I had a lovely time last week at NCPH, when some of my favorite public historians (and environmental historians too) gathered in Portland to talk about history and walk around in the rain. What follows is a transcription of some of my notes on interesting sessions. (I will discuss our future of public history session in another post.) This is quite long, so I’ll put it after the jump.
Wood, Water, Work and a Welcoming Public: At the Intersection of Oral History and Environmental History in the Great Lakes
This session inhabited the intersection of environmental history and public history by exploring the use of oral history in doing research on the Great Lakes.
Steven Dast and Troy Reeves talked about the UW Digital Collections, specifically oral histories from the Forest Products Lab, which are transcribed, searchable, listenable (though mystifyingly in realaudio) and have been getting a surprising amount of traffic.
Aaron Shapiro of Auburn discussed his research on Minnesota tourism as a landscape of work, as seen through MHS’s oral histories.
Meg Stanley’s paper on her project “the oral history of progress” covered a story of 8 dams in British Columbia, on the Peace and Columbia Rivers, from the 60s to 80s, as lived by 130+ informants who worked on the dams. She found a nuanced idea of “progress” in the stories of those who worked on the dams, a carefully measured move toward the end of a project.
Brad Gilles from Grand Valley State talked about American Indian lumber workers in northern Michigan, and how oral histories of their lives and work really told a different story than the ones accessible in archives. “It opened my eyes to a lot of things that are unthinkable without talking to them.”
Hidden Histories in Museums
Dorothea Crosbie-Taylor and Adam Nilsen from the Oakland Museum of California spoke on their upcoming exhibit Forces of Change focusing on individuals’ experiences in California in the 1960s and 70s ( it opens May 1). This exhibit was community-curated in an amazing participatory project that respects the multiple identities and stories of individual Californians. 24 people each have “niches” to talk about their lives. I found very interesting that the exhibit team spent a lot of time assuring participants that their personal stories were important and worthy of being in a museum. They want to showcase a welter of voices instead of a totalizing narrative about what it meant to be in the state in the 60s and 70s. I was very impressed by this talk and hope to visit the museum when I’m in the Bay Area in late May.
There was also a paper from Abby Hathaway on what she saw as a disappearance of working class stories in the new permanent exhibit at the Heinz History Center. I thought the most compelling part of her paper was her personal involvement with the museum in the past as a Pittsburgher and employee, and the way she saw her own family’s story disappear, and I wish she’d incorporated that into her paper rather than very briefly at the end.
Tory Swim Inloes then discussed “Changing Conceptions of Childhood and the Museum Experience.” She argued that since many museums (history museums in California were the object of her study) interpret the history of childhood/kids as historical subjects in school programming, this should be reflected in exhibits.
Here, Too? Interpreting Slavery in ‘Unexpected’ Places
Andrea Reidell discussed the audiotour stop at Eastern State Penitentiary that focuses on George Norman, and what kind of context visitors might need to understand the story.
Kevin Maijala from Fort Snelling discussed their recent radical reinterpretation of the site (goodbye, 1827!) and the decision to focus more on Dred Scott’s time in Minnesota.
Greg Shine spoke on Fort Vancouver’s research on slavery in the Army encampment there, included the story of Monimia Travers‘ trip to Portland as a slave in an officer’s household, followed by her manumission. He also discussed their research into Indian slavery at the fort around the time of the Hudson’s Bay Company encampment there.
John Willis from the Canadian Museum of Civilization discussed preliminary research on the Canadian Underground Railroad.
There was vigorous discussion, including why should it be a big deal for visitors to encounter slavery interpretation in “unexpected” places? Why should it be unexpected? Panelists spoke on getting beyond the “It happened here? Really?” factor.
Telling the Story, Engaging the Public: Some New Approaches
A diverse session giving lots of possible futures for public history work.
Tom Ancona, who runs a big design firm, gave a paper called “History is Good Business” and spoke on how companies are using heritage for brand building and customer engagement, as a building block of brand culture and marker of authenticity. As an example, he talked about what he called “industrial heritage experiences” like our own FRFT, the new Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee and the Boudin Bakery experience his firm designed in San Francisco.
The next two papers provided interesting counterpoints. Brian Horrigan talked about all the great participatory projects they do at the MHS (which, honestly, I assume my readers know about): wotr, their public commenting feature, MN150 , the MGG film competition, and the 1968 project. The key, said Brian, quoting Nina, is to find the right job for visitors to do.
Finally, Mike Lansing from Augsburg spoke on “New Possibilities for Public History in a Post-Carbon World.” Peak-oil public history! He argued that particularly living history farms could be models for folks about how to live in a world with limited energy resources, and an assurance that we can make it on similar resources. Specifically: public history institutions are repositories of preindustrial knowledge on technology and energy, a resource for local ecological knowledge and the history of human/environmental relations in the area, and a resource for locally-produced culture and community. Public history institutions could be useful resources for policymakers, too, who are envisioning and planning post-carbon communities. I thought his talk was really interesting, and of course I like to think that public history can save the world, but, well, I think we need more options than going back to the garden (especially in Detroit, where that’s a major sentiment.)
Mining Landscapes and their Publics
This session was the very last, Saturday afternoon at 4:30, and was tragically sparsely attended. I went in part because some of my cronies were in it, but it turned out fantastic.
Brian Leech spoke on the destruction of the Columbia Gardens in Butte, an amusement park funded by the mining company, and what the public outcry over the destruction meant for public land use and the relationship of the company and the city.
Erik Nystrom discussed the way mining models from the 1904 Gateway Exposition were taken out of context and exhibited in the US National Museum in the teens. In the museum, the models meant something very different than in the commercial World’s Fair: they became about model, rationalized, clean mining societies.
Hilary Orange’s paper was pretty fantastic. She’s a public archaeologist who works at UCL, and her work is on former Cornish mining landscapes and how people interact with and think about them. The particular moor she spoke about, in Minions, has been an active landscape: it has prehistoric stone circles, industrial heritage from 19th C copper and tin mining, and is actively grazed by “commoners” who have rights on the land. The people she interviewed, surveyed and walked the moor with had very interesting questions: “Would being a World Heritage Site [like other Cornish mining landscapes] mean we can’t mine in the future?” Locals described (romanticized) the landscape as a haunting, romantic, natural one, not an industrial or heritage landscape. In the context of a mining history panel, this really brought out ideas about how publics interact with the material culture of technology.
Peter Liebhold, in commenting on the session, suggested that these papers represented “the new mining history,” less focused on ores and getting things out of the ground or even labor history, but on landscape and visualization.