Category Archives: History

Video: History is Essential

The Indiana Historical Society recently produced History is Essential, a 5:08 video that explains the value of history through interviews with teachers, business CEOs, and community leaders intercut with historic photos and films.  Thanks to John Herbst, President and CEO at the Indiana Historical Society, for sharing this at the recent History Relevance Campaign workshop in Washington, DC.

History Relevance Campaign meets at Smithsonian

I’ll be at an all-day workshop today at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History to discuss the work of the History Relevance Campaign with representatives of two dozen national organizations, including the Library of Congress, National Archives, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Park Service, American Historical Association, American Alliance of Museums, National Coalition for History, National History Day, National Humanities Alliance, and National Governors Association.  We’ll use our work on the values of history, impact project, and research on popular attitudes towards history to discuss where the campaign should go next and how they might get more involved (most of these organizations have already endorsed the values statement).  I’m not sure what the results will be but you can follow along on Twitter at #historyrelevance.

Webinar: How can Historic Sites Make History More Relevant?

History Relevance CampaignOn Monday, March 21 at 3:00 pm Eastern/12 pm Pacific, Tim Grove and I will be discussing the History Relevance Campaign during AASLH’s monthly Historic House Call.  For the past few years, a dozen people from various history organizations have studied the challenges and opportunities for changing the common attitude that history is nice, but not essential.  We won’t have overnight solutions and there’s lots of work to do, but we’ll share what we’ve learned, discuss how it impacts historic house museums, and provide a tool that organizations have found very helpful.  The webinar is free but preregistration is required.

If you’re not familiar with the Historic House Call, they are webinars offered through out the year by the Historic House Museum Community of the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH).  Upcoming webinars include religion and historic house interpretation and using futures thinking to navigate ongoing change, and a recording of an earlier webinar, “creating engaging and memorable tours” is available.  They also have a very active listserv on Yahoo Groups, a growing blog called “Views from the Porch,” and free resources, such as the Technical Leaflet, “How Sustainable is Your Historic House Museum?

A Wet but Successful Museums Advocacy Day

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Washington DC was cold and grim yesterday as hundreds of museum advocates visited the offices of senators and congressmen to encourage their support for the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the charitable tax deduction.  I had a short but very productive meeting with the staff in Congressman Van Hollen’s office, who has been a long-standing supporter of museums, libraries, and historic preservation, so despite the wet weather, my day felt great. I was also reminded how many other people are also promoting their causes and how easy it is for the value of museums and historic sites to get drowned out by others.

On Monday, we prepared for our visits with several solid briefings on IMLS and education policy, hearing some good news (the American Institute for Conservation will manage the Conservation Assessment Program, following the dissolution of Heritage Preservation) and some frustrating news (the recently adopted Every Student Succeeds Act restores history and civics to the curriculum but President Obama’s recently submitted budget eliminated the funding).  Of course, it was really fun seeing colleagues from around the country and hearing about the interesting work they’re doing (l discovered Building Public Will for Arts and Culture, which is surprisingly similar to the History Relevance Campaign).

Thanks to the American Alliance of Museums for coordinating this event!

Should Tour Guides be Tested and Certified?

tour-guide-antwerpAt the end of last month, the California Tour Guide Act (AB 836) died in committee in the California State Capitol. If it had passed, it would have established a “tour guide certification program” through the California Travel and Tourism Commission to test and certify persons who “practice tour guiding for compensation” (it would exempt guides who work at museums and amusement parks). The bill’s authors wanted to ensure that tourists “get the most of their visit and return to the Golden State.” It’s also a big business. According to the California Travel Association, the travel industry generated $106.4 billion in revenue from visitors and contributed $6.6 billion in state and local taxes in 2012. In 2013, California hosted nearly 16 million international visitors and is expected to grow at over 5 percent annually through 2016. To support this volume of visitors, nearly one million people work in the travel and tourism industry, including 3,000 tour guides.

We can debate various aspects of the proposed law, such as the $700,000 annual cost to manage the program or the need for a criminal background check, but I was more intrigued by the requirement that tour guides must have completed a “curriculum in California tour guiding and related subjects,” including “tour guide safety and California geography, history, and culture.”  How is that defined?  How is that evaluated?  The proposed law left the standards to Continue reading

President Lincoln’s Cottage Tackles Immigration

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

President Lincoln’s Cottage, the presidential summer retreat just a few miles north of the US Capitol, recently opened an exhibit in their visitor education center the compares immigration issues in the 19th century to the present day.  Titled, “American by Belief,” the introductory label reads:

The United States of America is, and always has been, a nation of immigrants. Abraham Lincoln recognized immigrants as one of America’s greatest resources and its best hope for the future. He believed America, in return, owed immigrants the full realization of its founding promises and a fair chance to succeed.

Our world is different than Lincoln’s. But what continues to bring immigrants here would look familiar to him: an opportunity to rise higher, improve themselves, live safely under the rule of law, become citizens, and count themselves as American by right of belief.

This is a small temporary exhibit, perhaps 200 square feet at most, and primarily consists of panels featuring text and images (no historic objects).  In the center of the room is a map of the world made of pegs, which visitors can use to link places associated with them using colored rubber bands (this looks cool but I’m not sure Continue reading

AASLH Annual Meeting Provokes Historical Thinking

Tim Grove facilitating a lively conversation about historical thinking at the AASLH Annual Meeting in 2015.

Tim Grove facilitating a lively conversation about historical thinking at the AASLH Annual Meeting in 2015.

