Multiculturalism Needs to Work: Public Historians of Color

During my oral exam (the final step in completing my Masters program), my adviser/program director asked me: “Do you think it matters that you’re an African-American public historian?” Before he could barely ask the question I knew where he was going and it had been something in the back of my mind for nearly a year by that time. In an explosion of anticipation, I quickly and loudly said “Yes!” I had a lot to say on the subject. Well that already seems like it was long ago and now I’m officially done with my Masters degree in public history.

Today, public history tends to be sensitive to those it serves and their diversity. Attempts to be inclusive seem to increase every year. During my studies, I learned about indigenous curation which applies the source culture’s reverence and attitude to their objects in museums. In other words: Hidatsa ritual objects might be conserved and interpreted in a way that allows for Hidatsa tribal members to provide their input and cultural tradition. It’s all part of the process of sharing authority and it is a thoughtful idea. Yet, I wonder what is the next step in indigenous curation? How about curators who are indigenous?

I’ll use the term “people of color” here because it best represents the communities I’m talking about; whether they be Asian, Latino, black or identify otherwise. The shift in the 1960s and 1970s towards social history, cultural history, and public history are praiseworthy but there is still a relatively small number of historians of color. The number of and dialogue about professional public historians of color is, by all appearances, miniscule. Historian Miguel Juarez in his article The Invisible Careers for Latinos: Public History and Museum Studies remarks on the subject: “Scholarship of our communities shouldn’t necessarily come from academe. We must not wait for institutions to affirm our history as important and worth collecting, processing, preserving, and presenting.”

No doubt, people of color are involved in public history whether it be as a museum visitor, docents or historic interpreters (NCPH’s recent issue of Public Historian about slavery and public history highlights this) or as non-professional operators of small ethnic historical societies. Public historians of color are needed for their varied perspectives, voices, experiences, and concerns. Furthermore, this does not mean public historians of color should only “represent” their race, ethnicity, or tribal affiliation. In my oral exam, my adviser asked me about this issue as well. Since I began my college career, one my interests is Latino immigration in American history. Should I, as a black person, feel out of place working at a museum focused the Latino experience in the US? Absolutely not! While my opinions and historical interpretation likely would differentiate from someone from a Latino community, my professional input stands.

In fact, I interned last year at the National Hellenic Museum working to promote knowledge of Greek and Greek American history. It was an enjoyable learning experience for me (some visitors asked if I was Greek which threw me off at first). Nonetheless, having a black person tell you about the significance of Greek history is representative of the goals of multiculturalism in the museum. If “their” history can be important to me then it can signal to museum visitors that it might be important to them, even if they aren’t Greek. It works both ways and every other way. We should explore what it means to have a Mexican American public historian creating interpretive labels for an exhibit on the Harlem Renaissance or a Korean American curator over a collection of Native American traditional art. Is it any different than the current situation: mostly white public historians interpreting, conserving, curating, and presenting the histories and artifacts of cultures they aren’t part of?

The obstacles and possible solutions to encourage the increase in public historians of color deserves its own discussion. Hopefully, I and others can address it in the near future.

Another One Bites the Dust

Approximately five days ago I realized that this would be my last week of graduate classes. It crept up on me and now its a little bittersweet. Am I really getting sentimental about what could easily be described as voluntary intellectual and emotional torment? Who knows?

Anyway, like I said this is my last week of classes and my last blog post related to my Public History and New Media class. It’s been a  journey, for sure, and an experience in quick paced learning. I can safely say that the majority of the things I learned in this class were new to me, a person who still feels sometimes like a tech novice for my age group.

Never thought I’d ever learn anything about HTML beyond my Myspace days and what do you know? I did, thanks to Dr. Roberts and Codeacademy. Dare I say I even liked it a little and I made this through my HTML skills: Image

The simple joys in life.

