Conferences!

This month has been sort of full of professional development, with three very different events providing opportunities to learn from smart people, eat catered food, and network.

On March 8, I went to the Public History Community Forum (PubComm), an annual event put on by Temple’s Center for Public History and Rutgers-Camden’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities (MARCH). I helped a bit with the event website and helped set up and clean up, but the meat of the work was done by my classmates Cynthia Heider and Chelsea Reed and Rachel Craft of Rutgers-Camden.

Cynthia, Chelsea, and Rachel assembled an amazing little conference (6 workshops, a keynote address, and a panel) on a shoestring budget, and managed to get supremely qualified presenters, including the Lower East Side Tenement Museum’s Annie Polland, Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site’s Sean Kelley, and Ismael Jimenez, a high school teacher in Philly and part of the Philadelphia Black History Collaborative.

I spent a lot of my time at PubComm live-tweeting the event and I collected my tweets and those from some other nimble-thumbed folks into a Storify of the day: https://storify.com/theodeomutts/pubcomm17

Then on the 22nd, I caught the #23 bus to Cliveden in Germantown for “Reinventing the Historic House Museum” a workshop run by the American Association of State and Local History (AASLH). The facilitators were Ken Turino of Historic New England and Max van Balgooy of the consulting firm Engaging Places, LLC. This event wasn’t really aimed at me–most of the crowd were people wearing all of the hats at historic sites–but I’m glad I went. It was very instructive to hear the sorts of questions people asked, the kinds of problems they faced. Some were trying to work around the fact that their boards wouldn’t let them charge for anything; others were trying to figure out whether successful fundraisers fit their mission.

Van Balgooy’s portions of the day were largely about strategic planning and, while I wasn’t really looking forward to the businessy side of the day, several of his analytic tools will stick with me. Turino presented innovative experiments at historic sites around the world, and I wish he’d had more time; I would have liked to hear more in depth the results of some of the reinventions. The sessions were broken up with a tour of Cliveden, a fascinating house occupied by the same family (with a brief exception) from 1767-1972. The interpretive staff seems to be doing some really interesting things with breaking up chronology, though as we got the “meta tour” it was hard to know how much of that was worked in on every tour.

A photo of my presentation “Hostellers, Housing Insecurity, and Historical Inquiry: The Chamounix Mansion Hostel as Model for Historic House Museum Sustainability.” Photo by Dr. Hilary Iris Lowe, via Facebook

Finally, this past weekend was the James A. Barnes Graduate Student Conference at Temple University’s Center City campus. I was privileged to not only have a paper accepted to the conference, but to also be invited to be part of Gary Scale’s roundtable “The Importance of Being Digital: How Can Graduate Students Help Build Digital Bridges?” This meant that I didn’t get to hear nearly as many student papers as I would have liked to, but the presentations that I did get to see were pretty great. This being graduate students, there was a wide range in topics and some in quality, but I think people acquitted themselves well for the most part. One presenter in my session kept his cool when we had a projector malfunction and calmly delivered his presentation once we had all relocated to a new room.

The keynote of this conference was also worthwhile and thought-provoking. Dr. Danielle McGuire of Wayne State University spoke on “Resurrecting the Past: How to Write History that Matters.” McGuire’s argument for the value of a compelling narrative was convincing and I was happy that I’d read Ghettocide last summer; she cited it as an example several times. I was also happy to hear so many attendees consider themselves to be public historians to some degree. I hope that public history methods can continue to be taught right alongside academic methods as they were in Dr. Seth Bruggeman’s “Intro to US History I” course for graduate students last fall.

These three events manage to cover a broad spectrum of history gatherings. PubComm was explicitly a public history conference, and the social justicey theme “This is Why We Fight” attracted a specific sort of theorist and practitioner. “Reinventing the Historic House Museum” was significantly more focused on the stuff of non-profit organizations–mission statements, programming, and fundraising–but there were still calls for broadening access to historic sites that would have been right at home at PubComm. The Barnes Club Conference was the most academic of the three, yet one panel was devoted to public history, one to digital history, and as I mentioned above, the keynote ended with the idea that “We’re all public historians.” There were certainly through-lines despite the different focuses and styles.

One last observation: I was not able to provide Storify summaries of the last two events because social media was largely shunned there. Whereas PubComm provided a hashtag (#PubComm17), workshop attendees at Cliveden were asked to silence phones, but in a way that many seemed to interpret as asking for them to be turned off. AASLH tweeted a couple quotes and Lynne Calamia snapped a photo during the tour, but that was about it. At the Barnes Club Conference, Dr. Hilary Iris Lowe took some photos for Facebook, but again, without a central hashtag, there was no central place to hold a digital conversation and take it beyond the conference walls. I’m a little ashamed to say that I didn’t even consider this in the roundtable about digital history. What is the role of a tool like Twitter in conference culture? Digital Humanities/History conferences have fully embraced the convention of event hashtags, but it can be distracting for other attendees (and the tweeters themselves). In the relatively small audiences at the Barnes Club Conference, for instance, it might have felt very nerve-wracking to deliver a paper to eight people, five of whom were tapping away on their phones. Something to ponder.

Thanks to everyone who came to all of these events and made them worth attending!

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