Yesterday I took part in a working group on public history centers at the National Conference on Public History.  (For now–but I’m not sure for how long into the future–you can download the case statements from participants.)  For the purposes of our discussion, a public history center is an organization, often connected with a university, that makes consultants (faculty, students, or professional staff) available to members of the public, businesses, and government agencies for assistance with their projects.

The conversation was wide-ranging, but I found most interesting our discussion about charging for work done by these centers–especially since the work is frequently performed by graduate students.

I wanted to share a number of considerations, from our conversation and my thoughts afterwards, in no particular order:

Whenever funds are available or potentially available (define “potentially available” as narrowly or broadly as you wish), graduate students should be recompensed for their work, particularly if the center for which they work is charging for their services.  These students are developing professionally, and they should be paid for what amounts to on-the-job training.  I’m also a fan of paying students—undergraduate or graduate—for internships at nonprofits (or elsewhere), especially if the student (a) brings significant existing skills to the internship or (b) will be doing a good deal of “grunt work” (e.g. simple digitization, photocopying, filing).  If the student is getting course credit for the internship, I think employers should pay at least the cost of the tuition covering those internship credit hours.  These aren’t hard-and-fast rules for me, and I’m not about to deny a student an excellent internship opportunity because it’s unpaid, but I have seen too many enthusiastic interns taken advantage of by their supervising organizations–so much so that the interns burn out.

In our working group’s conversation, it became clear that some folks always ask for payment for center services, while some would rather not charge at all.  Still others struggle to balance their faculty and departmental responsibility to perform public service through civic engagement with a desire to charge for certain kinds of work–or to charge certain types of clients.

I’m hoping eventually to establish a public history center, and this is exactly the kind of ethical quagmire that paralyzes me.  So, for example, I can see myself agreeing to provide assistance in interpreting the history of Idaho’s wolf management for a (hypothetical, here) local environmental nonprofit  that has a tiny budget.  But when the local Rotary club came knocking for assistance with an organizational history, I might be less enthusiastic about providing services to businesspeople whose ability to pay might be significantly larger than those of locally unpopular, scrappy environmental activists.  Note: I’m not saying one group is objectively more deserving of such funds—just that I myself am likely to favor helping small organizations with a lack of funds, and in whose history and issues I’m more interested.  I need to be aware of such biases, and if I do found a public history center, I need to be very clear in what cases the center charges for work, and under what circumstances that work might be provided pro bono.

One member of the working group pointed out that she didn’t want to make her public history center a free alternative to local historical consulting firms, many of which are founded by her program’s alumni and employ students and recent graduates.

One person in the audience floated the idea of getting sponsorships from local businesses so that the public history centers could work assist community groups free of charge.  Some faculty on the panel said they would like to see such sponsorships, but university development offices require faculty soliciting funds to run their requests through their units, in case the development officers are already working on an alternative solicitation to a prospective donor.

Someone else at the session asked about the utility of “friends of” groups in supporting centers.  The consensus seemed to be that the work required to establish a 501(c)3 and manage the relationships inherent in such a group might not generate sufficient financial return on the investment of staff time.  If you’ve surmounted this obstacle and established a successful, cordial friends group, I’d love to hear about it.

Working group participants seemed uniformly enthusiastic about the suggestion that public history centers should be emphasizing the value—both cultural and economic—of public history work, and that those doing that work should be recompensed when they apply their skills and expertise.

The conversation ended with a brief discussion of how the typical faculty member directing a public history center frequently lacks any kind of administrative or managerial training, and that the learning curve can be steep and bruising.  The question became, then, how to develop such skills in our students, especially since many public history students eventually end up running nonprofits or historical consulting firms.  Students and faculty need to develop leadership, mediation, and collaboration skills, but it wasn’t clear how such skills might be cultivated in the classroom–or how the development of such skills in students might be assessed or evaluated during program reviews.  One solution, I pointed out, is to offer public history students the option recently added to the museum studies program at John F. Kennedy University; students there can get a joint M.A. in Museum Studies/M.B.A.  Many students find that option attractive, and students complete the dual-degree track in three years.

What are your thoughts or concerns about public history centers?  Do you have any successes or cautionary tales to share?

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Engaging in difficult dialogues

by Leslie on April 9, 2011

Cross-posted at Museum Blogging.

