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Historic Site Visits: Tourists and Teachers

In my last blog, I wrote about historic site visits as one of the sessions as the National Council on Public History (NCPH) Conference: Part II. I received a reply from John Marks, Senior Manager, Strategic Initiatives, American Association for State and Local History (AASLH):

I just wanted to shoot you a quick message to thank you for including mention of our NCPH session on national visitation trends. I’m disappointed we weren’t able to present, because I’m certain it would have been an enlightening conversation. In case you missed it, our free report summary and the full 60+ page report are available at: There are also links there to many of the blog posts we’ve written about our findings in recent years. If you’re interested, I also put together a thread on Twitter with links to all of the blog posts and articles we’ve written at AASLH and elsewhere over the past six months or so:

Finally, our 2020 visitation survey is still collecting responses. With the onset of widespread closures to due Coronavirus, gathering reliable 2019 data has become even more important. The survey is available at:

Please feel free to share any and all of the above with your networks! Thanks again for mentioning the session in your newsletter.

I did download the nine-page National Visitation Report from the AASLH website. Rather than my summarizing it, I have extracted Marks’ own comments on it from his blog Historic Site Visitation and Public Engagement with History he wrote for the American Historical Association (AHA), March 11, 2020.

[H]istorical institutions throughout the country are working with their communities to make the past more relevant and engaging. New research suggests these efforts have had a positive effect, as visitation to history organizations has increased considerably over the past several years. The National Visitation Report (NVR) published in November 2019 by the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) is the first nationwide survey of visitation trends at historical organizations. It found that visits to history museums, historic sites, and other historical organizations increased nearly 6 percent between 2013 and 2018. This growth was evident for institutions of nearly every type, of different budget sizes, and in every region of the country.

The NVR reveals that some of the strongest visitation growth occurred at the small historical societies and museums that are ubiquitous in towns and counties across the US. Institutions with annual operating budgets of less than $50,000, for example, saw their visitation grow 18 percent, the largest increase of any budget level. Those with budgets between $50,000 and $250,000 saw visitation increase nearly 13 percent. Institutions of this size, many of which are operated solely by volunteers, form the majority of the nation’s more than 20,000 historical organizations. 

A growing number of institutions [are] creating programs and exhibitions built on the concepts of shared authority and community-engaged practice. Public history institutions are working more directly with their audiences, taking seriously their understandings of the past and their concerns in the present, integrating community knowledge and priorities into the work of the institution.

Marks draws attention to changes at the college and graduate school level involving humanities and public history. He considers it important to connect knowledge of the past with contemporary issues.

With this introduction in mind, let me shift to a session I did attend at the AHA conference on January 2, 2015, in New York. (I have special memories of the conference since the escalator to the conference and the registration area outside the meeting rooms appeared in the George Clooney movie Michael Clayton.) The AHA session was less dramatic.

What Should History Teachers Learn at Historic Sites? A Research Agenda

Chair: Christine Baron, Teachers College, Columbia University
Linda A. Sargent Wood, Northern Arizona University
Kelly Schrum, George Mason University
Brenda Trofanenko, Acadia University
Christine Woyshner, Temple University
Denice Blair, Michigan State University

Since the 1990s, professional development for teachers has been a large-scale function of museums’ and historic sites’ education departments. Historic sites are increasingly called upon to help remedy the persistent reproach that many teachers lack both content knowledge in history and enthusiasm for the subject. Yet, despite two decades of intensive work with teachers, including the decade-long Teaching American History Grants (TAH) experience, little research exists on the effectiveness of historic sites’ role in teacher education.

The expectation that historic sites will support formal teacher preparation and professional development continues to grow. Several states, with Pennsylvania at the fore, are considering requiring pre-service teachers to do part of their fieldwork in museums and historic sites. Every state curriculum framework includes the recommendation that teachers should partner with historic sites and museums to help students learn about history [bold added]. Yet, even as TAH funding has been eliminated, the need for quality history teacher education has not. Historic sites are continuing to be asked to provide teacher education. It is imperative that we understand the methods and mechanisms that help teachers effectively develop historical analytical skills and the ability to transfer that learning to the classroom. Accordingly, we need historic site-specific tools and research protocols for discerning and documenting teacher learning, clarity about best practices, and useable tools for assessment.

