A photograph taken by the Baltimore City Police Department during the civil disturbances in April 1968.
Leah Suhrstedt and Priya Chhaya, both employees in the Center for Preservation Leadership, are attending the National Council on Public History (NCPH) conference in Providence, Rhode Island this weekend. NCPH advances the field of public history, promoting professionalism among history practitioners and encouraging their engagement with the public. The theme of this year's conference is "Toward Broader Horizons" and sessions center around looking past our traditional conversations about history and the past to new practices, ideas and techniques.
Below, Leah and Priya have re-created some of their conversation about the beginning of the conference.
Leah: So, our keynote speaker was Jill Lepore, noted colonial American historian at Harvard. In her speech she noted that before preparing this talk she asked a friend to define public history. Oddly enough, upon further research, she decided she was, in fact, herself a public historian. I like how she said that we are those who “do history,” and her central concern that historians of all shapes and sizes (including preservationists) have a responsibility to answer the age old question of “how did we get here?”
Priya: Yeah, and I also appreciated the distinction of that while we have to ask “how did we get here?” we also have to be careful comparing past to present. That we don't have to only think about relevance, but that no project (in any historical form) can exist without at least a form of resonance. This became especially clear when she described how while historians may not solve problems, our role is to help our public to see things more clearly. In order to do so, in her paraphrase of Carl Becker's 1931 speech to the AHA we have an “obligation to remember what everyone else forgets.”
A photo taken by Paul J. Lioi, Baltimore City Police Department during the civil disturbances in April 1968.
Leah: Like in the session we went to yesterday on the 1967 riots in Newark, New Jersey and the 1968 race riots in Baltimore. I thought that was a great example of historians making history relevant and helping to heal a community in the process. In what they called a convening rather than a conference, professors at the University of Baltimore organized a three day program centered around Martin Luther King biographer Taylor Branch's idea that the only way we are going to make progress with race is by listening to each others' stories. I especially liked the use of theater, oral history and conversation to make numerous connections to different parts of the community.
Priya: I agree. What was remarkable was how both the Newark and Baltimore contingents responded to their communities' positive responses by expanding their own programming. For example, area schools have embedded this information into their lesson plans, and University of Baltimore offers teacher training over the summers. They have also made all the recordings and images available online for others to use. This connects back to what Jill Lepore stated about history in the public sphere—that we need to take our work to the grassroots level and open up the dialogue for greater understanding, and in this case reconciliation.
Leah: I think this relates back to the preservation movement as we try to make the issue of sustainability relevant to those beyond our core membership. In the session we talked about above, one speaker, Dr. Clement Price, said that in working with issues that are controversial we have to “be reverent, earnest, and willing to take a hit,” and that if we do our chances of success are much higher.
Priya: So how did we get here? I think the connection between this conference and role of preservationists in dealing with advocacy issues like sustainability involves creating broader forums for discussion—between those with the environmental know-how and those on the ground who may not get the need for a broader community perspective on issues like the environment.
What do you think? Post your comments below...
--Leah Suhrstedt and Priya Chhaya
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