Circles are interesting things. Providing an illusion of comfort, they are made up of a series of dots meant to be equidistant from its central point. If you are standing in one, the shape provides a sense of belonging. That we are all in this, whatever this is, together.
However, in a circle there is nowhere to hide. While they imply equal footing, equal power, they also represent transparency, or the hope for clarity.
With that in mind, I spent the 2019 National Council on Public History Annual meeting in circles. These circles were tangible, physical, and metaphorical — but they all connected to a central conversation about the ethics of being a historian. About our truths as professionals where neutrality is no longer an option.
I should break here and say this: This conference served as it always does, as a source for affirmation and inspiration. And yet, it was weighty.
Not weighty in the sense that it was difficult. Not weighty in the sense that it was heavy. All those things are true in their own way, but rather weighty with meaning.
The first real circle was during a panel with A Broken Umbrella Theatre Company. A theatrical group from New Haven, Broken Umbrella works to tell the history of their city combining drama, community engagement, old spaces, music, and performance.
Attendees to the panel were turned into participants as the company walked us through their narrative process. But naturally, in a typical theatrical exercise, this initial circle was for introductions where everyone stood equidistant from one another as we met each other for the first time.
Our task for the panel: To turn first few paragraphs of Frances Willard’s essay “How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle” into a short play, leveraging the emotion of the words to convey feeling, experience, and meaning. [Also read: This great story about women and the history of the bicycle.]
We started by setting up a tableau. A scene to show transformation, a snapshot of events being played out. Then we reset the exercise and added in music and movement. While each group’s choice was different, we found ourselves singing lines from Queen (Bicycle Race (I want to ride my bicycle)) and the Beastie Boys ((You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party)) to illustrate how this one woman felt when she found a means of travel that had been beyond her for years, constrained by societal expectations and pressures.
In building these thirty second pieces of drama, we had a tangible conversation about perspective and narrative as members of the audience. While the audience is not the storyteller, they bring with them ideas, feelings, and bias in which to interpret what they saw. In some sense this panel was a perfect example of multi-disciplinary storytelling, but also a clever conversation about connection, and the craft of documenting and sharing history.
The second circle I sat in focused on empathy, or rather the ways in which the emotional connection between maker, historian, and audience is built. While I missed some of the panelists, the session, writ large, asked us to think about communication and language, expanding to address internal negotiation side by side with institutional struggles with change, where barriers are built that impede reward because of an aversion to risk. In this circle which was specifically to engender trust we discussed the weight of doing the work to tell underrepresented histories, and how often the work of creating a more inclusive, empathetic institution falls on those who need the support themselves.
This conversation on trust returned time and time again throughout the annual meeting in the guise of building relationships with communities, issues of sharing authority and ceding control, and of starting a project without preconceived ideas. We also talked about self-care, and of telling the stories of trauma, of being relevant, not just for the sake of being relevant — but also for fighting injustice where our historic sites and places are centered.
This was most evident during the public plenary Considering Coltsville: A Revolving Story. During this talk leaders of the Hartford community, the National Park Service, and public historians came together for a conversation about the role of the future NPS site (which will interpret firearms manufacturing) and its impact on the neighborhood in which it sits. While it was predominantly a real-life example about establishing trust between a historic site and the community, this panel challenged those in attendance to understand the real life implications of our work. You can see some of the commentary by following #ncph2019 #plenary on Twitter. [Also this was not the only panel related to gun violence at NCPH, for more on what public historians can do check out the results of a hackathon on gun violence at aftertheshots.org.]
Near the end of the session, moderator Sarah Pharaon of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience repeated a charge from one of the community activists: “No one in this room should leave here the same way they came in… This is a life or death situation.”
The 2019 NCPH annual meeting underscored that we cannot stand by merely as observers. We cannot stand in the middle of a circle and cast judgement, verdicts, or merely present analysis. We need to be (and in some cases, continue to be) connectors, facilitators, communicators. We need to treat our work as if it is capable of affecting change, instead of assuming we are bystanders.
Over the years, the field has striven to make that shift – not only through conversations about history communication, but also through the partnerships of the History Relevance Campaign, and the many panels, sessions, and discussions at annual conferences (and beyond) over the years. But this meeting made the changes more urgent, more necessary, more real.
I carried these ideas through the rest of the conference, through visits to the homes of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mark Twain — sites that strive to emphasize the importance of the written word while also discussing the imperfections of the house’s inhabitants — and on my travels home.
I have always believed in the relevancy of our work. That what we do has meaning and carries weight. But I feel like I always play it safe. In a career focused on curating other voices, other visions, have I really done enough with my power to make a difference?
That sense of urgency has stayed with me. A low-level hum as I consider the implications for my work and my life. A charge, as Sarah Pharaon reminded us, of the impact we can have on the wider world. As the theme of the conference stated, it also reminded me of the repair work we all have a responsibility to take on, where I ask myself again, and again: What else can I do?