To address this gap, Christine Baron and Brenda Trofanenko organized a research conference sponsored by the largest education research organization in North America, to assemble experts in the Learning Sciences, History and Museum Education at Boston University in early 2014 to investigate the effective use of historic sites as centers for history teacher education and professional development.

 Researchers gathered for a three-day conference at Boston University to (a) develop a status report on the state of empirical research in this field, (b) identify effective protocols for discerning and documenting teacher learning at historic sites, (c) identify specific pedagogies, methodologies, assessment and evaluation tools that demonstrably promote analysis of historical materials on-site and classroom integration (d) develop a research agenda to further the field and (e) stimulate partnerships in which to execute the necessary research.

This panel, comprised of several of the conference scholars, will lay out the conference findings, the critical areas identified for further research, and some of the projects generated through the conference discussions. Considerable time will be devoted to discussing the findings in conversation with session attendees, both in terms of the research opportunities and project development.

The audience for this session, much like the participants at the conference on which it reports, includes the historians, both academic and public, history teacher educators, museum and historic site educators, and digital humanities scholars that work at the intersection of history and teaching.

I think sessions on this topic should be a regular part of history museum conferences as well as social studies conferences. Furthermore, as I mentioned in the NCPH blogs, since not everyone can attend such conferences and even people who do cannot attend all sessions, there needs to be a better way to disseminate the information presented here. One of the byproducts of the current coronavirus may be the development of a more extensive use of the internet to make conference presentations available online. At present, not all conferences even list the abstract of the presentations online. I expect there will be changes in this regard. Also more cross referencing so people who are members or who are affiliated with one organization can learn about relevant sessions at other conferences. Whether such cooperation is possible or not, is another matter. Let me correct that, it is possible, but whether or not it happens is the issue.

In the next blog, I will continue with this topic and write about a book, an article, and a teacher from Massachusetts.

National Council on Public History (NCPH) Conference: Part II

This blog highlights additional sessions at the NCPH conference that I would have attended if the conference had not been cancelled due to the coronavirus. Once again the blog is based on the online abstracts of the presenters (which not all conferences provide) and reflects my judgment of what may be of interest to the history community. These sessions illustrate the topics being discussed in the academic world.

One session definitely relevant to the history community in general is the issue of tourism and visitation.

National Visitation Trends at History Organizations

Are visits to history organizations increasing, decreasing, or staying the same? This relatively simple question has been remarkably difficult for the field to answer due to a paucity of reliable, national data. Drawing on data from the newly-established American Association for State and Local History National Visitation Survey and the National Park Service, this roundtable session will describe the latest visitation trends at museums, historic sites, historical societies, and other organizations and discuss what they suggest about the public’s interest in history and how our analysis aligns with the field’s broader perception of a decline. It will also discuss more generally the challenges and opportunities of data collection and sharing at public history institutions.

I am sure that even if the conference had been held there would be many people who did not attend who would be interested in what was discussed here. This raises of the issue of how effective national organizations are in disseminating the information presented at conferences to people who cannot attend for financial, logistical, or work-leave reasons even when there is no national health emergency. One would think there would be ways to communicate such information to reach a larger audience. This applies to state and regional conferences as well as national ones.

Another session of general interest involves the developing of a sense of place, a sense, of belonging, a sense of community at the local level through the local history organizations. This issue has been a continual one for me including the connection between local schools and local history, an area of great weakness in our current education system.

Strengthening the Social Threads of Local History: Expanding the Work of Studying People in Place

This roundtable will demonstrate how the intersection of local, public, and family history has the power to be engaging and sustaining, and even transformative, for both the community and for the individual historian. Presenters will describe a variety of purpose-driven projects that contribute to community identity and place-making, contextualize family histories, and connect particular histories with broader patterns. These projects add complementary work to traditional local histories without hijacking or dismissing that genre, strengthening and sustaining the genre while working in partnerships with a variety of constituents.

The same issue applies to this session as the previous one. Even if the conference had been held, how many people would be aware of what was discussed in the session versus how many people are interested in the subject?

