“Who Tells Your Story?”: Historymaking in “Hamilton”

Lin-Manuel Miranda in the title role of the musical "Hamilton" at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York.

The Broadway smash hit Hamilton: An American Musical, a “hip-hopera” about the nation’s founding, is a bona fide phenomenon. Tickets are nearly impossible to come by, and celebrities flock to every performance. (President Obama has seen it twice.) The show and its composer and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, are receiving recognition for fantastic performances, an energetic blend of musical theatre tradition and hip hop innovation, and the choice to cast people of color in the roles of the lily-white Founding Fathers.

But Hamilton is also being praised for its potential to teach its audience members, to get them excited about a period of history they may only remember from dry classroom lessons. Miranda based the musical on Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton, and the historian served as a consultant to the show. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History recently partnered with the Rockefeller Foundation to provide discounted tickets for low-income New York City high school students and develop accompanying educational programming.

Hamilton is the latest in a long line of musicals based on historical events: 1776, Les Misérables, Evita, and the recently-opened Allegiance, about Japanese internment in the U.S. during World War II, among many others. So why has this particular show seemed to inspire its audiences, particularly those who are not otherwise musical theater fans, more than these other worthy musicals?

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From Preservation to Community Engagement in Chrysler Village

In October 2013, Loyola University Chicago public history graduate students launched Public History Lab, a student-driven effort to apply public history skills at organizations and sites of history in the Chicagoland area. This post belongs to a series that chronicles efforts undertaken by members of the Public History Lab.

Spanning several years and spawning multiple course projects, the Chrysler Village History Project offers unique insight into the dynamics of a long-term collaboration between a local community, history graduate students, and faculty. The following account presents the evolution of the project to foster continued reflection on the practice of public history inside and outside the classroom.

The Origin Story

In early 2013, an energetic young alderman from the Southwest side of Chicago reached out to Loyola professor Dr. Theodore Karamanski with a request to nominate the neighborhood of Chrysler Village to the National Register of Historic Places. Located in the Clearing neighborhood just south of Midway Airport, Chrysler Village was one of the few housing construction projects undertaken in Chicago during World War II. It was strategically located near the Ford-Chrysler plant where workers assembled B-29 “Superfortress” bomber engines. Characterized by winding streets and a centrally-located park, Chrysler Village also represents an important link between prewar planned communities and postwar suburban development. As part of a preservation course led by Dr. Karamanski in the Spring of 2013, fellow Loyola history graduate students and I unearthed the neighborhood’s historical significance through extensive research in the archives and on the ground in Chrysler Village.* We continued to develop the nomination in the months after class until the nomination was officially accepted in early 2014 and Chrysler Village was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Aerial photograph of Chrysler Village, ca. 1950, courtesy of Clear-Ridge Historical Society
Aerial view of Chrysler Village, ca. 1950. Photo courtesy of Clear-Ridge Historical Society

Now What?

As satisfying as it was to help put Chrysler Village on the National Register, we couldn’t help but ask how the listing could better benefit the community.  At the 2014 Annual Meeting of the National Council on Public History, Kim Connelley Hicks and I joined a roundtable on preservation to discuss how we could build on our nomination to create a sustained, financially soluble, and socially relevant project for a changing community. The roundtable generated a host of great ideas, but as the original core of students moved on in their lives and careers, we needed leaders with a plan to move the project forward.

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Gender Gap Set in Stone

Chicago’s 580 parks are littered with statues of historically significant men. Some of these men may be familiar to you: Nicolaus Copernicus, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln. Others may be unfamiliar: Greene Vardiman Black, for example, the “father of modern dentistry.” While the accomplishments of these notable figures vary, their gender does not. In fact, there is not a single statue in Chicago that honors a historically significant woman.

The lack of public statues honoring women has received recent attention in the local media, and for good reason. In a city home to such important female leaders like Ida B. Wells and Jane Addams, how can public depictions of women remain absent in Chicago’s parks?

The Chicago Park District told WBEZ Chicago that this absence is an issue of timing; the heyday of public sculpture in the city occurred before women earned the right to vote and were therefore not involved in public life. Yet this argument does not explain why men continued to be honored in Chicago parks long after women earned the right to vote in 1920. As recently as 2006, the Chicago Park District has added a new bronze statue of a male figure to its expansive park system.

