Category Archives: Controversy

Social Justice, Sharing Authority, and Mission

SHA2017 collage DiCarlo.png

Guest post by Peter DeCarlo, SHA Class of 2017

This year’s SHA participants come from a wide range of public history backgrounds——technology people and content creators, directors and site managers, curators and educators. Our places of work range from historic sites and regional organizations, to some of the largest historical societies in the nation. The first week focused on challenges and opportunities facing our field. Our time spent talking with leaders, going on field trips, and chatting over dinner has covered a wide range of topics, but throughout, three main themes rose to the top: social justice, expertise vs/& shared authority, and mission.

Social Justice: We realized the need to be intentional with our language. The term “social justice” is frequently used to encompass many things, but specifically relates to the equal distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privilege. As history organizations, the greatest resource we can provide the public is history itself. To pursue social justice we must make our sites, collections, programs, exhibits, and publications as accessible as possible to all people, especially communities museums have historically marginalized and oppressed. This work can take many forms, from contextualizing current civil rights issues, to opening a historic site to a displaced community, to the work of inclusion and diversity. It is important to note that in addition to social justice, working towards equality in all its forms is something history organizations should consider.

Expertise vs/& Shared Authority: This issue is sweeping the museum field and it permeated almost every topic we covered. Our cohort realized this need not be a “versus” dichotomy. Expertise and shared authority must exist together. The question is: what is the right balance? A workplace example: having a member of every department on your exhibits planning team and collections acquisitions team (yes, the curators only get one vote!). In interpretive work it can take the form of dialogic questioning, allowing visitors to guide the conversation and come to a shared conclusion. Sharing authority with community members often serves social justice. Both can be pursued at once. On the side of expertise, it is important to remember that we are professionals, and “we do know things,” as one presenter put it. We must defend Read the rest of this entry

History Relevance answers “So what?” & “For whom”

The beginning of each SHA class is one of the highlights of my year. I look forward to my trip to Indianapolis each year for any number of reasons: reconnect with colleagues in central Indiana, experience a bit of cooler weather, but especially to be around *my* people.


Tim Grove and the Class of 2016.

By that I mean, a group of history professionals who care so deeply about the profession and their own learning that they take a 3-week break from their lives to attend SHA. These are the kind of people I want to know and be around.

SHA begins with each class member introducing themselves for 8 minutes. This is one of my favorite activities. It’s great to see how people choose to tell about their own paths to history, personal and professional. It’s awesome to see the connections between each other and how much we have in common with each other.

As I remarked to one of the members of the class, “We all share a lot in common with the people in our personal lives, but we typically don’t share with them a deep, abiding love for making the the world a better place through history.” This is what I mean when I say these are “my” people, they are your people too.

Yesterday (Sunday) we also heard a keynote from John Fleming, one of the field’s longtime leaders in the area of Diversity and Inclusion. John is also current Council Vice Chair of AASLH, my own organization and one of the five SHA partner organizations. John’s talk, “How Implicit Bias Hinders Diversity,” gave us much to think about in this critical aspect of our work. Ultimately, John’s message was one of “Intentionality”–how are you/your organization being intentional in its Diversity and Inclusion strategies/tactics?

Today, David Young of Cliveden and Tim Grove of the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum teamed up to talk about The Relevance of Public History. Their discussions, included David’s work at Cliveden (read about some of that here) and Tim’s role with the History Relevance Campaign (has your organization endorsed the Value of History Statement yet?)

It is amazing watching the group come together as they discuss two of the fundamental questions of our work–“So what?” and “For whom?”–and how the group answers them in their own work.

SHA and the conversations within remind me of the importance of history; our work; and you, me, our colleagues and peers. It is truly one of the highlights of my year.

Bob Beatty

p.s.: Please share with me how you are answering the questions “So what?” and “For whom?” I’m interested in your thoughts on these questions.

Class of 2015, and a visit with Denny O’Toole

Developing History Leaders @SHA gets underway at the end of this week. The Class of 2015 will gather in Indianapolis to begin three weeks of learning and dialogue about the many ways we bring history to communities across the country. A distinguishing characteristic of this year’s class is its geographic spread, with greater representation from the West than is usually the case. This class includes students from Texas, California, Montana, Idaho, North Dakota, and the Yukon Territory in Canada.

While in Santa Fe last week visiting our son, Anita and I had the pleasure of having breakfast with Denny and Trudy O’Toole. For those who don’t know, Denny was the coordinator of SHA prior to my taking the position in 2010. The O’Toole scholarship is named in his honor. Denny was a leader in our field for decades, and inspired and influenced many who now lead and work in history organizations. It has been an honor for me to follow in his footsteps.

