Barriers, Opportunities, and Unintended Consequences

The case statements posted by participants in the upcoming NCPH 2018 Working Group, “Disrupting Institutional Power,” provide us with a solid framework for beginning our discussion.

It appears we have much in common despite variety in our institutions and in our career stages.

First: we are all painfully aware of the economic constraints we face as public history educators and as public historians more generally. Whether addressing issues of funding for our programs or the challenge of finding viable paid employment, all of our participants identified the need to think creatively about money.

Second: we are all concerned about the impact of competition on our students as well as on our programs. As we are painfully aware, departments of history and administrators in higher education, under pressure to attract students, often develop and market Public History, public humanities, and related tracks as job-preparation programs. But duplication both inside individual universities and across universities in regional systems undermines the health of the field. Not only do we fail to increase the number of graduate students –because there are so many programs to choose from– we also undermine their ability to find paid employment because we flood local public history organizations with unpaid interns and requests for classroom projects.

Third: We are committed to collaboration and partnership as the foundation for our scholarship, our pedagogy, and our program development.

From this common ground, we can begin to recognize frameworks for re-imagining our work culture.  Participants have identified models on which we may build and from which we can learn, ranging from North Carolina’s Institute of Applied History to the NCPH “mini-con” to the Guantanamo Public Memory Project. But there are also deep contradictions and the potential for unintended consequences. These are emerging in the form of questions:

  1.  How can we successfully disrupt the competitive university model and work together to create distinctive programs within a given system or region? How do we begin this conversation? What will make the idea palatable to adminstrators?
  2. What can we do to prevent and/or address faculty burn out?
  3. Are we prepared to exert sustained and thoughtful influence on the broad field of public history? What steps can we take to increase diversity in the profession, to foster more critical models of dialogue in public history settings, to build new and better relationships between public history institutions and their audiences, and to fully engage people who have been marginalized and left out of public history in the past?
  4. How can we eliminate competition between students and those seeking employment? Providing free labor –in the form of interns and classroom based students– undermines the development of new paid positions and keeps salaries low.
  5. What are the benefits and risks of taking advantage of university initiatives around civic engagement or entrepreneurship?
  6. What do regional partnerships and public history training look like in areas that are less urban and less densely developed and populated?

In order to approach these questions, I invite working group participants to fully describe and analyze a specific case study –no matter how small. Describe ONE moment in your career as a public history student, public history educator, or public history practitioner in which you successfully built a cross-institutional partnership. How did you initiate the conversation? What barriers did you encounter? How did you overcome or circumvent those barriers? How did you acquire funding –or did you? What were some of the best outcomes and the unintended consequences? What do you think is most instructive about your example and which of the numbered questions above (if any) do you think it addresses?

Please respond to this prompt by posting a comment no later than February 19.



8 Replies to “Barriers, Opportunities, and Unintended Consequences”

  1. I do not have much experience developing long-term cross-institutional collaborations, so my case study will be a small contribution to our conversation.

    In 2016, I developed a “Careers in Public History” series, in which directors of historic sites and museums in our community provided “behind the scenes tours” and then sat down with NC State graduate students to discuss their work. These meetings were successful in expanding students’ professional networks and several students used their new connections to secure internships or part-time jobs. They were also very manageable. It only took a phone call or e-mail to reach out to museum directors and all were more than happy to get involved. Each event required some time from the museum directors, but they did not require any financial support.

    The conversations that took place at these events revealed that students and professionals shared a desire to broaden their presence in the community through new events and programs. As museum directors discussed their current projects and long-range goals, students were quick to connect their own skills and interests with the museum missions. While I never expressed any intent to develop these programs into sustained collaborations, it was unfortunate that they lacked any formal follow-up at the institutional level. When the graduate student association decided to continue the series the following year, students were less interested in attending, and I wonder if this was because we did not build upon the program the first year.

    We could have considered developing one-day programs like those Malgorzata Rymsza-Pawlowska mentioned in their case statement. For example, when a director discussed experimenting with a mobile walking tour, we could have co-developed a workshop on emerging technology or organized a committee to conduct preliminary visitor studies. However, while short-term events are appealing to me, they still require time and funding, and this work could easily have resulted in unpaid internship positions or risky contract positions. Many professors in our program do invite practitioners to class meetings or arrange similar tours for their classes, but, in my experience, they usually do not amount to formal collaboration. I wonder if some worry about tying a course’s success to an external institutions’ project or are concerned about providing students as free labor.

    Students who found value in attending the meetings are now working on a way to build more long-lasting and formal relationships with professionals in the region. We are preparing to send out a survey to program alumni that gauges their current investment in and interest in developing closer ties with our public history program at NC State. We ask alumni if they are interested in co-developing internship programs, workshops, and/or conferences. Unfortunately, our focus on alumni excludes many professionals that work in our area, but it provides a manageable group to survey. We are unsure what types of responses we’ll receive and how receptive faculty and students will be to alumni suggestions, but the department has approved funding for an alumni mixer that will at least bring current students, alumni, and faculty together.

