Humanities in the Public Media

I was reading the second article in the Crisis in Humanities series on the Public History Commons, and I came upon the link to August 2013 Richard Brodhead on Colbert and had to share here:

…Which also made me remember my favorite clip on Colbert in recent viewing history… of Theaster Gates.  Colbert asked if he is a cult leader to which he responds, “WEEEELLLL…”


(My weird mind wonders these things while watching these clips– If we get cool public historians some play on Colbert, could we increase enrollment in grad programs?  Could we transfer that increase in interest to increased funding?)


Are the (public) humanities in a data measurement crisis?

My last post was a reaction to problems facing independent artists in Philadelphia related to Pew funding, but it did not much consider the plight of public historians.  I have been working on my bibliographic essay on successful grant funding for public history– which is quite a little essay to research– and I came across a blog entry on History@Work that spoke to the concerns of public humanists (rather than artists).

The article, by Briann Greenfield (of New Jersey, woo!), was the first in a series dedicated to questioning the status of public humanities as crisis.  Mainly, she identified the potential to label our current times as the second coming of culture wars, identifying the 90s as a war about multiculturalism and critical theory as opposed to 2014, a war in the face of “austerity-driven education.”  Are the humanities useful in general, and to what end do public humanities serve economic growth?

I think what this article speaks to in terms of my current research is the critical importance in measuring impact in successfully getting a grant.  What do the public humanities do that we can define, quantitatively or qualitatively, which can persuade a funder to support a project?  The qualitative will always be easier– after the History Truck’s exhibition in East Kensington, I was told by a very friendly hipster that he no longer viewed the space in his neighborhood the same way, especially as he walked east of the El (there was a wooden piece in the exhibition which explored racial boundaries based on an oral history).  Knowing that a person experiences his neighborhood differently because of the History Truck is a nice quote just as any quote which claims the project positively impacted the people and place of the exhibition cycle.  But what about the numbers?  It is not that it is impossible to measure the social impact of a project like mine, but I believe it is also true that public humanities projects are problematic for creating datasets which speak to the importance of a project in an “austerity-driven” culture climate.

As I have reviewed the Historical Society’s grant applications for National History Day, I have noticed clear data from a recent study about what National History Day does for students throughout the nation.  Similarly, I would imagine grant language for projects by the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program community murals program to provide substantiated numbers in terms of social impact in relation to formerly-incarcerated employees and exact numbers of economically-challenged populations involved in each project.  I believe, in terms of social impact, that History Truck is as compelling as National History Day or a community mural painted by formerly-incarcerated employees, but I wonder how we can quickly measure the potential and actualized impact of the exhibition cycle so that grant language reflects hard-hitting result-based practice that can compete with projects rooted in STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics).

Thinking about measurement can be a bit exhaustive, but it is also helpful in reflecting on general project goals.  If we understand our qualitative goals, are we better equipped to design data collection strategies which demonstrate the full capacity of a project?  Do we just need to know what we mean to do in order to capture how well we are doing?

The Independence Problem

On June 16th, the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage in Philadelphia announced the list of 2014 grant awardees, and subsequently, Peter Crimmins of WHYY wrote/broadcast a piece about the reorganization of Pew grant application categories and the struggles of independent artists in the current funding climate.

What I am not going to do here is complain about the reorganization of Pew. I frankly do not have the insight to make any sort of comment about the restructuring. What I can say is that from examining the list of funded projects by Pew in 2014, is that there is a certain enthusiasm for creativity within history organizations. How exciting!

But what about independent artists? Crimmins reported that Charlotte Ford, Performer of the Year by Philadelphia magazine in 2012 and recent winner of the $10,000 Otto Haas award for Emerging Theater Artists, was retiring from work as a theater artist because she could no longer win funding from Pew. With an extremely challenging funding climate at the national level, Ford cited Pew as her only hope for funding. With that hope gone, she decided to shift her career focus.

Scary. Scary for independent artists everywhere. But what I wonder, if historical organizations are receiving funding from Pew for largely original creative work, that independent artists focused on history might meet better success working with them. What is it about history-oriented creative projects that are appealing to Pew right now? Is it the state of Philadelphia, the still-looming arms of a postindustrial economic climate, a city still recovering from deep racial boundaries in the midst of rapid change, that begs for something illuminating and risky in the archives, or on the stage? Well, I do not know. But I certainly am thinking about it.

Hello, Summer 2014!

When I look back at the origins of this blog from Fall 2012, I’m slightly shocked at how unaware I was at the time of the intricacies behind the scenes of cultural production involving history. Fortunately, in the past 1.75 years, I worked in the marketing department of the Painted Bride Art Center, matriculated in Temple University’s Public History program, started a mobile public history project, and began my career as an independent curator/community artist through work with Little Berlin and the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. These varied experiences have greatly informed me in the process behind the scenes, but they have not informed me on the specifics of grant funding for history projects.

This summer, under the advising of Dr. Hilary Iris Lowe, I am interning for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania‘s Development department (specifically Jon-Chris Hatalksi). The plan is to research successful HSP grant-funded projects over the timespan of 2009-2013 in juxtaposition with successful grant-funded projects of the New York Historical Society. By placing these two studies in conversation with a bibliographic essay on the subject (which is one of my current focuses and challenges– who has written on history grant funding?), I hope to create a portfolio of work by the end of the summer.

I have already been doing a lot of research, and I wrote a short essay on the NYHS’s 2009-2013 funding climate/grant-funded projects at the end of June. Now, I am honing in on the bibliographic essay and an assignment involving one successful HSP project (National History Day).

So cheers –and welcome– to another stream of posts here on Objects in Culture.
Thanks for reading!