Multiculturalism Needs to Work: Public Historians of Color

Mining the Public

During my oral exam (the final step in completing my Masters program), my adviser/program director asked me: “Do you think it matters that you’re an African-American public historian?” Before he could barely ask the question I knew where he was going and it had been something in the back of my mind for nearly a year by that time. In an explosion of anticipation, I quickly and loudly said “Yes!” I had a lot to say on the subject. Well that already seems like it was long ago and now I’m officially done with my Masters degree in public history.

Today, public history tends to be sensitive to those it serves and their diversity. Attempts to be inclusive seem to increase every year. During my studies, I learned about indigenous curation which applies the source culture’s reverence and attitude to their objects in museums. In other words: Hidatsa ritual objects…

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Public History Has Revisionist Roots, and the NYT Is ON IT

This post is part of a series from Loyola public historians attending NCPH 2014.

The public historians assembled here in sunny Monterey spent their first day and a half covering what has become familiar yet still challenging ground for those of us in the profession. In round-tables, poster sessions, panel sessions, and working groups, they swapped insights on the cultural work that goes into interpreting an increasingly inclusive past to a likewise increasingly diverse public. The sessions I have attended include those about museum exhibits “co-created” with community members, the latest in attempts to interpret slavery at historic sites, my own working group about innovative reuse of “less-than-charismatic” structures, and sustaining public history though community engagement. Implicit in all these topics is the internalized impact of social history and the commitment to embracing marginalized voices—-both historical and contemporary. I actually feel that this laudable aspect of public history has become a little too familiar for practitioners, maybe even sometimes taken for granted. I’m certain that the social and even activist history ethic undergirds the projects highlighted thus far in Monterey. But I still crave even more forceful, direct, and critical expressions of public history work as ‘on a mission,’ for lack of better phrase.

So imagine how surprised I was to read that, according to the New York Times, museums have generally gone too far in exploring diverse, contested, and contradictory themes. Edward Rothstein’s “New Insights into History May Skew the Big Picture” deserves a much fuller take-down than I care to provide at this time (and I hope that many of us currently here in Monterey will get home, unpack, and take up that very task). But suffice to say Rothstein’s synthesis of gripes about major exhibits is vague, myopic, and intellectually sloppy. The closest he comes to coherently expressing his critique is a passage that could have been ripped from a disgruntled letter to the editor circa 1995 circa Smithsonian circa Enola Gay exhibit.

This mixture of new insight accompanied by new simplifications has become familiar elsewhere as well. The transformation of history that began in the 1960s (inspired by the American political left), took decades to have full impact on museums, but its perspectives have now become commonplace. Museums, in their traditional roles, were almost mythological institutions claiming to display the origins and themes of a society, shaping understandings with a coherent interpretation of the past. That model has now been remade with the singular replaced by the plural, coherence displaced by multiplicity.

Colorful varieties of taffy at Monterey's Candyland. Or to some a distracting diversity in need of revision.
Colorful varieties of taffy at Monterey’s Candyland. Or to some a distracting diversity in ironic need of revision.

There’s a lot to unpack from that paragraph and from Rothstein’s subsequent expressions of dismay about the scourge of “identity museums” (he seems to have a particular disdain for the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian). For example, Rothstein should be reminded that those hoary “almost mythological institutions” of yesteryear were as much “identity museums” as the NMAI or any other such place. It’s just that the identity promoted then was elite and white. And then there’s his alarm at the way that the National Archives dares to call to attention to the fact that the nation’s past (and, gasp, present) has failed to live up to its lofty ideals. 

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Conquering the Organic in Filthy Cities

In 2012, the final episode of the BBC-documentary series Filthy Cities, hosted by the English television presenter Dan Snow, took viewers back “to a seething Manhattan in the throes of the industrial revolution.” Among other things, the only American episode of this three-part series argued that New York was a “nightmare” for the millions of poor emigrants who settled in the Lower Manhattan slum of Five Points in the late nineteenth century.

As Snow recites, New York was one of “the most disgusting and filthy places on earth;” it was a corrupt and frontier city, where immigrants were ruthlessly exploited by plutocratic barons and avaricious landlords, residents were hemmed in by claustrophobic and unhygienic tenement conditions—without access to central heating, running water, or public sewers—and parasitic diseases like typhus and cholera were permitted to reign unabated.

Although the smell, muck, and filth of industrial Manhattan might offend our modern sensibilities, recent scholarship on what American historian Ted Steinberg has called ‘the organic city’ suggests there were some benefits to these nineteenth-century urban environments that Filthy Cities does not explore. By extension, the triumphalist conquest of the unclean city did not come without significant environmental and social consequences.

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Politics and Public History in Europe’s WWI Centenary

Plastic red poppies with a photograph of a soldier.
Remembrance Day Poppies. Photo © 2007 Benoit Aubry. Creative Commons BY 3.0 License.

