The future is now.

Coming Soon: The Future.  Chung’s article has such a clever title, and it is fun to speculate about what is yet to come.  In the article’s sidebar, though, the discussion is about 2034.  That is too far away!  The concerns and thoughts within Chung’s 2034 section speak to now: “Museums play an important role in helping communities with job losses reinvent themselves in the new knowledge-based economy.  Responding to society’s need for greater global awareness, museums increase their efforts to promote dialogue and understanding about other cultures and our place in the global economy,” (41).  Why is helping communities with job loss reinvent themselves something marked on 2034?  Stanton shared in The Lowell Experiment that museums might be able to do just that while Andrew Hurley posed in Beyond Preservation that public history projects have the ability to make place-based change.  These items marked for 2034 are goals of the now.

What does the future of public history look like to me?  In class, we have discussed a bit about the intersection of art and public history, especially because of Funeral for a Home.  I cannot remotely hide that I am in a camp which believes that these two fields belong together.  I would even go as far as to say that my goal is to be sure I am considered both a public historian and an artist.  I do not mean that I want to do it all– I want to collaborate with people across fields, disciplines, and communities.  What can be achieved, though, when history is interpreted with the arm of the creative, is something seen in public that is as thought-provoking as the historical works we read in class all the time.  The Marketplace of Revolution, Radical Moves, and Mosquito Empires are just a few books I read this semester which completely resituated or reperiodized history for me in creative ways.  The best historical work is creative, so why should we not strive as public historians to find ways to tangibly and visibly create experiences which can provoke audiences the same way we do with words we write for academic audiences?

The best example I can cite here is Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum, but I am instead going to share the work of Theaster Gates whose exhibit To Speculate Darkly recontextualized pottery made by Dave the slave potter using objects of historical relevance with thoughts and phrases of the potter himself to juxtapose contemporary concerns with historical ironies.  His exhibit included listening to a gospel choir sing words that Dave had written.

Currently, working on the history truck, I am recording oral histories for a number of reasons.  The first reason is that oral histories could be an amazing resource and window to Philadelphia’s history as it rapidly changes (there is a political edge to advocating that these histories be placed in an archive, too), the second is that oral history can serve as an awesome, community-directed access point into further current research, and thirdly, because it opens a door to interpreting living history in a tangible way.  The history truck’s East Kensington exhibit will include some sort of installation of objects that serve as an interpretation of oral histories recorded at a soup kitchen in the neighborhood.  Do I think the exhibit will be comprehensive if it is only installations of objects? No, but I think adding this element to a history exhibit makes it alive in a way that the plaques on the wall are not.

Using art to interpret history can be a risk, but it also might address one of the National Park Service’s findings in its 2011 survey. If there is “a misperception of history as a tightly bounded, single and unchanging “accurate” story, with one true significance, rather than an ongoing discovery process in which narratives change over time as generations develop new questions and concerns, and multiple perspectives are explored, (6), public historians can change that by using multiple mediums and narratives in museum experiences everywhere.

Chung alluded to using community-directed narrative in 2034, but cited examples of immersive audience experience in the now with the “Conner Prairie Living History Museum’s “Follow the North Star” program, in which participants play the role of a fugitive slave on the Underground Railroad over the course of a mile of rough terrain at night…”  There is a tension within Chung’s article between best practice and future practice just as there is tension between Frisch’s use of shared authority in his book and in his latest article.  Historians have been writing for a long time that the way we do public history should involve community collaboration, but the lived reality of public history is not quite getting there– so much so that the vision for 2034 perpetuated articles from the 80s-90s.

