This week's readings were focused on oral history. Most historians I know light up with joy and excitement when oral history is discussed, and for good reason. However, as my historical interests range too far in the past for oral history to apply, it isn't very helpful to me academically for studying my topics of choice. However, as a public historian, it is important for me to understand its opportunities and limitations.
In his article, When Community Comes Home to Roost: The Southern Milltown as Lost Cause, Leon Fink showed how sometimes, community-based public history/oral history projects can sometimes go far astray from the historian’s intentions and into territory we wholeheartedly condemn. He focused on a case where a couple and their historical organization (the Rumleys’ Cooleemee Historical Association) took the methods and focus of historians on doing history from the bottom up, and used them for heritage and nostalgia rather than history.
Part of his discussion is on the contrast between history and heritage. While heritage’s enthusiastic celebration of the good and neglect of the bad is extremely problematic, and comes at the cost of real history, sometimes I think maybe we should relax and remember good things did happen alongside the bad. Sometimes, it seems like we are only concerned about the bad and neglect the good, at the cost of real history.
In the first few chapters of A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History, Michael Frisch discussed several issues relating to oral history and public history. Though a review of Hard Times (by Studs Terkel), Frisch explored the many dangers and pitfalls of oral history and the way it interacts with public memory. While he admitted Terkel was not trying to write a history, but share memories, he showed how historians could easily fall into traps using oral history if not careful and prepared. He extended a useful warning at the end—when we develop shiny new methods of inquiry and research, it is important to use them critically and carefully. We can embrace them, but with proper analysis first.
In further chapters, Frisch discusses the nature and motivations of public history (and within that, oral history). He is concerned the typical reasons we give for why we do public history are not enough. I agree it is important to consider the why of things, but at the end of the day, most of us got into history in the first place because we are interested in it. I doubt anybody woke up one day and thought, I want to make people explore what it means to remember and how memory and history interact; I’ll go to college and become a historian! And I doubt anyone who isn’t a historian will be persuaded to become one by that line. While I see nothing wrong with deciding to include this as a why of public history work, I think we should still be honest with ourselves and others that we do history in part because it interests us, or at least admit that interest was our initial draw to history.
In the essay, When Subjects Don’t Come Out, Sherrie Tucker discussed her experience conducting oral interviews of band members belonging to all-women jazz ensembles of the big band era. She faced many unique problems trying to get her interviewees to talk about their sexuality, while they cunningly avoided all talk of their sexuality and instead focused on their musicality. She ended up in many ambiguous situations where it was impossible to discern the sexualities of her subjects, as some evidence pointed one way, some the other, and they stick hard and fast to being straight, so much so that it seems excessive. She analyzed the factors which would prompt them to do this in their context (need to appear temperate in order to keep their jobs) and discussed the distress their refusal to admit anything but straightness has caused her in her scholarly research.
While there are plenty of places to go with this reading, I noticed the huge disconnect between what the historian wanted and what her interviewees wanted. Tucker wanted to fit into recent trends in historiography, and presumably has a great interest in studying gender and sexuality. The women wanted to tell the history of their musicality and experiences as swing musicians, just as has been done for their male counterparts. It raises the question: do we owe them that? Should we document that history first, and then the history of their sexuality (given the first has been denied them)? Or can we fairly do both at the same time?
Our final reading was The Oral History Manual by Barbara Sommer and Mary Quinlan. I’ve long since run out of space but, this is similar to some other manual-style readings we’ve done (Serrell) and useful in similar ways.
This week I am discussion leader for class, so my discussion will be twice as long as usual. Our readings were all about preservation.
In The Power of Place, Hayden argued that historic preservation needs to be more diverse and inclusive. She also argued for a need for collaboration and interdisciplinary work.
She began by outlining a public argument between a sociologist and an architect over the state and nature of preservation. She broke down the ways in which their different disciplines result in complete failure of communication—not only do they have different priorities, they also attribute different meanings to the same words (ex. vernacular). This highlights the need for collaboration and understanding between the disciplines (especially in a field like preservation which is so interdisciplinary) and sets the stage for the rest of her book. I think these are valid points, and that we have become more interdisciplinary over time. However, I think we still struggle to compromise or accept other viewpoints when they challenge what we think is important (social history, for example).