I’m attending the National Council on Public History conference in Pensacola. Today was packed with interesting conversations. I started the morning by attending a panel on civil dialogue in public history practice with Marla Miller of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; Meghan Gelardi Holmes of Rutgers; and Lokki Chan of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. I’m not going to write about the 1.5 hours of presentations and conversation, but rather share a few of the things that stuck with me.

Developing Public History Students First, Miller shared a list of four traits she said the faculty at the U. Mass Amherst try to cultivate in their public history students:

  • tact
  • diplomacy
  • patience
  • humility

It wasn’t clear to me if these are the top four traits they try to cultivate, or just those that relate to civility. [Update: See Miller’s explanatory comment on this same post at Museum Blogging.]

Regardless, it made me consider what might be the top four traits I try to cultivate in my public history students. Here’s my first stab at that list:

  • resourcefulness
  • creativity
  • empathy
  • thoughtfulness

Students here are incredibly polite, so I suppose I’m less interested in Miller’s list (which many of the students here have mastered) than I am in dynamic engagement and thoughtful provocation. What traits are you trying to cultivate in your students, interns, or staff, and why?

Past and Present, Stories, Engagement

Chan said that the among the goals of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum’s program that combines a tour with an hour-long discussion are

  • deromanticizing the past and complicating the present
  • highlighting the power of individual stories to inspire civic engagement
  • emphasizing that, in the words of Rev. Wilson Goode, “Every solution starts with a conversation. It requires a willingness to talk and to listen.”

Drawing on Lois Silverman’s work on museum experiences as therapy, the presenters underscored that what docents wish to emphasize might not be what visitors take away from the tour. If a docent in a house museum, for example, mentions that a woman miscarried, there’s no way of knowing that a visitor isn’t going through a similar loss.

Triggers abound. Remember to be compassionate, to observe, and to listen.

A good deal of the conversation following the panelists’ presentations centered around getting the “Fox News demographic” to share authentically with the “NPR demographic,” and vice versa. Especially in a place as loaded with history and politics as a tenement that was home to generations of immigrants, it’s important to establish an atmosphere where it’s possible for people to ask difficult questions and remain open to answers that might make them uncomfortable.

In My Classroom

On Monday, my public history grad students were treated to a presentation by one of their own, a student who served three terms in the state legislature.  He termed himself a “progressive Republican.”

I had to smile at such a rare description. In this state, politics are so far to the right that one commenter on a newspaper website recently pointed out that in any other state he’d be an extremist, reactionary, right-wing Republican, but in this state, he’s a conservative Democrat.

Anyway, this student talked about how, a few years back, he tried to introduce a bill to require state and county agencies to engage with the state historical society when they were talking about demolishing or altering buildings older than 50 years.

Apparently the bill prompted at least one legislator to point out that his outhouse was more than 50 years old–and he still used it.

We read over the proposed bill, discussed my student’s reasons for introducing it–and then had a very interesting conversation about working “across the aisle” when the aisle is more of a giant fissure.

Specifically, I asked my students what kind of rhetoric they might adopt if they were going to pitch a similar bill to today’s even more conservative state legislature.

The students came up with many examples, including substituting “Idaho’s heritage” for “Idaho history.”  I thought that was pretty savvy, as many of the legislators come from rural districts and either are ranchers  or have been at one time, and phrases like “Idaho’s agricultural heritage” or even “Idaho’s mining heritage” probably sound pretty good to them.

The former legislator also talked about the sexism of the House floor, and how many of the older male representatives expressed offense at women who dressed in a way that showed what they believed to be too much skin or–God forbid–cleavage.  Class ended before we had the chance to delve into the issue of whether my young women public historians ought to dress modestly to meet the expectations of the power brokers, or if they should dress in ways that made sense to themselves.  I’m sure that would have been an interesting conversation.

I pointed out that being able to not only see an issue from another perspective but to speak the language of that perspective was very powerful indeed, and that it was a skill humanists seeking funding from penny-pinching legislators would do well to develop.  How can we teach students to empathize, and to voice their ideas in ways that appeal to people who would not normally find them appealing–all while remaining authentic to their core selves so that they don’t feel slimy?  (Of course, this idea applies not only to humanities appeals to conservative legislators, but also to any context where there are two or more groups of people who tend to talk past one another rather than with each other.)



August 18, 2010

Welcome to the Doing History blog.  I plan to use this digital space to aggregate my thoughts on, and participation in, public history. I’ve been blogging about museums for some time at Museum Blogging, but because my interests have ranged far beyond museums, I’ve decided to open up this additional space. More soon. . .

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