The year 2014 will mark the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. With some European governments planning major commemorations, the centennial is full of opportunity for public historians — but how should we remember a devastating war of nationalist passions in today’s supposedly “transnational” age? While the animosities of World War I may seem a world away from today’s European Union, the anniversary has exposed continued divisions over how to publicly remember the “Great War” a century later, revealing the close ties between historical memory and contemporary politics.

While each country in Europe has a different plan to mark the centenary of World War I, perhaps the starkest division is between Germany and the UK. While Germany plans to quietly participate in a few international commemorations, Britain is preparing for a nationwide series of patriotic events and exhibits. These differences reflect not only the different results of the war for each country, but also their divergent contemporary views on European policy.

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The Columbian Question: A Call for a Plebiscite on Columbus Day

In 1994, Common Courage Press, a progressive publishing house dedicated to social justice and based out of the small town of Monroe, Maine, produced a manuscript entitled Indians Are Us?: Culture and Genocide in Native North America. The author of this text was none other than the Creek-Muskogee intellectual, political activist, and scholar, Ward LeRoy Churchill, who was at the time serving as the professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. In the second chapter, entitled “Bringing the Law Back Home: Application of the Genocide Convention in the United States,” Churchill joined—and perhaps even surpassed—a growing number of journalists, scholars, activists, and citizens by emphatically calling for an end to the annual celebration of Columbus Day in America. “Undeniably,” Churchill wrote, “the situation of American Indians will not—in fact cannot—change for the better so long as such attitudes are deemed socially acceptable by the mainstream populace. Hence, such celebrations as Columbus Day must be stopped.”

Nowadays, there is perhaps no holiday in America culture more defined by ambivalence than Columbus Day. While most working professionals—particularly of the millennial generation—are happy enough getting a day off from work in October, no matter what the occasion, some are finding it harder and harder to memorialize the “Admiral of the Ocean” without feelings of cynicism. These people may not go as far as to agree with scholars like Ward Churchill, or the American historian Alfred W. Crosby—who ended his groundbreaking book The Columbian Exchange (1972) on an extremely pessimistic note about the consequences of European discovery—but most of them harbor at least a vague understanding that the century following European arrival in the Americas is not an historical period with which to be particularly proud or patriotic. At the same time, critics recognize that there is something undeniably important about remembering the pivotal, historical changes that occurred during this period.

The modern dilemma of Columbus Day is partly attached to the atrocities that its namesake and his companions inflicted upon the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean. Indeed, some people know about the 48-page report by Francisco de Bobadilla, the governor of the island of Hispaniola after Columbus, from 1500-1502. Testimonies in this report indicate that Columbus faced serious indictments for torturing, mutilating, and enslaving the indigenous population, most notably the Lucayan people of present-day Bahamas and the Taíno people of present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Among other things, these reports state that Columbus suppressed numerous indigenous revolts, afterward reaffirming his authority by parading dismembered bodies through the street, cutting off noses, shipping natives to the Iberian peninsula in shackles (most of them dying en route), and generally instituting one of the most brutal systems of forced labor that history would ever bear witness to. Since the rediscovery of this specific report in the Spanish archives, a series of short, History-channel documentaries, collectively entitled the “Columbus Controversy,” has attempted to integrate these atrocities into our general understanding of the famous and infamous conquistador.

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Four Views on the Shutdown and the National Park Service

From Civil War Memory.

Cross-posted at dvhunter.com

An unexpected media and political discourse has emerged as the Federal government nears a second week of being ‘shutdown.’ Access to sites under the watch of the National Park Service (NPS) became a political football. The conversation started almost simultaneous to the actual shutdown, when a squad of octo- and nonagenarian Mississippians stormed the barricades of the World War II Memorial in the middle of the National Mall. An irresistible media story, for certain. Politicians–as they do–seized on the spectacle. The next day a GOP Congressman berated an NPS ranger charged with manning the barricades, in truly a pathetic display even for Washington politics.

NPS closures became highly visible, with signs, barriers, and traffic cones juxtaposed against heritage sites and natural treasures. GOP congressmen offered the President a “compromise” that would have reopened the NPS sites while budget talks continued. President Obama turned down the proposal, and his rivals immediately attempted to seize the moral high ground. Some pundits ran with the idea that preventing access to “open-air monuments” was unconscionable, if not outright illegal.

Let’s turn to a bona fide, PhD’d historian for further discussion on the matter:

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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.

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Historic Preservation in Poland

Cross posted from From Auschwitz to Skokie where I discuss my recent trip to Poland to study Jewish history, heritage, memory, and the Holocaust as well as my work with the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie, IL.

Historic preservation is an important aspect of the work that many Public Historians in the United States do.  So important, in fact, that my program requires all Public History students to take a course on historic preservation, which I took last semester.  Ask me about the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, particularly Section 106, and I can bore the pants off of you with information about the federal government’s role in historic preservation.[1]  Then, of course, there are all the state and local regulations that impact historic preservation efforts as well.

There are multiple theories of historic preservation about what we mean when we use the term “preservation” and what goal we should have in mind.  There are three main schools of thought:

1. Restoration to a former state

2. Preservation in the current state

3. Adaptive reuse

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