I learned many other skills that are important in the job market an public history world these days. I’ve been able to dabble in in Photoshop, get acquainted with Omeka (an open source system for online collections), and be bogged down by the basics of copyright law. Frankly, I might be a little lost, when it comes to newest trends in new media, if it wasn’t for this class. I didn’t even know what Creative Commons was. I even had the privilege of working with my group (Chelsea and Emily) on an artifact video for Loyola University Museum of Art that Ken Burns would be proud of. Furthermore, thanks to this class I finally gave in and created a professional Twitter and this wouldn’t be a successful blog post if i didn’t promote it here.

Critiquing “A More Perfect Union”

I’m not new to Smithsonian’s online exhibit and I did a brief review of their exhibit Cover Art a few weeks ago. This week I checked out a older online exhibit from Smithsonian Institute titled A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans & U.S. Constitution.

I chose this exhibit because since the beginning of my college career I have been interested in immigration to the United States. I’ve typically been interested in Latino immigration to the US in the 20th century (particularly Mexican) and Chinese immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries. I was interested in how A More Perfect Union to see how it dealt with the less than positive or comfortable experiences of Japanese immigrants. The exhibit originally toured from 1995 – 1998 but made a return because the institute felt that after the September 11th attacks that the story still had resonance, and that is absolutely true.

A More Perfect Union

The online exhibit roughly covers the period from 1900 to 1980 and covers the experiences farming, forming communities, businesses, racism/xenophobia, removal to internment camps, and the aftermath. The exhibit is focused on how informal prejudice became institutionalized racism. It is a touchy subject that hasn’t always been something that Japanese Americans themselves have wanted to discuss. The overall exhibit provides a well rounded breadth of featured artifacts which users can click on and see larger with description. The overall exhibit has a soundtrack that I eventually turned off because I found it a little irritating but I can understand how it could be used to create atmosphere (important considering this is an online exhibit). I enjoyed the audio clips that you could listen to for introductory text and the oral history accounts which literally allow for people to speak for themselves.

There is a need for a few adjustments and a more updated appearance. My first issue was the visual size of the exhibit, the presentation does into take up the whole web page space which makes the images and text a bit small. I do enjoy the ability for the user to decide on their own pace and could choose what subject to explore. Otherwise, A More Perfect Union has a predetermined path for visitors. I enjoyed enlarging photos of artifacts but I would suggest that the accompanying text provide more context on how some artifacts are connected to the subject. For instance, there are advertisements from fruit companies and a person would have to assume these were companies that many Japanese immigrants worked for. A bit more context and visual updating could help with this exhibit that I think discusses a facet of immigration to the US that doesn’t get as much coverage some other immigration experiences (for example: Italian, Irish, etc.). I would love to see the exhibit refashioned while still featuring many of the intriguing artifacts and stories. It would also be nice to be able to hear more oral testimonies. My final praise for the exhibit is the provided space for visitors to provide reflections and personal stories; this is one of the most valuable contributions of the site.

This site is most appropriate for any visitor age 12+ and it would also be great for use in educational settings.

Web of Stories

I’ve already discussed new media and Web 2.0 a little bit here; it is the contemporary version of the internet that is more participatory and user-generated. As usually, the internet has a way of taking on older traditional means of communication and social interaction and making them digital and dynamic. This is no different when to comes to storytelling which is surely one of the oldest forms of communal entertainment. From tall tales to the “back in my day” stories, people have always been interested in each others’ experiences or imaginations.

Author Bryan Alexander’s book The New Digital Storytelling: Creating Narratives with New Media explores what are the current relationships between new media and storytelling. In the fourth chapter of his book, “Web 2.0 Storytelling”, he discusses blogs, Twitter, wikis (which are web applications which allow for users to collaborate and create content), Facebook, and “social images” (images that might be on the image-based website like Flickr, for instance). Each of these sites or applications allow for people to create stories or narratives and for people to not only share them but perhaps comment on or adapt them. While I’m not completely sold on Alexander’s belief that Twitter can be a place of storytelling, I suppose it is possible to grasp a story from the short vain messages that make up the site. I’m more convinced by things like blogs (perhaps I am slightly textually biased) but I’m even more certain that images can tell as much of a story as a “tweet”, if not more. Of course, many images have led many people astray, and we all know the fantasy world of computer edited images.