When it comes to community collaboration, what are public historians waiting for?  The answer to that question might have a lot to do with academic politics and funding, fear of being placed in certain categories for working with people outside the ivory tower or white cube, and the stress of making ends meet in the face of an over-saturated arts market, especially in Philadelphia (no matter how compelling the Cultural Alliance report was regarding the long trail of people involved in the arts economy, the funding landscape is very tough).  The NPS reported similar fumblings– not enough support for workers, lack of funding– but it also offered an optimistic vision for the future that included an expanded and more intensive consideration for growing audiences through local history work, to be more transparent and self relfective (as can be seen already at the Big Meadows Visitor Center at Shenandoah National Park), and to use social media more effectively (40-41).  All of these task items sound positive, but I find myself wondering, just as the NPS is wondering, if these plans will get lost in the red tape of bureaucracy.

Regardless of all the challenges, though, public historians are in an excellent position to sculpt the future and make the field what it can be and should be because our field is innately a collaborative public service involving both scholarship and the immediate concerns of communities of memory.  We cannot wait for 2034 to do the work we need to do.  The future is now.


Imperiled Promise: the State of History in the National Park Service.2011.

James Chung, Susie Wilkening, and Sally Johnstone. “Coming Soon: The Future, The Shape of Museums to Come,” in Museum, May-June 2009.

Arts, Culture, and Greater Prosperity in Philadelphia, 2012.


Living History Interpreters: Playing Soldier or Public Service?

The Wages of History by Amy M. Tyson opened many discussions about the lived reality of interpretive work, but also hearkened on a broad contemporary issue facing the arts and culture world: funding.  Tyson’s Introduction reflected on the late 70s-80s when “the new social history” or history “from the bottom up” came to be, in the face of job instability.  She wrote on page 9, “The proliferation of public history n the 1970s should also be seen as a response to the shrinking academic job market, wherein professional were forced to look beyond the ivory tower and toward places like museums, historical societies, and preservation agencies if they wanted to be employed in their field.”  Perhaps the conditions which fostered the development of public history (as we arguably know it today) are rooted in a very similar funding landscape as what is discussed in 2013.

Tyson’s discussion on pages 56-57 about Gavin’s frustration with new construction at Fort Snelling in the face of lay offs was not surprising.  Even in the current funding climate, longtime employees of humanities nonprofits lose positions because most grant funding does not cover operational costs.  Project or construction or exploration grants are often supported, but salaries are difficult to gather.  Without the funding to sustain salaries, even the most devout employees risk job loss by working for historic or arts nonprofits.  Have public historians always been at risk?  When was funding stable?  Are there patterns in risk-taking in public history in the face of funding uncertainty both in the 70s and now?

Another critical thing within Wages of History is not based on content, but on the crafting of the book itself.  Tyson used oral history to source her work, and because I am currently using oral history to inform my own research, I was deeply intrigued by the way she handled the interviews in her narrative.  Tyson’s use of oral history at all illustrated a bravery in her own writing– I have had conversations with my own professors in which I was warned about the ghettoizing of public history and oral history.  Still, she made the critical second step in using oral history; she fact-checked what her interviewees shared with her about Fort Snelling and placed those interviews in context.  Does she handle every interview perfectly? No, but she did execute the use of oral history fluently.

Tyson dealt heavily in the issues of living history interpreters having to play soldier while offering public service, looking to serve as emotional access points to history while also performing customer service skills.  She suggested at the end that the best way to grapple with these competing needs is to hire people who are “intrinsically motivated to perform cultural work,” (176) and then manage these people well by giving space for worker voices to be considered in decision-making processes.  In this way, Tyson ended with statements that might serve beyond public history organizations only, but also to cultural organizations at large.

Amy M. Tyson. The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines. (Amherst & Boston, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013).

I’ll end with a link to Ask A Slave, Season 1, Episode 2… because I read a book about costumed living history interpreters, and Azie’s Ask A Slave playfully, cleverly, and critically examines the work of one particular costumed employee. (for those unfamiliar with Ask A Slave, it is a web series created by Azie, an actress and former living history interpreter at Mount Vernon, as a satire on her experience portraying Lizzie May, a slave belonging to Martha Washington.)  Is Azie playing slave here or is she performing public service?  Is it something else entirely?