Roadblocks to Challenging the Exclusive Past

I am choosing to gear this week’s blog questions towards my time at the National Council on Public History annual meeting in Baltimore, Maryland in lieu of speaking to one public history professional. I went to the conference with very few expectations and while I left reinvigorated by the prospects of a career in public history, I was reminded of the challenges that lay ahead.

This year’s theme was “Challenging the Exclusive Past” which in the theme alone should give some idea to the complexities in doing public history work. Many public history professionals spoke not just of the people, stories, and histories that have been left out of the historical record, but of the institutions in place to prevent them from telling those histories. The stories ranged from people working in small local museums to the National Park Service and other federal organizations. In the local museum, the director fought the city council (the organization that funds the museum) to include stories of diversity in the historical narrative of the city. These stories often told a much different history than the one currently being told and the city council was extremely reluctant to allow those stories into the public.

As 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service and the conference was a joint meeting with the Society History in the Federal Government, there were numerous chances to see how the federal government handles issues of diversity and narratives that challenge current scholarship. There were many current and former federal employees and their comments were not always very positive about their past and present work. They brought up limitations they have at current historical sites because of controversial topics and they also mentioned that they struggle with people in positions of power to recognize and promote new sites that would fill in the gaps in the historical record. While hearing about these challenges and struggles can be disheartening, I choose to take a more positive stance on the matter by applauding all those working to change current attitudes. Many of these people have been working for years to have their work recognized and have yet to succeed, but what they are doing is making a difference.

My time spent at NCPH was very valuable to me in terms of understanding how I might proceed in the future with public history work. I knew many of these problems existed, but personally hearing so many people express the complexities involved in their work, reminded me that there are so many things to consider when talking about public history that goes beyond creating exhibits and collecting documents.

I encourage you to explore some of the following websites I learned about at NCPH that are working to challenge the exclusive past:

Here are some of the projects geared toward recognizing Japanese Americans that presented during the session: “Beyond the Fence: Challenging the Narrative of the Japanese American Wartime Experience”

  • Densho – “A grassroots organization dedicated to preserving, educating, and sharing the story of World War II-era incarceration of Japanese Americans in order to deepen understandings of American history and inspire action for equity.”
  • Oregon Nikkei Endowment – “Sharing and preserving Japanese American history and culture in Portland’s Old Town neighborhood, where Japantown once thrived.”
  • UPROOTED – UPROOTED introduces the story of the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans to work as seasonal farm laborer.

Here are some of the projects discussed during the National Parks 100th Anniversary Symposium:

  • Slave Wrecks Project – “The project integrates research, training and education in the pursuit of new scholarship on the global slave trade, utilizing the lens of slave shipwrecks as its unique point of entry.”
  • Piscataway Park and the Accokeek Foundation – “The Accokeek Foundation’s mission is to cultivate passion for the natural and cultural heritage of Piscataway Park and commitment to stewardship and sustainability.”
  • Find Your Park and LGBTQ Heritage Initiative – “The National Park Service LGBTQ Initiative explores how the legacy of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer individuals can be recognized and preserved.”   


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