Hayden continued by explaining what the power of place is—or what it could be. Although focused on urban places specifically, she argued that a powerful form of memory is preserved in the built environment, and we can use that memory to generate interest in history while promoting respect, diversity, and inclusion by reinforcing common membership in urban American society. She saw preserved places as a space to build shared civic identity, and criticized preservation for only preserving more elite spaces to the detriment of poorer communities (who then lose that shared identity). She suggests we preserve more varied building types (ex. union halls) and implement creative interpretations. I like the idea of building shared civic identity, and I agree the built environment is an excellent place to do it, but it definitely comes in conflict with other historical prerogatives. Viscerally telling the true tale of slavery, for example, would be very divisive and create two very different civic identities. What are we ultimately accountable to: history, or the consequences of the way we tell it? I hope there’s a way we can tell controversial history without the potential negative repercussions for society.
Next she addressed the how of interpretation of places. She advocates community-based public history projects where the academics share authority with the community. One way to do this is via oral history, such as that conducted in the Brass Valley project. She also suggests partnership with artists and environmentalists. She concludes that while community projects come with a difficult set of challenges, they ultimately don’t need to be expensive and they have a broad reach. I am concerned that in areas with new immigrants, this might not work at all. What connection do they have to 1900s buildings other than currently living there?
In Bending the Future, Page and Miller compiled essays from many specialists in preservation or fields relating to it. They provide an overview of responses in their introduction.
At the beginning, the authors highlighted some of the themes they saw in the essays, including a new focus on social justice, the role preservation played in creating current problems and ways to address that, concerns and ideas on how to open, expand, and/or democratize preservation, as well as how to modify or confront existing laws and regulations regarding preservation. I know most historians and preservationists have good intentions, but sometimes we are blind to the current realities of the ground. I worry that sometimes by leaving history and moving into social work we enter an arena we aren’t trained for and because of that our good intentions can easily produce bad results. Then again, I may be wrong, but I’m not sure if we ever stop to think about it.
Other concerns discussed refer back to Hayden’s concerns involving inclusion, grassroots projects, and a worry about the centrality of architecture as a reason for preserving buildings. There is a concern that the demographics of the profession do not reflect the demographics of the public. I’m not sure if it is possible to make the demographics reflective. We can’t force people to be interested in preservation careers—we could offer incentives, but as it is we already lack extra cash. Plus, doesn’t the process of academic training make them elites anyway?
They also discuss some interesting and unique proposals. One suggests a system of rotational preservation: a city completely preserves certain sections for an amount of time, then rotates those sections to allow demolition and construction. Creative, but no one would allow a system that permits destruction of places like Independence Hall. It does raise the issue of when we should let buildings die. Another radical idea suggests we take the power of demolition away from property owners and require them to obtain government permission first. I hope this is just an exercise in being provocative; otherwise, it seems very dangerous to the economy, and to preservation—a fear of buying property might result in a retreat from cities. Buildings which might have been reused or even just maintained, without owners, fall into disrepair.
Much like Hayden’s, Hurley’s work, Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities recounts his inner city public history projects, and agues for community-based, inclusive preservation work. While very similar to Hayden in his initial arguments, Hurley introduced the idea of pubic archaeology as another tool (alongside oral history etc). He also placed priorities on inner cities, but his wording brought up another issue: what about suburbs? Levittowns, for example, had a major impact on the development of the middle class and suburbia. Should they be preserved?
Hurley cited College Hill in Providence and Georgetown in Washington DC (p7) as places where preservation ordinances caused gentrification. I doubt they could be the sole cause for this change. As he mentions in the case of Georgetown, the old houses were going to be demolished instead of restored. Gentrification was going to happen anyway; at least we saved some buildings.
What I found most interesting about these readings is they were all published across a 20 year timespan, yet they all raise similar issues. Is preservation now a static field?
So this week we worked on drafts for our labels for the Independence Seaport Museum. It's by no means perfect, but here's mine so far:
Imagine standing in mud, soaked from head to toe, fingers numb from cold, hungry enough to eat rats, while artillery shells scream overhead. To top it off, boredom has set in. This was life for many soldiers. How did they cope? Humor.
Humor in WWI was often spread in soldier newspapers, such as the British The Wipers Times. There was extensive use of satire, irony, and gallows humor, all which served to lighten the mood, relieve stress, and build solidarity among soldiers through common experiences. On the Olympia, Keck drew several humorous cartoons. Olympians no doubt joked around regularly.
