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.

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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.

So Long, Farewell…

As of last Wednesday, my internship with the Field Museum is over. I’m grateful for the opportunities and experiences I had while working there. I really got to see some neighborhoods of Chicago in a new way. I’ve been to the South Chicago and East Side, for instance, and have traveled as far as Porter, Indiana. I wasn’t aware of how involved the Field Museum is involved in conservation within the Chicagoland and Calumet region. My internship has educated me more to the connections that can exist between large museums, historic preservation and environmental conservation.

So what’s next? Classes start for me again for my second and last year of my Master’s degree (yay!). This semester I’ll also be entering another internship, more details on that soon. I also will be a co-mentor to an undergraduate class who is working on an exhibit that will be featured at Loyola’s library (formally the Karlchek Information Commons). Expect to see more posts from me next month and possible a blog name change. This isn’t really goodbye, its auf wierdersehen.

Heritage v. History

Material culture, landscape, memory, Section 106, shared authority, meta narrative, and Michael Frisch; all of these words have a special meaning for public historians (and words I also hear entirely too much between the months of September and May). Heritage is also one of those words. Despite the hefty amount that heritage has been thrown about in my grad program and at my internship, it can get a bit difficult to explain to others (especially those not in the field) what heritage means.  One of my supervisors at the Field Museum, who is an anthropologist, tells my fellow interns and I to capture different communities’ “performance of heritage”. I finally have a clearer understanding;  I have a firm idea about what heritage is and is not.

What Heritage Is

Heritage can simplistically be explained as something that is inherited or, in an even more basic definition, tradition. In the context of public history, anthropology or sociology, heritage (in less delicate terms) can be stuff people do because someone else they were related to used to do it or places that our of value because an ancestor once valued it.  Heritage is traditional practices, places, natural landscapes and even what we eat; we have cultural, intangible (language, folklore, etc.), natural, and food heritage. Its all about keeping an inheritance alive and passing it from one generation to the next as a means of identity, meaning-making, and community. Once you realize that heritage is dependent on being passed along and maintained by descendents then it is not hard to understand that heritage and conservation are best pals. Sacred meeting places, a unique language, and a recipe passed from your great-grandmother, are all performances of the past.

What Heritage Isn’t/History Steps In

History while different from heritage still seeks to understand it and preserve it, especially in the case of public history. The most distinct difference between the two is that history is more about evidence from the past and its analysis. While history has given many a historian “the warm fussies” (a technical term), it seems heritage is more about feeling and less about facts. Historians are going to tell you about the significant events of the American Civil War: data, why the Confederacy left the Union, what Abraham Lincoln’s presidency was like and so on. While Southern heritage, for example, passes on to a Southerner memories of Vicksburg, songs about the former glory of Dixie or maybe a inherited recipe from a slave past. History can get complex but heritage can get downright messy; some historians are not so fond of heritage for the issues and intentional silences it can create. History, if presented in a reasonably balanced manner, can be accessible to a diverse audience while certain expressions of heritage many times are specific to a particular group.

In summary, heritage is about inherited practiced culture,place and community. while history is a method of recounting and understanding the past.  In my opinion, history and heritage should have a relationship to one another since one can benefit the other and provide different modes of viewing the same past. Since heritage is what is purposely conserved it helps historians and social scientists understand what groups choose to remember, memorialize, and promote while simultaneously telling us what would rather be forgotten.

Hot Dog, I’ve Got an Internship!

Today was my internship orientation and official first day at the Field Museum. Overall, the day went really well  (after my mad dash for the Metra train this morning) and I’m looking forward to what’s to come. Plus, who can be mad at the great views from Museum Campus of the lake and Lakeshore Drive?

So what will I be doing this summer? Well, without drowning you in the details (okay I’m still getting a grasp of it too) I’ll sum up the projects I’ll be working on.  The largest and overarching project I’ll be focusing on, along with fellow interns and staff from the The Action Center/Environment, Culture, and Conservation Center, is research for the proposed Calumet Heritage Corridor. Heritage corridors or areas are large geographical areas that have multiple historical, cultural, and environmental assets; their designation comes from the National Park Service. The Field Museum and partners such as the Calumet Stewardship Initiative are working to increase environmental stewardship in a large area stretching from southeastern Chicagoland to northwest Indiana. The Calumet region has a number of notable features from its ethnic communities to its industrial history (which has periodically been detrimental in the community as well). I’ll be working on research of that region through participant observation and interviews. Learn more here: http://www.calumetstewardship.org/

That research, combined with other inquiries into the diverse urban communities of Chicago, will also be used to build what the Field is calling their Contemporary Urban Collection. The collection will attempt to lead ethnological collections towards an examination of modern urban people, not just indigenous peoples. Read more about that here: http://fieldmuseum.org/explore/department/ecco/contemporary-urban-collections

And did I mention my supervisor bought my fellow interns and I each a hot dog for lunch? And not any hot dog, of course a Chicago-style hot dog. Be jealous.