There were some sessions devoted to the local history in the conference region.

Not Your Grandfather’s Civil War: Re-interpreting The Battle of Atlanta Cyclorama

In 1886, German artists in Milwaukee created The Battle of Atlanta cyclorama to cash in on a famous US victory in the Civil War. In 1892, when the cyclorama landed in Atlanta, locals hailed it as “The Only Confederate Victory Ever Painted.” And so began the mega-painting’s strange journey from patriotic entertainment for northern audiences to a neo-Confederate attraction deeply embedded in a segregated city. So how do you untangle 120 years of popular (mis) conceptions? Join Atlanta History Center staff as they describe their 2014-2019 journey in re-imagining this heavily-laden attraction as a powerful story-telling artifact.

It would have been nice to have seen the Cyclodrama combined with the session about this pre-Gone-With-The-Wind definition of Atlanta and the Confederacy.

Another quintessentially southern community is Savannah and once again there is more to experience than the traditional tours offer.

Greetings from Savannah: The Hostess’s City’s Hidden (Public) Histories

Savannah, Georgia is well known for being a historic city, and more recently, a haunted city. The booming for-profit historical tourism industry encourages people to see the city as a vaguely historical place, steeped in drama and secrets, but free from larger historical complexities. But the for-profit tours are not the only game in town. This panel looks at the ways that public historians, public archaeologists, and museum professionals are pushing back against the “moonlight and magnolia” Southern Gothic vision of Savannah’s history, finding ways to create audiences and stakeholders in a fascinating city full of complicated narratives.

Many communities are dealing in their own way and on a smaller scale with the challenges raised in this session about experiencing the full history of the locality. On the other hand, as has been noted, people on vacation spending their hard earned money and often with their family don’t necessarily want to be preached to about the ugly aspects of American history. Perhaps tours like movies are going to have to develop rating codes with truth in advertising so visitors have some choice about what they are to experience.

As an example, consider the topic of immigration. I suspect most of the people reading this blog live in communities with immigrants and either are immigrants themselves or the descendants of immigrants.

Unsettling the “Nation of Immigrants:” Framing Inclusive Public Histories of Im/migration

In a climate of intensified hostility toward recent immigrants, public history projects are re-asserting the role of global migrations in populating and shaping the United States. But familiar understandings of America as a “nation of immigrants” are proving inadequate to express the complexity of a nation peopled through numerous, contested processes of human movement. This working group will explore ways public historians might interpret migration and immigration without falling back on narratives that exclude or oversimplify. How can public history work describe the peopling of America without erasing or minimizing indigenous presence? How can narratives that explore migration be crafted so as to include refugees, address human trafficking and enslavement, and incorporate internal migrations, forced and voluntary, for escaping violence, seeking work, or being constrained in imprisonment or internment? How do the American tendency toward neolocalism and tenuous contemporary relationships to place figure in? How can we reframe understandings of movement to address what geographer Harald Bauder calls the “parallax gap” that separates discussions of indigenous issues and immigration issues?

A couple of sessions were devoted to the subject of the American Indians. For example:

Building Sustainable Partnerships with Southern Tribal Nations: Social Justice through Public History

This session examines the circumstances that foster positive partnerships between public historians and tribal nations. Representing citizens of two southeastern tribes and their public historian partners, presenters will share examples of collaborative projects—such as collections procurement and management and public-facing educational programming—that have furthered the goal of maintaining tribal histories while also reversing exploitative trends by providing tribes with the ability to make the determination of how they are to be shared. With more ground yet to cover on this front, this session will conclude with suggestions for future collaborations.

Although this session focused on one geographical region, the topic is more widespread. Think of the 400 Anniversary of the Pilgrims and the participation of the Wampanoag as an equal member. I was unable to attend the Massachusetts Historic Preservation conference held in Plymouth held September 20, 2019 (see Heritage, Archaeology, and Tourism: Massachusetts Historic Preservation Conference) but I have been able to attend some Stockbridge Indian conferences (see Stockbridge Indian Conferences: Remembering the Indian Nations in American History) and the Oneida Nation and had teacherhostels/historyhostels with members of the Abenaki and various Haudenosaunee.  The point is that these Indian Nations remain part of states in various ways and need to be included as part of the local history of virtually every municipality.

