Putting the “public” into History

In my courses on Nation and Immigration, Immigration & Religion, and United States through Foreign Eyes I included material that illustrates how conflicts over how the past should be remembered find expression in public spaces, how museums and memorials impact and reflect specific understandings of national history and memory, and how museum professionals negotiate multiple constituencies with sometimes divergent memories of past events.

I use digital humanities projects for my courses whenever feasible and regularly invite public historians as guest speakers to discuss how they utilize material culture in their scholarship. Guest speakers for public history topics included Margaret Weitekamp (NASM), Roger Launius (NASM), Fath Ruffins (NMAH), Steve Velasquez (NMAH) Bill Barry (NASA), Teasel Muir-Harmony (MIT), Shana Klein (UNM), Joan Fragaszy Troyano (GMU), and Sarah Gould (Institute of Texan Cultures).

Last spring semester, I taught a course on Immigration & Oral History for the Public History Program of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, at Shady Grove, for which students conducted oral histories with immigrants in Montgomery County. With the permission of the participants, most of the interviews were archived at the university’s library. The fact that the oral histories were going to be available to future researchers challenged students to think about their own roles in the creation of history.

For the recent iteration of the Nation & Immigration course, I asked students to propose ideas for an exhibit on immigration at the National Museum of American History. This exercise prompted students to think about history outside of the classroom and consider the challenges of displaying potentially controversial topics in a national museum.

An assignments for my course on the History of American Popular Culture required students to write a reflective essay about a visit the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., after reading an article about its conceptualization. This assignment challenged students to consider the history and meaning of American popular culture in unexpected, yet public, places, as well as the negotiation of “shared authority” between academics and their research subjects.

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