American Attitudes Toward History

Field Trip

This is exciting news.  Three major history organizations have together received $479,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for a project titled “Framing History with the American Public.”  The project will study American attitudes towards history.  Here is a taste of the announcement at the AASLH website:

AASLH learned this week that we have received a major grant of $479,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for an exciting new project to research American attitudes towards history. The project, called “Framing History with the American Public,” will be completed in collaboration with the Washington, D.C.-based FrameWorks Institute, the National Council on Public History (NCPH), and the Organization of American Historians (OAH). Over the next three years, we will carry out a comprehensive, nationwide study of how the public views, interprets, and uses a wide variety of history activities and will develop new tools to strengthen the field’s communications efforts.

“This project could fundamentally transform the way the history field communicates with the public,” said AASLH President & CEO John Dichtl. “As we approach the nation’s 250th anniversary, ‘Framing History’ will empower history organizations to convey their impact in ways that have been proven to shift public understanding.” Inspired by the work of the History Relevance initiative, this project will equip the history community with a new, more effective communications framework.

The history community in the United States contains more than twenty thousand public history organizations, more than one thousand academic departments, and countless history advocates around the country. “Framing History” will not only provide unprecedented detail about how Americans view these organizations and their work, it will build, test, and share tools that all organizations and practitioners can use to positively affect public understanding of the value of history. Whether it’s a historical society communicating with new audiences, an academic department talking with potential majors, or a museum making their case to funders or legislators, this project will provide history practitioners with tools to frame their messages as effectively as possible.

Read the rest here.

In Defense of Keeping Silent Sam

Silent Sam

Get up to speed here and here.

University of Pennsylvania historian Jonathan Zimmerman is in favor of keeping the statue on campus.  He writes in the wake of the UNC-Chapel Hill administration’s decision not to build a special interpretive center for the statue.  Here is a taste of his piece at The Chronicle of the Higher Education: “Historians Should End Silence on Silent Sam“:

The Confederate statue known as Silent Sam is a monument to white supremacy, so it should be removed from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Right?

Wrong. It’s precisely because the statue embodies white supremacy that it should remain on the campus, in a history center that tells its full and hateful story. And my fellow historians should be the first people to say that.

Alas, we’ve gone mostly silent on the removal of Silent Sam. Historians have carefully exposed the racist roots of such Confederate memorials, which were typically erected in the early 20th century to burnish slavery and buttress Jim Crow. But when Chapel Hill’s chancellor, Carol L. Folt, proposed that Silent Sam be placed in a new history center, sparking protest by students and faculty members, few members of our guild rallied to her side. And late last week, when the UNC Board of Governors voted down Folt’s plan, most of us kept quiet.

Even worse, some historians embraced the attack on the proposed history center. In a statement last week, the National Council on Public History argued that placing Silent Sam on display “threatens to discourage open dialogue about the white-supremacist history” of the monument and about “the negative effects of its continued presence on members of the UNC community.”

Come again? Putting Silent Sam out of sight will also put him out of mind, suppressing rather than promoting the kind of “open dialogue” that the council hails. And ultimately that will have negative effects for the entire UNC community, including its minority members.

I understand and respect that many minorities at UNC denounced the history center, arguing that a racist symbol like Silent Sam has no place anywhere on the campus. But I think they’re wrong, and the best way to show respect for them is to explain why. Anything less isn’t respect; it’s condescension.

Read the rest here.

“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 –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.

National Council of Public History Announces New Executive Director

Stephanie-2015A little public history news this morning.  The National Council of Public History has just announced that Stephanie Rowe is the organization’s new Executive Director.

Here is the press release:

August 22, 2016 – Indianapolis, IN—The National Council on Public History (NCPH) announced today that Stephanie Rowe has been named Executive Director of the organization, effective immediately.

Rowe has served as Interim Executive Director at NCPH for the past year and a half since the departure of John Dichtl who left to take the position of President and CEO at the American Association for State and Local History. Rowe first joined NCPH as Program Manager in 2012 and was named Associate Director in 2015.

“The task facing our board and search committee seemed monumental: finding a new Executive Director who respects and understands the complex history of NCPH, but who also recognizes that the organization is undergoing tremendous change and growth,” said Dr. Alexandra Lord, NCPH Board President and Chair and Curator, Medicine and Science Division, National Museum of American History. “Given the scope of this task, it shouldn’t be surprising that it took us a year and a half to find a new Executive Director. The surprising thing is that we found in Stephanie Rowe a candidate who not only meets, but exceeds these expectations.”

“Stephanie brings multiple strengths to this position, including the fact that she spent several years as a practicing public historian before coming to NCPH. A graduate of one of the nation’s premier and oldest history museum studies programs, she possesses strong academic credentials. And, of course, having worked for NCPH as its Program Manager and Associate Director for four years, she has an in-depth understanding of the organization, its mission, the challenges it faces, and, perhaps most importantly, its members,” said Lord. During Stephanie’s tenure with NCPH, conference attendance has almost doubled, and membership increased by forty-five percent.