    This case study reminds us of the importance of creating opportunities of dialogue between practitioners and students, but it also reveals the limits of student led collaborations. Any attempts to develop workshops or projects out of these conversations likely would have required many student volunteer hours, and, while students at NC State are leading efforts to survey program alumni, they will be limited in their ability to bring program alumni into conversations about program pedagogy.

    -Sarah Soleim

  2. I honestly am not sure I have truly built a cross-institutional partnership between universities, though that is what I am hoping to learn more about and to pursue further in my own region. I have had success in forming partnerships with area cultural internships for student internships and with state organizations for student professional experience (such as the Missouri State Archives and the Missouri Association of Museums and Archives annual meeting), as I am sure most of us have. Unfortunately, these internship relationships rarely align with NCPH best practices (see #4 above) due to the regional economic realities. Our local historical society has one part-time paid worker with no money for paid internships, though we do structure our internship program to allow completion alongside other paid work. I also think there is a difference between graduate and undergraduate student internships and the issue of payment. Graduate students already are trained workers. Undergraduates are gaining that first work experience and learning if this is in fact a career that interests them. That does not mean they do not deserve pay for this, but it is a different situation.

    In response to #1, I do not think we need to undertake much work to make cross-institutional partnerships palatable to administrators. Many of them are clamoring for just these ideas. If we can specialize, we attract the students who want that area of focus rather than all offering the same programs and competing for all students. Yet, with saying that, there are problems because each institution wants and needs more students, so how to attract them? Offer the new and sexy program, of course. This is where I think we as public historians and the NCPH need to do more work with concerns about market saturation (really, over-saturation) and about non-public historians engaging in this work and, thus, offering sub-par programs to their students. Likewise, we need to demonstrate to administrators the benefits of collaborating and supporting rather than duplicating.

    I have no answer for #2. Unfortunately, in our current economic environment (at least in Missouri), I see only an ever-growing list of requirements that faculty must follow and work they must provide/undertake, without ever seeing course releases or additional pay as compensation. A focus on professional programs, which PH is in many ways, creates even more work for the faculty involved. In an environment where universities are scrounging for any way to eliminate costs, this gives faculty members few options to push back against the growing demands we face. I see no solutions here in the short term at least, but I hope that others in this group have some optimism and some ideas (I am doubtful but cling to the hope!).

  3. This prompt was unexpectedly difficult–there isn’t really a partnership that stands out in my mind. I think instead I’ll talk about a *kind* of partnership I’ve had limited experience with but am interested in pursuing more, which is collaboration with non-history organizations: in particular, public facing orgs that are housed in historical spaces. There are lots of these in DC, from the nonprofit (an arts space in a converted underground trolley station) to the commercial (any number of apartment buildings, Main Street projects, but also a renovated food market, an REI store that used to be a concert venue, etc.) and I see these as a great opportunity for funded, sustainable public history work. I think GW Museum Studies has also worked a bit with these organizations, so there’s another form of collaboration.

    There’s a lot that I and my students can learn, especially from nonprofits, about project management, administration, mission and vision, so apart from these orgs being a good site for interesting collaborative work, there’s a nice pedagogical aspect as well.

    My small experience with these kinds of organizations so far has been mixed: they’re often enthusiastic (unless they think I am a preservationist, which is sometimes an initial instinct!), but in the two or three instances in which I’ve worked on these kinds of partnerships, I think I could have done better in making a case for inclusive interpretation, and even in envisioning and explaining what an interpretive project at such a site might look like; in specific, it’s hard to convince partner orgs to feature ‘difficult’ histories. On the practical side: figuring out to work together, timelines and feedback–we’ve had to figure out how to make two different kinds of best practices and workflows to align.

    The success, for me, here, has been even getting to the table with these kinds of partnerships, but I think there’s a lot more to be done–especially, perhaps, with public history outreach and advocacy.

  4. I am still in the fray of graduate education at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, so the small story I relate below comes from my coursework. In Spring, 2017 I took a course about digital public history in which we produced podcasts about the history of food and food production in Kansas City. The idea was to create the first season of a podcast that would cover different aspects of Midwestern and Kansas City history every year. The episode I contributed explored several aspects of the long and winding story of the property known as the Kansas City Municipal Farm. For about fifty years the KCMF was a prison farm housing misdemeanor criminals from Kansas City. Despite the unsavory image, the KCMF appears to have been a sincere effort at rehabilitation rather than mere punitive labor. There were also environmental positives to the farm like a city-wide public composting program that fed hogs raised by inmates. Currently, the long abandoned land is being redeveloped with environmental sustainability in mind. My “partners” in this project were officials from Kansas City’s municipal government and people involved with the local nonprofit Boys Grow. While these partnerships were brief, I hope my example is instructive of how to engage with various stakeholders who have different perspectives on a complex issue.