My typical writing process for papers obviously wasn't going to work here, so I was at a bit of a loss how to start. I first wrote a simple label, which I since completely trashed. However, writing that gave me a sense of the key ideas I wanted to articulate--and from there, I started on this draft. I thought back to Serrell and decided to engage the reader with their imagination, to draw them in. I drew on my own experiences of being miserable and knowledge of trench warfare to craft a scenario of misery, then reworded it several times to condense it and streamline it. After that, I took the key ideas I wanted to express and smashed them into the most concise yet readable and understandable sentence I could, then finished by bringing it back to the Olympia. This section I also edited several times.
Since I only have 100 words, I'm hoping readers can decipher the satire of a trench newspaper called The Wipers Times. I also wanted to engage modern soldier humor, such as that found on Duffel Blog (basically a modern Wipers Times for the US military) and in military memes found on Instagram and Facebook. However, I decided both of these were less crucial to my label and thus excluded them.
This week's reading was Creating Exhibitions: Collaboration in the Planning, Development, and Design of Innovative Experiences by Polly McKenna-Cress and Janet A Kamien. The work discusses how to create an exhibit, from start to finish. As the title suggests, it highlights collaboration as a tool and force multiplier which, when used correctly, results in epic exhibits. The book begins by discussing the need for, advantages, and pitfalls of collaboration, and the essentials to good collaboration (including self-evident things such as trust, mutual respect, commonly agreed on goals, &c). The authors divide the team undertaking this process into several advocacies (citing the difficulty and unsuitability of using job titles). These include the advocate for the institution (the client), the advocate for subject matter (ex. a curator), the advocate for the visitor (ex. a developer or planner), the advocate for design (ex. exhibit design team), and the advocate for the project and team (ex. project manager). The succeeding chapters go into each advocacy in detail, then the book ends with discourses on process. The book argues that for consensus to work, everyone on the team must know their roles as advocates and how all the roles fit together.
In terms of tone, the book (first part especially) reads like the typical business leadership book, even referring to visitors (quite rightly) as customers--an easy parallel to consumers. I have no problem with this. Part of being interdisciplinary can certainly mean adopting some of the methods of successful businesses, right? However, some of the language of the book seemed overly dramatic. The beginning suggested that museums have a unknown future, in a way suggesting they might be headed for extinction. Whatever happens I don't think it will come to that. As the book goes on, there are several references to museums' survival being at stake. I'm not sure what the point of this was but it first took me by surprise, and then became almost comical. The book, like Exhibit Labels, also brings in outside experts and examples. Many of them are from Philly (the Independence Seaport Museum and Franklin Institute make many appearances). Overall, most of the book rang true to me and to my experiences with teamwork and leadership outside the public history world (except obviously the museum-specific content).
There were no readings for this week, hence the title. So, I will talk about other projects for class instead.
First, we are writing some labels for the Independence Seaport Museum (ISM). The focus is on the ship USS Olympia. My label is on the way soldiers used humor to cope with hard situations. To that end, I've done some preliminary research on soldiers and humor (specifically referring to WWI, the era of the USS Olympia we are focusing on). I have found one thing: the best way to take the fun out of humor is to read a scholarly article on it. Hopefully my finished label will be better than that.
I was able to uncover the story of soldiers' newspapers, which often contained humorous stories or cartoons (especially in the British case). Also, ISM's collection contains some humorous cartoons (drawn by a seaman on the Olympia), which provide some insight and could be displayed alongside my label.
Besides this, we are also doing the pre-planning for a Philadelphia project on the Spanish Influenza for its 100th anniversary (which I mentioned in a previous post). For this, I will be contacting Haverford and Villanova, as well as the Philadelphia History Museum, in order to find collections and objects we can use for interpretation.
Which brings me to the reason we didn't have readings this week: Mireya Loza came to Temple to give a talk on her work on the Bracero program, and we went to it as a class. What I found most interesting about it was her perspective as a former academic historian who became a public historian. She had recently entered public history work, and commented on the vast differences, mostly noting necessary teamwork as well as the limited resources. I also like the way she took an unconventional approach to her book, starting with the oral histories then moving to the archive. I think, as a method, it is valuable as it could help avoid moving towards pre-chosen conclusions (by selection bias in the archive), especially as she noted the surprising things the braceros told her which redirected her research to new and more innovative directions (such as the ability to redefine heritage [from indigenous to mestizo] or the bracero view of the Mexican government being as responsible for exploitation as the American growers). As far as public history goes, I think the practice of conducting oral histories is in itself a form of historical outreach, and also a powerful tool when used to educate the succeeding generations.