Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Speed Networking, Poster Session, and a Tour of Tavern Culture - NCPH 2012

Previously I wrote about some of the more "traditional" sessions I attended at the OAH/NCPH Annual Meeting.  But of the coolest things about NCPH 2012 is the number of "non-traditional" sessions that they offer.  This can be anything from ThatCamp, to working groups, to local tours.  I had the opportunity to attend and participate in a few of these sessions, and I found that they really enriched my annual meeting experience.
Speed Networking
Since I first read about NCPH 2012, I knew I wanted to participate in the Speed Networking session.  Though it was free to attend (some workshops/tours have an additional cost at the meeting) spaces were limited, so I signed up for my spot as soon as I registered.  As described in the meeting program, this session was a professional twist on "speed dating."  There were about 35 experts representing various public history fields, such as museums, historic sites, historic preservation, government, education, and consulting.  Each of the experts was seated at a small table with their name, position, and institution listed.  The grad students or new professionals participating could chose someone to sit with, and we had fifteen minutes to introduce ourselves, ask questions, exchange ideas, whatever was on our mind as people entering the public history field.  We had five of these fifteen minute sessions, and were encouraged to talk to people in several different areas.

I came to the session armed with a stack of business cards, and a handful of questions in my mind.  I was experiencing an equal mix of excitement and nervousness, but fortunately I'm outgoing enough that I was confident I could keep a conversation going for at least fifteen minutes!  I was surprised by the differences between each of the meetings I had.  Some of the experts asked me a lot of questions, and I found myself spending the whole time talking about the 1812 smartphone app or my interactive exhibit design project.  Some only needed one question about their current position to launch into a detailed step-by-step description of how to get a job with the U.S. government.  Most everyone was helpful, I made a few connections which I anticipate keeping up in the future, and still am in contact with some via social media. I was also pleasantly surprised with the round about way that many of the people I spoke with had ended up in public history.  My career and educational path has been similar to that, and as such I find myself a bit older than the average grad student, but it was good to know there are others who have been successful with a similar path.

While it was a bit of an overwhelming experience - especially for the first day of a meeting I was attending for the first time - it was nice that it took place early, I was able to reinforce the connections I made throughout the rest of the conference.  I also hope to be a participant on the "other side" of the table someday and pay it forward to future public historians.

Poster Session
The Saturday afternoon poster session and reception was culmination of my NCPH 2012 experience.  It was our third day of the conference, and I felt comfortable and confident about discussing our project, with a healthy dose of excitement and nerves mixed in.  As a first-time presenter at NCPH, I appreciated the less formal nature of the poster session, and it helped to have Adriana and Laura by my side.

We arrived early to set-up, filled with enthusiasm from the session we had just left about commemorating the War of 1812.  We knew that there were some people at the conference looking forward to talking to us about our project, as they had already sought us out at previous receptions.  Just minutes after putting up our poster and setting up the table, people started milling around the exhibit area and asking questions (even though the session didn't start for another 30 minutes.)  Some of the most common things I discussed were the difference between how Canada was commemorating the War of 1812 versus the United States, what we were doing to tie this project into other regional tours and events on both sides of the border, what our role was in the technical side of project, and when it would be available to the public.  I also found myself talking a lot about the perspective I brought to the group as the only American working on the project.

I was amazed at how quickly the session flew by.  I took a brief break to walk around and look at some of the other posters, and chat about other projects (we were next to a really interesting project about cemeteries.)  But I could hardly believe it when I checked my watch and we had less than a half an hour left.  

Looking back on the experience I would encourage anyone who is interested in presenting at the NCPH annual meeting, but a bit overwhelmed by the traditional sessions, to consider submitting a poster proposal.  It was much a sharing of ideas and experiences as a presentation of them.  I got quite a bit out of the session from comments and suggestions that people had.  It would also be a great format for a project in progress if you are looking to get some feedback from the public history community.  I am extremely glad I participated.

Riverwest Grad Student Tour of Tavern Culture
Along with the sessions in the conference centre, NCPH 2012 also offered a variety of tours for participants to experience the culture and history of Milwaukee.  Many of these tours do have an additional cost (transportation or admission fees) but they offer a unique venue for exploring the city where the conference takes place. (Check out Krista McCracken's post about Milwaukee's built heritage!)

We decided to spring for this tour which was geared toward graduate students.  It was an opportunity not only to explore a historic district of Milwaukee, but also to mingle and network with other history and public history grad students in a more relaxed atmosphere.

We left from the Frontier Airlines Center on a bus and drove to The Polish Falcon in the Riverwest neighbourhood.  Settled in the mid-19th century primarily by wealthy German immigrants, Milwaukee's Riverwest neighbourhood was home to a sizeable Polish American community by the end of the century, and later a large Puerto Rican community as well.  Located just across the river from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Riverwest is now home to many students and young families. 

Once we arrived at The Polish Falcon, we enjoyed some time to mingle and were provided a fabulous meal by Cafe Corazon, a local restaurant.  Following dinner, we enjoyed a spirited discussion of the pros and cons of reenactors at history museums (yep - you read that correctly...) and then continued our tour  to The Public House.

The Riverwest Public House Cooperative, one of the only two cooperative bars in the United States, opened in March 2011.  In addition to hosting concerts, fundraisers, and other entertainment, the Public House is a frequent host to the socials and meetings of area labour unions, teachers' organizations, and other activists.  This evening, the entertainment included folk music and poetry.

Our final stop was the Art Bar (at least, that was the last stop for Laura, Adriana, and I - who knows if others continued the tour!)  This unique Riverwest location is not only known for its eclectic décor, but also for being a place for local artists to meet and display work.  As a business, they are also very involved in the community.

There were two things I enjoyed about this tour.  I had the opportunity to experience a Milwaukee neighbourhood with a rich history and culture, that without the tour I probably wouldn't have felt comfortable exploring on my own.  But with the UW-Milwaukee grad students, it was like experiencing it with locals.  It also was a great chance to visit and network with other OAH/NCPH  grad students.  I made several connections that I have kept up since leaving the conference!

I'll be reviewing this particular tour in more detail in and upcoming issue of The Public Historian.  

Stay tuned for my final NCPH 2012 instalment, when I talk about my experiences outside the usual sessions and tours!

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