Public History as It Happens: Grant Writing for a Historical Society (Part 1)

Graduate students in public history at Loyola University recently launched “The Public History Lab,” an initiative to increase community interaction and service. The PHL offered to the nearby Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society volunteer student labor and advice ranging from collections management to membership development and programming. One area of focus is grant writing. This series of posts follows the process of beginning a grant application from scratch. And hopefully concludes with news of success!

Targeting a Grant

As Grant Project Coordinator, my first task was to identify some feasible grants for RPWRHS. Factors for this feasibility include: relevance to the institution, realistic expectations for submitting a competitive application, and the extensiveness of an application in relation to our available labor. I knew, generally, of collection assessment grants from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Unfortunately the deadline had not only passed, but it also appeared that RPWRHS may not qualify as primarily a “museum.” But only a bit more searching led to the National Endowment for the Humanities-funded “Preservation Assistance Grant for Smaller Institution.”

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Situating the WPA, Ex-Slave Narratives in the Historiography of American Slavery

Between 1936 and 1938, approximately 2,194 ex-slaves living in the American south were interviewed by writers and journalists under the auspices of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), one of five “artistic” branches of the greater Works Project Administration (WPA). As historians well know, both of these initiatives were part of the New Deal, a series of domestic programs first enacted in 1933 by the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to help the United States recover from the Great Depression. Specifically, these five “artistic” programs were called Federal Project Number One, and they were initiated in 1936, during the second phase of the New Deal.

This blog post will situate the WPA ex-slave narratives within the historiography of American slavery, showing how they have been both used and challenged in the past, and suggesting what roles they might play in the future.

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Preservation and Ephemerality in Public History: Reflecting on NCPH 2014 from a Mile High

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

I am currently sitting in the Denver airport on my layover to Chicago after a fantastic annual meeting of the National Council on Public History.  I was reluctant to leave sunny Monterey for the snowy Midwest, but as always I feel invigorated the conversations with other historians committed to engaging and serving the public.  Two panels in particular remain fresh in my mind as dynamic counterpoints that framed the conference’s theme of sustainability: one on preservation, the other on ephemerality.

People > Things

It occurs to me that the title of the panel on “Sustaining Historic Preservation Through Community Engagement” should’ve be swapped around to read, “Sustaining Community Engagement through Historic Preservation,” as it became clear through the course of the panel that preservation should be used in the interest of community engagement and not vice versa.  In other words, people are more important than buildings.  This theme was echoed by Sheila Brennan in the “Ephemerality in Public History” panel, who suggested that public historians should resist hoarding objects for prosperity and instead focus on digitizing objects for greater access or allowing the public to touch and use objects for a full transformative tactile experience. (Check out the notes and slides from her presentation here.)

Rethinking Sustainability

Another recurring question in the panels: how should—or shouldn’t—a project be sustained after the public historian has concluded their involvement? Approaching the end of her dissertation work, Abby Gateau is currently mentoring a successor, while also having successfully aroused a strong and energetic community base who can carry forward the public history work she instigated.  Mark Tebeau reinforced the value of thinking about the end from the beginning, suggesting that recognizing ephemerality of products and projects can lead to better best practices. Finally, Thomas Cauvin, from the audience, reminded us that archives are not the only repositories for saving the past and documenting public history projects—people preserve memory.

The panels on preservation and ephemerality, and the NCPH Annual Meeting as a whole, served as a refreshing reminder to base our public history work in the contemporary community.

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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Gender: Just Add Women and Stir

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

We’ve all seen it.  When museums, historic sites, and textbooks realize they need to address gender, the go-to response is to “just add women and stir.”  Sprinkle in a few “great women” to go with the great men or specifically talk about the women who lived in a historic house…usually only when you enter the kitchen.  The traditional male dominated history isn’t challenged in any way.  It’s still the same story, the same narrative, the same interpretation of the site, but now women have  been “included.”

The first panel I attended yesterday morning at NCPH 2014, “Gender: Just Add Women and Stir,” sought to challenge this standard trope.  The facilitators, a number of whom were from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage in Philadelphia, had taken a study trip in 2013 to historic sites in New England to observe how gender and sexuality were interpreted—or not interpreted—at these sites.

Rather than a traditional panel where the audience is talked at, we immediately began an activity.  The panelists had placed scenes from historic house museums around the room and asked the audience to interpret each room in terms of gender and sexuality.  At first many participants seemed hesitant to imposing any sort of interpretation on these sites.  How were we supposed to interpret gender and sexuality based solely on images without any context?

As someone who attempts to be aware of assumptions and stereotypes based on gender and sexuality, this felt like an exercise in reifying useless categories and stereotypes.  What makes a room, or aspects of it, “masculine” or “feminine?”  Are we talking about 19th century views of masculinity and femininity or 21st century views?  Since societal views about these things aren’t static, but have in fact changed tremendously, there is considerable difference.

As far as interpreting sexuality goes, well there’s all sorts of trouble there.  The living room at the Gropius House in Lincoln, Massachusetts, for instance totally said gay stereotype to me.  Not gay, mind you, but gay stereotype.  I have no idea who used or designed this living room, and I can’t make any sort of judgements about their gender, let alone their sexuality based simply on an image of the room.

The image used in the session was a different angle, but you get the idea.
The image used in the session was a different angle, but you get the idea.  Photo courtesy of www.historicnewengland.org

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The Lakefront Historian Heads West: Live-Blogging NCPH 2014

Flickr/Clark (Creative Commons license)
Flickr/Clark (Creative Commons license)

Several Loyola public historians will shake off the Chicago frost this week and head for the 2014 National Council on Public History Conference in Monterey, California.  From March 19 through March 22, The Lakefront Historian will present a series of blog posts from conference goers. Bloggers will include:

  • Kim Connelly Hicks, who is participating in the round table, “Sustaining Public History through Community Engagement,” (moderated by Dr. Theodore Karamanski, director of the Loyola Public History program,  and co-presenting a poster, “Addressing Absences: Exhibiting African American Suffragists.”
  • Rachel Boyle, joining Dr. Karamanski and Kim in the “Sustaining Public History” round table
  • Laura Pearce, recipient of one of only five graduate student travel awards from the NCPH, accompanies Kim presenting in the poster session
  • William Ippen co-facilitates the working group “Innovative Reuse in the Post-Industrial City,” and with the NCPH Task Force on Public History and Environmental Sustainability will discuss the group’s white paper.
  • Devin Hunter is the co-facilitator of the “Innovative Reuse” working group, and serves as “Digital Drop-In” consultant for GIS and the use of historical Census data

Stay tuned to The Lakefront Historian for frequent blog posts from these–and maybe more–historians, about their Monterey experiences.

 

Highlights from the Chicago Metro History Fair, Suburban Regionals

history fair

Official image for the American, academic competition of National History Day, 2014.

On Saturday, March 1, 2014, Niles North High School in the village of Skokie, Illinois, hosted the Suburban Regional Competition for the Chicago Metro History Fair. The top 300 students from nineteen suburban secondary schools came to Niles North in order to present 150 historical projects in the format of poster-board exhibit, research paper, performance, documentary, or website. Emelie and I decided to attend the event as first-time, volunteer judges. After two orientations, the event organizers paired us with a veteran judge and assigned us to Room 2030, where we were tasked with judging a panel of 5 group documentaries. The following blog post is a reflection on that experience.

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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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