There were some general sessions as well. For example, there was an opportunity for faculty to share ideas about running graduate and undergraduate public history programs and to talk about university, departmental, and a wide variety of other issues at the Public History Educators’ Forum for a fee of $25.

There also was a free offsite public plenary. Regardless of the details of the specific topic at this plenary, the concept is a good one. With all these history practitioners gathered in one spot, it makes sense to reach out the general public at the host city. Why not have public sessions on topics of interest to the public? After all the travel expense to get the speakers is not.

So while my hopes of attending the NCPH conference for the first time remain unfilled, perhaps next year will be a different story.

What’s New in Public History?

The National Council of Public History (NCPH) held its annual conference March 27-30 in Hartford. I was unable to attend that conference. Fortunately, the conference abstracts are posted to the NCPH website so it is possible to get a better sense of the presentations than from just knowing the titles and the presenters. It would be nice if all conferences would include the abstracts on the conference website.

This report on the conference will cover four areas: workshops, storytelling, current issues, and careers/teaching.

I. Workshops

To begin with, the conference included workshops which required supplemental fees. These workshops included storytelling, podcasts, digital development and collaborations with local college students.

Preservation Leadership Training | Repair Work: Telling the Full Story at Our Historic Sites $50

 Facilitators: Hilary Lewis, The Glass House; Krystyn Silver, Lyndhurst Mansion; Carrie Villar, National Trust for Historic Preservation; Carolyn Wallace, Cliveden of the National Trust

For decades, public historians have been working to tell the full history of the American past at historic sites around the country. However, preservation and collections practices have limited methods to tell those stories using material culture and existing physical spaces. During this Preservation Leadership Training facilitated by staff at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, attendees will learn new best practices for inclusive interpretation at historic sites through case studies from historic sites around the country. Using interactive methods, participants will learn how to understand and include voices that were deliberately excluded in previous interpretations at historic sites and obtain strategies and tools to address the absence of collections, material culture, and critical documentation. This workshop is sponsored in kind by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Reacting to the Past” and Public History: Teaching Historical Contestation through Immersive Game Play$22

Facilitators: Katie Stringer Clary, Coastal Carolina University; Abigail Gautreau, Grand Valley State University; Dan Ott, University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire; Victoria Peck, Coastal Carolina University

Reacting to the Past (RTTP) is an innovative, game-based pedagogy used in college classrooms across multiple disciplines. Begun as a way to teach students about the complex, contested nature of history through immersive simulations of historical events, RTTP offers public historians a fun and effective way to introduce students to the theory and history of public history using role-playing games. In this interactive workshop, participants will participate in mini-games, learn about using RTTP in the classroom, and discover strategies for incorporating RTTP into public programming.

Introduction to Podcasting for History Organizations $20

Facilitator: Hannah Hethmon, H. Hethmon Consulting

Podcasts have been a growing medium for ten years, but in the last two years they have been facing an unprecedented level of growth and creativity, making them a great way for history organizations to communicate with audiences in intimate, accessible ways. This workshop will introduce participants to every aspect of in-house podcast production, from choosing a topic to editing to marketing the show. In the afternoon, attendees will get hands-on experience producing a podcast. Plenty of time will be dedicated to discussion and workshopping participants’ podcast concepts.

Digital Public History Lab $25

Facilitators: Julie Davis, Research for Indigenous Community Health, University of Minnesota; Abby Curtin Teare, Grants Plus

The NCPH Digital Media Group is organizing the Digital Public History Lab—a workshop that provides opportunities for collaborative learning and professional networking around digital resources, skills, and strategies for public historians and professionals working in adjacent fields (e.g. librarianship). The workshop will consist of a combination of pre-planned breakout sessions and sessions on topics generated by participants on the day of the workshop. Digital Public History Lab is an informal, inclusive, participatory experience. All levels of tech-savviness (or lack thereof) are welcome. Those who have participated in NCPH’s THATCamp in previous years will recognize this model! Organized by the NCPH Digital Media Group and co-sponsored by Greenhouse Studios at the University of Connecticut and the University of Central Florida.

