Milwaukee’s Best: The 2012 NCPH/OAH Annual Conference

Many of my posts on this blog are often connected more often than not to my thoughts about the past through books, movies, exhibits, and travel. Seeing the reflection of the past in the “stuff” we consume, produce, and leave behind.

However, sometimes I like to look past the “why” and to the “how,” to the practice of public historians — what we do well, what we should be doing, and how I can engage in this broader conversation.

This year’s annual conference for the National Council on Public History involved a convergence and a merging of ideas with the Organization of American Historians. As expected the five days in Wisconsin were filled with networking and sessions which integrated your typical academic style paper(s) with the more hands on, interpretive style of the public historian presentations.

So I thought that I would use this, my first of three [the second will come in a few days, the third on food will post in June] posts on my trips to talk about methodology — providing examples of different (or not so different) conversations through the lens of the meetings and sessions I attended.

First. Don’t Look for Contributions. Look for Experiences

@publichistorian: Huyck: “assume women were there” at historic sites, battlefields,  places to interpret #oah2012 #ncph 2012 4/20/12 16:18

Ever since the advent of social history (the time when historians began looking to be more representative of the American people in history, beyond the Big White Men), there have been discussions about how to approach the voids in the historical narrative. Since then those working in the sub-disciplines of African American History, Native American History, Immigrant History, Women’s History, and Asian American History tirelessly worked to fill the silences–those spaces in our historical thought where voices have been purposely kept quiet or subtly ignored.

We’ve come a long way but the work, as many told us at NCPH/OAH, is not done. During a panel on Women’s history, Heather Huyck of the National Collaborative for Woman’s History Sites proclaimed that we should stop looking for “Women’s contributions, and rather look for Women’s experiences.” In short, we need to stop adding women in to established histories written about men and their work, and to approach their story as if it were already a part of the narrative.

Her example was that typical histories about the Civil War talk about battles as if the village just sprung up where the battle was happening. In exhibitions and movies the women’s experience is often a sub section on its own, separate from the broader language. She says that we should actually tweak our vision and think about how the war came to the towns where people lived rather than the other way around. By making that perspective change we’ll allow ourselves to approach the histories of women (and in my opinion, other groups) from a more open viewpoint.

@HeatherRivet: (Quoting Heather Huyck) “Let us Keep Each other, and keep each other’s history” 4/20/12 16:31

Second. Beyond Just “Going Digital”

I was in a room with a group of digital historians (those who work primarily on digital tools to present and interpret history) and someone observed, “we are no longer asking about why to go digital but rather how/what medium to use to go digital.”*

In this day and age we use the internet in almost every aspect of our lives, so it was no surprise to me that this year’s THATCamp involved not only the beginner conversations on digital tools (how to use wordpress, etc) but also larger questions that need to be answered re: digital scholarship or looking at the possibilities for publications and the web. As usual THATCamp isn’t about providing answers, but about working through common challenges and creating a dialogue around them. More on THATCamp here.

This year much of my work on digital projects centered around being an editor of the History@Work blog for the National Council on Public History. My particular charge is to develop (w/ a co-editor) a robust graduate student/new professionals section. It’s a challenging feat, one that I’m looking forward to in the year to come. This work exemplifies much of what we talked about at NCPH/OAH. What stories are we trying to tell? What is the best medium in which to tell those stories? How can all these pieces fit together for different audiences and the creation of a complete historical narrative?

And finally, as usual, there were also a number of projects showcased. Some are new experiments, while others have been around for a long time. Some used standard tools for the web, while others surprised me for their engagement with the community. Here is a list of projects that I took note off in sessions, on Twitter, and during lightening rounds. By no means comprehensive, feel free to add in the comments section.

Third. Sharing Authority. Who Owns the Past

@PHRyanGosling: Hey Girl, let’s be more purposeful about sharing authority in our panels. #ncph2012 #oah2012 4/20/12 18:16**

A broader thread throughout the week looked at community and being more democratic in our engagement of that community. This naturally led to many, many, conversations about the sharing of historical authority….and power.

