From the News column of the November 2008 issue of Perspectives on History
The NCPH and AASLH Meetings: A Report
Debbie Ann Doyle, November 2008
Editor’s Note: Debbie Ann Doyle, the AHA’s public history coordinator, attended two of the most important meetings of public historians that were held in spring and early fall 2008. We present below her report on the meetings.
National Council on Public History
The National Council on Public History (NCPH) met in Louisville, Kentucky, April 10–13, 2008. The meeting was especially notable for the international scope of the sessions, which focused on the theme “Public Histories of Union and Disunion.”
Numerous sessions at the meeting encouraged an international approach to public history. A session entitled “Globalizing Museums and Public History” explored how museums in the United States might incorporate a global perspective into their interpretation. Kathleen Hulser of the New-York Historical Society noted that museums created to document the lives of the American elite can also interpret the global trade networks that made the nation’s founders wealthy. A well-attended session organized around the Public Historian’s special issue with the theme, “Civic Engagement at Sites of Conscience,” encouraged attendees to think about the international reach and function of public history. The session and journal articles focused on the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, an organization for museums that seek to engage citizens with questions of human rights (www.sitesofconscience.org). Bonita Bennett of the District Six Museum in Cape Town, South Africa (www.districtsix.co.za), described how the museum has preserved stories of a diverse neighborhood that was cleared and razed under apartheid but lives on in the memories of former residents. The museum is also active in seeking restitution for residents who were forcibly removed from their homes. Steve Long of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum of New York described discussion of immigration and fair labor practices through exhibits and programs such as English for Speakers of Other Languages classes for recent immigrants.
Museums in the coalition are committed to inviting the public into conversation and providing a safe place to present multiple perspectives on complex issues. The coalition has member sites in Argentina, Bangladesh, Chile, the Czech Republic, Italy, Russia, Senegal, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Issues addressed include postconflict and postcolonial history, religious conflict, state terrorism, migration history, and the history of poverty and social welfare.
The meeting concluded with a capstone plenary session designed to discuss how the conference theme was addressed in the sessions and in keynote addresses by Edward Linenthal (Indiana Univ.), NCPH President Bill Bryans (Oklahoma State Univ.), and Robert Sutton (chief historian, National Park Service). All three speakers considered the sometimes contentious intersections of memory and myth—what Linenthal called “felt history”—and history as historians understand it. A lively discussion of how public history can negotiate these tensions ensued.
At an awards luncheon on April 11, the NCPH presented its Student Project Award, Graduate Student Travel Awards, New Professional Award, the G. Wesley Johnson Award for the most outstanding article published in the Public Historian in the previous year, and the NCPH Book Award, Outstanding Public History Project Award, and Consultant Award. The names of the recipients and other details are available on the NCPH web site (www.ncph.org).
Approximately 430 historians attended the Louisville meeting, making it the NCPH’s second largest ever, after the 2007 meeting in Santa Fe that had attracted 475 participants.
American Association for State and Local History
The American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) met in Rochester, New York, September 9–13, 2008. Approximately 895 history professionals employed in museums, historical societies, historic houses, state museums, government agencies, and colleges and universities attended the meeting.
The 2008 meeting theme was “Discovering the Power of Transformation,” and change was indeed the focus of discussion and debate at many of the meeting sessions. Speakers engaged audiences in conversations about how museums, historic sites, and cultural agencies can attract new audiences, reach out to a more diverse cross-section of their communities, use new technologies to improve their interpretation and management practices, and respond to a rapidly changing funding environment. For the first time, the AASLH hosted a conference blog (www.learningtimes.net/aaslhblog) that allowed members who could not travel to Rochester to follow the conversation.
Social events and tours encouraged the networking that is a vital part of a successful meeting. A Thursday evening event at the Strong National Museum of Play offered historians the opportunity to hear the Senior Leadership Team describe how the institution refocused its exhibits and research to reach out to families with children and increase visitation. Historians networked while enjoying local food and drink, exploring exhibits of toys and artifacts from the collections of founding donor Margaret Woodbury Strong, riding the carousel, and engaging in some after-dinner dancing. Other tours, which focused on the Underground Railroad, the Seneca people, women’s rights, transportation, and corporate history, also allowed for a productive melding of business with pleasure.
Representatives of museums and historical organizations from around the country attended a packed awards banquet on Friday, September 12 to celebrate the recipients of 63 awards for excellence in exhibits, public programs, and publications. The Albert E. Corey Award for volunteer-operated historical organizations went to the Nahant Historical Society (Massachusetts) for its research and publication on the town’s role in the Civil War. John E. Fleming and E. Alvin Gerhardt received Awards of Distinction for their advocacy for African American history and the value of small museums. Speaker Deborah Hughes of the Susan B. Anthony House invigorated the audience with a discussion of the moral and civic importance of history, concluding, “you hold the keys to the past of your communities, and you hold the lens to the world’s future.”
—Debbie Ann Doyle is the AHA’s public history coordinator.