Interview with “Windy City Historian” Patrick McBriarty

Patrick McBriarty is a Chicago historian who is best known as being the foremost expert on the history of Chicago’s bridges. Beyond writing Chicago River Bridges (2013), three children’s books about city infrastructure, and his blog The Trunnion, he gives public presentations and tours around the Chicagoland area to adults and children. Chicago River Bridges won the 2013 Henry N. Barkhausen Award for Original Research in Great Lakes Maritime History and the 2015 Ferguson Prize for Outstanding and Original Reference from the Society for the History of Technology. He regularly presents at the Chicago Maritime Museum and the McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum. He manages the websites for all of his projects and spearheaded the nearly eight thousand member facebook page, Windy City Historians, which he jokingly calls “Chicago History Porn.” He now hosts the podcast Windy City Historians with local history writer Chris Lynch about the history of Chicago from the seventeenth century to the present. McBriarty’s work in history has been entirely aimed at a public audience with a focus on public education. McBriarty is equal parts expert historian and amateur enthusiast which grants him access to a diverse audience. 

I sat down with Patrick on September 10, 2019 to get his thoughts about his experiences working in public history. The following is not a verbatim interview. The words are ours but have been condensed for time.

Anthony

What did you do before you started writing and talking about history?

Patrick:  

Well, [my degree] was from Miami University, and actually, while I was there I had a minor in international business so I ended up being a few courses shy of a minor in history in undergrad. I stuck around with a masters in economics.

Anthony

I’ve noticed that you seem to be able to brand yourself well, and I wonder if— and I know that you’re the bridge guy to a lot of people.

Patrick:  

Many people have called me that, yeah.

Anthony

Do you think that branding comes from your experience in business? Where does it come from?

Patrick:  

Well, definitely, I came through business school with my economics degree, and then worked for about twenty years or more in doing a little bit of sales or marketing and then eventually some management or SAP consulting. Then I turned full time to the books and the creative work which I’ve done pretty much full time for the last five and a half—actually, no, pretty much going on seven years now.

So yes, I already have a sense of sales and marketing, but I really enjoy the creative aspect of being able to pursue the projects I want to pursue. The sales and marketing doesn’t drive what I’m doing, the interests do. 

Anthony:

How is presenting public history as an interpreter compared to working with kids? How is that audience switch?

Patrick

I mean, the switch is fun actually, but I find that the same themes—if you distill them properly—resonate well with both. I mean, one of the things that I joke about even today that I live under a bridge since writing my first book. And that goes back to doing the kids presentation on the first book which is a picture book called Drawbridges Open and Close. 

Essentially a bridge structure is any wall and a ceiling. Or a table or a chair is really a bridge; it’s just a really specialized bridge because that structure is all over the place.

You run into things kids will give you once they catch on to the concept. I was at a school and one of them raised their hand and said, “Well, I live under a bridge on top of a bridge and on top of a bridge because I sleep in a bunk bed. So you never know [when] you’re gonna wind up with somebody else’s ideas that you can kinda take and use as well.

Anthony

I went to a talk that you gave about the podcast, and [in] the first couple of episodes about the podcasts you reveal this new alternate history of Chicago. An audience member challenged you at one point. I felt you responded to it pretty well. How do you feel about those kind of interactions? Have you had those before? 

Patrick:  

I think any good theory or idea ought to be challenged as much as possible because it helps make it more robust. And I also like to think about things in different ways. So that, should I have a question, I should try to respond to it in a reasonable manner, but I also learned early on, just saying “I don’t know” is a sufficient answer. But if it’s something I want to investigate, that’s another way I can follow up with it. I can’t be the expert on all things.

Anthony

In your podcast, you seem to focus on the history tellers themselves. Was that something you intended to do? 

Patrick

You know, that’s a good question. I think part of it is my own sense of not really considering myself that much of an expert but more of a synthesizer and gatherer of information. I think I’m probably good at telling stories and pulling out the good bits. But I’d much prefer having somebody else be the expert. 

We just stumbled into the fact that here John Swenson has uncovered this new history that we’re hoping will also get run up the academic flagpole. In the background I’m working on massaging a paper he started several years ago and trying to get that in shape; where then collaboratively we’ll put it out and get it published to have some more academic rigor put to this idea that there’s this second portage, and maybe that was the primary portage for most of these French explorers. Marquette and Joliet probably didn’t go past what’s today the Michigan Avenue bridge but probably went down through the Calumet River. That’s pretty revolutionary for Chicago’s early history. That’s interesting and fascinating, and yet it wasn’t something that we didn’t just take at face value. There’s been some controversy around it. 

But if we end up being wrong then so be it. We’ll happily fix or retract things, but at this point it’s a compelling enough argument that we felt it was worth putting that out there to see where it goes. John Swenson—I’m still in contact with him—is working to refine this as I’m working on this paper right now, and hopefully we’ll have that published in the spring next year.

Anthony

It’s fascinating because your subjects are more than just these dead historical figures. Your subjects are the people who you’re interviewing.

