I’ll take “Place-Based Change-Making” for 200, please.

If there was not enough discussion in class about preservation and urban renewal due to Funeral for a Home, the conversation will be had tomorrow.  Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities by Andrew Hurley shed critical light on the work of public history in urban neighborhoods facing challenges of blight and the possibility of gentrification.

As Hurley wrote about Old North St. Louis on page 63, “It was not policy alone that emptied the neighborhood of its buildings; many succumbed to fire while others crumbled from lack of upkeep.”  Hurley adeptly highlighted the double-edged sword of the preservation/urban renewal debate.  If a space is left untended without energy, it is left to burn, rot, and promote a culture of abandonment.  If a salvageable building is demolished, an historic landmark and viable space for residency, work, or community gathering was destroyed.  What are the costs and whose values matter in making these decisions?  Who has the power to make the difference here?

Hurley discussed the power held by neighborhood development corporations in the management or redevelopment of their respective places.  What is very clear here for public historians is that great care is needed in dealing with communities of memory based in place because complex multi-dimensional issues are at stake. It is also crucial for public historians to understand the dynamic and philosophies of CDCs before partnering to do public history work.  Hurley did not seem to expect public historians to remain partial in the fray of adaptive reuse versus demolish/build again politics, but he did warn that varied opinions and feelings about neighborhoods exist within both specific neighborhood populations and broader city communities. If Hurley is right to say that public history is a marketing tool for CDCs, public historians should be mindful of the branding they leave behind.

Dolores Hayden in The Power of Place explored the significance of place in terms of public history and urban landscapes.  She wrote on page, 43, “Places make memories cohere in complex ways.  People’s experiences of the urban landscape intertwine the sense of place and the politics of space.”  To Hayden, public historians must interpret the past through loaded spaces and politicized places.  Perhaps place is the entry point to memories which engage audiences in hard histories and contemporary issues.  Hayden also wrote about community-based projects on page 77, “…they are not necessarily enormously expensive.  They require a labor of love from everyone involved, transcending old roles and expectations… people who will never go to history museums attend public humanities programs, or read scholarly journals.  Entrepreneurial public historians may be able to reach them…”

Emerald Street Park, a pocket park and community gathering space grown out of vacant lots on Emerald Street between Dauphin St. & Arizona St. in East Kensington, Philadelphia, PA. 2013.  What memories originate in this space?

If Hayden is right that entrepreneurial public historians can reach citizens who would otherwise not have access to public humanities or museum work, should public historians see their role to include the inspiration for change within a community of memory?  If we are to be scholarly, collaborative, public servants addressing immediate concerns for a community of memory, well, we better be inspiring something.  Otherwise, why do the work at all?  This leads to Hurley’s big point on page 191 where he explained what public history projects should do within urban neighborhoods.  He wrote, “Ideally…a public history project should combine both capacity-building and result-oriented activities.”  (Wait, like connect neighbors and build content for a history exhibit?).  Using public history to revitalize inner cities might sound like a daunting task laden with political potholes.  It is.  But it is also everything public history should be.

Hayden, Dolores. The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History. (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1997).
Hurley, Andrew, Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010).


Is the audio recorder a guerrilla war cultural weapon?

This week’s reading deals with [the word community] in terms of shared authority, oral history work, and working directly in a place with a community of memory.

For starters, the introduction from Michael Frisch’s A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History does not seem to be written in 1990.  As he writes on page xix about public history and oral history gaining steam due to “a decline of patriotism and an epidemic of cultural illiteracy to a toxic moral relativism supposedly contaminating education and political discourse alike,” it sounds like he is speaking to 2013 issues.

Also of interest is his discussion on page xxi of “new forms of public history [waging] a kind of guerrilla war against the notion of professional scholarly work,” where he posits that this guerrilla warfare actually is not best practice.  Rather, he argues for shared authority as the best approach to oral and public history.  (It is hard not to think of the Philadelphia Public History Truck while reading this intro– a reminder that I so hope the understanding of fellow historians (public or not) is not that the truck is a “guerrilla war tactic”–as funny as it is to think about this roaming truck like a guerrilla fighter in a metaphorical culture war– but a hope to be collaborative between scholarly approaches and community work)

Sommer and Quinlan’s Oral History Manual is a guide with elaborate instructions on managing and performing oral history interviews.  There is a lot of fruit here, but the guidelines for dealing with an interview participant with traumatic memories is critical beyond the sense the manual offers.  While the book focuses on mass tragedy on page 63, the discussion is also relevant to interviews in which informants might describe experience with fire evacuation, severe local violence, police brutality, death, or domestic abuse.  It’s not too far off to wonder how a public historian should react when a member of a community of memory describes trauma, perhaps something as graphic as being stabbed waiting for the train.

What became an immediate interest while reading Fink’s article was his discrepancy between history and heritage as well as the “siren song of community*,” (137).  Fink illuminates on page 125 that heritage has to do with nostalgia and memories of place rather than history, which can deal with often harder facts regarding racism or alcoholism.  This understanding of heritage v. nostalgia is informative.  This is especially so in dealing with communities of memory and conducting place-based oral histories while trying to avoid nostalgia’s ability to, as Fink describes on page 136, “soft pedal past divisions” that are critical to historical interpretation.  As seen in the case of the Rumleys, it is not so easy to pull nostalgia and history apart in community history work.