Of course, digital storytelling can be a useful tool in the museum for exhibitions and museum education. Freeman Tilden said that interpretation is “not instruction but provocation”. Interpretation in the museum setting means sharing a narrative to demonstrate meaning, significance, and feeling. In other words, I can hand you a list of factual of historic dates or can I tell you an account from history. One historical story is told on Flickr through the creation of edited photos that are historic World War II images merged with the same location in contemporary times called Ghosts of War. I enjoy many of the images because the creator goal is to show that “history is all around us”. The creator has adapted images to tell another story of change over time while making audiences see locations in a different way. Check out this one depicting a SS recruitment office from the war era merged with a current image of a diverse Amsterdam:

Ghosts of war

Digital Collaboration

Over spring break, in my Public History and New Media course we had a short project that involved reinventing the Glessner House’s website. Glessner House is a historic home in the Prairie Avenue area of Chicago. We were tasked with doing an updated and more functional version of the website on a platform that that was free. My group and I, at my suggestion (I use the site for my own freelance makeup artistry site), decided to use Wix to create a website using Glessner House’s texts and photos (are site isn’t live or used by Glessner House). As always there were some obstacles and positives to doing group work. The challenges of doing a project over the internet is a bit different than working on projects in-person at your job or internship, for instance. I believe collaborating over the internet on projects is growing in popularity everyday and most college students to day are familiar with working on projects in which they rarely meet with one another. Here are some of the pros and cons that we faced:

Pro #1: We didn’t have to arrange to meet.

While there is nothing wrong with meeting in person and indeed it is important, collaborating digitally allowed for us to not have to make time in our schedule over spring break. We agreed at the project’s start who would be responsible for what and then we had some freedom to access Wix and work on our own schedule.

Con #1: Consistency

While we trusted our group members’ judgement, which is vital to teamwork, it is sometimes difficult to make sure that consistency is maintained across the project when people aren’t meeting. When we used Wix we could access the site and see what everyone had done but for me it’s the little details of consistency (especially for something like a website) that is important. Are the font styles and sizes consistent? Is the depth of information balanced?

Pro #2: Teamwork means more creativity.

As with any kind of teamwork on a project, the benefit of more than one person working a project allows for more creativity. Because of a diversity of opinions sometimes is the cause of disagreement but it can also be a means of creative problem solving. If one of us doesn’t know how to fix a problem maybe someone esle does. In other words, we can support each other in the creation process.

Geeking Out Over Break

This week I am enjoying my brief spring break. While I might be taking a short break from school that doesn’t mean that I’ve taken a break from history. Here are three history-based interests that I’ve been interested in this week.

1. American Cool at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery
Recently, while doing a job search (scary!), I happened across the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery website. They now have an exhibit American Cool, which runs from February 7 to September 7, 2014, which chronicles the origins and generational changes in the concept of being “cool” through the medium of portraiture. You may say: “What does the Smithsonian know about ‘cool’?” But I think they have a concise definition on their website: “To be cool means to exude the aura of something new and uncontainable. Cool is the opposite of innocence or virtue. Someone cool has a charismatic edge and a dark side. Cool is an earned form of individuality.” Seems like a….”cool” definition. The exhibition features portraits of Americans from Frederick Douglass to Fred Astaire, Billie Holiday to Marvin Gaye, Debbie Harry, and Prince. The full exhibition list mostly includes entertainers and a racially mixed grouping (the list has a hefty amount of portraits of African Americans and Bruce Lee is the exhibit’s only Asian person in the group). This is exciting, right? Each set of portraits is arranged by generation and I’m sure docent-led tours would provide a great learning experience. Oh and just in case you don’t think two curators got the exhibit of 100 coolest Americans right there is also alternate list and a comment book at the exhibit. I think I will have to get myself to Washington D.C. this summer. Check out the website’s page here.

