[UPDATE for John Fea’s readers… Hi! I’ve always been transparent and self-critical in my thoughts here. This post contains a great deal of ambivalence in part, I think, because I’m about to encounter yet another life-defining crossroads with this history career I have. I don’t mean to dismiss the concept of intersectionality so flippantly. I really do get it and it’s reshaping how I think about audience participation at museums. Anyhow… if you want other recaps of the conference, check out Nick Sacco or Elizabeth Catte.]
Just returned from NCPH 2016 in Baltimore. I was less engaged than in previous years and so I don’t have a big-picture observations or critiques on emergent themes and whatnot. But here are a few notes:
- Panels are terrible. Working groups and workshops are the best.
- Each organization has its niche. NCPH is for academics, mostly, and so it is a purely academic conference. It tackles larger theoretical issues in the field of public history and though presenters do have case studies, the research isn’t particularly geared toward lessons and applications that small museums and historic sites can utilize. In fact, there is a terrible disconnect between the critical expectation of the practitioners here and the less-critical-but-still-valuable approaches of many historical institutions. Suppose we have AASLH for that.
- This tension is replicated in my own public history interests. I am not a theoretician or high-concept person, but I understand it. I get intersectionality but I’m ambivalent about the imperative to engage the public with it on its own terms. On the public’s terms, yes, absolutely. I’ve never been a very good academic and I yearn to keep up, but my interests are much more practical. My only concern is that I’m not serving my students well in this regard. This has its advantages and disadvantages—I was proud of the intellectual accessibility of the material they presented, but am worried that they’re missing something in being able to leverage larger critical-theoretical issues.
- My chief goal at the conference was to attend two meetings and a panel related to our ongoing class project on the States of Incarceration exhibit. Was nice to gauge our progress and our struggles against those of other schools. Turns out we aren’t the only ones with a major design-related disappointment. Somehow, that’s comforting. And after hearing others’ programming plans, I’m confident that we’re developing useful things.
- Attended several working groups on addressing various inequities in interpretation and had good conversations. The best regarded ways to manage institutional change and facilitate public dialog. To that end, the hour we spent with Piper Anderson of Create Forward made the whole trip worth-wile. We will definitely be incorporating some of her methods into our programming.
- The only non-work-related panel I attended was the Banjo in the Museum session. I didn’t really get much from it because… well, I’m no banjo scholar, but I’m perfectly aware of its tortured history. The panel promised to explore ways to use music in programming for more than just as entertainment for fundraisers, and it really didn’t do that. In considering banjo history, there was no real prescription on how to handle the racial complexities in programming, except to acknowledge it. I guess that’s a pretty good first step. What it lacked in useful prescriptions it fully made up for with some truly extraordinary performances by scholar Greg C. Adams, and Brad and Ken Kolodner.
- One of my SOI panels overlapped with the now-notorious Confederate monument panel, so I found myself literally running back and forth between the two. Thus, I only saw part of John Coski’s talk, all of Ashley Luskey’s talk. (Finally met Ashley. She’s great) and the comments time. I agree with some of the Twitter backlash and disagree with some. Someone (Nick Sacco, I think) mentioned that the outrage might be partly attributed to the fact that many in the audience are new to the current contours of debate and encountering these unsatisfactory contextualization concepts for the first time. I’m not really interested in commenting on the substance of the talks because there was nothing new and so if you want my reactions, just go read some my former posts. My own hobby horse remains: why are we still only talking about monuments when opportunities and challenges in more immediate interpretive arenas—museums and historic sites—go unexamined by museum and historic site professionals? (Should have more commentary on that soon.)
- I made my students go to Edgar Allen Poe’s grave with me. That was cool.
- I discovered late that the Walters Art Museum has some Renaissance art. I regret missing that.
- Old Bay seasoning in friend chicken breading is a really good idea.
- Madupe Labode is amazing. Is it ok to go for a second public history master’s degree? I want to learn from her.
- I’m off to the North Carolina Museums Council annual meeting where I’m co-facilitating a working group on…Confederate stuff.