Bootcamp sessions will include:

Build Your Own Public History Story Map

Facilitators: Fionnuala Darby-Hudgens, Connecticut Fair Housing Center; Jack Dougherty, Trinity College; and Ilya Ilyankou, Connecticut Data Collaborative

Story maps guide web visitors on a point-by-point journey through a historical narrative, with optional photos, audio, or video on an interactive map. In this hands-on workshop, facilitators will briefly compare free and easy-to-use story map platforms, and help you build your own version with our recommended open-source tool: Leaflet Story Maps with Google Sheets. Featured examples include Hartford civil rights history story maps created with community partners and Trinity College undergraduates.

There also was a session “Imagining the 250thbut with no description. If it was about the 250th anniversary of July 4, then it will be the subject of a separate blog. There was a table on the subject at the Massachusetts History Alliance conference last year and the New York State Historian has begun to call meetings on the topic.

II Storytelling

Turning to the conference presentations, there were other sessions on storytelling as well. Some of these activities as with the storytelling workshops were similar to those reported in an earlier blog History Storytelling: A Local Theatrical Experience

Performing History and Enlivening Community

A Broken Umbrella Theatre is an award-winning, community-enlivening, ensemble creating historically-inspired theater in New Haven, Connecticut. Join the collaborators of this ten-year-old troupe to explore how they take a moment in their city’s rich history and explode it into a immersive, intergenerational, site-specific theater experience. Participate in their devising process and take a deep dive into songs, scenes, and design elements from Freewheelers, an original work which explores the intersection of the corset and the bicycle on the streets of New Haven.

Facilitator: Rachel Alderman, A Broken Umbrella Theatre

Participants: Chrissy Gardner, A Broken Umbrella Theatre Robin Levine, A Broken Umbrella Theatre Aric Isaacs, A Broken Umbrella Theatre Ruben Ortiz, A Broken Umbrella Theatre

Reading Frederick Douglass in Hartford

Join a participatory reading of Frederick Douglass’ 1852 speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” in which the abolitionist orator presses Americans to live up to the ideals embodied in the Declaration of Independence. The reading will be followed by a discussion of patriotism and race in 1852 and 2019. In the face of increasing social and political polarization, how might we live up to the standard set by the Declaration and by Douglass himself; and how does a communal reading of a 19th-century speech help us work on the repairs to the civitas we desperately need? Presenters will share experiences and insights garnered from organizing readings since 2009.

Facilitators: Pleun Bouricius, Massachusetts History Alliance David Harris, Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, Harvard Law School Paul Marcus, Community Change, Inc., Boston

III Current Issues in Public History

Some of the sessions addressed current issues about the types of history to present and in what way.

Beyond Granite: New Directions in Commemoration

Given the power of commemoration to stir local and national interest in history and “what gets remembered,” can we look beyond the limited, static nature of granite and bronze memorials to envision dynamic, broadly accessible, annotatable possibilities for this important form of public history? How might digital interventions serve to repair some of the flaws embedded in traditional commemoration? Museum professionals, historians, and digital media experts discuss possibilities for the future of monuments and memorials.

Panelists: Report to the City, Paul Farber, University of Pennsylvania New Dimensions in Testimony and Memorialization, Kelsey Jagneaux, Florida Holocaust Museum The Atlas of Southern Memory: A Digital Intervention in Commemoration, Caroline Klibanoff, MIT Museum Commemorating Black Advocacy in the 21st Century: Expanding the Definition of Memorialization, Krista Pollett, Texas State University Oral History Project GIS and the City: Podcasting Pittsburgh’s Public Art and Monuments and Building Community Connections, Jennifer Taylor, Duquesne University