Patrick:

It’s a really fun way of presenting the history. And that’s kind of the point. How do we tell these stories that are still fresh and may be new, or can we uncover any new history and put it together in a way that hasn’t been done before? 

My guess is that we’ll probably start to hit decade-to-decade coming up next. I’m working right now on the subsequent ones to the Marquette and Joliet reenactment where we’re gonna talk about Point de Sable and John Kinzie and Fort Dearborn and the battle or massacre­­—depending on how you want to tell it—, and then work our way up to the 1840s and 1850s and so on. That’s gonna be fun because it’s going to take me into some bits of history that—some of which I know quite well—I’ve been doing a lot of research on the Fort Dearborn period and John Kinzie and Jean Lalime and the first murder of Chicago. Then after that, I’m not so well versed in some history. It’s going to be fun to bring in some other experts and learn more about that and also prepare for those interviews as we roll out a new episode the last Friday of each month. 

For a copy of the full transcript of the interview with Patrick McBriarty, contact Anthony Stamilio at astamilio@luc.edu.

Mining the Public?

Mining the Public

I have an academic crush and his name is Fred Wilson.

Everyone in the public history world knows Fred Wilson and if you don’t yet you will. Fred Wilson is a conceptual artist who is known for his challenge to traditional presentations of art and artifacts. In the public history world he is most notably known for his exhibit for Maryland Historical Society titled “Mining the Museum” in which artifacts like a gorgeous European silver tea set was juxtaposed to slave shackles. The kind of thing he does unsettles and is amazing! He dug deep (“mined”) the museum’s collection to say something new and valuable. I am most inspired by him and that is where I get my blog title “Mining the Public”. For me, mining the public is my public history philosophy which essentially is the belief that the general “public” has incredible complexity and wealth of historical knowledge…

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Skynet down at Jewel-Osco: The Grocer’s Progress

Illinois-based supermarket chain Jewel-Osco has announced that it will begin eliminating self-checkout lanes at a select number of their stores and plans to cut more in the future. They claim the major reasons for the shift are theft and customer satisfaction. The devices include glitchy/insulting weight sensors that prevent customers from bagging items that have not been scanned. In my limited experience with them (full disclosure: I am a conscientious objector Luddite) these marvels of labor-saving technology counter-intuitively require a living employee to approve and complete my transactions. Seemingly, the mere act of scanning and bagging groceries triggers these machines to suspect my character and withhold services until human reinforcements arrive. Inevitably, I turn indignant and fantasize about slamming a 28 oz. can of whole tomatoes through the screen and inciting other patrons to do likewise. Minutes later, an exasperated employee arrives, allowing me to complete my purchase without actually searching any of my bags, but not before my daydream has escalated to a Terminator-esque war against Skynet.

Image

 

Continue reading “Skynet down at Jewel-Osco: The Grocer’s Progress”

Digital Exhibits: A Roundtable

As museums and historical institutions have increased their web presence, so too have we seen the rise of the digital exhibit. For public history graduate students, it’s almost impossible to escape a program without designing one of your own. Below, several past and current students of the Public History Program at Loyola University Chicago unpack the good and the bad of digital exhibits while adding some constructive suggestions along the way.

LFH Post

It is obvious that entering a digital exhibit is different from crossing the threshold of a physical exhibit space. What makes this difference important to us as public historians is how people react to what is being presented. In contrast to entering a designed physical space, the “threshold” one crosses when entering a digital exhibit on a computer screen has the same sensory experience as buying books or looking up pictures of cats. It is just another “click” in a long line of “clicks.”

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Is That a Podcast in Your Pocket?

This post is 1. a long time coming, 2. was inspired by Annie Cullen’s Public History Mix Tape and 3. was secondarily inspired by my own desire to create the “Public History Graduate Student’s Collection of Books on Tape”. Podcasts have become one the most utilized tools for conveying information, their topics are countless and availability, for most, is open. And in our society of continual multitasking (driving and listening to music are multitasking) podcasts are a powerful tool in reaching the public’s ear. They can be used by professionals to engage the public, and in return podcasts are a forum the public can use to debate interpretations by leaving comments or creating their own.

As an avid multitasker, these are a few of my personal favorite History Podcasts.

1. Stuff You Missed in History Class: As the first podcast I ever listened to, this one holds a special place in my heart, also it is done so well. Dialogues are more interesting to listen to then monologues and this podcast always has two hosts. The topics are wide ranging and, most importantly, the hosts share the sources of their interpretation.

2. Memory Palace: This podcast is focused on social and cultural history, taking short historical episodes and highlighting their emotional impact. It will occasionally pull at your heart strings. If you are not a fan of StoryCorps, you probably won’t appreciate this one as well.

3. Backstory: As other podcasts do, the hosts of Backstory take current events or topics and trace their developments. However, having three historians, as their tagline says “18th century guy, 19th century guy and 20th century guy”, adds depth and perspective that many other podcast do not.

4. Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History: As the title states, this is “Hardcore History”. Although Carlin can be over dramatic and less analytical then others, he provides an interests interpretation that engages the listener and, hopefully, provokes them to think a little more about historical events.

