It started at a bar in Baltimore…

Right now I’m having this weird flashback to last semester when I was in the Digital Public History course. I had decided over the winter break of 2016-17 (almost a year to the day) that I wanted to switch my degree concentration to Public History. I had gone out for a drink one night around Christmas weekend and ran into, through a mutual friend, a lady named Anita Durel. Her and her husband had co-founded this organization called Qm2. Qm2 is basically a consulting firm that helps museums in particular to better connect with their audiences and manage their bottom lines. They are pretty successful at it too. I remember Anita telling me, in between a few deep slogs of her dirty martini,  how they had recently worked with a group in Paris, and were planning the logistics for a trip to some museum in South Africa. One thing lead to another and before long we started talking about me pursuing my degree at UMBC.

Anita was admittedly a bit drunk. But what most stuck out to me in the conversation (from what I can remember) is her telling me that I had to do public history if I wanted to make any money the field of history. She basically told me what quite a few people have told me since, that the field had become way too over saturated with Ph.Ds and there was no place to put them. Academic historians were basically a dime a dozen and I shouldn’t count on being secured a job if I went down that path. It really resonated with me. It was really the first time that someone had gotten really real with me about my future in the field and what I was doing right now to prepare for it.  I actually emailed Dr. Ritschel the next day asking if I could switch my concentration. He put me in touch with Dr. Meringolo, and the rest as they say (pun very much intended) is history.

I signed up for Digital Public History in the upcoming Spring semester.

If I’m going to be honest, I had no idea what Public History was. I had gone to NCPHs website and gotten a run down:

“NCPH inspires public engagement with the past and serves the needs of practitioners in putting history to work in the world by building community among historians, expanding professional skills and tools, fostering critical reflection on historical practice, and publicly advocating for history and historians.”

Sounds simple enough, right? What I thought then was that public historians are really the front line of history. They interface directly with the public, rather than secluding themselves in the safety of the ivory tower of the university. Thats really all I thought it was. We talk to the everyday public, and they (academics) talk to other academics or students.

This actually sounded really appealing to me because part of what I was interested in doing with my degree was helping middle class white people to better understand housing disparities in urban and suburban space through the lens of history. Seemed simple enough, and it also seemed to accommodate this mildly activist tinge that I have always felt I needed to express somehow in my professional life.

As I mentioned earlier, I took a bit of a backwards path for the Public History tract at UMBC. I had already taken digital public history, and my internship before taking the intro class. I remember well sitting in the first digital history class last spring and thinking “what the hell are we talking about right?” I don’t think I said a single word the whole class. To be honest, I don’t think I said a single word in the first three classes. I don’t even remember much of those first couple of classes outside of registering my reclaim site and reading a few documents about reconciliation projects like the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

What I do remember very well is how much emphasis, no matter what example or case study we were reading about, was placed on sensitivity and thorough consideration of every variable. That is to to say that we must try to consider every way infinitesimal in which we (the public historian) might not be fully accounting for every perspective that needed to be included, or how we might be being insensitive to the variety of concerns within a community whom we are working with. One similar example from this semester came from the article on Scotts Bluff where there was this really obvious push and pull between how to fit the story of the monument within the schematic of the National Park Service at the Federal level, and how to accommodate the desires for tourism and profits of the local community within that frame work. Barber writes how the “…locals resisted ceding complete control of the site to the government, even as they pursued and profited by the national recognition it had brought them.” (Barber, “Local Places, National Spaces: Public Memory, Community Identity, and Landscape at Scotts Bluff National Monument,” Page 38.) How do you balance this?

It was dizzying to be honest, and it seemed at times a hopeless struggle. The more I thought about, my idealistic desire to educate white suburban homeowners about the policies and profound cultural discourses that had shaped their realities seemed not so easy, or even advisable. At the end of the day, you are always going to piss someone off, or hurt someone else. Throughout it all I remember Dr. M continuously driving home the point that is more than ok to come into your project wanting to interpret for your audience, in fact you need to interpret. Don’t be afraid to have a perspective. But how to do this in a sensitive and throughly considerate way?

So fast forward back to now. Having successfully completed (I hope) 705, I must say that I now have a much more complex understanding of the public history field. One that is honestly still a bit fuzzier than I would like, but thats ok. I’ll come back to that point in a bit.

I do think I’ve learned (if not entirely) many skills. First would be how to tell a story that doesn’t sound overly preachy but also really only leaves the audience one way to understand the point you are trying to make. The final project for this class has brought me a long way from where I was when I started. I do think I picked up a great many nuanced lessons for how to tell a story in a way that balanced not being overtly interpretive but does rely on critical historical thinking.

There are many things I’m still struggling with though. Some of them get fleshed out a bit every week in the lectures, almost by accident. For instance, last class we started talking about maybe public historians should be required to receive instruction akin to social work, or some sort of empathy training. This really resonated with me and also kind of cleared up a misunderstandings I was having. Namely, is there a difference between what public history is generally and what I want to do within public history? Is the umbrella big enough for all our unique endeavors? For one,  I am very much interested in the idea of creating a safe space where ideas and beliefs over complex and controversial issues can be exchanged. It does seem strange to me as historians, especially public ones, we don’t receive some kind of specific training to this end.

Something else we talked about last week also kind of shook me a little bit (not in a bad way). Does there need to be any actual history in public history? This is a thought I have been having on and off throughout the semester, depending on the case study we were talking about. The recent example of the article on Monte Sol where the writer talks about how “Monte Sole has become a “place of memory”… [i]n building a Peace School at this place, we have sought to make its memory more than a monument.” (Baiesi, “Places of Memory as a Tool for Education: The “Peace in Four Voices Summer Camps” at Monte Sole” Page 29.) In this way, the history of place becomes a mere place setting for a discussion that ostensibly has nothing to do with the history of that actual place. So this can be public history too? It seems to me any social worker with a two page brochure on the history of Monte Sol could be qualified to work at this site.

This brings me back to why I’m fuzzy on public history and why I think that is ok. I think the most important thing I have learned is that at this point is to not expect perfection on any project, and to accept that at a certain point you have to just throw your hands up in the face of disillusionment and press forward. Every new experience brings a new challenge which leads to new growth. Public historians have a hard job, especially insofar as they aren’t even sure what their job is actually going to be or what it’s going to entail. Imagine showing up to your first day at work, thinking you are ready to get to it, and realizing “shit…I didn’t train for this. Is this my responsibility?”. We saw a lot of that notion in this weeks readings, which I wrote a good bit about for the discussion blog.

In closing, I will say I am excited to press forward. I still don’t fully know what public history is, or what I want to do within it, but I don’t think I’m at fault for not knowing. It’s an evolving thing that present new difficulties each time and new potential rewards in working through those challenges. After all, we are working with the public and the public is a highly complex, often disparate, undefinable, unclassifiable, sometimes hostile, sometimes jovial, confused, sad, maybe depressed, over-stimulated, medicated, ambitious, idealistic, arbitrary, and altogether frustrating clientele. Perhaps that is what ultimately makes the field of public history such a dubious one to fully define.

All that being said, I’m feeling pretty good with where I’m at and what I came up with for the final project. Furthermore, I must say that I’m glad I went out for a drink that night a year ago. I’m glad I sent the email to Dr. Ritschel the next morning. And I’m glad this semester is over. Now I’m going to go out again to the same bar and have a drink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *