Unrepentant history nerd and karaoke diva.
I currently serve as the digital media coordinator & program assistant for the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities, where I wrangle bloggers and tackle our social media platforms; and as a museum assistant at the Wells Fargo History Museum in Philadelphia. I'm the proud holder of a masters degree in public history.
Some projects I've worked on: an oral history database using StoriesMatter for the Salem County Historical Society, a collection of data on school group attendance for the education department at Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the digitization of the Balch Institute Ethnic Images in Advertising Collection at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. I also volunteer at the Alice Paul Institute in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey.
I travel when possible and attend Philadelphia Orchestra and Philadelphia Chamber Music Society concerts when possible. Plays and musicals are good fun.
In my spare time I am often silly and irreverent.
Today the Public History Commons published a piece by Angela Sirna, a PhD candidate at Middle Tennessee State University and the Public Historian in Residence at Catoctin Mountain Park, called The “new normal”: Is there one? In it, Sirna talks about a subject that weighs heavily on the mind of every young (and not so young) public historian: EMPLOYMENT.
Sirna sat on a panel at the recent National Council for Public History conference at Monterey, California, that focused on the recent sequestration and budget woes in the public history world.
My first thought was, “This resonates with me on a personal level!” I’m a recent public history grad, and though I hold down two satisfying part-time positions, I’d really like something a bit more secure.
My second thought was to just share that story on “the Twitter.” I know a fair number of similarly employed and semi-employed and unemployed public historians/humanists and it seemed a good way to open up a discussion about what it means to be in the field. Have a sample from about halfway through:
The participants noted a new, somewhat defensive ethos among their colleagues. A Navy historian said his team is committed to working harder to show that they are not overpaid government workers, which is challenging since their work is not visible to the public. Others agreed that the shut down affected morale, with some employees being deemed “essential” workers while others were “nonessential.” The term “public servant” itself seems to be under attack. One participant noted a recent National Archives program that let children have a “Sleepover with the Constitution,” but the agency received pushback from people angry about this use of their tax dollars. This was just another reminder that doing history within and for these agencies is highly political.
My response: historical narrative/s is/are always political. Who is “in charge” of history? Who wants to be? For what purpose?
My response: That’s my point. History is politicized by all parties. Government, the public, institutions etc. Who’s narrative? Why?
Check out the exhibit by @HistoryTruck in Philly for an example of bringing multiple narratives together.
[As an aside, you really should check out the Philadelphia Public History Truck.]
Her response: Talk politicized @mandialyse gov’t and institutions might record #history in #Archives but public acknowledgment is now the ultimate goal
It was at this point that I realized there was no way we could have this discussion on Twitter. NO WAY. Both of us simply have too many words inside of us for the limitations of Twitter, and besides, the ideas we are talking about and around are complex enough to warrant a few more characters.
What do I mean when i say that all history is political? I don’t just mean that politicians and other people in power use history to serve their ultimate goals. I mean that, 1. other groups use history to subvert the politicized monolithic history to create space for themselves in the larger narrative; 2. groups use their understanding of history to advocate for political change or services; 3. no group is monolithic and there will always be contests over voice and narrative/winners and losers in the telling of the group’s history.
This causes head scratching for some folks (not my friend, she gets it, I just couldn’t get it across over Twitter). How can each of these groups and sometimes even individuals all proclaim to have the right history?
This leads us down a slippery slope. What is history? Is it a recitation of dates, names, locations and events or is it the act of teasing out an understanding of the dates, names, locations and events within a larger context of other dates, names, locations and events (not to mention cultures, genders, religions, ages, social standing etc etc)?
I really hope you chose the second option.
So history is about understanding what happened, why it happened, how different people understood what happened (and why), and one could argue, how this understanding can help inform the present and future.
Then the notion of a “right” history is a lot harder to come by. I mean, if you go to a bunch of archives populated with the records of leaders you’re going to get a different story than if you solicit oral histories from the people outside of leadership positions. Who’s understanding do we value? Who’d recollections are more real? More valid?
Public history is not apolitical. It demands that the public (a tricky notion too) can and should contribute to our understanding of history. It values academic history, true, but it doesn’t stop there. It can’t stop there.
But every negotiation of history, every deposit into an archive, every exhibition and public program is a choice. What do we save? What do we put on display and what will the text panel say? What group will we serve with this program?
What don’t we save? What stays in storage (or is tossed)? What text is cut? What group will be served by the next program?
Every choice is political. It isn’t just about US building a history that the PUBLIC acknowledges and accepts. It is about welcoming them into the discussion and realizing it is messy and painful and decidedly un-monolithic.