scholarship is reinterpreted by and for publics on the Internet.  Learn more about her work at emilyesten.com –JF

NCPH 2017‘s theme “Meeting in the Middle” had both physical and thematic resonance to this year’s conference. Meeting in Indianapolis at the “crossroads of America,” NCPH pitched this year’s theme in terms of self-reflection. Where is public history going?

Finally attending NCPH in person was like a hug. During a time when the work of public historians seems crucial to sharing communities, I felt inspired by the passionate people and projects in attendance. As someone who casually lives on Twitter, live-tweeting at NCPH made for some great backchanneling during the conference. I’ve documented some of the most important Twitter takes below:

Session 7, “Historians Under Pressure: Self-censorship and Worse in a Time of Change,” attracted a lot of attention for its direct connection to recent events of the Trump administration. Cultural oppression is certainly not new, and #s7 created a constructive conversation to address what’s happening around history, heritage, and cultural conservation in federal agencies. The roundtable focused not only the history of censorship within the federal government, but also the larger history of self-censorship around Black history, race, and gender. While not getting into the nitty-gritty of how censorship plays out in programming and face-to-face interpretation, the roundtable spoke broadly of how to navigate the present challenges based on our own histories of self-censorship.

Federal agencies have continued to produce “controversial” exhibits. And there will be consequences – there always are. But being open and honest with management and not sacrificing ourselves for self-censorship is important in a time of uncertainty.  It is an important step toward change.  I don’t know if we came out with a strong answer on how to navigate the present challenges, but Leibhold’s quote speaks to the long-standing goal of public historians to push boundaries, direct conversations, and promote action. In sharing our educational and cultural values, it’s always a challenge.

Questions around public history within curriculum came up several times throughout NCPH, but #s16 focused on educators working with undergrads. An undergraduate education is a time of self-reflection and discovery, and PH educators seek to capitalize on that opportunity to explore how we think about history. Rather than use these classes to get into the details of how to build exhibits or archives, the panelists shared classroom activities as an opportunity for critical thinking.

I felt these ideas were also relevant to the work of community-building. The goal isn’t to train a community to be public historians, but to understand where public history fits into their lives. Skills of listening, communication, collaboration, citizenship, and empathy aren’t limited to a liberal arts education – they’re crucial to our production of PH as well.

The Radical Roots symposium captivated Twitter & conference attendees. The collaborative research project explored public history through the tradition of social justice activism. Broadening the genealogy of public history, this symposium tackled oral history, educators, preservation, and museums as ways to advance social justice.

These ideas that Mercado mentions – collaboration, empathy, reciprocity, bonds of trust – often feel out-of-place in (academic) history conversations. But for NCPH, and this NCPH in particular, the affirmation of these terms through PH and its connections with activism felt perfect. Finding our “radical roots” might mean we must look outside of non-historical fields – but we share the common themes of decolonization, de-centering the institution, and reevaluating our terms for the future. Making change through gathering, recording, preserving, and interpreting means focusing on individuals’ agency first.

Devon Akmon, Director of the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, provided a wonderful, thought-provoking perspective of the museum’s work to build community. In his keynote presentation, Akmon discussed the unique position of running the only museum to devoted to Arab-American history and culture. Recognizing the diverse background of Arab Americans, the museum embraces a grassroots approach to provide for its community. Embracing a timely, responsive community-based approach is difficult, but has truly made AANM a safe space for its people.

What I took away from Akmon’s presentation is that empowerment comes first. People often feel as though their story isn’t valuable or important – efforts to embrace co-creation from within the community increases awareness and interest in these conversations. The strongest resource museums can offer is its public space – we need to leverage this resource and other skills to truly support these community needs.

Although it was my first NCPH, I know I wasn’t alone in feeling empowered by the PH community. At one point in Session 56, Dan Ott proclaimed that his work was not about telling radical history, but good history. In all my conversations surrounding NCPH, I found committed public historians seeking to do good history in some form or another.

In that sense, “meeting in the middle” referred not only to its physical or community engagement concepts, but to reassess the goals of public history as a field. If we want to do good history, as Ott proclaimed, we must completely reassess how, where, and who we do history for. So then, to meet in the middle, we must think of democratization, shared authority, and placing communities first in these conversations. On the other hand, we should take the concept of citizen historian seriously – that individuals have stories to share, their stories are valid, and we can work in collaboration to guide these stories into something good. Though our methods, institutions, and communities differ, public history is often about finding oneself in the middle.

Meeting in the middle, then, comes in multiple forms. The middle means transformation. It means embracing new pathways and redefining the field. I have faith that we’re prepared to be in the thick of the middle, no matter what it takes.