It is, once again, not a new idea, as oral historians have been dealing with this issue for years. When interviewing someone it is no longer just the gathering of information from many perspectives, but also a measure of opening up the dialogue to creating histories, of becoming the agent of historical collection rather than a passive interpreter.

With digital history projects, the conversation turned to ethics. If you are doing a history project on the web, and you are collecting videos, images, and stories from community members — in particular histories that have been wrenched away and silenced–using the standard release form, which asks a participant to give away rights to the story, poses some problems.  In the panel on “Whose Civil Rights Stories on the Web? Authorship, Ownership, Access, and Content in Digital History” Jack Dougherty (@doughertyjack) describes how this dilemma led him to adopting the Creative Commons licensing approach as a way to make the project more democratic.

Another panel, which centered around a recent Pew Charitable Trust text called Letting Go? asked even broader questions regarding community history. As museums and projects move toward the community model to create a participatory experience, how do we maintain the balance between broader historical narrative and the individual perspective? Are we, as historians, who are trained so much in research capable of ceding that power to those who write histories through personal experience rather than our usual methodology? (Note: I hope to read this book for a future blog post).

I think we are capable of finding a balance, but it takes a culture shift and conversations like these to achieve it.

Fourth. Being in the Present through Advocacy and Change

And finally, the NCPH/OAH conference had a thread which looked to the present. Over the course of the week historians gathered to discuss how our work can effect change on issues that impact the world around us. How can we be advocates for causes beyond the typically historical? There were panels on the Occupy movement, and the fight to end modern slavery (including a discussion of this exhibit at Lincoln’s Cottage). With a conference theme like Frontiers of Capitalism and Democracy it made sense that we had working groups on sustainability (that I co-facilitated), social justice, and politics.  I think going into specifics would make this already long post into a novella, but suffice it to say, by looking at our work as historians through this lens we saw a way to make history more relevant and useable beyond our day to day work.


From: This is a word visualization of all 8,800 tweets from the 2012 NCPH/OAH conference.

As I write this I am sitting on an airplane surrounded by iPhones, iPads, android tablets and other forms of digital communication devices. Over five days 8,800 tweets were exchanged between those new to the medium and those veterans who obsessively typed updates to great panels for those who could not attend particular sessions (Full Disclosure, I am one of them @priyastoric).

Aside from the themes above I attended some great sessions that looked at the role of country music in country life (what can the changing lyrics between pop-country, alternative country and southern rap, tell us about the people and the issues in the south…not to mention a whole paper on the enigma that is Kris Kristofferson); and the state of interpretation at the National Park Service. One of the final sessions I attended was a live radio broadcast with Backstory. An hour long show (that can be downloaded as a podcast) attendees were treated to an examination of the role of alcohol in American life. All of the sessions, including the ones I followed over Twitter gave food for thought on how we can integrate different disciplines in the practice of public history. Music! Technology! Visualizations!

Anyone who has participated in these conferences before knows that talking about digital tools, the struggle over sharing authority, opening the historical dialogue to be more democratic and inclusive, and being advocates are all issues that the historical profession has dealt with for more than the past year. None of them are new.

However, I would argue that continued dialogue on each of these subjects moves the profession forward beyond just history as an academic institution (which is still an important element in producing history) into a living breathing force that shapes identities and provides value to society writ large.


*I can’t remember who said this. If you know who I should attribute the quotation to let me know!

**A Note on @PHRyanGosling. This was one of the most amusing elements of the conference this year. Someone (or more than one someone) spent the duration of the conference tweeting under this pseudonym based on the popular Ryan Gosling meme. Every tweet began with “Hey, Girl” and talked about particular elements in sessions and around the conference. It added an element of whimsy, and amusement to the conference, while also providing information about what sessions were going on when.

Want more on the conference? Check out the History News Network’s Coverage, Cathy Stanton’s blogging at History@Work, or the official OAH blog.

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