There are many, many more, so please share your favorites and opinions on these.

Navigating the Past from our Pockets : Instagram and Public History

Anyone that knows me personally knows I’m quite the nerdy hobby photographer. Just read my archives on this blog to find out for yourself. So, when I caved and finally purchased my first smart phone last December, I immediately uploaded Instagram and started snapping away. For those of you scratching your heads and asking, “Insta-what?”, Instagram is a smart phone app (now also available on iPads) that functions like Twitter for the aspiring photographers of the world. You snap photos, add filters, and can share your photos with other Instagrammers who “follow” your feed. In turn, you can follow others, too.

With Web 2.0 now all the rage, a variety of history-related apps are available for our smart technologies. From the Library of Congress Virtual Tour to Historypin to Oregon Trail, history is literally right inside our pockets and purses. Smart phone technology has in many ways democratized access to history and history-related resources like never before. Which leads me back to Instragram. As a public historian, over-eager photog and smart phone user, I find these three worlds colliding on my iPhone 5 all the time.  In their photo-sharing ways, Instagram users are also sharing, shaping and navigating the past. So, how do we explore history with Instragram? How do I?

Below are just some of the ways. I’ve included my original captions with the images. To follow my Instagram happenings, you can follow my account annie_cullen on your smart technology or take a peek at my online profile here. Disclaimer: yes, I take too many pictures of my cats.

Instagramming History
Dream bathroom. #cuneomansion #oldshit #latergram #publichistory @zhenshchina

Instagramming History
Last set of books for the last semester of graduate school.

Continue reading “Navigating the Past from our Pockets : Instagram and Public History”

Around the Web (October 2012)

Periodically, a Lakefront Historian contributor surveys recent public history-related content that emerges on the Internet.  In this installment, Anne E. Cullen shares pop cultural videos, Facebook happenings, and a recent public radio controversy raising significant questions about oral history practice. Follow  The Lakefront Historian on Twitter (@LakefrontHist) for news updates as they happen.

  • Did you see the Lincoln Unite trailer that premiered during the latest Presidential Debate on October 3, 2012? What did you think of the trailer and the choice to air it during a presidential debate?
  • On the quirky design tumblr Branding the Presidents of the United States, the creator captures the character of each president with historic photographs and fonts.
  • If you’re a new public historian in the Chicago area, make sure to join the Facebook group “Chicago Emerging Museum Professionals” by clicking here.

teddy roosevelt

  • Have you heard about the recent controversy surrounding the interview of Eng Yang, a Hmong immigrant living in Minnesota,  by Robert Krulwich, RadioLab co-host? The Minnesota Public Radio News blog provides some thoughtful commentary in addition to sharing both a clip of the interview and the entire segment that aired on RadioLab on September 24, 2012.  The incident forces us to think about the politics of power, popular memory, and the relationship between interviewer and intervewee that lie at the heart of oral history theory and methodology.  Read Kao Kalia Yang’s response to the incident (the niece of Eng Yang who also served as translator of the interview in question) by clicking here.
  • PERIODS. is a critically acclaimed comedy film series that, among other things, reimagines the past in a variety of hilarious ways.

Around the Web (July 2012)

Periodically, a Lakefront Historian contributor surveys recent public history-related news that emerges on the Internet. In this installment of “Around the Web,” Anne E. Cullen highlights new digital collections and blogs, museum reviews, and pop culture happenings that exemplify public history online.  Follow The Lakefront Historian on Twitter (@LakefrontHist) for news updates as they happen.

LFH BlogImage source

  • Since we’re all about mythical figures re-examined through the lens of feature films here on the Lakefront Historian (read our recent roundtable reviews of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), we couldn’t help but notice another historical heavy-weight recently memorialized at the box office: Marie Antoinette. Farewell, My Queen, based on the award-winning novel Les Adieux à la Reine by Chantal Thomas,  hit theaters this July 13th. Watch the trailer here.
  • Threadbared’s review of the Tattered and Torn: On the Road to Deaccession exhibit on NYC’s Governor’s Island explores historical value, material culture, and costume collections.
  • Speaking of fashion and public history, in July the Chicago History Museum debuted an online digital collection showcasing their costume collection.  With over 50,000 pieces from the mid-18th century to the present, CHM’s collection is the second most expansive fashion collection after that of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  • Another new online collection? Don’t forget to check out the Grateful Dead Archive Online which includes over 45,000 digitized items from the library at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
  • The Chicago History Museum commemorated the 1919 Chicago Race Riot with a blog post built around Jun Fujita’s photographs of the tragic violence.
  • Loyola Chicago’s own Women and Leadership Archives recently launched a new tumblr. The blog features fun and interesting photographs from WLA’s collections and also highlights other online content related to women and history.  Check out the tumblr here.
  • The National Archives is recognizing the 22nd anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) with a web research page highlighting Presidential records related to people with disabilities throughout US history.
  • And in honor of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, be sure to watch this amusing video that uncovers the secret history of the City of London.