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.
So how do we push the power balance further in the visitors’ favor without totally abrogating our responsibility to be accurate, honest, and authoritative? How could we inhibit the exhibition?
Ed Rodley has gone and done it again. His latest blog post, “Natural’s Not In It” has given me a revelation in how to bridge two disparate thoughts I’ve had for awhile now—Open Authority and critical pedagogy.
About a year ago I had an “intellectual ah-ha moment” in which I realized that, “my opinions about social engagement in museums really do boil down to my views on education: just as the classroom should be shaped around student interests, the museum experience should be shaped by visitor interests.”
You can read the above post to see just how passionate I am about the Reggio-Emilia teaching model. Reggio is a progressive constructivist approach to pre-primary education that is dependent on learning being led by the interest of the child. Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” also deeply impacted my thoughts on the balance of power between teacher and student, and caused me to internalize the connection between didactic teaching methods and oppression. (It causes one to pause over the use of omniscient and authoritative voice in exhibit labels…) I feel strongly that non-hierarchical models, where the teacher-student remains equal in learning, should be integrated into the interpretation of cultural heritage in museums.
Ed’s post articulates this concept in a new way that is really helping me make the leap from critical pedagogy to open authority. He attempts to re-frame the convoluted exhibition-development process by looking at the term “inhibition,” which would presumably be the opposite of “exhibition.” I was confused by how “inhibiting” anything could be seen as positive, but things quickly became clear when the factor of “power” entered the picture (read: “authority,” if we’re overgeneralizing.)
Ultimately, the conclusion is that…
[exhibit developers should] be more explicit in inhibiting the dominating power of the exhibition so that visitors have more personal agency and power within the space.
Ed has effectively turned my frame of reference for Open Authority on its head. I have always looked at Open Authority as a means of increasing the visitors’ power in order to have an equal voice in the interpretation within an exhibit. But I like Ed’s notion that authority within an exhibit is a zero-sum game, and raising everyone’s power level is implausible. Instead, Ed is positing that we take it down a notch.
Putting my two-year-old-teacher hat on (from bygone years), I look at this in a Reggio-esque way. An exhibit developer inhibiting their power within an exhibition is similar to how, as a 2’s teacher, I would stoop down to the level of my students so that I was not towering over them authoritatively. Instead, I was eye-to-eye with them, and speaking with them not in a sing-song-y, condescending tone, but in a normal cadence like I would with any other adult. Open Authority is not putting the child on stilts to increase their power, it’s stooping to their level so that we’re all on a level playing field.
This brings me back to Freire’s critical pedagogy, and the important point that dialogue with the oppressed [didactically instructed children/visitors] is essential to humanizing [empowering] them. For the museum professional, entering into this dialogue requires inhibiting our current power structures, and only then will we get closer to an Open Authority.
I’ll close on an interesting tidbit. The 40 pages of my thesis on Open Authority do not include Freire, in spite of his work deeply impacting my thinking on democratization in museums. I did, however, craft a paragraph linking the two thoughts in my earlier drafts (it just ended up on the editing room floor.) So here’s my first stab (written a year ago) at summarizing how critical pedagogy connects with Open Authority, even conveniently ending on a note of “empowerment”…
Philosopher Paolo Freire first framed the issues of authoritative voice by defining the re-humanization of the “oppressed” as the empowerment of the under-served through community dialogue and critical thinking (2000). While his revolutionary work targets the educational system, many correlations can be drawn to the museum field and the singular representations of peoples in exhibit narratives. At its very basic, Freire’s perspective reminds us to respect the learner and to not speak for them, but to let them learn for themselves while providing guidance along the way. Museums will do well to more fully implement this deeper form of constructivist learning, and in so doing become true forums for community dialogue. The purpose of the forum is to allow others to have a voice, and provides a means for reflection and critical dialogue, which Freire considers to be imperative to empowered learning (2000).
So thanks, Ed! I feel lucky to have colleagues who continue to challenge my thinking and help me to make sense of the fine, idea-connecting threads that get stronger as we weave together our (seemingly) errant thoughts.