This past weekend, a number of Gettysburg College students attended the 2016 Annual Meeting of the National Council on Public History. We asked a few of the CWI Fellows to share their reflections on the event.
Unlike my interest in the Civil War, public history is sort of a new fascination of mine. I only truly began to study it last year in my first-year seminar. At first, the field itself seemed to be just about museums and national parks. The National Council on Public History conference blew away this simplistic look at public history. The conference introduced a new breadth to the field that explores connections with other disciplines and transects national borders. In one panel, I learned how public historians in Europe work with – and against – policymakers to create a usable past in the context of the concept of European identity, especially with the current Brexit and Grexit movements. In another, panelists from the Smithsonian, the Dutch Rijksmuseum, and the German Zeughaus compared how each national museum has evolved over time and contributed to a sense of national identity. Prior to these panels, I had never truly contemplated what public history looked like in other countries. The final panel discussed the future of Confederate monuments and symbols – a topic that I was already very interested in and fairly well acquainted with the material. While I was unsurprised by the heated discussion that took place during the question and answer period, I was taken aback by the response on Twitter. The #NCPH2016 and #S69 hashtag combination (the former for the conference as a whole and the latter for the specific panel itself) dominated the Twittersphere, resulting in many historians who were not even in attendance chiming in. I was expecting a few tweets from the relatively few young historians there; what I got was an uproar from a very active online community of public historians. These surprises made the conference an enlightening experience for me – one that has enhanced my understanding of the field of public history and excited me for working with it in the future.
I’m no stranger to history conferences, so I was purely excited to attend the National Council on Public History conference. Not only would I get to meet professionals in what will hopefully be my future career field, but I’d get to do so in the heart of Baltimore, long one of my favorite cities.
For me, the event epitomized what the public history program back home in Gettysburg can provide. In a session about ethnography, I kept up with anthropologists thanks to a class on Archaeology and Physical Anthropology—a requirement for my public history minor. In a later roundtable discussing the field in Baltimore specifically, I followed conversations on gentrification with ease; after all, it had been a major point in my reading for Introduction to Public History just this weekend! Through attending this event, I defined public history on my own terms, through my own experiences.
My time at the National Council of Public History Annual Conference was spent at three lectures, teaching me about ghosts, trees, and Confederate monuments. My first lecture, titled “More Than Dark: The Diverse Application of Ghosts in Public History,” discussed an issue often seen here in Gettysburg, the use of ghost tours as a means of sharing history. The panelists mentioned that while not everyone has to believe in ghosts, these stories do often have some aspect of history embedded into them. My second lecture, “The Secret Life of Trees: How Historic Landscapes Adapt and Change over Time,” analyzed the use of trees to explain historical landscapes. Like Gettysburg, many historical locations have witness trees, but other uses of trees include reconstructing historical landscapes based off the original species and location of historic trees. My final lecture, “After Charleston: Exploring the Fate of Confederate Monuments in America,” spoke to the large debate in public history over the fate of the Confederate flag and Confederate monuments. The panelists talked about the importance of the contextualization of these monuments as it helps to describe the era of the monument’s erection, explaining its many uses throughout history. During the conference I saw many different sides of public history, seeing other sides besides historical interpretation through a site, but interpretation based off local folklore, trees and landscapes, and monuments and memorials.