Public History at the American Historical Association’s 2018 Annual Meeting

By: Genevieve Wallace

How do you choose which conferences to go to, especially as a graduate student with limited travel funding? Public history students in particular (myself included) will likely be drawn to the National Council on Public History, or the New England Museum Association’s annual meeting. The American Historical Association (AHA) is often overlooked by students of public history because of its reputation for academic history. However, as the largest professional organization of historians, there is something for everyone—including public historians. I was fortunate enough to attend all four days of its annual conference in Washington, DC this (especially frigid) winter, and it was worth bundling up for.

Program Cover, American Historical Association, 132nd Annual Meeting
Program, American Historical Association, 132nd Annual Meeting
Museum Talk

Several panels at the AHA were focused on public history and composed of public historians in the field. I chose to attend 1960’s GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums) in large part because Samir Meghelli, museum curator for the Anacostia Community Museum, was presenting. I learned about the Anacostia Community Museum in a public history class, and was inspired by its innovative approach. Meghelli walked us through the museum’s history and the transformative experience of sharing authority with a neighborhood. By opening dialogue with neighborhood residents, the museum gained information about community interests.

Anacostia Museum's building at 1901 Fort Place, S.E., Washington, D.C.
Anacostia Museum’s building at 1901 Fort Place, S.E., Washington, D.C. Public Domain.

These interests motivated the museum to shift its orientation from objects to the community itself. Exhibits became about topics like the neighborhood rat infestation, and the museum became a hub for community.

Public History and Public Memory: Talking about Slavery at Presidential Plantations panelists included staff from three presidential plantations: James Monroe’s Highland, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, and James Madison’s Montpelier. All three institutions include tours and exhibits about slavery. Monticello and Montpelier have collected oral histories from hundreds of descendants of slaves, and work with the descendant community about how to represent their past. Brandon Dillard, educator at Monticello, shared an interesting anecdote about the slave quarters at Monticello. Visitors on tours consistently remark, “this isn’t so bad!” while inside a restored slave cabin. These remarks prompted staff to install a sign outside that reads, “not so bad?” and explains the reality of slavery as more than the material reality of their cabins.

Job Talk

“What Do Public History Employers Want?” A Report from the National Council on Public History was enormously informative. With an expected graduation in May (knock on wood), I walked away with several useful pieces of information about the job search. For example, jobs posted on USA Jobs use computers as first readers of applications, so interested parties should pack their resumes with terms from the job descriptions. Since many of us in the room were either teachers or students, we learned some “tricks” to describe our roles in ways that match the skills required. Serving on a thesis committee, for example, might translate into some of the skills needed for a project management position.

Panelists highlighted two particular skills—public speaking and digital skills. Public speaking was listed at the top of desirable skills for public history jobs. Digital skills, like graphic design, were likewise named valuable. These skills can be developed in myriad ways, and panelists encouraged current graduate students to take courses outside of their departments.

My takeaway from this panel? Continue to develop your extracurricular activities, even if they seem unrelated to your career search. I have been volunteering for The Moth, a non-profit dedicated to storytelling, and telling my own stories in various venues for the past two years. When I asked panelists for strategies

Here is one example of Genevieve's creativity and talent. You can see more on her Instagram.
Making mixed media art has helped Genevieve to develop her digital skills.

to bolster my public speaking resume, they encouraged me to highlight my storytelling experience. Additionally, I make mixed media art in my spare time, which has inadvertently helped to develop my digital skills (shameless self-promotion if you are interested). For the full report, “What Do Public History Employers Want?,” click here.

Networking

Snacks, drink tickets, public historians—what more could you want? The public historian’s reception was a fantastic opportunity to meet and talk with professionals in the field, other graduate students, and professors. Plus, Jim Grossman, executive director of the AHA, gave a speech, and announced that there were “a few” tickets available to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. I was in the front of the room to pick one up before he had finished saying the word “museum.” My networking experience continued on the escalator down to the metro after the reception, where I ended up meeting a founder of the National Council on Public History and exchanging contact information.

I went to Building a Professional Profile on LinkedIn in the hopes of learning more about digital networking. Unfortunately, the presentation ended up being a bust due to AV issues in the conference room. However, while we were waiting for the presenters to set up I started talking to a history professor from New York who offered me another ticket to the NMAAHC. She said she had seen me get one the night before at the reception, and she was unable to attend her time slot. I was able to give this bonus ticket to my friend, who was kind enough to host me for the conference, and had never been to the museum.

Intellectual Growth

In addition to public history, there are panels on dozens of topics in history for conference attendees to choose from. Attending these topic sessions helped reinvigorate my desire to contribute meaningful scholarship to the field, and to read widely. In this case, my favorite panel of the entire conference, Comics and History: New Historical Research, inspired me to read more comic books. Jonathan Gray, former editor of the journal Comics and Culture, analyzed and applauded the work of graphic novels as sources of historical information on the Civil Rights Movement. He examined the graphic novel March in particular, which I was able to get for free from the Penguin Books booth in the exhibit hall. Ari Kelman, history professor at UC Davis, walked us through his own process of making a graphic novel with no previous experience working with an illustrator.

I strongly encourage anyone with an interest in history to not only join the AHA, but to attend their conference next year in Chicago.

Graphic for the American Historical Association's Annual Meeting, 2019.
Graphic for the American Historical Association’s Annual Meeting, 2019.
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