    I initiated the conversation with members of Kansas City government after my research uncovered their efforts to redevelop the KCMF land. I presented myself as someone interested in telling the story of the city’s efforts to redevelop a largely forgotten property. The biggest challenge was finding the right person to talk to, but even that was not too challenging. I ended up interviewing two senior officials, both with the Kansas City Planning Department. It was a remarkable how forthcoming they were about the city’s ambitions for the project and their successes and difficulties in working with other stakeholders.
    My second big interview was with members and leaders of a local nonprofit called Boys Grow. Boys Grow is a Kansas City-based nonprofit in which young men between the age of 14 and 16 learn farming and entrepreneurial skills. They have taken ownership of a section of the old Kansas City Municipal Farm and are returning it to its original purpose as agricultural land. It was more difficult to convince representatives of Boys Grow that I was someone worth talking to. I ended up interviewing them during a work day, so interviewing turned into getting my hands dirty as well.

    One of the best outcomes of this project was helping to create a new narrative about a particular space that had a troubled past. I was able to place Boys Grow and the current Kansas City administration within a longer narrative of how Kansas Citians have used a particular section of their city that touched on issues of race, criminal justice, sustainability, and memory.

    Unfortunately this story ends prematurely. To my disappointment, the podcast was stillborn because Dr. Cantwell left UMKC this past summer. I have slim hopes to publish it still, but I have not had the time to make that happen. However I have some suggestions regarding questions 4, and 6. Regarding question 4, I think student labor is well suited to projects like this. This program already employs one graduate student to manage the lab, and could grow to demand more staff. In my opinion podcasts are a good way for large numbers of students to learn marketable skills and make tangible contributions without competing too much with public history professionals. It also exposes public historians to people working in other disciplines, and vice versa. I think my example is also especially relevant to question #6. In rural areas, land and food production remains crucial. It may be true that you can’t do public history the same way in rural areas as in urban, but focusing on the land and its stakeholders may be a good first step.

  5. Thank you, Denise, for organizing the working group and advancing the conversation. My example, an online collaboration between one of my MA classes and a public history MA class at Queen’s University Belfast, departs a bit from the cross-institutional cases that we have encountered in this group. We have an existing international partnership with Queen’s, so when I read that the were starting a public history MA program, I was sure to touch base. In the summer of 2016, while on vacation, I swung through Belfast for a great conversation over coffee with Dr. Olwen Purdue, director of the new program. We tossed a few ideas back and forth, and settled on an informal and low-stakes virtual meeting of our students at some point.

    Plans for a spring 2017 collaboration never quite came together, but we have nearly finalized plans for a March 2018 Skype session and shared blog experience between the students. For my class, an intro to public history colloquium, I always emphasize contested heritage (which made Queen’s an ideal partner, to say the least). Olwen and I placed two shared readings on our syllabi—Ari Kelman’s ‘Misplaced Massacre,’ about commemorating Colorado’s Sand Creek Massacre, and Richard Grayson and Feaghal McGarry’s ‘Remembering 1916,’ a volume of essays on the contested meanings of 1916 in Ireland and the UK. Our hope is to initiate some back-and-forth reading responses between the students, in advance of a Transatlantic Skype session.

    I’ve been thinking about this collaboration in terms of the group’s more specific focus on those with nearby institutions. The Queen’s-UIS project could advance some other collaborations that I’m interested in closer to home. One key to gaining departmental and administrative support for cross-institutional projects is in demonstrating the worth of a final project. Perhaps this low-stakes collaboration (UIS and Queen’s do not compete for students, and our students do not compete with each other for job openings) minimizes some barriers to establishing and perfecting a final product that could grab the attention of administration. With this demonstration in hand, I might be able to more effectively make the case for similar collaborations with closer-in institutions. At the very least, I will have come away with the experience of organizing a project between MA cohorts, and I’m certain the project will kick up some great ideas for the students.

  6. I recently completed a multiyear project in partnership with the Portage County Historical Society called Over There: Portage County and the Great War. I directed students working on various aspects of the project, including developing an exhibit plan, producing a documentary, and helping to coordinate a large community event commemorating the centennial of America’s entry into World War I. The genesis for this project actually did not originate with me. Rather, the project organizers approached me in the hopes of garnering student participation. Spanning over three semesters, we encountered lots of highs and lows. We were successful in securing funding from a variety of sources, most notably a sizable donation of costs from a foundation affiliated with a local corporation. I believe that the funders were happy to see a collaboration between the university and community organization. The partnership was also successful in pulling off the largest community event in recent memory for the historical society, where between 700 and 1,000 community members were in attendance (a sizable number for our small community). However, I also encountered issues with limited amounts of resources as well as lack of expertise (PCHS has no paid staff members). At times, students’ work was undermined by the coordinators of the project who ultimately wanted to maintain control. Some students noticed this tension and were hurt by their lack of input. I also did not have as much professional control over the final product, as the partners were in charge of installation.