States of Incarceration Exhibit Reception

Hartford Public Library Atrium

FREE and open to the public

States of Incarceration, a project of the Humanities Action Lab, is a traveling exhibit representing the efforts of over 500 people in 27 cities to document and explore the past, present, and future of incarceration in America. Teams of students and community partners across the country collaborated to explore incarceration in their hometowns. The exhibit is currently on display at the Hartford Public Library, which is hosting a reception coinciding with this year’s NCPH conference. Connecticut’s contribution to the exhibition, which explores local historic prisons and tourism, was designed by history students at the University of Connecticut. In addition to the States of Incarceration exhibition, the Hartford Public Library is also hosting 40 Years of the CPA Prison Arts Program, an art exhibit in honor of this crucial program that advocates for art and artists in prison and organizes workshops for people who are currently or formerly incarcerated in Connecticut. NCPH attendees are invited to attend the reception, which will include a viewing of both exhibits, a brief program, and light refreshments.

Streets Paved With Gold: Exploring Immigration Past and Present at Ellis Island

Streets Paved With Gold is an upcoming exhibit created for Ellis Island The National Museum of Immigration in New York City. It encourages visitors to reflect on their personal experiences with immigration in the past and present. Using the upcoming exhibit as a case study, the session will discuss how Ellis Island and the National Park Service have helped to facilitate today’s conversations on immigration. Participants will detail how Streets Paved With Gold has given voice to the personal immigrant experience by providing a much-needed platform for individuals to unpack and share their reflections on coming to the United States. Attendees will be invited to interact in a roundtable discussion and fill out a “gold brick” as part of the session. Finally, we’ll close with a question and answer portion to discuss the next steps for the project and to explore the process and goals of the Ellis Island staff.

Participants: Kristin Szylvian, St. John’s University Peter Wong, National Park Service

IV Public History Careers and Teaching

Some sessions were more institutional in nature relating to the career of the public historian

Public History Educators’ Forum $25

This annual event is an opportunity for faculty to share ideas about running graduate and undergraduate public history programs and to talk about university, departmental, and a wide variety of other issues. The discussion is always lively. Organized by the Curriculum and Training Committee and co-sponsored by Arizona State University, the American West Center, University of Utah, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Early Career Public History Academics: Questions, Issues, Resources

Stemming in part from developments in the larger structures of academia, more history departments are creating undergraduate and graduate tracks in public history. Because of the realities of the academic job market, it is likely that new hires in public history programs come to their positions from different regions, face complicated retention, tenure, and promotion standards, and take on extensive administrative responsibilities that can involve picking up existing projects, negotiating the infrastructures of multiple academic units and local organizations, and bringing in funding for projects and students. Where are the professional resources and networks for these kinds of challenges? And where are the structures of accountability that protect junior faculty embarking on public history careers? The goal of this working group is to begin a conversation about the issues and opportunities specifically faced by early-career public history academics—these might include building relationships, navigating institutions and infrastructures, and advocating for diversity and inclusion as relative newcomers.

Facilitators: Torren Gatson, University of North Carolina at Greensboro Jennifer Le Zotte, University of North Carolina at Wilmington Mary Rizzo, Rutgers University–Newark Malgorzata Rymsza-Pawlowska, American University

Discussants: Sarah Doherty, North Park University Kathryn Lasdow, Suffolk University Anne Lindsay, California State University, Sacramento Mollie Marlow, University of West Georgia Heather Stanfiel, University of Notre Dame Jennifer Thornton, West Virginia University Lindsey Wieck, St. Mary’s University

Best Practices in Action: The State of Teaching Public History in University Classrooms

Several years ago, NCPH developed “Best Practices” guidelines for teaching public history in university settings. More recently, public historians have benefitted from textbooks on public history. With these resources at our fingertips, what is the state of teaching public history in university classrooms, or rather, is there any kind of uniformity or “state” at all? Public historians who have taught recent introductory public history courses will share their unique experiences and invite audience participation.

Facilitator: Leslie Madsen, Boise State University

Participants: Kristen Baldwin Deathridge, Appalachian State University Randolph Bergstrom, University of California, Santa Barbara Julia Brock, University of Alabama Evan Faulkenbury, SUNY Cortland Tawny Paul, University of Exeter

These abstracts on the workshops and presentations at the NCPH conference provide some sense of the subjects and topics of interest to the public historian today. They may also spark some ideas about possible sessions and workshops to be held at regional and state conferences in our own area.