Denny was eager to hear about the 2015 class. We talked about what has changed, and what has not, since he passed the baton. Some faculty continue to serve – Conny Graft on evaluation, Barbara Franco and Laura Roberts on organizational change, Kent Whitworth on team building – and we continue to engage with many of the same local organizations – the Indiana Medical History Museum, the Indianapolis Children’s Museum, the Eiteljorg Museum, and Conner Prairie, where we will again participate in “Follow the North Star.” John Herbst and the amazing staff at the Indiana Historical Society continue to host the seminar and provide invaluable support.

Of course, much has changed. Every year there are a few new topics in response to student suggestions and emerging new practices. This year, building on changes made over the past two or three years, we will place emphasis on historical interpretation of contested history. David Young from Cliveden of the National Trust will frame the issues by addressing the role of public history in communities today; Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko from the Abby Museum will present her approach to decolonization in working with the native peoples of Maine; and Sarah Pharaon from the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience will engage the students in methods of dialogue when addressing difficult topics.

We will also continue to tackle the basic challenges of leadership of history organizations: building financially sustainable organizations, stewarding collections, engaging communities, and leading change. Also, a number of the faculty have been involved in the History Relevance Campaign, so we’ll have frequent discussions about the value of history in contemporary life.

I’m really looking forward to seeing what this year’s class thinks and has to say about public history and the work we do to bring history to people in our communities. See you in Indy!

BIG Questions for Leaders in History Organizations

On Sunday I will be traveling to Indianapolis to spend three weeks with fifteen practitioners of public history, the 2011 class of Developing History Leaders @SHA. We will engage in deep discussions with many leaders in our field, probing some of the BIG questions about the relevance and future sustainability of our work.
Every two or three days I’ll post a summary of what we’ve been talking about. If you’d like to follow and comment on our discussions, sign up to follow this blog by clicking on the button to the right.
During the first week our questions will center on the nature of our work in relationship to the people and communities we serve. Why is it that so many Americans find history, for the most part, boring and irrelevant? Why is it that they think of visiting a history museum, historic site, or any history organization as something nice to do occasionally, if at all, and certainly not on a regular basis? Is it because history is really not so important in today’s world?
Here are some specific questions we’ll be asking.
1.Whose history is it? Do we decide what’s important about the past, or do we let the people we serve decide? How do we share authority with them? How do we get them “involved” in history and still maintain standards of accuracy and authenticity?
2.What if they have different points of view among themselves? Do we take sides, or do we take a neutral stance? What is our role, and how do we best fulfill that role? This is an especially relevant question when one group of people has oppressed another group in the past.
3.Is it enough that we make history engaging by telling great stories and displaying evocative and provocative objects, or should we find ways to make history useful to present-day concerns? What roles should we play in our communities?
4.How can we be more creative in using authentic objects to involve people in exploring the past? For decades we have used objects to illustrate an interpretation of the past, displayed in cases, on platforms, and in room settings. Are there creative ways to use objects, not as illustrations, but as sources of evidence to enable others to develop their own interpretations?
5.How can we best use technology to enhance a person’s involvement with history? What are people already doing outside of our field? How can we take what’s out there and use it to our advantage?
6.Is there a limit to what we should do? Should that limit be determined only by available funding? Does everything old that comes our way have to be saved for the benefit of the public? How do we make choices?
Remember, if you’d like to follow our discussions, sign up for this blog.

First Faculty Presentation: Eric Sandweiss

On Monday morning we heard from Eric Sandweiss, who teaches at Indiana University. He used recent changes in the way history organizations state their missions to talk about the changing nature of our work. “Collecting, preserving and interpreting” was once seen as a legitimate end in itself, having value for society as a whole. Now it is only a means to an end, which is to have some positive effect on the public. Often this is stated as helping others find a meaningful, personal connection with the past. A generic mission today would read: we use history to have an effect on the public.
However, this way of thinking about our purpose has deep roots. The Smithsonian was founded for both the increase and diffusion of knowledge. Charles Wilson Peale and P.T. Barnum created democratic enterprises, for the amusement and edification of the masses. In contrast, early historical societies sought to do this only for the elite. These places emphasized reading, with objects used only as illustrations, and labels as the primary means of conveying information.
We still feel the tension between these two purposes in our organizations today.
In our discussion with Eric class members talked about the pressures we feel not to offend certain people and groups. Tony Glen from the Canadian War Museum told of an episode where controversy over a label led to the resignation of the museum director. Jackie Barton from the Ohio Historical Society said that some in the public are frustrated that we are too compromising. Dina Bailey from the Freedom Center described her work as walking a tightrope, sometimes compromising too much, sometimes not enough. We talked about topics that seem to be off limits, the demands of pressure groups, and our shifting role from authoritative voice to convener.
This was a great way to start the seminar. We jumped right into the complexities, frustrations, and challenges of using history to serve the public in today’s world.

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