    I think this case study really speaks to the challenges arising from regional partnerships in less urban environments, where resources such as paid staff or content specialists are much more limited. Although in my experience community partners are often eager to include students, they may not take into account the shared authority that comes along it. I am also curious as to whether classroom participation allows PCHS to delay hiring paid staff. These are issues that I am still grappling with as I continue working with various community groups, and I look forward to brainstorming with colleagues encountering similar challenges.

  7. The collaboration that I’d like to think about is the Telling Untold Histories Unconference (, an annual unconference held in New Jersey that brings together public historians, librarians, archivists, artists, educators, students and community members to talk about how to make the history we tell in public more inclusive and, I hope, to examine the barriers to doing so. For those who may not be familiar, an unconference is a meeting format where the attendees drive what topics are discussed. Think THATCamp or Barcamp.

    I began the unconference four years ago as a collaboration between MARCH at Rutgers University-Camden, a couple history organizations, and a library. I’m not sure what we thought would happen that first year, but we were really excited when 80 people showed up to discuss public history and diversity. Since then, I’ve changed jobs (now I’m at Rutgers-Newark in an academic position), but we’ve kept the unconference going. Probably one of the things I’m proudest of is our partnership with a local charter school, which brought 20 high school students to the 2016 unconference.

    Collaboration is key to this event working, but it also takes a lot of work, mainly on my part. Because our goal is diversifying public history, I’m always on the lookout for folks in our region doing cool work who I can tap for our planning committee. This requires phone calls and emails, follow-ups and having a pitch ready. Importantly, I want our committee to be diverse in a lot of ways. Racial diversity is such a huge issue in public history, so that has been a focus, but also diversity of professions represented. I mean, what counts as public history is a question that we could argue all day. I’ve got no interest in gate-keeping, but I also need parameters so I can identify likely committee members and so we can market ourselves.

    I guess the biggest challenge has actually been to get professional public historians involved. Librarians have been some of our biggest supporters. Lots of our attendees are librarians. That’s awesome because librarians are awesome, but I wonder why we can’t get the folks working in history museums, historic houses, and historic sites to attend.

    This really addresses the question of diversity that Denise posed. We’re actually trying to take steps to foster “critical models of dialogue” about public history while building “new and better relationships” between all the organizations and individuals who make up the field of public history. So why don’t the ones who are most directly working in public history come? Our registration cost is $20, so it’s cheap and includes lunch, coffee, and swag. We have workshops where folks can learn skills like building Omeka sites and the basics of copyright, which we figured would help people justify the day off from work. Maybe it’s the unconference format itself? I’m not sure.

    My concern is that lots of them don’t see diversity as important. They don’t see that collaboration is going to determine their success or failure in the future. That lots of folks working in small and medium-sized places are so burned out, they can’t take on any more. Or that this feels like an academic issue, rather than one that affects them on every level. We’re going to keep the unconference going and growing, but I wonder whether we should keep using our limited time and resources to reach public historians or double down on our other, more engaged audiences.

  8. As the 40th anniversary of the 1968 Holy Week Uprising approached, we at the University of Baltimore initiated a multi-discipline examination of the unrest in our city that followed the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We had no money to conduct our investigation and relied heavily on the good will of institutional partners. Peter Levy, a history professor at York University was looking for a sabbatical project. We asked him to work with us as a visiting scholar and he spent many days combing the Baltimore City Archives for documents explaining the events. He produced the essay that became the introductory chapter for our anthology Baltimore ’68: Riots and Rebirth in an American City. We rewarded him with a UB sweatshirt.

    The Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) is a few blocks away from UB’s campus, and in the early stages of the project UB history professors attended their Community Artist placement day. At this event, institutions explain their projects and MICA students explain their interests and skill sets. After the event, each institution fills out a form ranking the artists and in turn the artists rank the projects. We were matched with Christina Ralls, a Baltimore native whose family had experienced the unrest up close. Christina worked with oral history narrators we had interviewed to design and execute a public art project that is now displayed at a local YMCA.

    These cross-institutional collaborations cost little to no money but did require ears to the ground to determine who might see our project not as another civic contribution but an opportunity for them to explore their intellectual interests. It was also important that they were able produce by the end of the project a concrete piece of work for which they could claim individual authorship instead of simply being listed as a member of a steering committee.

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