“NCPH provides a unique home for practitioners who work both within and outside of the academy, supporting all public historians in their efforts to put history to work in the world,” said Rowe. “As Executive Director, I am excited to further the reputation of the organization, working with the board, staff, committees, and membership to build an even stronger bridge between academic public historians and practitioners in the field. As we advocate for the fields of history and public history, it is our goal to cultivate a more diverse field and organization and to expand the capacity of the organization to keep pace with the steady growth of our membership and our annual meeting.”

As part of the appointment, Rowe will also serve as an Academic Specialist on the History Department Faculty in the Indiana University School of Liberal Arts at Indiana UniversityPurdue University Indianapolis, NCPH’s host institution. Rowe said, “I look forward to making even stronger the excellent relationship between NCPH, the History Department, and the IU School of Liberal Arts. IUPUI has been NCPH’s home for over twenty-five years, and I see a long future ahead as we work together to advocate for the field of history, and the value of liberal arts education.”

About Stephanie Rowe:

Stephanie Rowe holds an MA in History Museum Studies from the Cooperstown Graduate Program and a BA in Social Studies with honors from Ithaca College. Rowe began at NCPH as Program Manager in 2012, and was promoted to Associate Director, then Interim Executive Director in 2015. Prior to joining the NCPH staff, Rowe was Program Coordinator for Museumwise, now the Museum Association of New York (MANY), and served as the Southcentral Regional Archivist for the New York State Archives’ Documentary Heritage Program. 



How to Choose and Thrive in a Graduate Public History Program

NavigatorOver the years the Messiah College History Department has sent several students into public history graduate programs.  I can think of a few that are actually starting their programs in a few weeks.

For those thinking about a career in public history or for those who are currently enrolled in such a program and want to make the best of it, the National Council on Public History has a published The Public History Navigator: How to Choose and Thrive in a Graduate Public History Program. You can access it here.

Chris Graham on the 2016 Annual Meeting of the National Council on Public History

2016-NCPHSHFG-Program-Cover-e1444750374114Over at his blog Whig Hill, Chris Graham, a professor in the Museum Studies Program at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, discusses his experience at the annual meeting of the National Council on Public History.  This year’s meeting was held in Baltimore.

Here is a taste of Graham’s post:

Just returned from NCPH 2016 in Baltimore. I was less engaged than in previous years and so I don’t have a big-picture observations or critiques on emergent themes and whatnot. But here are a few notes:

  • Panels are terrible. Working groups and workshops are the best.
  • Each organization has its niche. NCPH is for academics, mostly, and so it is a purely academic conference. It tackles larger theoretical issues in the field of public history and though presenters do have case studies, the research isn’t particularly geared toward lessons and applications that small museums and historic sites can utilize. In fact, there is a terrible disconnect between the critical expectation of the practitioners here and the less-critical-but-still-valuableapproaches of many historical institutions. Suppose we have  AASLH for that.
  • This tension is replicated in my own public history interests. I am not a theoretician or high-concept person, but I understand it. I get intersectionality but I’m ambivalent about the imperative to engage the public with it on its own terms. On the public’s terms, yes, absolutely. I’ve never been a very good academic and I yearn to keep up, but my interests are much more practical. My only concern is that I’m not serving my students well in this regard. This has its advantages and disadvantages—I was proud of the intellectual accessibility of the material they presented, but am worried that they’re missing something in being able to leverage larger critical-theoretical issues.

Read the rest here.

Correspondents Wanted: Annual Meeting of the National Council on Public History

NCPHI know that it is a bit late in the game since the annual meeting of the National Council on Public History is already in Baltimore, but I would love to get some updates from the conference.

Here is an invitation:

Anyone interested in a writing a post or two (or three or four or five…) from Baltimore?  Once again, The Way of Improvement Leads Home is looking for writers/correspondents to report from the conference.

What am I hoping for out of these posts/reports? Frankly, anything. Let the spirit move you. I would love to get general observations, reports on sessions you attend,  recent trends in the field, or any other kind of stuff you might have the time or inclination to write about.

Feel free to be as creative and journalistic as you want. If at all possible I would like to get some stuff as the conference is going on, but general summaries would also work. Feel free to write as few or as many as you would like. I will try to get stuff posted here in real time (or thereabouts) during the conference.

If your interested, shoot me an e-mail at jfea(at)messiah(dot)edu and we can get the ball rolling.  I the meantime, check out our posts from the 2015 meeting of the American Historical Association to get an idea of what some of our correspondents at that conference wrote about.

Public Historians Discuss the "Crisis" in the Humanities

Check out Mary Rizzo‘s “storified” tweets from a recent roundtable on the state of humanities held at the annual meeting of the National Council for Public History.

Here is Mary’s intro:

Are the humanities in crisis? This #NCPH2014 roundtable featuring Briann Greenfield, Ben Schmidt, Nancy Conner, Ralph Lewin and Mary Rizzo used the AAAS report “The Heart of the Matter” to spur a conversation about the status of the humanities and how to determine whether they are in “crisis.”

I also recommend Mary’s website/blog