Sommer, Barbara W. and Mary Kay Quinlan, The Oral History Manual, 2nd Ed. (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2009)
Leon Fink, “When Community Comes Home to Roost: The Southern Milltown as Lost Cause,” The Journal of Social History 40 (Fall 2006): 119-145.
Michael Frisch, A Shared Authority: Essays in the Craft of Oral and Public History, “Introduction.”

*I hear a lot of ideas about t[the word community] possibly too often.  i.e. “Are you talking about [the word community], Capital C or lowercase c?” or “It’s sort of ironic to use ‘community’ as an all-encompassing term because it’s just the people who show up.”

I know language is critical and important to how we write about history and the work of history, but these conversations sometimes seem to derail more immediate conversations about content and approach to process.  To what betterment are we chatting about the word community?  Is it making public history better to talk about [the word community]?  I do not know exactly my thoughts on this entirely, but I am thinking about this a lot.

I’m going on a public history picnic, and I am going to bring…Herr’s Pretzels and Hershey Kisses.

This week’s readings provided a wealth of content on the founding and approach to public history as well as public history’s sense of place, especially in Pennsylvania.

Denise Meringolo’s historical perspective on public history as an idea and field anchored the readings. Meringolo grounds the field’s past with Robert Kelley’s definition of public history on page xvii as “employment of historians and historical method outside of the academia…that was largely political.”  Meringolo also builds the conversation on “what public history is” with 2003 NCPH President Rebecca Conard’s definition of public history on page xxiii as “the reflective practice of history.”

In Pennsylvania in Public Memory, Carolyn Kitch illustrates that “making” has been crucial to Pennsylvania’s industrial history not just in terms of economics and social development, but also in museum structures. She vividly depicts (in Chapter 6) factory tours as not just about seeing the making, but about being part of it.  She impressed this point by sharing that the most loved factory tour experiences were credited as those museum tours where people actually participate in the process of, for instance, stretching a pretzel.  The audience wonders if because industry was prominent in PA’s past, moments of making are cherished and reconstructed in Pennsylvania factory museums.  Has “making” become a path to remembrance because it was part of the state’s history?

Kitch serves well in concert with Ian Tyrrell’s “Place in Creation,” which clearly outlines the sense of place in the production of public history.  Tyrrell explains on page 21 that the development of the MVHA “was intellectually stronger because of… its sense of place and memory.”  Also of note regarding Tyrrell was his designation between history and memory, in which memory extrapolates no sense of time. (For those currently in Historical Methods, I am wondering if this distinction between history and memory here sounds like the distinction between history and myth discussed by Finley?)

Glassberg also addresses the definition of memory in multiple terms and isolates issues while defining them.  On pages 10-11, he offers oral history as a use in understanding the history of families and friends, but also highlights the idiosyncratic nature of oral history when using it in larger context.  He also warns that a nationalist or religious construction of public history has the ability to “overlook… dissenting voices.”

In reading Tyrrell, I was also acutely aware of his mention on page 21 that “women played subordinate parts in the MVHA’s formal academic programs, and the group’s cohesive traditions could be oppressive to younger members who sought a more urban (and urbane) orientation.”  As a young female public historian focusing on urban neighborhoods, it is hard not to be concerned about any of these lines in the field.

Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen’s afterward in The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History could arguably be the most useful piece of the book in terms of general practice theory in public history.  Firstly, they speak to public history as a vehicle for addressing immediate needs of a community of memory through dinner table-esque conversations.  On page 178, Rosenzweig writes “…the most powerful  meanings of the past come out of the ways the past can be used to answer pressing current-day questions about relationships, identity, immortality, and agency.” On page 81, Rosenzweig also gets to Michael Frisch’s “fruitful metaphor for the relationship between history professionals and popular historymakers… a shared authority.”  This brings the conversation back to Glassberg, for he ends with the Frisch too.

Considering all of the readings, there is much to digest.  I’m left wondering the following: Is the key to enjoying time on the checkered blanket of a public history picnic as simple as sharing?


Carolyn Kitch, Pennsylvania in Public Memory (State College: Penn State Press, 2012).

Rosenzweig and Thelen, The Presence of the Past (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).

Ian Tyrrell, Historians in Public: The Practice of American History, 1890-1970, Chs. 1-2.

Denise Meringolo, Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History, “Prologue:  A New Kind of Technician—In Search of the Culture of Public History.”

Moses I. Finley. “Myth, Memory and History,” History and Theory 4 3 (1965): 11-25

David Glassberg, “Public History and the Study of Memory.”

Back in Action.

Well, hi!  I am now a full-time graduate student at Temple University in Public History, freshly subscribed to h-public with a student membership to NCPH.  This semester, the Objects in Culture blog will focus on my work for Dr. Seth Bruggeman’s Managing History course.  We’ll be reading and chatting about public history as a discipline while also contributing to Funeral for a Home, a Pew-funded project of Temple’s Contemporary Gallery.

My M.A. thesis project is the Philadelphia Public History Truck, a mobile museum utilizing material culture and oral history to increase cultural accessibility and community connections. I’m really interested in the utilization of public history as a vehicle for place-based change making, but I remain interested in the history of midwifery and environmental preservation.  Thanks for being here.