Publication Date

October 1, 2017

Historians frequently use their expertise to provide much-needed historical context and analysis of issues important to the public. While some do interviews with the media and write op-eds, historians engage with the public in other venues, too—museums and historic sites, government agencies, and school board meetings, among others. At the 2018 annual meeting in Washington, DC, scholars from across the discipline will explore the many ways historians participate in, as well as shape, public conversations about the past.

Not surprisingly, given contemporary debates and the meeting’s theme, “Race, Ethnicity, and Nationalism in Global Perspective,” multiple sessions will focus on race and American identity. The Struggle to Commemorate Reconstruction in National Parks will address responsible ways of presenting history in public spaces. Since 2000, historians have worked with former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt and the National Park Service to tell the story of Reconstruction in a national park. In January 2017, President Barack Obama issued a proclamation creating a national monument dedicated to telling the story of Reconstruction through the history of Beaufort County, South Carolina. This roundtable will bring together leading figures in the Beaufort initiative to discuss what historians interested in public memory and park sites can learn from their efforts.

Nearly a year into operation, lines outside the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture are just as long as they were on opening day, and tickets to the museum remain a hot commodity in DC. In the session A People’s Journey: Exploring African American Experiences in a National Museum on a World Stage, members of the museum’s curatorial department will detail how they developed the museum’s stories and collections to explore race in a national and international context.

Two related sessions consider how presidential plantations address the topic of slavery: Returning the Landscape of Slavery to Presidential Plantations and Public History and Public Memory: Talking about Slavery at Presidential Plantations. Staff from George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Jefferson’s Monticello, and Madison’s Montpelier will discuss how each organization originally approached the presentation of slavery, how their strategies have changed over time, and how they’ve each dealt with hero-worship at founding-era sites. The AHA encourages interested members to visit the sites themselves, as all are within driving distance of DC.

The AHA weighs in on debates about the past when called upon, as when we backed scholars of Chicana/o history who called attention to serious flaws in a textbook on Mexican American history being considered by the Texas State Board of Education. Partly as a result of historians’ efforts, the textbook was rejected for classroom use. The Culture Wars of the Texas K–12 Schoolbooks will document the themes that have emerged from the ongoing fight to ensure that Chicana/o history is taught in a fair and accurate manner.

Public engagement is vital as the global community continues to reevaluate the importance of history to contemporary politics.

The National Park Service’s LGBTQ America Theme Study: A Roundtable and Queering the Museum: New Directions in Curating LGBTQ History and Art Exhibitions will explore how historians have shaped the interpretation of LGBTQ history through historic preservation and museum exhibits. Nicholas Syrett (Univ. of Kansas), co-chair of the Committee on LGBT History, an AHA affiliate, will moderate a conversation with four historians who consulted on and wrote chapters for the National Park Service’s 2016 theme study documenting LGBTQ history in the United States. The study was designed to identify landmarks of America’s queer past that have already been preserved and start conversations about what other sites might be commemorated. The second session will focus specifically on the representation of LGBTQ histories and communities in museum exhibitions.

Other sessions will focus on how public debates play out on college and university campuses. In Free Speech on Campus, historians, deans, and university presidents will discuss navigating campus controversies over free speech. Public History in Contentious Times: The Crowdsourced Syllabus will bring together the co-curators of four crowdsourced syllabi developed to provide historical context to current events: the Trump Syllabus 2.0, the Immigration Syllabus, the Standing Rock Syllabus, and the New Fascism Syllabus. They will discuss the processes by which they created the syllabi and their impact, as well as limitations inherent in the format.

Although many historians relish commenting on contemporary politics, Moshik Temkin (Harvard Univ.), in a recent New York Times op-ed titled “Historians Shouldn’t Be Pundits,” argued that historians should exercise more caution when it comes to public engagement. Temkin will join fellow historians with multiple perspectives on the issue in Commentary, Not Punditry: Historians, Politics, and the Media, a roundtable session.

Other sessions on the program will explore historians’ contributions to public conversations surrounding foreign policy, national identity, politics, the environment, and the role of the humanities in the 21st century. There will be sessions featuring historians who’ve been active through social media as well as others who write popular history or hold careers in public policy. Public engagement is vital as the global community continues to reevaluate the importance of history to contemporary politics. The annual meeting will bring historians together to discuss many ways to be part of that conversation.

Joe Gardella is meetings and executive assistant at the AHA.


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