Marlon Brando, Philippe Halsman, 1950. Photo: © Philippe Halsman Archive

2. Cover Art: The Time Collection at the National Portrait Gallery

Until I can make it to the National Portrait Gallery, I also noticed an online exhibit they have that features Time magazine covers with selections spanning from 1923 to the 1970s. In 1978, Time donated 800 pieces of cover art to the National Portrait Gallery and now the collection has expanded to 2,000 pieces. Cover Art focuses on some of the notable personalities and artwork featured by the magazine. I enjoyed the straightforward and visually stimulating presentation. The online exhibit has an introduction and after that viewers can pick cover artwork to learn more about. Some selections even have audio to accompany interpretation including the cover art depecting Marie Callas, Albert Einstein, and Martin Luther King Jr. If viewers are looking for a thematic grouping of images Cover Art features five themes such as “Man of the Year” (which does feature or discuss two notable female exceptions) and “Civil Rights”. Check it out here.

Ok, there is more than two history-based things I’ve been looking at this spring break.

Credit: History Channel

Call it a guilty pleasure but I don’t feel guilty. I am obsessed and deeply invested in the History Channel series Vikings . Yes, I know there are many historians’ critiques of History Channel (or just “History” as they call themselves today) and their abandonment of history content on television. I agree with those critiques especially as someone raised on their earlier days of history documentaries. History does however sponsor history related institutions and organizations. Vikings is about the legendary Ragnar Lothbrook, his wife shield maiden Lagertha, and his fictional brother Rollo and a few other main characters. I know Vikings has its own historical inaccuracies and I simply don’t care. Yep, I said it. Unfortunately, the intricacies of history cannot be totally recreated on television or film, heck historians can’t recreate the past. That being said, the show seems to be a entertaining effort but I’m no Scandinavian history expert. However, I do think that the show is attempting to depict the Viking people in a different and more realistic way while also accommodating some audience expectations of Vikings as well as incorporating Norse sagas or epics. That’s a job and a half. The show is also trying to explore Norse religion and Christianity of the period. I appreciate the magic realism, Travis Fimmel’s blue eyes, and the character Lagertha’s awesomeness. Give it a try.

Feel free to share in my spring break history geek moments.

History (and Resources) Matters

Since the seventh grade I was convinced that I had decided on my dream career. I was going to be a history teacher. Wouldn’t you know that some people discouraged me from it? In high school I was told that I was too shy, I wouldn’t be paid enough, and that kids were”too bad” these days. Despite, some of society’s current hangups about teachers I thought it was one of the most noble professions and I still do. My junior year of college I changed my mind about pursuing secondary education as a minor because I had some serious problems with my college’s curriculum and advising. By senior year I was intern at Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and I was in love with this new thing called “museum education”. Now, here I am.

In my opinion, public history is very much about education and many times that means reaching teachers and students. More museums are hoping to bridge the gap between schools and their institutions. Museums aren’t the only ones trying to build communities that involve historical inquiry and students of all ages. The web is fully of many things and some of those “things” can be extremely profitable to teaching history in and outside the classroom. Daniel L. Cohen and Roy Rosenweig call the collection of history-based websites online “the history web”.

HistoryMatters

One of my favorite history based websites is History Matters:the US Survey Course on the Web. History Matters is a resource website for teachers and students (high school and college). It was created in 1998 by Pennee Bender, Joshua Brown, Roy Rosenzweig (imagine that) and is part of the George Mason University website. The website is a great example of useful materials including: 1,000 primary resources, syllabi, forums, reviewed and annotated history websites, and much more. Two of my favorite features of History Matters is their Digital Blackboard and Students as Historians sections. Digital Blackboard is a listing of links and descriptions of web-based assignments for students. It includes topics from Immigration to Watergate. Students as Historians is a resource list of students history projects. Some of the projects are student articles online or are projects that involve making informational websites. While the website isn’t particularly visually intriguing but it is straightforward and updated (something that isn’t always remembered). Any history teacher, professor, or museum educator can find something of value from this website.