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Public Historians at Work: Restructuring a Historical Society

In October 2013, Loyola University Chicago public history graduate students launched Public History Lab, a student-driven effort to apply public history skills at organizations and sites of history in the Chicagoland area. This post belongs to a series that chronicles efforts undertaken by members of the Public History Lab.

When Public History Lab (PHL) formed, several students decided to undertake a partnership with the Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society (RPWRHS). Loyola is located in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood and we knew that the RPWRHS needed assistance in several areas. Our early meetings to define the PHL’s goals and the first few months of our partnership with RPWRHS are topics for future blog posts, but for now I will say that the Society welcomed us. One of the first large projects that we undertook with the RPWRHS was the planning and execution of a strategic planning meeting.

PHL students and RPWRHS Board members and volunteers work together to develop a strategic plan. Photograph courtesy of Rachel Boyle.
PHL students and RPWRHS Board members and volunteers work together to develop a strategic plan. February 2014. Photograph courtesy of Rachel Boyle.

The strategic planning meeting yielded a working strategic plan, complete with projects that the Society’s committees (including PHL student volunteers) began working on to meet the plan’s one-, five-, and ten-year goals. Soon after, three PHL students were invited to join the RPWRHS Board of Directors. The students—me, Katie Macica, and Dan Ott—were elected to the Board in March 2014.

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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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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.

Call For Participants: Social Justice, Sustainability, and Activism in Public History

Public History Roundtable: Social Justice, Sustainability, and Activism

Saturday, November 9, 2013

2:45pm – 4:30pm

In Conjunction with the 10th Annual Loyola University Chicago

History Graduate Student Conference

LUC Water Tower Campus

 You are invited to participate in a roundtable designed to foster discussion about the active roles of historians in promoting social justice as well as social and ecological sustainability. The roundtable features Dr. Paul Schadewald of Macalester College, graduate student conference participants, and public history professionals from the Chicago area.

Roundtable ImageMundelein College Civil Rights Students Mobilization, April 1968
Women and Leadership Archives, Loyola University Chicago

How to participate:

Follow the conference blog or the Lakefront Historian to view a detailed introduction to the roundtable, consider pre-circulated case statements, and offer your comments and contributions.

Attend the roundtable prepared to discuss your experiences with social justice and sustainability in public history as a patron, staff, or stakeholder in an institution that engages the public over historical topics

Attend the roundtable, and be willing to informally engage participants and fellow audience members about the topic.

Simply attend the roundtable and listen.

For more information or if you have any questions, please contact Rachel Boyle at rboyle1@luc.edu
Follow the conference Twitter hashtag #hgsa2013

The things we do – Reminiscences from Toronto

“They should go and hang themselves.”

That was my answer during a Q&A at York University history graduate conference back in February. My poor word choice reflected the need for improvement of my public speaking skills. Thanks to the generosity of Loyola University Chicago, my Canadian friends and friends-of-friends-of-friends, I was able to present at New Frontiers with three great panelists under the catchy title of “Memories of War: Transforming Violence.” My paper was based on how Spanish society has coped with the trauma of the 1930s civil war during the military dictatorship of Franco and democracy since the 1970s. Until now, everything seems ok.

However, I chose to stir things up a bit expressing my desire that historians ought to do something more than sitting down, giving the same lectures over and over, and to incorporate current topics into their analysis of history in a socially useful way. Then, a professor from York raised the question, what do we do with those that don’t see any problem with society, that are content with what happens around them? Thus, my impolite and somewhat disrespectful response. But was it? If we are not producing history for our present (sorry for break it to you but if you are thinking that you are leaving a legacy for generations to come, chances are that you are wrong), why are we doing it at all? In academia, some may say “because I can, because I want to, because I get paid a lot of money to do so.” I mean, seriously, is that it?

Disclaimer: I am currently in the path of becoming a PhD student. I might or might not end up working at an university but, in any case, I feel obliged to do my best to make a difference. I don’t mean to sound pretentious but rather avid to learn from my colleagues and work with them. The question to solve is how my (future) research is going to make a difference, which I will leave for my next post.