Saturday, May 12, 2012

Interpretation, Commemoration, and the Future of History Museums - NCPH 2012

My original intention was to spend each evening at the conference in Milwaukee blogging about that days experience - what I was learning, and who I had met.  Little did I know that days filled with sessions and tours, and evenings busy networking and socializing would leave very little time for sleep - let alone blogging!  Since returning home life has been busy as well - the end of the semester, starting an internship, planning for a move - but there is still much I want to discuss about the NCPH conference.  Better late than never!

I intend to break my discussion into three posts, with the hope that none of them will be too long.  This is because I feel there were different aspects of the conference, all with different things to offer.  Today I start with a discussion of three of the "traditional" sessions I attended at the NCPH/OAH annual meeting.  Not really a summary of the presentations, I'm going to talk more about my overall impressions, and the lessons I brought home with me from Milwaukee.

Lessons Learned in Researching, Preserving, and Interpreting Women's History at Historic Sites
Those of you who know my public history background, know that I got into the field because of my interest in interpretation.  It was positive experiences with excellent interpreters at historic sites that got me interested in working in history to begin with.  I was excited to hear what the participants in this session would have to share.

What stuck with me most from this session is what Heather Huyck, of the National Collaborative for Women's History Sites, said - rather than just asking "were women there?" assume women were there (wherever "there" might be for each site), and then tell their stories.  Don't limit yourself to specific and significant contributions, think about what the experience of the women would have been at a particular site.

This reminded me how important it is to think outside the box when it comes to interpretation.  Places have so many different stories to tell, we can often get stuck in a rut of what has always been done, or even what people expect to hear.  

Pam Sanfilippo, of the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, talked about how visitors are often surprised to find how little time is spent discussing the Civil War or Grant's presidency at the Grant's family home, White Haven.  But as she pointed out, it is not the White House, and it is not a battlefield.  White Haven belonged to Julia Dent Grant's family before being passed on to the Grant's.  This makes it an ideal location to tell the First Lady's story, along with interpretations of the Grant's courtship and lives after the presidency, which took place at White Haven.  People are even more surprised to hear about the slaves that worked at the estate.  

Chances are there is women's history to be told at every historic site, the key to find that story, and interpret it well.

State of the Field: The Present and Future of History Museums
Being someone who is just an internship away from graduating with a MA in public history, I was anxious to hear what those in the field felt was the future for history museums.  Though there are many directions I could go in the area of public history, I have always pictured myself working in a history museum after graduation.

This was one of those sessions that left me feeling energized and exhausted afterward.  One of the common themes seemed to be that history museums need to shake the (mis)conception that they are static institutions. (Unless you are static - then you need to evolve into something more active and engaging to survive....)  Phrases like "shared authority," "advocacy and civic engagement," "fair conversation moderator," and "demystification of the history process" were abundant in the presentations and discussion.  

It is no secret that non-profit organizations have been hit hard in the economy, and it is essential to reach out to new demographics without alienating those that are currently attending museums.  New technology and interpretation can give visitors a greater control over their experience, but how to do that in ways that don't completely loose the structure that attracts some visitors.  Shared authority with communities is a great way to get people involved in a history institution, but it is a fine line to walk without completely giving away all authority. 

War of 1812 in History and Memory
I was SO disappointed to have to leave the discussion portion of this presentation a bit early to set up our poster.  I knew this was a session I couldn't miss, as the poster we were setting up was about the War of 1812.  It has been interesting researching and commemorating the War of 1812 in Canada, where there is quite a bit going on - as an American, where in the States 1812 is often referred to as "the forgotten war."  In fact, you only had to flip through the conference program to realize that.  I think I counted 8 sessions with the US Civil War (150th anniversary) in the title and maybe 2 that mentioned 1812.

Historical memory is something that is constantly being created, and that is clear in the way that we choose to commemorate conflict.  There are challenges to commemorating a war, particularly a war where there are no clear winners - and where the First Nations, who are often unrepresented in the conflict, are clearly the ones who lost.  It seems to me that the War of 1812 would be the perfect opportunity for international collaboration when it comes to commemoration, especially since there has been peace at the border ever since the end of the war in 1814.  Instead you see the war being represented in entirely different ways on either side of the border (with the occasional exception of projects like this one.)

Perhaps because there were so few sessions devoted to 1812, the post-presentation discussion was a lively one (made even more so by the lights in the room accidentally being turned off at a particularly entertaining moment!)  It was just the energetic send off Laura, Adriana, and I needed to prep ourselves to talk about our own 1812 commemoration project.

Stay tuned for more of my impressions from the NCPH/OAH Annual Meeting.  I'll be discussing some of the "non-traditional" sessions I attended, and other networking opportunities!

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