The annual meeting of the American Association for State and Local History always offers a good mix of educational sessions, social events, and opportunities to visit museums and historic sites around the country.  This year, Sam Wineburg, a Stanford University professor and author of Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (2001), prompted an ongoing discussion with his plenary address on the first day of the annual meeting.  Through his research on students and scholars, he showed that the analysis of historical documents is a sophisticated skill that isn’t apparent to most people (and I can confidently say this also applies to objects, buildings, and landscapes).  He went on to argue that teaching people to think historically isn’t about teaching history but making them better citizens.  John Dichtl, president of AASLH, discusses this further on the AASLH blog.

These ideas were pursued the next day at a packed session facilitated by Tim Grove of the National Air and Space Museum.  Using excerpts from Wineburg’s book, Tim encouraged a lively dialogue that allowed me to report out 15 Tweets, including:

  • Historical thinking: multiple perspectives; analysis of sources; context; and based on evidence.
  • Are we underestimating visitors if we don’t give them oppty to debate ideas & issues at museums/historic sites?
  • Debates always happen, but history gets flattened over time. Build multiple perspectives, uncertainty, & questions into exhibits.
  • Asking good provocative questions is a skill. Learn more at the Right Question Institute.
  • Challenge for marketing & communications staff about handling provocative topics in social media era.
  • Are museums & sites imposing their ideology on visitors? Have we become arrogant? Do we need to learn about visitor interests?

which resulted in 31 favorites and 20 retweets.  Just to be clear, these ideas didn’t come from me but from the persons gathered in the room.  I could have tweeted out many more but I couldn’t listen and type them out quickly at the same time.

If you weren’t able to attend, there’s next year in Detroit.  In the meantime, enjoy these snaps from the recent meeting in Louisville (and thanks to everyone at the Kentucky Historical Society for being such gracious hosts).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

“State of the First Amendment” Survey Results Released by Newseum

First Amendment 2015The State of the First Amendment survey, conducted each year since 1997 by the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center, tests Americans’ knowledge of their core freedoms and samples their opinions on First Amendment issues of the day.  The survey again found that most Americans are unable to name more than one or two of the five freedoms in the First Amendment —religion, speech, press, assembly and petition— and that one-third cannot name any of the five.  Looks like a great opportunity for history organizations!

The 2015 survey questions also covered topics including the use of Confederate flags Continue reading

Using Archaeological Research to Interpret Your Site?

Archaeological excavations at James Madison's Montpelier in Virginia.

Archaeological excavations at James Madison’s Montpelier in Virginia.

If your historic site or history museum is using or would like to use archaeology in your research (even if you’re not conducting archaeology), the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) is seeking your suggestions and advice to improve and enhance the “For the Public” section of their website via a survey (open until July 22).

SAA launched For the Public in 2006 as a clearinghouse to share resources, best practices, and general information about the discipline of archaeology with both the professional community and the interested public.  The site has now grown to a complex tangle of over 400 linked pages. Many of the pages need substantive revision in content, function, and aesthetic perspectives. As they continue the process of revision, they would appreciate Continue reading

So Many Possibilities for Historic Sites at AASLH Annual Meeting

AASLH Louisville 2015The American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) just delivered the preliminary program for its annual meeting, which will be held in Louisville, Kentucky from September 16-19, 2015.  Obviously, the conference is centered around history but there are several sessions, workshops, and field trips that focus on historic sites and house museums, including:

  • Heritage Tourism in the 21st Century with James Stevens of ConsultEcon Inc., who recently studied the heritage tourism sector in Philadelphia
  • Restoration and Reconstruction: Fulfilling the Possibilities of a 21st Century Museum, a discussion about the reinterpretation of the Woodrow Wilson Family Home in South Carolina (also reviewed in the recent issue of the Public Historian and the Journal of American History; not to be confused with the Woodrow Wilson Boyhood Home in Georgia)
  • Old House, New Diverse Stories, a brainstorming session led by Ken Turino of Historic New England
  • An Untapped Resource: How to Locate and Use Legal Cases at Historic Sites, a session to learn how to mine legal case files to find compelling narratives for exhibits and programs
  • Interpreting Religion at Historic Sites, a discussion on leveraging “historical truth when interpreting religion” led by the historian of the Navigators.
  • An afternoon tour of the exuberant Second Empire Culbertson Mansion and Farmington, the Federal-style home of Lucy and John Speed.
  • There may be bourbon at the breakfast for historic house museums when Dennis Walsh from Buffalo Trace Distillery discusses the preservation of this historic sites (and it’s pretty cool website, too)
  • An evening at Locust Grove, a National Historic Landmark, with costumed interpreters, live music, and a three-course buffet.
Sam Winburg

Sam Wineburg

With 65 sessions, there is much, much more happening and you’ll be torn about what to do.  There’s certainly enough to appeal to directors, curators, historians, educators, and preservationists.  I’m particularly eager to hear Sam Wineburg, professor of education and history at Stanford University and author of Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (see “A History of Flawed Teaching“), and the follow-up discussion led by Tim Grove, chief of museum learning at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.  Wineburg is currently developing new forms of assessment to measure historical understanding and undertaking a longitudinal study on the development of historical consciousness among adolescents in three communities.  But I don’t want to neglect the three other outstanding plenary speakers: Wendell Berry, James Klotter, Renee Shaw, and Carol Kammen.

I rarely ever skip the AASLH annual meeting and I plan to be there this year.  Registration is $250 if you jump in before July 24 and there’s the alternative online conference featuring six sessions.