Just returned from New York City where my class participated in the launch of the States of Incarceration traveling exhibit. States of Incarceration is produced by the Humanities Action Lab at The New School and has two goals. First, to provoke community conversations about the problem of mass incarceration mass criminalization/the carceral state in the United States. Second, to offer ways that humanities scholarship—particularly history—can contribute value to this ongoing discussion. Twenty classes from universities around the country contributed “modules” to this exhibit. My class told the story of a moment in the 1920s when prisoners serving on road crews in North Carolina protested their conditions through a mass letter writing campaign.
It has been a great privilege and a pleasure for both my students and I to work with Liz Sevcenko and a dozen other leading lights in public history and museum studies education. The process has not been perfect, and I have a critical take on the final product, but I think my students have learned as much from the hiccups as the successes. More importantly, they learned to take history and apply it to a critical contemporary social problem and become advocates for both. It is not an easy prospect, especially when social causes require blunt-force historical explanations (e.g. slavery>Jim Crow>mass incarceration) that good disciplinary history cannot sustain, or will at least complicate. (I am particularly impressed by the claims for the utility of history and the necessity to understanding complexity that Khalil Gibran Muhammad and Marie Gottschalk make in the opening panel of our launch<-video.)
It is not the way I learned history or public history, that’s for sure. And to be honest, it’s not the kind of public history that my students and the vast majority of museum professionals do…and least in the circles I run in and they’ll likely work in. I joked with a few of them that they won’t usually be hobnobbing with the nation’s leading activists on a social issue, but will most likely be writing the brochure for the local pottery exhibit or working to boost school group attendance by %8 next year. They may find their future work a bit lacking in the urgency and relevancy that we experienced on this project.
But I tell them to not let it go. They’ve learned to be advocates for public history in ways I never did, and they should take that critical expectation into whatever soul-crushing entry-level work they do in a workplace that is currently—and rightly—obsessed with revenue streams—social value be damned. There is a critical mass of museum studies graduate students coming up through the ranks now who share this expectation that museums should meet social needs, and they’ll be in good company. If there’s anything I think I have beaten into their public history DNA, it is to never be complaisant about the ways we do things, and to always look to the future and to adapt to the ways the field is changing. If they do that, I will feel like I’ve made a difference in the larger professional community.
Working with this cohort of ten graduate students has been among the most rewarding experiences of my life. They’re a diverse bunch of nimble thinkers, hard workers, and so good-natured about the ups-and-downs of this profession that they’ve imprinted on me what the perfect graduate professor experience can be. My part of this will be over in a week, but they have another semester’s work to do. The exhibit will be in Greensboro in November and we’re they’re already in the program-planning phase. They’re working on a large NEH funded community dialog and a truly innovative tour program. I can’t wait to see what else they come up with.